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ABSTAINING FROM THE APPEARANCE OF EVIL.
1 THESS. v. 22.
ABSTAIN FROM ALL APPEARANCE OF EVIL. My last subject, as you may remember, was to shew you the great Evil and Danger that there is in Little Sins.
Now, because the words at present read unto you, seem tu have a near cognation to the truth then delivered: it being a most certain gradation, that he, that would avoid Great Sins, must avoid Little Sins; and he, that would avoid both great and little, must consequently shun also the very Appearances of Sin; I have, therefore, pitched upon this brief exhortation of the Apostle, that thereby we might, so far as is possible, be led up unto that exact purity and holiness, the endeavour after which is absolutely necessary to all those, whose desire and care it is to obtain eternal salvation.
In sundry verses before the Text, the Apostle laid down several sententious commands: Let none render evil for evil: Rejoice evermore : Pray without ceasing : In every thing give thanks : Quench not the Spirit : Prove all things: Abstain from all appearance of evil. Being now towards the end and close of his Epistle, and not willing to omit the mentioning of duties so necessary for their practice, he doth, as it were, pour them out in weighty, though short exhortations.
The connexion betwixt most of them is very dark, or else none at all: only, betwixt the text and the two immediately foregoing verses, it may seem more plain and natural.
In y. 20. he exhorts them not to despise prophesying. De spise not prophesyings; that is, the preaching even of the common and ordinary preachers and teachers, whose office it was to expound the Scriptures to tbem, and to declare the mind and will of God out of the Scripture. Did the Apostle mean only that extraordinary and miraculous prophesying that he spoke of, 1 Cor. xiy, when, by an immediate impulse and influence of
the Holy Ghost, either they foretold things future, or else spake in divers languages; he needed not then to have so solicitously forewarned them not to despise him, since so great a miracle as this Prophesying would sufficiently have vindicated itself from all contempt. The meaning therefore is this: Whatever gifts or graces you may have attained unto, though you may know your duties as well, and though you may practise your duties better than they; yet, despise not their teaching: but what they propound to you as the will of God, that attend unto, with all reverence and submission.
But, yet, says the Apostle, I would not have you therefore pull out your own eyes, because of the gifts of your teachers and leaders. No: do not mancipate and captivate yourselves to whatever they shall dictate unto you; but prove all things : as it is in v. 21. Search the Scriptures : examine whether the things delivered to you be true or not. If, upon trial, you find them so; then, Hold fast the form of sound words : in v. 21, Hold fast that which is good. But if, upon impartial search, you understand and find that the doctrine delivered to you be unsound, then abstain from it. Though the doctrine delivered to you be true, yet, if their expressions be deceitful or such as may lead into error, if their notions be dangerous, if their expressions be bold and adventurous, though you must not reject the doctrine, yet abstain from that appearance of evil that is in them.
Hence, from the connexion, we may observe, That, in the delivering and receiving of doctrines, we should carefully abstain, not only from what is unsound and dangerous, but also from what is unsafe and venturous.
And, truly, had this caution of our Apostle been duly regarded; had not teachers luxuriant tongues, and hearers itching ears, loathing old truths, unless they appear set off in new dresses; our times had not been so fruitful in those monsters of opinions, that make it disputable, whether our knowledge or our errors were more.
It is a true saying among the ancients, That heresies spread from words, if not falsely, yet unduly and improperly spokeni The foolish, rash, and daring expressions, that have dropped from men sound in the truth, being received by those, that have not been able to put a difference, betwixt what is proper and what is figurative, what is doctrinal and what is rhetorical, have been the occasion of leading many aside into most dangerous
and destructive tenets. Certainly, Christian Religion is a thing more severe and punctual, than to be rhetoricated upon, and flourished with oratory, that may, through hearers' mistakes, as much pervert the judgment, as it may please and tickle the fancy. There is great weight in words; for, by them, the understanding is steered, either into the knowledge of truth, or else into the embracing of error: and, therefore, we ought to use such expressions, as are least liable to any misapprehensions or misinterpretations.
It is not enough, to speak that, which may possibly be fetched off, with truth, by a distinction; but, if we did but consult the ignorance of some and the malice of others, we should see reason enough to speak, if possible, so as that the ignorant might not be able to mistake us, nor the malicious be able to misconstrue us. As, for instance, to affirm that we are mystically united unto Christ, and thereby become one with him, this is a most high and most undoubted truth; but, to say that we are Goded and Christed, as some have gone
about to express this ineffable mystery in sweet and sugar words, this hath been the occasion of that Familistical Blasphemy and Nonsense, that hath invaded so many parts of the nation.
We must observe and consider also, that the sense and meaning of many expressions vary and alter from the time in which they were used. Those very words, that were well used some ages since in matters of divinity and religion, cannot now be used without appearance of evil in them; because, now, their signification is quite different from what it was then. I will instance but in one; and that is concerning the meriting of good works. It is true, the Ancient Fathers of the Church did hold there was merit in good works : but, yet, it is clear also by their writings, that the word Merit did not then signify, as now it doth : then, it signified only rewardableness ; and, when any maintained that works merited, the common sense of them all was no more than this, That their works should be rewarded by God: and this is all, that they did affirm. But, now, the word Merit signifies desert in works, arising from the equality that is in them, to the reward propounded and promised to them; and, therefore, now to assert, that works have merit in them, is very unsafe and erroneous; which whilst the Papists do, they do indeed still retain the expressions of the Ancient Fathers, but the sense is gone; that is, they still hold fast the feather, when the bird is flown away.
We should, therefore, beware, in our discourses of the doubt. ful things of religion, that we venture not upon those phrases and expressions, that either border upon error, or that may likely lead into error. And, truly, the generality of Christians have need of much spiritual prudence and sobriety; that, while they desire and are taken with luscious and sweet words and expressions, they do not withal suck in poisonous and destructive errors.
This shall suffice to be observed from the connexion of the words foregoing, Prove all things; that is, all doctrines that are delivered to you: Hold fast that, which is good; but abstain from that, which hath but the appearance of evil in it: though the doctrines themselves, that are delivered, be, in some sense, sound and savoury; yet, if they be delivered in a sense and expression that may be wrested aside to undue and erroneous in. terpretations, abstain as far as is possible from such expressions.
I shall now consider the words under a more general latitude, as they relate unto Practice as well as to Doctrine.
And, so, here the Apostle lays it down as an unerring rule, That we must not embrace any thing, that hath but an appearance and no more, whether that appearance be of good or of evil: we must not hold fast any thing, that hath but the appearance of good only; and we must abstain from every thing, that hath but only the appearance of evit.
And, therefore, when Jicentious persons are reproved for the vanity, looseness, strangeness, and immodesty of their garbs and attire (that possibly more disguiseth than adorneth them) and other symptoms of a vain and frothy mind, they think pre. sently to cover their nakedness with such fig-leaves as these: “ What evil is there in these things? Can you prove them sinful? If you can, we will forbear the use of them: if you cannot, forbear you to reprove them.” What if they could not be proved to be in themselves shful; yet have they not the shew, the face, and the appearance of evil? So judge all serious and sober Christians; and yourselves also, possibly, may so judge sometimes: therefore, dispute not the lawfulness or the unlawfulness of these things in themselves: if they have but the shew and the likeness of evil in them, they are to be abstained from absolutely
And, truly, considering that great carelessness and want of circumspection, that is even among professors themselves, who, if they can but keep themselves from that which is intrinsically
in itself sinful, make no scruple of venturing upon the borders and edges of sin, I thought it therefore very necessary to open this phrase and exhortation of the Apostle unto you: which I shall endeavour to do, in the prosecution of this plain Proposition :
THAT A TRULY CONSCIENTIOUS, CHRISTIAN OUGHT CAREFULLY TO AVOID, NOT ONLY THE COMMISSION, BUT ALSO THE VERY APPEARANCE OF EVIL. Abstain from all Appearance of Evil.
This point is indeed full of niceness and difficulty: and, truly, when the most is said of it that can be, we must stand very much to the judgment of Christian Prudence and Christian Charity, for our chief resolution in it: of Christian Prudence, to know when an action hath the appearance of evil in it, and when not; and of Christian Charity, to shun whatever may scandalize others, though we do not defile ourselves. It is a point hardly limited to such bounds, but in some places there will be a failing.
Yet, that I may afford you some light in the knowledge of a duty so necessary as this is, I shall,
I. Lay down some DISTINCTIONS concerning the appearance
of evil; and from them, II. Lay down some POSITIONS, whereby it may be cleared
how far forth we stand obliged to avoid even the very appearance of evil. III. Some DEMONSTRATIONS, whereby it may appear how
necessary and requisite this duty of avoiding of the appearance of evil is.
I. I will begin with some DISTINCTIONS of the appearance of evil. And,
i. An appearance of evil may be either altogether GROUNDLESS; or, else, it may be built upon GOOD GROUNDS, and upon PROBABLE PRESU MPTIONS.
j. That, which hath only a groundless appearance of evil, may $0 appear either to OURSELVES, or to the consciences of OTHEKS,
i. We must also consider, whether this action, that appears to be evil, be a NECESSARY action and duty in itself; or only PREE and INDIFFERENT, and left to our own free choice.