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THE EVIDENCES OF CHRISTIANITY, DEDUCED FROM THE NEW TESTAMENT, ALLOWED TO BE GENUINE.
—WE HAVE NOT FOLLOWED CUNNINGLY DEVISED FABLES.—
WHEN we are addressing ourselves to an audience of professing Christians, I think, we may reasonably take it for granted, in the main course of our ministry, that they believe the truth of the Gospel, and may argue with them on that supposition. To be ever laying the foundation, would be the part of an unwise builder, and be greatly detrimental to your edification and comfort, and, I may add, to our own. Nevertheless, Christians, we do not desire, that you should take it merely upon our word, that your religion is divine, and your Scriptures inspired. We desire, that your faith, as well as your worship, should be a reasonable service5151 Rom. xii. 1.; and wish, that, in this respect, all the Lord’s people were as prophets5252 Numb. xi. 29.; that as every Christian is, in his sphere, set for the defence of the Gospel5353 Phil. i. 17., each might, in some measure, be able to assert its truth, and, if possible, to convince gainsayers5454 Tit. i. 9.. Therefore, as we arc often hinting at the chief arguments, on which this sacred cause is established, established, I trust, so firmly, that the gates of hell shall never prevail against it5555 Matt. xvi. 18.; so, I thought, it might be agreeable and useful, on this occasion, to state them a little more largely, in their proper connexion and mutual dependence. And I chose rather to do it, as these sermons are especially intended for young people, who, in an age in which infidelity so much abounds, can hardly expect to pass through the world, if they, are called to converse much in it, without some attacks on their faith; which may be very dangerous, if they are not provided with some armour of proof against them. It is, indeed, (as I before observed,) above all things to be desired, that the heart may be established with grace5656 Heb. xiii. 9.; for we are then most secure from the danger of forgetting God’s precepts5757 Psal. cxix. 93., when they have been the blessed means of quickening us to a divine life. Yet, as other arguments have their use, and, in some degree, their necessity too, I shall go on briefly to propose them.
I beg, therefore, that you would renew your attention, while I resume the thread of my discourse, an entire dependence on the blessed Spirit, by whom the Gospel was at first revealed and confirmed, to add success to this humble attempt for its service and for your edification.
I am now shewing you, that Christianity, which before appeared in theory probable and rational, has, in fact evidence: not only that it may be, but that it certainly is, true;—as it is certain, that the New Testament, as now in your hands, is genuine;—and as it may, with great evidence, be argued from hence, that the Gospel is a revelation from God. The first of there points I have endeavoured to prove at large; and, without repeating what I said in confirmation of it, I now proceed to shew,
“That, from allowing the New Testament to be genuine, it will certainly follow, that Christianity is a divine revelation.”
And, here, a man is, at first, ready to be lost in the multiplicity of arguments which surround him. It is very easy to find proofs; but difficult to range and dispose them in such an order, as best to illustrate and confirm each other. Now I choose to offer them in the following series, which seems to me the most natural, and, perhaps, may be most intelligible to you.
The authors of the books contained in the New Testament were certainly capable of judging concerning the truth of the facts they attested:—their character, so far as we can judge of it by their writings, renders them worthy of regard;—and they were under no temptation to attempt to impose on the world, by such a story as they have given us, if it had been false: so that, considering all things, there, is no reason to believe they would attempt it:—but, if they had, they must probably have perished in the attempt, and could never have gained credit in the world, had their testimony been false.—Nevertheless, it is certain, in fact, that they did gain credit, and succeed in a most amazing manner against all opposition.—It is certain, therefore, that the facts they assert were true; and, if they were true, then it was reasonable for their contemporaries, and is reasonable for us, to receive the Gospel as a divine revelation;— especially, if we consider what has happened in the world for the confirmation of it, since it was first propagated by them. This is the conclusion, to which I was to lead you; and I beg you would seriously consider each of the steps, by which we arrive at it.
1. It is exceeding evident, “that the writers of the New Testament certainly knew, whether the facts they asserted were true or false.”
And this they must have known, for this plain reason; because they tell us, they did not trust merely to the report, even of persons whom they thought most credible; but were present themselves when several of the most important facts happened, and so received them on the testimony of their own senses. On this, St. John, in his Epistle, lays a very great and reasonable stress: that which we have seen with our eyes, and that not only by a sudden glance, but which we have attentively looked upon, and which even our hands have handled of the word of life, i. e. of Christ and his Gospel,—declare we unto you5858 1 John, i. 1, 3..
Let the common sense of mankind judge here. Did not Matthew and John certainly know, whether they had personally and familiarly conversed with Jesus of Nazareth, or not? Whether he had chosen them for his constant attendants and apostles? whether they had seen him heal the sick, dispossess devils, and raise the dead? and whether they themselves had received from him such miraculous endowments, as they say he bestowed upon them? Did not they know, whether, he fell into the hands of his enemies, and was publicly put to death, or not? Did nor John know, whether he saw him expiring on the cross, or not? and whether he received from him the dying charge which he records5959 John, xix. 27.? Did he not know, whether he saw him wounded in the side with a spear, or not? and whether he did, or did not, see, that effusion of blood and water, which was an infallible argument of his being really dead? concerning which, it being so material a circumstance, he adds, he that saw it bears record, and he knoweth that he saith true6060 John, xix. 35.; i. e. that it was a case, in which he could not possibly be deceived. And, with regard to Christ’s resurrection, did not certainly know, whether he saw our Lord again and again; and, whether he handled his body, that he might be sure it was not a mere phantom? What one circumstance of his life could he certainly know, if he were deceived in this?
Did not Luke know, whether he was in the ship with Paul, when that extraordinary wreck happened, by which they were thrown ashore on the island of Malta? Did he not know, whether, while they were lodged together in the governor’s house, Paul miraculously healed one of the family, and many other diseased persons in the island, as he positively asserts he did6161 Acts, xxvii. 7-9.?
Did not Paul certainly know, whether Christ appeared to him on the way to Damascus, or not? Whether he was blind, and afterwards, on the prayer of a fellow-disciple, received his sight? or, was that a circumstance, in which there could be room for mistake? did he not know, whether he received such extraordinary revelations, and extraordinary powers, as to be able, by the imposition of his hands, or by the words of his mouth, to work miracles, and even to convey supernatural endowments to others.
To add no more, did not Peter know, whether he saw the glory of Christ’s transfiguration, and heard that voice, to which he expressly refers, when he says in the text, we have not followed cunningly deviled fables,—but were eye-witnesses of his majesty,—when there came such a voice to him; and this voice we heard6262 2 Pet. i. 16, 18..
Now Matthew, John, Luke, Paul, and Peter, are by, far the most considerable writers of the New Testament; and I am sure, when you reflect on these particulars, you must own, that there are few historians, ancient or modern, that could so certainly judge of the truth of the facts they have related. You may perhaps think, I have enlarged too much, in stating so clear a case: but, you will please to remember, it is the foundation of the whole argument; and that this branch of it alone cuts off infidels from that refuge, which, I believe, they would generally choose, that of pleading the apostles were enthusiasts; and leaves them silent, unless they will say they were impostors: for, you evidently see, that, could we suppose these facts to be false, they could by no means pretend an involuntary mistake, but must, in the most criminal and aggravated sense, as Paul himself expresses it, be found false witnesses of God6363 1 Cor. xv. 15.. But how reasonable it would be to charge them with so notorious a crime, will in part appear, if we consider,
2. “That the character of these writers, so far as we can judge by their works, seems to render them worthy of regard, and leaves no room to imagine they intended to deceive us.”
I shall not stay to shew at large, that they appear to have been persons of natural sense, and, at the time of their writing, of a composed mind; for, I verily believe, no man, that ever read the New Testament with attention, could believe they were idiots or madmen. Let the discourses of Christ, in the Evangelists, of Peter and Paul, in the Acts, as well as many passages in the Epistles, be perused; and I will venture to say, he, who is not charmed with them, must be a stranger to all the justest rules of polite criticism, but he, who suspects that the writers wanted common sense, must himself be most evidently destitute of it; and he, who can suspect they might possibly be distracted, must himself, in this instance at least, be just as mad as he imagines them to have been.
It was necessary, however, just to touch upon this; because, unless we are satisfied that a person be himself in what he writes, we cannot pretend to determine his character from his writings. Having premised this, I must entreat you, as you peruse the New Testament, to observe what evident marks it bears of simplicity and integrity, of piety and benevolence; which, when you have observed, you will find them pleading the cause of its authors, with a resistless, though a gentle, eloquence; and powerfully persuading the mind, that men, who were capable of writing so excellently well, are not, without the strongest evidence, to be suspected of acting so detestably as we must suppose they did, if, in this solemn manner, they were carrying on an imposture, in such circumstances as attended the case before us. For,
(1). The manner, in which they tell their amazing story, is most happily adapted to gain our belief. For, as they tell it with a great detail of circumstances, which would, by no means, be prudent in legendary writers, because it leaves so much the more room for confutation; so they, also, do it in the most easy and natural manner. There is no air of declamation and harangue; nothing that looks like artifice and design: no apologies, no encomiums, no characters, no reflections, no digressions: but the facts are recounted with great simplicity, just as they seem to have happened; and those facts are left to speak for themselves and their great Author. It is plain, that the rest of there writers, as well as the apostle Paul, did not affect excellency of speech or flights of eloquence, (as the phrase signifies,) but determined to know nothing, though amongst the most learned and polite, save Jesus Christ, even him that was crucified6464 1 Cor. ii. 1, 2. υπεροχην λογου: a conduct, that is the more to be admired, when we consider how extraordinary a theme theirs was, and with what abundant variety of most pathetic declamation it would easily have furnished any common writer; so that one would really wonder how they could forbear it. But they rightly judged, that a vain affectation of ornament, when recording such a story as of their own knowledge, might, perhaps, have brought their sincerity into question, and so have rendered the cross of Christ of no effect6565 Cor. i. 17..
(2). Their integrity does likewise evidently appear, in the freedom with which they mention those circumstances, which might have exposed their Master and themselves to the greatest contempt amongst prejudiced and inconsiderate men, such as they knew they must generally expect to meet with.—As to their Master, they scruple not to own, that his country was infamous6666 John, i. 45, 46. vii. 52., his birth and education mean6767 Luke, ii. 4-7. Matt. xiii. 55. Mark, vi. 3., and his life indigent6868 Matt. viii. 20. Luke, viii. 3.; that he was most disdainfully rejected by the rulers6969 John, vii. 48. 1 Cor. ii. 8., and accused of sabbath-breaking7070 John, v. 16. ix. 16., blasphemy7171 Matt. ix. 3. xxvi. 65. John, x. 31-36., and sedition7272 Luke, xxiii. 2. John, xix. 12.; that he was reviled by the populace as a debauchee7373 Matt. xi. 19. Luke, vii. 34., a lunatic7474 John, x. 20., and a dæmoniac7575 John, vii. 20. viii. 48.; and, at last, by the united rage of both rulers and people, was publicly executed as the vilest of malefactors, with all imaginable circumstances of ignominy, scorn, and abhorrence7676 Matt. xxvii. 32-44.: nor do they scruple to own, that terror and distress of spirit into which he was thrown by his sufferings7777 Matt. xxvi. 36. Luke, xxii. 44., though this was a circumstance at which some of the heathens took the greatest offence, as utterly unworthy so excellent and divine a person.—As to themselves, the apostles readily confess, not only the meanness of their original employments7878 Matt. iv. 18-21. Luke, v. 10., and the scandals of their former life7979 Matt. ix. 9. x. 3. Luke, v. 8. Acts, xxii. 4-5. xxvi. 11., but their prejudices, their follies, and their faults, after Christ had honoured them with so holy a calling: they acknowledge their slowness of apprehension under so excellent a teacher8080 Mark, ix. 32. Luke, ix. 45. xviii. 34. Matt. xvi. 22, 23., their unbelief8181 Matt. viii. 26. xvii. 20. Mark, xvi. 14. Luke, xxiv. 25. John, xx. 24-27., their cowardice8282 Matt. xxvi. 5, 69-74. Gal. ii. 11-14., their ambition8383 Matt. xx. 20-24. Mark, x. 35-44. Luke, ix. 46. xxii. 24, 26., their rash zeal8484 Luke, ix. 54. Mark, ix. 38., and their foolish contentions8585 Mark, ix. 34. Acts, xv. 37-40.. So that, on the whole, they seem every where to forget, that they are writing of themselves, and appear not at all solicitous about their own reputation, but, only, that they might represent the matter just as it was, whether they went through honour or dishonour, through evil report or good report8686 2 Cor. vi. 8.. Nor is this all; for,
(3). It is certain, that there are in their writings the most genuine
traces; not only of a plain and honest, but a most pious and devout, a most benevolent and
generous, disposition. These appear, especially,
in the epistolary parts of the New Testament, where, indeed, we should reasonably expect to find them: and
of these I may confidently affirm, that the greater progress any one has made,
in love to God8787 1 Cor. viii. 3. Tit. iii. 4-7.
1 John, iv. 16-21. v.
1-3., in zeal for his glory8888 Rom. iv. 11, 13.
xii. 1. xiv. 7, 8. 1 Cor. vi. 20.
x. 31. 2 Cor. iv. 15. 1 Pet.
iv. 11., in a compassionate
and generous concern for the present and future happiness of mankind8989 Acts,
xx. 20, 21, 31-35. xxvi. 29.
Rom. ix. 1-3. xiii. 8-10. xv. 1, 2. 1
Cor. x. 24. 2 Cor. xii. 15.
Gal. vi. 10. Phil. ii. 4.
1 Thess. ii. 7, 8, 11, 12. 1 Tim. ii. 1.; the more humble9090 Rom.
xii. 3, 16. 1 Cor. xv. 9, 10.
Eph. iii. 8. Col. iii. 12.
1 Tim. i. 13, 15. 1 Pet. v. 5., and candid9191 Rom.
xiv. 3, 10, 13, 19. xv. 1, 2.
1 Cor. viii. 9-13. xiii. 4-7. Gal. v. 22., and temperate9292 Rom.
xiii. 13, 14. 1 Cor. ix. 27.
Gal. v. 24. Col. iii. 5.
2 Pet. i. 6., and pure9393 2
Cor. vii. 1. Phil. iv. 8.
1 Thess. iv. 2, 4. 2 Tim. ii. 21.
Heb. x. 22. xii. 14. James, i. 27.
1 John, iii. 3., he
is; the more ardently he loves truth, and the more steadily he is determined to
suffer the greatest extremity in its defence9494 Acts,
xx. 24. 2 Cor. i. 12. iv. 2.
xiii. 8. Phil. ii. 17, 18.
2 Tim. iv. 7.; in a word, the more his heart is weaned from the present
world9595 2 Cor. iv. 18.
Gal. vi. 14. Phil. iii. 11, 12. Col.
iii. 2. 1 Tim. vi. 6, 10.
2 Tim. ii. 3, 4. 1 John, ii. 15, 16., and the more it is fired
with the prospects of a glorious immortality9696 2 Cor. v. 1-8.
Phil. i. 21-23. 2 Tim. i. 12. iv.
8. Tit. ii. 13.
N. B. Those, who are acquainted with the New Testament, will know, that this is but a specimen the texts which might easily be collected on each of these heads: yet, were the energy of these few attentively considered, I cannot but think, that every well-disposed mind would be deeply struck and powerfully convinced by them.; the more pleasure will he take in reading those writings, the more will he relish the spirit which discovers itself in them, and find, that, as face answers to face in water, so do the traces of piety and goodness, which appear there, answer to those which a good man feels in his own soul. Nay, I will add, that the warm and genuine workings of that excellent and holy temper, which every where discovers itself in the New Testament, have, for many ages, been the most effectual means of spreading a spirit of virtue and piety in the world; and what of it is to be found in these degenerate days seems principally owing to there incomparable and truly divine writings.
Where then there are such genuine marks of an excellent character, not only in laboured discourses, but in epistolary writings, and those, sometimes, addressed to particular and intimate friends, to whom the mind naturally opens itself with the greatest freedom, surely no candid and equitable judge would lightly believe them to be all counterfeit; or would imagine, without strong proof, that persons, who breathe such exalted sentiments of virtue and piety, should be guilty of any notorious wickedness: and, in proportion to the degree of enormity and aggravation attending such a supposed crime, it may justly be expected, that the evidence of their having really committed it should be unanswerably strong and convincing.
Now, it is most certain, on the principles laid down above, that, if the testimony of the apostles was false, they must have acted as detestable and villanous a part as one can easily conceive. To be found (as the apostle, with his usual energy, expresses it) false witnesses of God9797 1 Cor. xv. 15. in any single instance, and solemnly to declare him miraculously to have done what we know in our own consciences was never done at all, would be an audacious degree of impiety, to which none but the most abandoned of mankind could arrive. Yet, if the testimony of the apostles was false, as we have proved they could not be themselves mistaken in it, this must have been their conduct, and that, not in one single instance only, but in a thousand. Their life must, in effect, be one continued and perpetual scene of perjury; and all the most solemn actions of it (in which they were speaking to God, or speaking of him, as the God and Father of Christ, from whom they received their mission and powers) must be a most profane and daring insult on all the acknowledged perfections of his nature.
And the inhumanity of such a conduct would, on the whole, have been equal to its impiety: for, it was deceiving men in their most important interests, and persuading them to venture their whole future happiness on the power and fidelity of one, whom, on this supposition, they knew to have been an impostor, and justly to have suffered a capital punishment for his crimes.
It would have been great guilt, to have given the hearts and devotions of men so wrong a turn, even though they had found magistrates ready to espouse and establish, yea, and to enforce, the religion they taught. But to labour to propagate it in the midst of the most vigorous and severe opposition from them, must equally enhance the guilt and folly of the undertaking: for, by this means, they made themselves accessory to the ruin of thousands; and all the calamities, which fell on such proselytes, or even their descendants, for the sake of Christianity, would be, in a great measure, chargeable on these first preachers of it. The blood of honest. yea, and (supposing them, as you must, to have been involuntarily deceived,) of pious, worthy, and heroic persons, who might otherwise have been the greatest blessings to the public, would, in effect, be crying for vengeance against them; and the distresses of the widows and orphans, which those martyrs might leave behind them, would join to swell the account.
So that, on the whole, the guilt of those malefactors, who are, from time to time, the victims of public justice, even for robbery, murder, or treason, is small, when compared with that which we have now been supposing: and, corrupt as human nature is, it appears to me utterly improbable, that twelve men should be found, I will not say, in one little nation; but even on the whole face of the earth, who could be capable of entering into so black a confederacy, on any terms whatsoever.
And now, in this view of the case, make a serious pause, and compare with it what we have just been saying of the character of the apostles of Jesus, so far as an indifferent person could conjecture it from their writings; and then say, whether you can, in your hearts, believe them to have been these abandoned wretches, at once the reproach and astonishment of mankind? You cannot, surely, believe such things of any, and much less, of them; unless it shall appear, they were in some peculiar circumstances of strong temptation; and, what those circumstances could be, it is difficult even for imagination to conceive.
But history is so far from suggesting any unthought-of fact, to help our imagination on this head, that it bears strongly the contrary way; and hardly any part of my work is easier, than to shew,
3. “That they were under no temptation to forge a story of this kind, or to publish it to the world, knowing it to be false.”
They could reasonably expect no gain, no reputation by it: but, on the contrary, supposing it an imposture, they must, with the most ordinary share of prudence, have foreseen infamy and ruin, as the certain consequences of attempting it. For, the ground foundation of their scheme was, that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified at Jerusalem by the Jewish rulers, was the Son of God, and the Lord of all things. I appeal to your consciences, whether this looks at all like the contrivance of artful and designing men. It was evidently charging upon the princes of their country the most criminal and aggravated murder; indeed, all things considered, the most enormous act of wickedness which the sun had ever seen. They might, therefore, depend upon it, that these rulers would immediately employ all their art and power to confute their testimony and to destroy their persons. Accordingly, one of them was presently stoned9898 Acts, vii. 59., and another quickly after beheaded9999 Acts, xii. 2.; and most of the rest were scattered abroad into strange cities100100 Acts, viii. 1, 4. xi. 19., where they would be sure to be received with great prejudices raised against them amongst the Jews, by reports from Jerusalem,101101 [I do not here mention Philo Judæus, as speaking of “an embassy sent from the Jews, in his early days, to their brethren in all parts of the world, exhorting them to resist the progress of Christianity.” For, though Bishop Atterbury asserts, that there is such a passage, (Serm. vol. i. pag. 117,) I have never been able to find or to hear of it; and, therefore, am ready, to believe, it was a very pardonable slip of his Lordship’s memory, and that the passage he intended to refer to was a very celebrated and important one in Justin Martyr’s, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, in which he expressly asserts such a fact, in a manner, which his integrity and good sense would never have permitted, had he not certainly known it to be true. For he addresses the learned Jew, with whom he was disputing, in those memorable words, Ου μονον ου μετενοησατε εφ᾽ οις επραξατε κακοις αλλα ανδρας εκλεκτες απο Ιερουσαλημ εκ_ εξαμηνοι τοτε εξεπεμψατε εις πασαν την γην, λεγοντες, αιρεσιν α θεον Χριστιανων πεφηνεναι, καταλε_οντες ταντα απερ καθ᾽ ημων οι αγνουυντες ημας παντες λεγουσιν. “You were to far from repenting of the crime you had committed, (in crucifying Christ,) that you sent chosen men of the most distinguished character all over the world, representing the Christians as an atheistical sect, and charging us with those things which the ignorant Heathens object against us.” Justin Mart. Dialog. cum Tryph. pag. 172, Thirlb.—Eusebius and Origen have both mentioned the same sect, which is in itself very probable; and there may possibly be some reference to it, Acts, xxviii. 22, where the Jews at Rome say, A. concerning this sect (of Christianity,) we know that it is every where spoken against.] and vastly strengthened by the expectation of a temporal Messiah; expectations, which, as the apostles knew by their own experience, it was exceeding difficult to root out of men’s minds; expectations, which would render the doctrine of Christ crucified an insuperable stumbling-block to the Jews102102 1 Cor. i. 23..
Nor, could they expect a much better reception amongst the Gentiles; with whom their business was, to persuade them to renounce the gods of their ancestors, and to depend on a person who had died the death of a malefactor and a slave; to persuade them to forego pompous idolatries in which they had been educated, and all the sensual indulgences with which their religion (if it might be called a religion) was attended; to worship one invisible God, through one Mediator, in the most plain and simple manner; and to receive a set of precepts, most directly calculated to control and restrain, not only the enormities of men’s actions, but the irregularities of their hearts. A most difficult undertaking! and, to engage them to this, they had no other arguments to bring, but such as were taken from the views of an invisible state of happiness or misery, of which they asserted their crucified Jesus to be the supreme disposer; who should, another day, dispense his blessings or his vengeance, as the Gospel had been embraced or rejected. Now, could it be imagined, that men would easily be persuaded, merely on the credit of their affirmation, or in compliance with their importunity, to believe things, which, to their prejudiced minds, would appear so improbable, and to submit to impositions to their corrupt inclinations so insupportable? And, if they could not persuade them to it, what could the apostles then expect? what, but to be insulted as fools or madmen, by one sort of people; and, by another, to be persecuted with the most savage and outrageous cruelty, as blasphemers of the gods, as seducers of the people, and as disturbers of the public peace? All which we know accordingly happened103103 [Compare Acts, v. 40. vii. 57, 58, viii. 1. ix. 1, 2. xxvi. 10, 11. ix. 23, 24. xii. 1-4. xiii: 50. xiv. 5, 19. xvi. 19-24. xvii. 5-8. xviii. 12, 13. xx. 3. xxi. 27, 28. xxii. 22. xxiii. 14. all which texts relate to the persecutions of the Christians, either by Jews or Gentiles; and compare all the Scriptures cited in the last note on this sermon.]: nay, they assure us, that their Lord had often warned them of it104104 Matt. x. 16-25. xxiii. 34. Mark, x. 29, 30, 39. Luke, xiv. 27. xxi. 12, 17. John, xv. 20, 21. xvi. 2-33. xxi. 18, 19. Acts, ix. 16.; and that they themselves expected it105105 Acts, xx. 23, 24. xxi. 13. 1 Cor. iv. 9. 2 Cor. xii. 10. 1 Thess. iii. 3, 4. 2 Tim. iv. 6., and thought it necessary to admonish their followers to expect it too106106 Acts, xiv. 22. 2 Tim. iii. 12. iv. 5. James, v. 10, 11. 1 Pet. ii. 20, 21. iv. 1, 12-16. v. 9.: and, it appears, that, far from drawing back upon that account, as they would surely have done if they had been governed by secular motives, they became so much the more zealous and courageous, and encouraged each other to resist even to blood107107 Heb. xii. 4..—Now, as this is a great evidence of the integrity and piety of their character, and thus illustrates the former head; so it serves to the purpose now immediately in view, i. e. it proves how improbable it is, that any person of common sense should engage in an imposture, from which (as many have justly observed) they could, on their own principles, have nothing to expect, but ruin in this world and damnation in the next. When, therefore, we consider and compare their character and their circumstances, it appears utterly improbable, on various accounts, that they would have attempted, in this article, to impose on the world. But, suppose that, in consequence of some unaccountable as well as undiscoverable frenzy, they had ventured on the attempt, it is easy to shew,
4. “That, humanly speaking, they must quickly have perished in it, and their foolish cause must have died with them, without ever gaining any credit in the world.”
One may venture to say this in general, on the principles which I before laid down: but it appears still more evident, when we consider the nature of the fact they asserted, in conjunction with the methods they took to engage men to believe it; methods, which, had the apostles been impostors, must have had the most direct tendency to ruin both their scheme and themselves.
(1). Let us a little more particularly reflect on the nature of that grand fact, the death, resurrection, and exaltation, of Christ; which, as I observed, was the great foundation of the Christian scheme, as first exhibited by the apostles.—The resurrection of a dead man, and his ascension into, and abode in, the upper world, was so strange a thing, that a thousand objections would immediately be raised against it; and some extraordinary proof would justly be required as a balance to them. Now I wish the rejecters of the Gospel would set themselves to invent some hypothesis, which should have an appearance of probability, to shew how such an amazing story should ever gain credit in the world, if it had not some very convincing proof. Where, and when, could it first begin to be received? Was it in the same or a succeeding age? Was it at Jerusalem, the spot of ground on which it is said to have happened, or in Greece, or Italy, or Asia, or Africa? You may change the scene, and the time, as you please, but you cannot change the difficulty.
Take it in a parallel instance. Suppose twelve men in London were now to affirm, that a person executed there as a malefactor, in a public manner, a month or six weeks ago, or, if you please, a year, or five or ten years since, (for, it is much the same,) was a prophet sent from God with extraordinary powers, that he was raised from the dead, that they conversed with him after his revival, and at last saw him taken up into heaven: would their united testimony make them be believed there?—Or, suppose them, if you please, to disperse, and that one or two of them should come hither, and go on to more distant places, suppose Leicester, Nottingham, or York, and tell their story there; and that others were to carry it over to Paris, or Amsterdam, or to Vienna, or Madrid: could they expect any more credit with us or with them; or hope for any thing better, than to be looked upon as lunatics, and treated as such?—And if they should go into other places, and attempt to mend their scheme, by saying their master was put to death 100 or 200 years ago, when there could be no historical evidence of it discovered, and no proof given but their own confident assertion, would they remove, or would they not rather increase, the difficulty?—Or, would they, in any of there cases, gain credit by the most dexterous tricks of legerdemain, of which you can suppose them masters? especially if they should undertake, in consequence of such supposed facts, to engage men to renounce the religion in which they had been educated; to deny themselves in their dearest passions, and most important worldly interests; and even, probably, to hazard their liberties and their lives, in dependance on a future reward, to be received in a place and state, which no man living on earth had ever seen or known? You would readily allow this to be an insupposable case: and why should you suppose it to have happened sixteen or seventeen hundred years ago? You may assure yourselves, that the reason and the passion of mankind were then as strong as they are now.—But let us a little more particularly consider,
(2). The manner in which the apostles undertook to prove the truth of their testimony to this fact; and it will evidently appear, that, instead of confirming their scheme, it must have been sufficient utterly to have overthrown it, had it been itself the most probable imposture that the wit of man could ever have contrived.—You know, they did not merely assert, that they had seen miracles wrought by this Jesus, but that he had endowed themselves with a variety of miraculous powers. And these they undertook to display, not in such idle and useless tricks as sleight of hand might perform, but in such solid and important works, as appeared worthy a divine interposition, and entirely superior to human power; restoring, as they pretend, sight to the blind, soundness to lepers, activity to the lame, and; in some instances, life to the dead. Nor were these things undertaken in a corner, in a circle of friends or dependants; nor were they said to be wrought on such as might be suspected of being confederates in the fraud; but they were done often in the public streets, in the sight of enemies, on the persons of such as were utter strangers to the apostles, but sometimes well known to neighbours and spectators as having long laboured under these calamities, to human skill utterly incurable108108 Acts iii. 1-10. v. 15. ix. 33-42:. xiv. 8-10. xix. 11, 12. xx. 9-12. xxviii. 7-9.. Would impostors have made such pretensions as there? Or, if they had, must they not immediately have been exposed and ruined?
Nor is there any room at all to object, that, perhaps, the apostles might not undertake to do these things on the spot, but only assert they had done them elsewhere: for, even then, it would have been impossible they should have gained credit; and they would have seemed the less credible, on account, of such a pretence. Whatever appearances there might have been of gravity, integrity, and piety, in the conversation of Peter, (for instance,) very few, especially few that had known but little of him, would have taken it upon his word, that he saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead at Bethany: but fewer yet would have believed it upon his affirmation, had it been ever so solemn, that he had himself raised Dorcas at Joppa; unless he had done some extraordinary work before them, correspondent, at least, if not equal to that. You will easily think of invincible objections, which otherwise might have been made; and, undoubtedly, the more such assertions have been multiplied, every new person, and scene, and fact, had been an additional advantage given to the enemy, to have detected and confuted the whole scheme, which Peter and his associates had thus endeavoured to establish.
But to come still closer to the point: if the New Testament be genuine, (as I have already proved it,) then, it is certain that the apostles pretend to have wrought miracles in the very presence of those, to whom their writings were addressed; nay, more, they profess likewise to have conferred those miraculous gifts, in some considerable degrees, on others109109 Acts, viii. 17. xix. 6., even on the very persons to whom they write; and they appeal to their consciences as to the truth of it. And could there possibly be room for delusion here? It is exceedingly remarkable to this purpose, that Paul makes this appeal to the Corinthians110110 1 Cor. i. 5, 7. ii. 4, 5. ix. 2. xii. 8-11, 28-30. xiv. 1-18, 26, & seq. 2 Cor. xi. 5, 6. xii. 12, 13. xiii. 3, 10. and Galatians111111 Gal. iii. 2, 5., when there were amongst them some persons disaffected to him, who were taking all opportunities to sink his character and destroy his influence. And could they have wished for a better opportunity than such an appeal? an appeal, which, had not the fact it supposed been certain, far from recovering those that were wavering in their esteem, must have been sufficient utterly to disgust his most cordial and steady friends.—And the same remark may be applied to the advices and reproofs, which the apostle there gives, relating to the use and abuse of their spiritual gifts112112 2 Cor. xii. 1-7. xiv. per tot.; which had been most notoriously absurd, and even ridiculous, had not the Christians, to whom he wrote, been really possessed of them. And these gifts were so plainly supernatural, that, (as it has often been observed,) if it be allowed that miracles can prove a divine revelation, and that the first epistle to the Corinthians be genuine, (of which, by the way, there is at least as pregnant evidence as that any part of the New Testament is so113113 I cannot but look upon it as a kind and remarkable providence to this purpose, that there is still extant an epistle of Clemens Romanus to the church at Corinth, probably written before the year of Christ 70, in which he plainly refers to 1 Cor. i. 12, in what he cites from an epistle of Paul, written to them by the Spirit at his first preaching the Gospel among them.—Clem. Epist. 1. ad Cor. §. 47.,) then it follows, by a sure and easy consequence, that Christianity is true. Nevertheless, other arguments are not to be forgotten in this survey.—And, therefore, as I have proved under this head, that, had the testimony of the apostles been false, it is not to be imagined, that they could have gained credit at all; and especially when they had put the proof of their cause on such a footing as we are sure they did; I am now to shew you,
5. “That it is certain, in fact, that the apostles did gain early credit; and succeeded in a most wonderful manner;” whence it will follow, that their testimony was true.
That the apostles did indeed gain credit in the world is evident, from what I before offered to prove the early prevalence of Christianity in it; and may farther be confirmed from many passages in the New Testament. And, here, I insist not so much on express historical testimonies, though some of them are very remarkable; especially, that of the brethren at Jerusalem, who speak of many myriads of believing Jews assembled at the Feast of Pentecost114114 Acts, xxi. 20.: but I argue from the epistles written to several churches, which plainly prove, that there were congregations of Christians in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Colosse, Thessalonica, Philippi, Loadicea115115 Col. iv. 16., Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia116116 Rev. ii. and iii., Crete117117 Tit. i. 5., Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia118118 1 Pet. i. 1., and other places; insomuch, that one of the apostles could say, that Christ had so wrought by him, to make the Gentiles obedient, not only in word or profession, but in deed too, that from Jerusalem, even round about unto Illyricum, he had fully preached the Gospel of Christ119119 Rom. xv. 18, 19., or, as the word imports120120 Πεπλερωκεναι., had accomplished the purposes of it. And there is a great deal of reason, both from the nature of the thing, and from the testimony of ancient history121121 Euseb. Histor. Eccles. lib. iii. cap. 1., to believe that others of the apostles had considerable success elsewhere: so that Paul might with reason apply to them and their doctrine, what is originally spoken of the luminaries of heaven and the instruction they communicate,—their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world122122 Compare Rom. x. 18, and Psal. xix. 4..
So great was the number of those, who were proselyted to Christianity by the preaching of the apostles; and we have all imaginable reason to believe, that there were none of all these proselytes, but what were fully persuaded of the truth of the testimony they bore; for, otherwise, no imaginable reason can be given for their entering themselves into such a profession. The apostles had no secular terrors to affright them, no secular rewards to bribe them123123 As for the distribution of goods in Judæa, it is plain it was peculiar to that time and country; and the extraordinary persecution, which from the very infancy of Christianity prevailed there, was more than an equivalent for any advantage which the poorest of the people could gain by it. I did not, therefore, think it necessary to mention it., no dazzling eloquence to enchant them124124 1 Cor. i. 17. ii. 1, 4, 13. 2 Cor. x. 10. xi. 6.; on the contrary, all these were in a powerful manner pleading against the apostles: yet, their testimony was received, and their new converts were so thoroughly satisfied with the evidence which they gave them of their mission, that they encountered great persecutions, and cheerfully ventured estate, liberty, and life itself, on the truth of the facts they asserted; as plainly appears from many passages in the Epistles, which none can think the apostles would have ever written, if these first Christians had not been in a persecuted condition125125 Rom. viii. 36. 1 Cor. iv. 11-13. xv. 29-32. 2 Cor. i. 8, 9. iv. 8-11. vi. 4, 5, 9. xi. 23-27. Gal. vi. 17. Phil. i. 28-30. 1 Thess. i. 6. ii. 14, 15. 2 Thess. i. 4-7. 2 Tim. i. 8. ii. 3, 9, 12, 13. iii. 11, 12. Heb. x. 32-34. James, ii. 6. v. 10, 11. 1 Pet. ii. 19, 20. iii. 14-17. iv. 1, 12-16. Rev. ii. 10, 13..
Nor will it signify any thing to object, that most of these converts were persons of a low rank and ordinary education, who, therefore, might be more easily imposed upon than others: for, (not to mention Sergius Paulus, Dionysius the Areopagite, or the domestics of Cæsar’s household, with others of superior stations in life,) it is sufficient to remind you, that, as I have largely shewn, the apostles did not put their cause on the issue of laboured arguments, in which the populace might quickly have been entangled and lost, but on such plain facts, as they might judge of as easily and surely as any others; indeed, on what they themselves saw, and, in part too, on what they felt.
Now, I apprehend, this might be sufficient to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion. You have seen, that as there is no reason to believe, that the apostles, who certainly knew the truth, would have attempted a fraud of this kind;—so, if they had attempted it, they could not possibly have succeeded;— nevertheless, they did succeed in a very remarkable manner; whence it plainly follows, that what they testified was true.
And now then, after this, the reasonableness of receiving the Gospel, on admitting the truth of what they testified concerning Christ, is an easy consequence.—Yet, some things are to be offered under this head, which are of great weight, and would not so conveniently have fallen under any of the former: and some considerable additional evidence to the truth of Christianity arises, from what has happened in the world since its first propagation. And, therefore, I choose rather to make a distinct discourse on these, with the improvement of the whole, than to throw together the hints of them in so hasty a manner as I must do, should I attempt to dispatch the subject in this discourse, the just limits of which. I have already transgressed, lest the great chain of the argument should be broken.
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