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It is my conviction that the state of religion in the mass of its professors
those I mean who, in the judgment of their fellow-creatures, are deemed genuine believers—requires to be revived and re-invigorated, brought back to the primitive standard, and increased to the apostolic fervour. It is not so much of ignorance that we have to complain, as that Christians do injustice to their knowledge and their convictions. We are to blame, not so much for what we do, as for what we do not. Our sins of omission, though less felt, are probably greater and more rumerous than our sins of commission. Christians, generally, are rather chargeable with forming a low standard of religion, than with adopting a false one; with being satisfied with little, when they ought to attempt much, and might enjoy much; with living below their privileges, instead of rising above them; with comparing themselves among themselves, instead of measuring their attainments by the perfect law of liberty, and the abundant grace which they have received. · Let me now invite your attention to Acts ii. 41–47. " Then they that gladly received his word were baptized, and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” I have chosen this passage because it contains one of the most beautiful pietures of religion which is any where presented in the Word of God. It places before us a body of sinful creatures hearing the doctrine of salvation from the lips of the apostles, and gladly receiving that doetrine as a message of mercy and eternal life, uniting together, on their reception of this message, to walk in obedience to the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, at once for their own benefit, and for the profit of many, that they might be saved; discovering a spirit of the most delightful union and fellowship with each other, and displaying an almost boundless generosity; experiencing a gladness of soul, a hilarity of mind, from the conscious favour of God and the hope of His glory, in combination with a highly devoted devotion which evinced the sanctity of their joy, and was powerfully calculated to recommend their faith to others.
The first feature in the religion of the primitive Christians, on which I beg to fix your attention, is, “ Its entirely heavenly nature." I mean by this expression, that they knew nothing of Christianity, but as it was taught them from above-as they received it from the lips of inspired teachers—as it announced to them heaven's mercy and heaven's deliverance. This led the three thousand “gladly to receive the word of the apostles.” Between the great source of light and love, no dark and injurious medium was interposed, by which its rays might be interrupted. or its burning fervours abated. The waters of the fountain of life were neither polluted by the channel of conveyance through which they flowed. nor absorbed or altered in their nature by the earthly medium of their comníunication. Theirs was not the religion of tradition, or habit, or accommodation.' It was not the production of any outward circumstances, or submitted to form the influence of secondary motives. The Gospel which they heard, and in which they rejoiced, sounded in their ears as the voice of God. Its call was the invitation of an unveiled heaven, full of attraction and full of glory. Its command was the authoritative mandate of Him whose word is His law; unbroken and unsoftened by the instrument of its communication, it told upon their hopes like the music of heaven, and upon their fears like the shrieks of the damned. To them the Gospel came, not in word only, but in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and much assurance. When they first heard it they were pricked in their hearts; when they believed it they were filled with joy, and their joy no man could take from them.
It is easy to perceive that there is a vast difference between receiving religion in this manner and experiencing its heavenly power, unclogged and unaided by any earthly circumstances, and taking it up as a profession, or embracing it as a system of opinions. The primitive Christians had nothing to recommend Christianity to them but its own intrinsic suitableness and glory. They were not prepared for its reception, either by Judaism or Gentilism, or the state of things existing around them. All their hereditary prejudices, their established habits, their prevailing opinions, were unfavourable to its reception and its influence. When it operated upon Jews it delivered them from their vain conversation received by tradition from their fathers; and when it operated on Gentiles it turned them from dumb idols to serve the living and true God. To accomplish such a change the power of omnipotence was required, and when it was once felt nothing could prevent its full effect.
Divinity was presented to the view of these persons in every aspect in which the Gospel was viewed. Its doctrines were divine, and therefore worthy of implicit belief. Its laws were divine, and therefore entitled to unreserved obedience. Its promises were divine, and therefore worthy of unqualified confidence. Its institutions were divine, and therefore entitled to the highest respect. They had one Saviour, and one Master, but he was Jesus, God over all, and blessed for evermore, and therefore worthy of their supreme and uudivided gratitude and homage.
Need I say, that whatever changes have taken place in our circumstances, these things remain unaffccted, and that if we would do justice to Christianity, we must thus regard it. We must divest it in our minds of all the adventitious circumstances which belong to its present state in the world. We must look at it in its own light-examine it by its own claims -and submit to its own unqualified exactions. We must discard the subtle reasonings of a vain philosophy—the niceties of human distinctions and the dazzling speculations of science, falsely so called, when we come to sit in judgment on its discoveries and its demands. We must regret the impositions of earthly authority on the one hand—and brace our souls to activity and suffering on the other, if we would follow the Lord fully according to His word.
A second feature in the religion of the primitive believers was, “ Their conscientious observance of the public ordinances appointed by the Lord for the benefit of His church.” To these ordinances, and the attention paid to them on the part of the church at Jerusalem, the following sentence in the text refers: “ And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers,”
Without entering at present into the regular discussion of this part of the subject, I would only say, that I agree with those who consider this passage as a description of the stated public ordinances observed by the first Christian church, and in which we have a pattern which ought to be imitated by all churches. The apostles' doctrine is the public teaching of the church, then of course conducted by the apostles of Christ. The fellowship, as distinguished from the other things, is the contribution for the poor, which constituted then a regular part of the engagement of the first day of the week. The breaking of bread is the ordinance of the Lord's Supper, which beyond all controversy was then regularly observed every Lord's day; thus conjoining together the ordinances commemorative of the death and resurrection of the Saviour. The prayers are the other devotional parts of public worship.
These sacred institutions belong to the very substance of our religion, and the proper and conscientious observance of them enters deeply into the enjoyment and practice of Christianity. They constitute the aliment of the Christian life, and on their being properly administered, and properly used, depend, under the blessing of God, the healthy state of religion in the soul. Their great objects are—to supply an increase of knowledge to the disciples on all the points of doctrine, practice, and comfort, which their diversified circumstances require_to keep up, by public association and animated address, that excitement and fervour which are in danger of being lost in the bustle and business of the world
to counteract that tendency to selfishness, worldliness, and unconcern about the good of others which are so natural to fallen creatures, even in a redeemed state-to afford opportunity for the exercise of the various gifts and talents bestowed upon the members of the church by its Great Head, by the due employment of which, the strong help the weak, the rich assist the poor, the enlightened instruct the ignorant, so that they who have much have nothing over, and they who have little experience no lack.
The suitableness of this wise and gracious arrangement is such that Christianity has been invariably found to flourish as these ordinances have been purely dispeused, and as invariably to decline where they have been corrupted or neglected.
The Evangelist tells us that the believers at Jerusalem continued steadfastly in their ordinances ; that is, they observed them in the most conscientious and persevering manner. It did not occur to them that they were at liberty to observe or neglect them, as their humour, or caprice, or convenience, might dictate. They did not suppose for a moment that they were at liberty to neglect them under any circumstances except those of the most obvious necessity, or that they had any right to endeavour to substitute something else in their place. Nor did they conceive that they were entitled to observe some and to neglect others at their own pleasure. For instance, that they might go on receiving the instructions of the ministry, and join in the public worship, but regularly turn their back on the commemorative supper of their Lord. So monstrous a disjunction, however common in modern times, never entered into the imagination of a primitive believer. He knew and felt it to be his duty and his privilege to observe all the ordinances and commandments of the Lord blameless, or as he had received them from Christ.
The steadfastness, or regularity and perseverance with which the ordinances were observed, arose, in a great measure, from the pleasure and the profit which were experienced from them. In assembling with their brethren they enjoyed the promised presence and blessing of their Redeemer. They found, to their happy experience, that where two or three met in His name, He was in the midst of them : their fellowship was with one another, but it was also truly with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. The congregation of the saints was to them literally
the house of God and the very gate of heaven. They rejoiced, therefore, when it was said to them, “ Go ye up to the house of the Lord.”
How different is all this, my brethren, from the desultory, irregular, capricious conduct of many who now say, “ Lord, Lord,” but who, in these respects, do not the things which He commands. Of the principles of Christian fellowship they seem to be as ignorant as if the subject had never been mentioned in the New Testament. Their conduct in observing the ordinances of Christ seems to be regulated by no fixed or scriptural principle. What they should observe they can scarcely describe. How they should observe what they admit to be duty they can as little tell. As to regularity and perseverance, it would seem as if conscience had nothing to do with the matter. The most trifling occurrence is sufficient to disconcert their attendance with the people of God, and the enjoyment of the most important privileges which belong to our present state. The attractions of an ephemeral popularity—the solicitations or intrusions of friendship—the trifling inconveniences of local circumstances—the changes of the weather—a hundred such things, of which one feels ashamed to speak—reproaching as they do the effeminacy of the age, or its want of principle--all show that the high standard of primitive piety is little understood, and fully account for the selfishness and imbecility which the Christian character too frequently presents.
A third prominent feature in the religion of the primitive Christians was, “ The spirit of union and love which animated them in all their conduct to each other.” This characteristic pervades the text. The multitude who believed at the beginning were of one heart and one soul. They regarded each other as members of the same heavenly family, as fellow-heirs of the same glorious inheritance, and as called to a companionship in suffering by their common profession. Their union did not consist in subscription to a common creed, or the observance of a common formula, or in subjection to some accredited standard of human construction. It was an union of heart, a harmony of principle, a combination of moral forces, from which the highest enjoyment resulted to the parties themselves, and the greatest benefit to the world around them.
This hallowed communion of hearts and souls appeared in the preference which they discovered for each other's society to that of all around. Their friends and companions were not the men of the world, the fascinations of whose manners and talents operated upon them as a charm. They were not their friends and relations, destitute of the knowledge and power of religion. They were not exclusively the men of their own rank and class in society among Christians. There were no castes among the early believers—no impassable lines of demarcation separating the grades into which they were divided—there was then no religious aristocracy distinct from the general community of the faithful. The body was one, and the members of it, however many, all felt that they belonged to each other. There was no schism in it, for the members cared for one another. This delightful union appeared in acting rather than in speaking. In taking part with each other when called to suffer in the common cause, and in the constancy of their public and private association, notwithstanding the opposition they had to encounter. The falling off from primitive piety began when men forsook the assembling of themselves together—when they became ashamed of their suffering brethren, and of the cause in which they suffered—when forms came to be substituted for principles, and outward profession was regarded more than the spontaneous flow of Christian affection.
Their devoted and united attachment was formed and fostered by the peculiarity of their circumstances. The vivid perceptions which they had of the infinite importance of that salvation of which they were common partakers, naturally led them to regard each other with feelings of the most peculiar and powerful kind. They loved each other for the truth's sake, which dwelt in them, and which, they trusted, would abide in them for ever. In the display which that truth furnished of the matchless love of God to guilty men, they found a reason for loving those, thus loved by God, more powerfully influential than all the considerations which could excite feeling towards the rest of their fellow-creatures. Hence they reasoned, as well as felt, “ If God so loved us, we ought to love one another.” That love, they perceived, regarded not the fietitious distinctions of society, the claims of birth or talent, of opulence or rank-it regarded men simply as guilty and wretched. The privileges which it provided, and the glory which it promised, they saw clearly, belonged to all the partakers of the faith of Jesus, and would be in proportion to the power and influence of that faith, in whomsoever it was found. They understood that the world would shortly pass away, and the glory of it, and that they alone who did the will of God should endure for ever; that their companions and associates through eternity should not be those most distinguished by their powerful and brilliant talents, by their elevated rank, or by any other circumstances of an earthly nature which now recommend men to each other; but their fellow-disciples, their friends and brethren in Christ. They anticipated the period when the closest and most powerful of mere natural ties should be for ever broken; when the relationships of kindred and consanguinity should be dissolved, never again to be restored; when all that constitutes the present social compact should be destroyed among those earthly elements incapable of forming the combinations of the kingdom of heaven ; and that then the fathers, and mothers, and brethren, and sisters in the Gospel, should enjoy together the high rewards of the life everlasting.
A fourth marked feature of the primitive Christians was, “ Their abundant liberality.” They sold their possessions and goods, and parted them as every man had need. That the wants of the poor were adequately supplied, is evident on the face of the narrative; for there were none among them that lacked, and they had as it were all things common. This amazing liberality, however, was not merely, or perhaps even chiefly, devoted to the relief of the poor. The sale of their estates could not have been required for this purpose. It appears to have been exercised principally with a view to the advancement of the sacred cause of the Redeemer. Many of those who wished to consecrate themselves to his service parted with their houses and lands, and laid the proceeds at the feet of the apostles, that they might thus, without the entanglement of the affairs of this life, more effectually promote the interests of the kingdom of heaven. And those who could not thus devote themselves, seem cheerfully to have parted with their property, to assist the men of talent and enterprise to pursue the self-denying service of the cross.
The causes of this high generosity are to be sought, not in the extraordinary wealth of the people, for it was manifest, in many cases, in the depth of poverty. They are not to be found in the authoritative exactions of the apostles, for they left it in a great degree for men to act voluntarily in this matter, referring the measure or degree of their benevolence to their own consciences, and the decision of another day. They are not to be found in the mere operation of any temporary circumstances which