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the mischief which may arise from the habit of being too well satisfied with ourselves, and too eager in the wish to see others act from the same motives, and embark in similar undertakings.
In such a disposition of mind there is real danger because we are rendered unconscious of the
progress from what is clear to what is doubtful; from what is correct in principle to what is injurious in practice; and thus we may slide insensibly from right to wrong, not only without any evil intentions, but even with very good ones.
Where the leading motive is thus sound, but liable to be perverted by wrong judgement, by unfortunate association, by the influence of fashion or the force of example, some hope may reasonably be entertained of pointing out the danger, and withdrawing a victim from the brink of a precipice, before he has unhappily ventured too near. Hence it is that the timely caution in the text originated; and in the same hope of guarding against evils, which never fail to attend want of moderation, I proceed to remark, that an intermediate class of religionists appears to be recognized in Scripture, and that to them may be assigned, with the strictest propriety, the appellation of "righteous over-much.”
In some of their features these may be found to resemble the class last mentioned; though the features themselves are milder, and the harshness which they unavoidably assume is more to be ascribed to error in judgement, than to defect in principle. Nevertheless, a certain extent of undue zeal in making proselytes ; confidence in their own decisions, and a readiness to
condemn those of others; unnecessary, and even affected, restraint in matters innocent or indifferent; a demeanour bordering on sanctimonious; may not unfrequently be observed in these, as they are attributed to the actual hypocrite, who assumes the outward marks of devotion as a cover to his inward baseness. To this third class however belong exclusively the descriptions of “having a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge ” a; of “striving about words of no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers ” b; of being curious" about foolish and unlearned questions, which engender strifes ” °; of “turning aside unto vain jangling ; desiring to be teachers of the law, but understanding neither what they say nor whereof they affirm”d; and, finally, of “consenting not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine, which is according unto godliness; but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings."
It appears then that the mischief of carrying religious feeling to this unwise extreme is by no means confined to its operation upon the heart and temper of the individual, but it affects in various ways the credit and interests of that cause, which they are so eager to support. It leads some to shrink with alarm from a profession, which is clogged with unnecessary restraints, and which represents the yoke of Christ as neither easy nor pleasant to be borne-it
a Rom. x. 2.
b 2 Tim. ii. 14. c Ib. 23. d 1 Tim. i. 6, 7.
el Tim. vi. 3, 4.
confirms men of stronger minds in the prejudices they may unhappily have contracted against religion, when they see it tortured into a system of doubtful propositions, unamiable dogmatism or unnecessary austerity —while the harmony of society and the peace of the church are disturbed by an unceasing recurrence of exploded error and antiquated contention.
Now persons, who are really well-disposed, and who believe themselves to be actuated by a pure desire of promoting religion, may be surprised to find themselves characterized by a meddling and uncandid disposition; and to be informed that the object, at 14 which they aim with so much zeal, rather ministers; to purposes of disputation, than to “godly edifying which is of faith.” a
Yet let me beseech them to examine narrowly, and if possible dispassionately, what passes in the recesses ; * of their own minds, and what escapes their lips in it daily intercourse with others. They will find, that they are firmly convinced of the accuracy of inter-'' pretations, which they have not taken sufficient pains, and perhaps possess not sufficient ability, to investigate. They will find that such obstinate persuasion of the truth of their own opinions leads to a contemptuous disregard of the opinions, or an uncharitable judgement of the conduct, of other men. If again they sift the nature of these opinions, they will perceive them to turn upon points of speculation, where error is most probable; while it leads them to neglect matters of practice, where truth is most attainable.
a 1 Tim. i. 4.
ons obs T, whì
How then, they may be disposed to ask-If their intentions be good, if they even take some pains to be informed ;-how is it, they can stray so widely from the path they wish to tread ? How is it that, instead of obtaining the praise, which should attend the sincere and zealous votary of religion, they are arraigned as in some respects the cause of mischief, and marked as examples to be avoided rather than imitated ?
Alas! they know not yet experimentally the fallibility of human reason, nor the deceitfulness of the human heart. Nor is this the only instance, in which those, who act the part of the over-righteous, pursue a course in direct contradiction to the doctrines which they eagerly espouse, and for a supposed indifference to which they loudly censure all, who entertain opinions contrary to their own. I dispute not but such, as deservedly incur the censure of the wise : man, may be found in all religions, and in other modifications of our own. But it is to be feared, they may more frequently be discovered among such, as maintain most strenuously the doctrines of our fallen nature, our consequent liability to err, with the importance of humility and self-abasement. If however our nature be so fallen, and if it be so liable to err, should not the conviction of these awful truths impress us with a deep sense of our own weakness, and with the necessity of seeking for assistance from above? Should it not make us less confident of our own strength, and prevent us from wasting in censorious observation of others that time and opportunity, which might be devoted to our own spiritual
improvement ? When we feel so strongly, and urge so importunately, the prevailing infirmity of purpose and weakness of judgement, are we possessed of that spirit of meekness and humility which our Lord inculcated, if we presume to think ourselves alone exempt from the danger of mistake?
What course then remains to be pursued by him, who feels the vast importance of religion, and wishes to be guided by the principles, which it ought to inspire? To those, who are assured that, in every necessary point of duty, the Sacred Oracles address us in language so intelligible that “he, who runs, may read", I humbly think, after all that has been stated in the very words of Scripture, the answer is prompt and plain.
Study seriously the representation, which has just been given of those, who truly deserve the name of “righteous”: strive to imbibe their spirit and imitate their conduct. As carefully abstain from all the modes of thinking and of acting, which stamp the opposite characters of the hypocrite and the “righteous over-much.” Mark accurately the distinction between questions of criticism and questions of action; between matters of speculation and matters of practice. Adopt that as the true interpretation of Scripture which your judgement, after due examination, convinces you is correct. Yet remember that you are fallible, and by possibility may be wrong.
While therefore you unhesitatingly cherish those opinions, which your understanding approves; presume not to dictate to other men, nor rashly attempt to impose your own rule of conduct as a standard, by which