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This strange and pernicious error I shall now endeavor to expose, as fully and satisfactorily as lies in my power; and if I should fail in the attempt of convincing others, it will not be because the total strength of my own conviction is not enlisted and heartily engaged in the cause.
In the first place, let us see what is the origin, and what the extent of human obligation. Its origin is obviously to be carried up to the Being by whose will we are placed in this world. Our existence, faculties, perceptions, and pleasures, are all derived from God. All that we possess is his free endowment and gift, and he is therefore the first and supreme object of our duty; and as he is perfectly good and wise, as he has never acted unjustly towards any one of us, and consequently never forfeited the minutest particle of his right over us, our obligations toward him are constant and entire, as constant as breath, and as comprehensive as the capacities of our nature and the circumstances of our being. As long as we live, we are the subjects of the King of kings; and as his right over us is unquestionable and unlimited, the extent of our duty is to do at all times and with all our heart, precisely what he requires us to do.
The next question is, what does God require of us? "He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" This is a summary of our obligations, pronounced by one of his own prophets. In his revealed word, the particulars of our duty are sufficiently explained. It is there that we must look for them, and it is hardly possible to misunderstand them. It is not in the least degree necessary
for me, while on this subject, to enumerate them. Suffice it to say, that it is the duty of all men to cherish every amiable and holy feeling, and to practise all the virtues ; or, to speak more strictly and properly, it is the duty of every one to endeavor to do this, earnestly, faithfully, and sincerely. Whatever is good, that we should strive to do, or be; whatever is bad, that we should dismiss or avoid, as quickly and as effectually as we can. It is our duty to aim at perfect righteousness, perfect virtue; and, as I have shown from the nature of our relation with the Deity, this is our duty at all times, and under all circumstances, in youth and in age, in prosperity and in want, in gladness and in grief.
And now let me ask, how these obligations are to be postponed? How, on the one hand, are they to be assumed, and on the other, how are they to be delayed or set aside? it seems to me to be trifling with the declarations of God, and the condition of humanity, to talk of a right, or an ability, or an intention to do either. How can that be assumed, which was imposed upon us at our birth? How can that be delayed or set aside, which from its very nature can neither be averted, nor in any way altered or moved? We begin existence as the subjects of God, and at no one period of life are we more under his government and jurisdiction than at any other; in what possible manner, then, does it belong to us to say, that now we will not be amenable to his laws, and now, by our own free thought and pleasure, we will place ourselves under his authority?
The reader will have perceived, ere this, the particular point which I have had in view; and I will therefore 1*
enter at once on the subject to which these general remarks were intended to lead. I hesitate not to acknowledge that I do not understand the propriety of the language so common in the mouths of those who approach for the first time, or who are about to approach for the first time, the communion table of our Saviour. They say that they are going to take on themselves new and solemn obligations. Others, in speaking of the act, express themselves in the same manner. In short, there is no phrase more common. In my opinion, there is none more unmeaning; and I shall continue to think so, till it can be shown to me how it is possible that a creature of God can take on himself a new religious obligation; how it is possible that by professing his intention to obey the divine commandments, he has added a single one to the list which already existed, and which had bound him down from his cradle with the adamantine strength of condition and necessity.
To say, that this person has just begun to entertain a proper sense of his obligations; that he has received new impressions of his duty, is perfectly correct. He may in time past have scoffed at virtue and religion, and held his own pleasure to be his only law and guide; and now he may see the folly of such a course, and repent of it, and turn to the Lord his God, humbling himself before him, and resolving to keep his commandments. But still he has taken on himself no new obligations. He was as much obliged to perform all his duty before this change of feeling, as he is now. The obligations were always upon him, every one of them; but instead of being treated, as before, with neglect and contumely, they are now soberly and rightly apprehended. What I mean to say,
is, that though to acknowledge is infinitely better than to slight them, neither their nature nor their number, their strength nor their degree, is altered in the least. The individual, let us suppose, was formerly profane; now, having made a profession of faith, he sets a guard upon his lips; but was it not as much his duty to observe the third commandment then, as it is now? Was it not criminal then? Has his confession of its criminality increased it? Has he really such a power over right and wrong?
This is perhaps an extreme case. Let us attend to a more common one. There are those, who, without haying ever been notoriously bad, who indeed have gone along through life commendably and with fair reputations, have nevertheless refused to come to the communion table, because they had no idea of giving up a certain way of living, which so long as they abstain from a profession of religion, they pursue without scruple, as being perfectly harmless, but which they regard, and which is generally regarded, as inconsistent with such a profession. They like to be gay, gay in spirit, and gay in external appear. ance; they are passionately fond of dancing; they delight in going to splendid entertainments, and in splendidly entertaining their friends in return, and they will not accept the invitation of their Saviour, because they conceive that by so doing they render that course criminal, which, till they do so, is perfectly safe. Now, I presume not to say, that the way of life which they love is not innocent; it may, or it may not be so, according as certain rules are observed or transgressed, which it would not be in place to discuss here; but I say, that if their
way of life is innocent before they become visible members of a church, it will also be innocent after that connexion is formed; and if, on the other hand, it would be criminal then, it is assuredly criminal now. What is right is right, and is not made more right by any confession. What is wrong is wrong, and cannot be made right, by our backwardness to abjure it.
All that has been said of pleasure, may be applied to business. The man of trade hesitates to come to the altar, because he does not wish to encumber himself with any religious shackles in his road to wealth. He does not wish to enter into any new obligations, which may render his pursuits guilty or improper, and prevent him from following them. In his present situation he feels easy, feels that he is doing what others of good character do, feels that he is bustling along with the throng, and no more obliged to be scrupulous and nicely fastidious than his companions and competitors. If he should openly profess himself to be a disciple of Christ,, why then indeed he must take heed and inquire of his conscience more frequently, and guard his purity more carefully than before; but as this might be inconvenient and troublesome, he will postpone the engagement and avoid the risk. Does he avoid the risk? Will his approach to the altar, make those practices dishonorable which used to be upright? Will his absenting himself from the altar make the transaction fair, which, if he went to it, would be a blot on his name? Is virtue of this versatile character?
There is still another class of persons who delay their obedience to the last injunction of Christ, on account of