The study of religious truth ought to be undertaken and prosecuted from a sense of duty, and with a view to the improvement of the heart. When learned, it ought not to be laid on the shelf, as an object of speculation; but it should be deposited deep in the heart, where its sanctifying power ought to be felt. To study theology, for the purpose of gratifying curiosity, or preparing for a profession, is an abuse and profanation of what ought to be regarded as most holy. To learn things pertaining to God, merely for the sake of amusement, or secular advantage, or to gratify the mere love of knowledge, is to treat the Most High with contempt.
Our external interests are involved in the subject of religion, and we should study it with a view to these interests. A farmer should study agriculture, with a view to the increase of his crop; but if, instead of this he exhausts himself in inquiring how plants propagate their like, and how the different soils were originally produced, his grounds will be overrun with briers and thorns, and his barns will be empty. Equally unprofitable will be that study of religious doctrine which is directed to the mere purpose of speculation. It is as if the food necessary for the sustenance of the body, instead of being eaten and digested, were merely set out in such order as to gratify the sight. In this case, the body would certainly perish with hunger; and, with equal certainty will the soul famish if it feed not on divine truth.
When religious doctrine is regarded merely as an object of speculation, the mind is not content with the simple truth as it is in Jesus, but wanders after unprofitable questions, and becomes entangled in difficulties, from which it is unable to extricate itself. Hence arises the skepticism of many. Truth, which would sanctify and save the soul. they wilfully reject, because it will not gratify all their curiosity, and solve all their perplexities. They act as the husbandman would, who should reject the whole science of agriculture, and refuse to cultivate his grounds, because there are many mysteries in the growth of plants, which he cannot explain.
If we set out, in our search for religious truth, from a sense of duty, and with the purpose of making the best possible use of it, we may hope for success. The Lord will bless our efforts; for he has promised, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine.” As we advance, we shall find out all that is necessary for any practical purpose; and the sense of duty, under which we proceed, will not drive us beyond this point.
The sense of religious obligation which moves us to seek the knowledge of the truth, though disregarded by a large part of mankind, belongs to the constitution of human nature. Man was originally designed for religion, as certainly as the eye was formed for the purpose of vision. It will be advantageous to consider well this fact, at the outset of our inquires. We shall then feel that we are proceeding according to the best dictates of human nature.
The various parts of the world which we inhabit, are admirably adapted to each other. Many of these adaptations present themselves to our most careless observation; and, if we search for them with diligence, they multiply to our view beyond number. The seed falls to the ground from its parent stalk, like a grain of sand; but, unlike the sand, it contains in its minute dimensions, a wonderful provision for the production of a future plant. This provision, however, would prove unavailing, if it did not find a soil adapted to give nourishment to the young germ. Moisture is also needed: and the vapor, rising from a distant sea, is wafted to the place by the wind, and, condensed in the atmosphere, descends in the fertilizing shower. But all these adaptations are insufficient, if warmth is not supplied; and, to complete the process, the sun at the distance of ninety-five millions of miles, sends forth his enlivening beams. Such complications of arrangements abound in all the works of nature.
The purposes which these adaptations accomplish, are often perfectly obvious. In plants and animals, they provide for the life of the individual and the continuance of the species. Plants are adapted to become food for animals; and plants and animals render important benefits to man. But man, too, has his adaptations; and, from a consideration of these, his proper place in the great system of the universe may be inferred.
Like other animals, man is so constituted, that provision is made for the continuance of his life, and of the race. Were there no higher indications in his constitution, he might eat and drink, like other animals; and the indulgence of his natural appetites and propensities might be the highest end of his being. But, for human beings so to brutalize themselves, is a manifest degradation of their nature. They possess endowments, which, as every one feels, fit them for far nobler purposes.
The high intellectual powers of man, call for appropriate exercise. His knowledge is not confined to objects near at hand, nor to such relations and properties of things as are immediately perceived by the senses; but his reason traces remote relations, and follows the chain of cause and effect through long successions. From the present moment he looks back through past history, and connects events in their proper order of dependence. By his knowledge of the past he is able to anticipate and prepare for the future. In the causes now existing, he can discover the effects which will be developed long hereafter. Such endowments agree well with the opinion that he is an immortal being, and that the present transitory life is preparatory to another which will never end; but they, by no means, accord with the supposition, that he dies as the brute. No one imagines that the ox, or the ass, is concerned with the question whether an immortality awaits him, for which it is important that he should prepare; but the idea of a future state has had a place in the human mind in all ages, and under all forms of religion. The bee and the ant provide for the approaching winter; and the winter, for which their instincts lead them to prepare, comes upon them. If the future life, which men have so generally looked for, which their minds are so fitted to expect, and for which many have labored to prepare, with unceasing care, should never be realized, the case would violate all analogy, and be discordant with the harmony of universal nature.
The human mind is fitted for continued progress in knowledge; and, therefore for a state of immortality. This adaptation includes an insatiable desire of knowledge, and an ability to acquire it. The little chicken, not many hours after it has left the shell in which its feeble existence commences, is able to select its food, to roam abroad in search of it, and to return to its mother’s wing for protection. Man is born into the world, the most helpless of animals. Tedious weeks pass away before the development of his intellectual powers begins to appear. The progress is slow, and many months of gradual improvement pass, before he becomes equal in ability for self-preservation, to many other creatures that have lived a few hours. These animals, however, stop at a point beyond which, it may be said, they never go. The birds of the present age build their nests just as they were built five thousand years ago; and the admirable social arrangements found among bees and ants have undergone no improvements. But no point, no line, bounds the progress of the human mind. Though we are now familiar with the great improvements which have been made in arts and sciences, we contemplate them with admiration and astonishment; and we feel that a boundless career is open before the intellect of man, inviting the efforts which he finds himself internally prompted to make. But, as far as each individual of the race is concerned, the vast fields of knowledge open before him in vain, his power to explore them exists in vain, and the desire to explore burns in vain in his breast, if the present life, which flies as the weaver’s shuttle, is the only opportunity granted, and if all his hopes and aspirations are to be forever buried in the grave.
The moral faculties with which man is endowed, adapt him to a state of subjection to moral government. Our minds are so constituted, that we are capable of perceiving a moral quality in actions, and of approving or disapproving them. A consciousness of having done what is right, affords us one of our highest pleasures; and the anguish of remorse for evil deeds, is as intolerable as any suffering of which the human heart is susceptible. Our conscience exercises a moral government within us, and rewards or punishes us for actions according to their moral character. Much of our happiness depends on the approbation of those with whom we associate. Hence, we find moral government without, as well as within; and at every point, in our relations to intelligent beings, we feel its restraints. Where are the bounds of this moral government? It must be as extensive as our relations to moral beings, and as lasting as our existence.
That men are immortal and under a moral government, by which their future state will be made happy or miserable, according to their conduct in the present life, are fundamental truths of religion. Man is a religious animal; because a persuasion of his immortality and an expectation of future retribution so readily find a place in his mind. No one imagines that such thoughts were ever entertained for a moment, by any one of the innumerable brute animals that have trodden the earth. But in the human race, such thoughts have been prevalent in all nations and ages; have mingled with the cogitations of the learned and the unlearned, the wise and the unwise; and have blended religion thoroughly with the history of mankind.
The considerations which have been presented, establish the claim of religious truth to our highest respect and most diligent investigation. He who disregards its claim acts contrary to his own nature, and degrades himself to the level of the beast that perishes. That men do so degrade themselves, is a fact which correct views of religious truth cannot overlook: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” It is a peculiar glory and excellence of the Christian revelation, that it is adapted to this fallen condition of mankind; and that it has power to effect a restoration. It is medicine for the sick, as well as food for the healthy. A healthy appetite calls for food; and the food, when received, administers needed nourishment; so that between the healthy stomach and the nutritious food, the adaptation is reciprocal. But in sickness the stomach loathes food, and rejects the medicine which is needed to effect a cure: yet the adaptation of the medicine to the condition of the sick man still remains. Just so it is with respect to the gospel of Christ. Though rejected by men, it is “worthy of all acceptation,” because it is a remedy, precisely adapted to our depraved state. Thousands of thousands have experienced its restoring power, and unite in recommending its efficacy to the multitudes who are unwilling to make trial of it.
In contemplating the truths of religion, we may view them in various aspects. We may consider them as proceeding from God; as demonstrated by abundant proof; as harmonizing with one another; and as tending to the glory of God. It is interesting and instructive to view them in immediate contact with the human heart, and, like the Spirit of God, brooding over the original chaos, bringing order out of confusion, and infusing light and life where darkness and death had previously reigned. In exerting this new-creating power, the divinity of Christian truth appears; and the demonstration of it is the more satisfactory, because practical, and leveled to the capacity of all.
As religious beings, let us seek to understand the truths of religion. As immortal beings, let us strive to make ourselves acquainted with the doctrine on which our everlasting happiness depends. And let us be careful that we do not merely receive it coldly into our understanding, but that its renewing power is ever operative in our hearts.
John vii. 17.
Is. i. 3.