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its provisions; and if these wolves have subtilely concealed the rapacity of their nature in the sheep's clothing, in order to get in among the fock, and devour the unwary ; the caution given by our blessed Saviour in my text, must be of the last consequence to every simple and well-meaning Christian. The safety of his soul depends on his being
aware of false prophets ;' that is, on his being apprized, in the first place, that such there are, and in great numbers too, who, with art and cunning not easily seen through, lie in wait for the unguarded mind, in order to steal into it, under the disguise of truth, such errors, as subvert, whereever they are received, the whole faith and practice of a Christian ; and, in the next place, on his knowing how to detect and distinguish these false prophets from the true.
That such there are (for by the word prophets, here as well as in many other places of Scripture, the teachers of religion are to be understood) our Saviour's warning, and our own knowledge of the world, are sufficient to convince us. He desires his true disciples to beware of them, foreseeing, that no age of his church militant should be free from these corrupters of the truth, and foretelling, that many false prophets should rise, and deceive many.' St. Paul foretold the same event, when he said to Timothy, •Know this, that in the last days perilous times shall come,' times productive of men, who have a form of godliness' (some of the sheep's wool), “but deny the power thereof,' who, 'as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, do also resist the truth; men of corrupt minds, and reprobate concerning the faith. Our own knowledge of the times we live in may satisfy us, that these prophecies are but too well fulfilled, otherwise why so many teachers contradicting one another on the fundamentals of our religion? We are sensible, surely, they cannot all be in the right, and that truth neither needs, nor admits, the artifice and sophistry practised by some of these controvertists.
But, being convinced, that there are such false prophets or teachers among us, as we are here cautioned to beware of; and that they go about by subtlety to deceive us ;' how shall we detect their arts, and how spy out the wolf within the sheep's clothing?
That this clothing does not always fit the wearer; that,
in time, it grows too thin and tattered to conceal him; and that, to a narrow inspection, it discovers shrewd signs of a counterfeit skin, I shall presently endeavour to shew.
But, first, let us take into consideration the method pointed out by our Saviour of detecting the false prophets, of whom he warns us to beware. ; By their fruits,' saith he, 'ye shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles ?'
Now, it is a question with some, what sort of fruits our blessed Instructor means, whether the doctrines or the lives of such as pretend to teach others.
It is certain, the appearance of innocence and goodness in a religious teacher are very apt to infuse a strong prejudice in favour of that which he inculcates, and as certain, that the contrary appearance usually produces a contrary prejudice. The sheep, being so commonly given for an emblem of innocence, and the wolf, for that of wickedness, do naturally seem to point out this interpretation. For a farther confirmation of this construction, it is observable, that the words, their fruits,' are applied to the teachers, not their doctrines or principles. Besides, it is, with great shew of reason, presumed, that the wisdom of Providence will generally employ good and honest men for the conveyance of religious truths, and leave it to fouler vessels to carry heresies.
Whether this is a right way of thinking, or not, it is nevertheless so rooted in the minds of all men, as never to be dislodged ; and therefore ought to be carefully laid to heart by every one who conceives himself to be a preacher of truth and righteousness. Few, we know, will take him for a sheep within, who is a wolf without; or believe, that the same man can both preach the will of God, and practice that of his enemy.
It is equally certain, however, that Christ, by the fruits of the tree,' intended to furnish the most simple sort of Christians with a plain and distinct mark, whereby they might know the nature of the tree itself. Now, it is a matter of no small difficulty to one unable to search his own heart, to search those of other men, and find out, in the midst of disguises, whether they are to be classed among the virtuous, or the vicious. To me it seems a much easier task to discover the truth or falsity of their doctrines by the use of sound reason in a diligent perusal of God's word; especially, if the doctrines have been tried on others beforehand, and either healed or poisoned the minds into which they were admitted. It is a fact, not to be questioned, that very bad men, such as Balaam and Judas, have been authorized by God himself to deliver and preach the most sacred truths. Nor is it less apparent to the experience of every man, that others, believed by all their acquaintances, or at least taken by the general opinion, to be men of very good lives, have nevertheless been strenuous preachers of error and heresy; for, most evident it is, that men of very good characters, as well as a looser sort, have appeared among the foremost champions of opinions, equally important, and wholly repugnant. How shall the simple in this case choose his guide, if he hath no other rule to go by, but the lives of such as offer their service? Is he to halt between two opinions, till the day of judgment comes, and shews him which of those opinions had the advantage in point of exemplary teachers ? To what purpose is the word of God laid open to him, if he may not 'search the Scriptures, whether the things' delivered to him are so indeed,' as they are delivered, or not? If he is to pin his faith on the mere appearance of morality in a teacher ? It is acknowledged, Christ calls the fruits, whereby we are to judge, the fruits of the prophets, or teachers, and not of their doctrines; but then it should be noticed, that this figure, in putting the teacher for the thing taught, is the same with his putting the disciple for the doctrine learned, when he explains the parable of the sower. • That (seed) he saith, 'which fell among thorns, are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares,' &c. Yet the seed is the word of God. He uses the same figure also in the parable of the tares : 'Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them. The tares, it is true, are put for bad men, in the parable, and are said to be sown by the devil;' that is, their bad principles and sins were infused into them by the enemy, who can, in no sense, be understood to have created the men themselves, without running into downright Manicheism. Most true it is, the argument of God's employing none but good men in his ser
vice, proves nothing, because brought to prove too much ; for, as all men are sinful, as none is good, Providence, if tied to this rule, must have given us angels for teachers, and not men of like infirmity with ourselves. Providence, therefore, instead of being complimented by such reasoning, is really arraigned for placing his treasures in earthen vessels, and not in golden shrines.
We commit no mistakes in attempting to gather fruits from plants we are well acquainted with ; we do not, for instance, look for grapes on thorns, or figs on thistles. But if foreign plants, as yet unknown to us, are imported and propagated in our country, as some of them may produce fruits, nutritious or medicinal; and others, poisonous ; it will be more prudent to let them be tried on swine, before we venture to make a meal on them ; at least it will be a safer way to smell and taste them in extremely small quantities, ere we trust them, in larger, with our constitutions. Thus, without too great a risk, we may know the tree by its fruit.
In like manner should the teachers of all religious doctrines be judged of. They who teach us such as have been already revealed, and found by long experience to be productive of virtue and happiness, may be safely listened to. But, if both the teacher and his doctrines are new to us, for that very reason they are to be suspected, till they are tried on those who greedily swallow every thing; or, at least, till their agreement or disagreement with known truths, with unprejudiced reason, and, above all, with the holy Scriptures, is better examined. By these rules we may canvass the new opinions with others better versed in such matters than ourselves; and by observing what effects they have on the preacher himself and his disciples, more especially, how, on giving a little into his principles ourselves, the state of our own minds is altered for the better, or the worse, is warmed, or cooled, to God and goodness, may, without too great a risk to our faith and salvation, 'know of the doctrine, and consequently of the man, whether either is of God;' since all our care and inquiry is only to find out the will of God, that we may do it. And what is his will in the caution before us, but that we should be careful to discern the false teacher from the true, and avoid him? Who, then, is the false teacher? He, no doubt, who teaches that which is false, erroneous, or seductive. Were not this our Saviour's real meaning, he had not applied the epithet, false, to the prophet or teacher, but rather to the man, whom it must have fitted in its full propriety. He, therefore, certainly points at that teacher, who, not as an angel, or a man, but purely as a teacher, is to be branded with the name of false, on account of his false doctrine, of whom we are to beware. It is not ours to judge the man. To his own master he standeth or falleth.' Neither are we, by any means, so much concerned with his life and morals, as with the nature and tendency of his principles, which, if right, may lead us, through saving truths, to perfect happiness; and if wrong, through pernicious errors, to eternal misery.
If we consider what it is we are to receive from a religious teacher, as we gather fruit from a tree, we shall find, it is his doctrine, that which he teaches ; and that, on only examining this a little, we may easily perceive whether it is confirmed or contradicted by the word of God, just as we distinguish an haw from a grape, and know that this is the fruit of a vine, and that of a thorn.
But, that the fundamental articles of our religion, both in regard to faith and practice, are fully and clearly laid before us in holy Scripture, the same Scriptures do strongly maintain ; how otherwise could St. Paul have said to us, as well as to the Galatians, 'If we,' the apostles, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you, than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.' Where now are we to find this gospel, but in the word of God? And if, notwithstanding the holiness of a heavenly angel, and of an inspired apostle, both are to be accursed, in case they give us any thing else for gospel than that which God himself hath given us in his word; why is the supposed righteousness of any preacher whatsoever to be set up for a test of truth, and a proof that his doctrines must all be perfectly sound?
If bad principles, that is, principles that naturally tend to relax the ties of religion, and tempt me to be vicious, should have made this teacher virtuous, it might seem a miracle to my understanding; yet miracle though it should