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2 PETER i. 4.
Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and
precious promises. THE importance attached to the general doctrine of the sacraments is sufficiently manifested by the extent and variety of the controversies respecting them. They have, to adopt the language of Hooker, been
more diversely interpreted and disputed “ of than any other parts of religion be“ sides * ;” and scarcely a point of Christian doctrine has escaped being drawn into the collateral investigations to which the discussion of the sacraments has led.
If some of the questions thus raised may seem to be in themselves of little moment, this will seldom be found to be the
in reference either to the points of doctrine on which they bear, or the discussions out of
a Ecclesiastical Polity, book V. c. 57.,
which they have arisen. For it is to be observed, that as the place occupied by the sacraments in the religion of the Gospel, rendered the general doctrine concerning them familiar to all the professors of Christianity; so their very prominence pointed them out, as ready tests, by which every novelty in religion might be tried as it appeared. And hence it became indispensable for every projector of alteration or improvement, either to shew that his ideas corresponded with the existing doctrine of the sacraments; or to demonstrate the necessity of remoulding that doctrine according to his ideas. So that the many controversies, which apparently embarrass the subject, are in fairness to be taken, not as any real evidence that the doctrine concerning them is in fact doubtful, but as very valuable testimony to their efficiency, in respect of one important purpose of their institution; the maintenance of the truth and consistency of the religion itself, of which they form a part.
Abstracted indeed from this their relative value, it cannot be denied, that some of the questions that have been mooted concerning them have been alike captious and unimportant; little interesting in themselves, and but little affecting the holy ordinances, with which they have, unfortunately, been connected. But on the other hand, among the questions directly bearing upon the doctrine of the sacraments, some are on their own account well worthy of our serious attention. And among these, the most important are undoubtedly those which respect the benefits annexed to their use and administration.
To ascertain the reality, and define the nature of the benefits so annexed to the two sacraments universally recognized by the Christian church, will be the object of the course of Lectures upon which we are entering; in which the particular question to be treated may be thus expressed :
What are the benefits of which we become partakers, either as concomitant with, or immediately consequent upon, our participation in the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper? The order of investigation into the sub
ject thus proposed, will lead me to inquire, first, whether any, and secondly, what benefits are so annexed. Under the first of these heads, I shall briefly, and by way of preliminary, consider the presumptions in favour of some; under the second, I shall review in more detail the evidence in favour of the particular benefits contended for.
The divine appointment and general obligation of both sacraments will throughout the inquiry be taken for granted. They have indeed, with exceptions hardly worth noticing, been universally admitted by the great body of believers. At all events the questions to be agitated have in fact no place among those who deny or doubt such appointment. They can only exist among persons, who, admitting the divine institution, differ as to the nature and intent of the ordinances.
Of the two principal heads, into which the inquiry thus divides itself, neither can be justly deemed irrelevant, or unnecessary. To what end, it may indeed be asked, should we inquire whether any benefits are to be expected from the observances in question,
when we possess the means, if they have a real existence, of defining specifically what they are? Why should we be detained in the pursuit and weighing of probable arguments upon a point, which may, as it would appear, be at once decided by direct and conclusive evidence?
To these questions, however, the answer is not difficult. In strictness, perhaps, the proposed preliminary inquiry might safely be dispensed with. But the object of all practical and really valuable discussion on subjects of religion, is the reception, no less than the truth of the doctrines under consideration. And to this in the present case obstacles oppose themselves, in the shape of objections, not so much to the particulars insisted upon in the sacraments, or to the evidence to be produced in favour of the specific benefits contended for, as to the
general notion of any such annexation of benefits to outward observances, and to the undue exaltation of external and positive religion apparently consequent upon their admission. These, it is obvious, are only to be met by arguments tending to shew ge