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"That their hearts, might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God and of the Father, and of Christ." - Col. 11:2.
The question is propounded to me; "What may most hopefully be attempted to allay animosities among protestants, that our divisions may not be our ruin?" I must here, in the first place, tell you how I understand this. question. 1. As to the end, the preventing our ruin; I take the meaning chiefly to be, not the ruin of our estates, trade, houses, families; not our ruin, in these respects, who are Christians, but our ruin as we are Christians, i. e. the ruin of our Christianity itself, or of the truly Christian interest among us. 2. As for the means inquired after, I understand not the question to intend, what is to be done or attempted by laws, and public constitutions, as if our business were to teach our absent rulers, or prescribe to them what they should do, to whom we have no present call, or opportunity, to apply ourselves. Nor again can it be thought our business, to discuss the several questions that are controverted among us, and shew, in each, what is the truth and right, wherewith every man's conscience ought to be satisfied, and in which we should all meet and Unite: as if we had the vanity to think of performing, by an hour's discourse, what the voluminous writings of some ages have not performed. Much less are we to attempt the persuading of any to go against an already formed judgment in these points of difference, for the sake of Union; and to seek the peace of the church, by breaking their peace with God, and their own consciences.
But I take the question only to intend, what Christians may, and ought, to endeavour, in their capacities, and agreeably with their own principles, to the proposed end. And so I conceive the words read to you, contain the materials of a direct and full answer to the question. Which I reckon will appear, - by opening the case the apostle's words have reference to; that wil be found a case like our own; and - by opening the words whereby their suitableness to that case will be seen and consequently to our case also.
1. The case which these words have reference to (as indeed the general aspect of the epistle, and in great part of the other apostolical letters, looks much the same way) was in short this: That a numerous sect was already sprung up, that began (so early) to corrupt the simplicity and purity of the Christian religion, and very much to disturb the peace of the Christian church. A sort they were of partly judaizing, partly paganizing Christians, the disciples, as they are reputed, of Simon Magus, who joined with the name Christian the rites and ceremonies of the Jews, with the impurities (even in worship) of the Gentiles, denying the more principal doctrines, and hating the holy design of Christianity itself, while they seemed to have assumed or to retain, the name, as it were on purpose the more effectually to wound and injure the Christian cause and interest. Men of high pretence to knowledge (whence they had the title of Gnostics), filched partly from the Jewish cabbalism, partly from the Pythagorean. By which pretence they insinuated the more plausibly with such as affected the knowledge of more hidden mysteries. Whereto the apostle seems to have reference, where he adds immediately after the text, that in Christ were hid all treasures of wisdom and knowledge, ver. 3. And says, he did purposely add it, lest any man should beguile them with enticing words; intimating, there was no need to follow those vain pretenders, out of an affectation of sublimer knowledge, and forsake Christ in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge were hid.
Of the progress and genius of this sect, not only some of the fathers of the church give an account, but even a noted philosopher among the heathens, who writes professedly against them (though not a word against Christians as such), both making it his business to refute their absurd doctrines (that the world was in its nature evil, and not made by God, but by some evil angel, &c.), and representing them as men of most immoral principles and practices; worse, both in respect of their notions and morals, than Epicurus himself. It appears this sort of men did, in the apostles' days, not only set themselves, with great art and industry, to pervert as many professors of Christianity as they could, but found means (as they might by their compliances with the Jews, who were then much spread, and numerously seated in sundry principal cities under the Roman power, and who were every where the bitterest enemies to Christianity) to raise persecution against them they could not pervert, which some passages seem to intimate in the epistle to the Galatians (who, as that whole epistle shews, were much leavened by this sect - insomuch that the apostle is put to travail as in birth again to have Christ formed in them, and to reduce them back to sincere Christianity), viz, that some leaders of this sect so set the people's minds even against the apostle himself, that he began to be reputed by them as an enemy (chap. iv. 16), and was persecuted under that notion, because he would not comply with them in the matter of circumcision (urged as an engagement to the whole law of Moses), chap. v. 11. "If I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased." And that they were as mischievous as they could be, to fellow Christians, on the same account, biting and devouring them that received not their corrupting additions to Christianity, as the circumstances of the text shew, ver. 15.
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