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· These therefore shall be the two first heads of my discourse : and then
III. I shall apply them to the present occasion.
I. That serious conference among good persons is peculiarly needful in thoughtless and irreligious times.
Indeed we ought in all times to shew by our conversation, what we are: and shall, in some degree, shew it of course, whether we mean to do so, or not. If we express no concern for the interests of piety and virtue in our words, we shall be justly suspected of having but little in our thoughts. For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringethforth good things : and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things * Therefore, as it concerns us infinitely to know, of what sort of persons we are, so we should learn to judge of ourselves by our common talk, as well as our actions. For as the fruit declareth, if the tree have been dressed, so is the utterance of a conception in the heart of man t. If then the conceptions which we utter, the sort of language into which we naturally run, be, though not profane or immoral, yet frothy and vain and trifling; or, though of a graver kind, savour of the interests of this world only: let us take notice, that such as are the subjects that we dwell on, such in all likelihood are we. For in cases of much less moment, we are sufficiently apt to speak of things, about which we are solicitous: and is it not a very unpromising sign then, if we seldom or never speak any thing, which proves our solicitude for religion and morals? Possibly indeed the prevalence of bad custom in that respect, or fear to be thought guilty of affectation, * Matth. xxii. 34, 35
+ Ecclus, xxvii. 6.
may restain us from expressing our sentiments, when we could wish to do it. And, in the case of others, we should be as ready to allow this excuse, as there is any colour of reason. But in our own, we should examine strictly, what the real truth is : and amend our manner of conversing, for a memorial to amend likewise, if there be need, our inward dispositions.
By speaking seriously on proper occasions, we shall bind ourselves to act so; else the inconsistence will shame us.
And besides, as we are strangely apt to grow languid and flat in our good inclinations, it is of vast importance, that we should stir
we should stir up each other: which a word in season, or a mere hint, will often do surprisingly. Iron sharpeneth iron, saith the wise king: so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend *; whets him up to attempt improvements, and execute right purposes. In whatever we set to learn, partnership, joint advice, mutual incitement, imitation, emulation if there be room for it, have unspeakable force. Now we are most of us, God knows, but learners in piety, and perpetually in danger of going back. Therefore the Scripture directs us to consider one another, to provoke to love and good works, to exhort one another, as powerful means of holding fast our faith and integrity without waveringt. So that we have not only reason, but command for the practice: which will be further useful, by giving us caution and skill, as well as courage and spirit. The snares of wicked persons are many and artful: but the counsel, of worthy and experienced friends may guard us even against the most dangerous of them. The temptations of the wicked one surround us continually : but communication with those, who are not ignorant of his devices , may effectually preProv. xxvii. 17. + Heb. x. 23, 24, 25. # 2 Cor. ii. 11.
vent his getting advantage of us. Even general discourse with such, though we do not open ourselves to them by particular confidences, may be extremely beneficial to us : and especial trust reposed in them, on extraordinary occasions, with proportionable circumspection, may be yet more essentially serviceable.
But even where we can receive little instruction, we may enjoy however great satisfaction, from intimacy of acquaintance with them who have obtained the like precious faith with ourselves *; who think and act and hope and expect as we do: from uniting in friendship with those now, whom God, we trust, will unite with us in heavenly bliss to all eternity. shall be far surer of finding these, upright, unenvious, considerate, benevolent, compassionate, than others, who have not equal inducements: we shall be able to converse with them more frankly and open-heartedly, as agreeing in our sentiments of the principal points, and depending on their candour where we differ: we shall have the pleasure of esteeming each others' characters; and rejoice in the consideration, that we place our chief regard on those, whom our Maker honours with his. What if they have somé faults or indiscretions? Who else have so few, or so small? What if perhaps they are some of them not in all respects the most entertaining? The worthiness of their hearts will or ought to give us a higher pleasure, than the brightest of other accomplishments without it. What if they have not, all of them, the greatest compass of science, or strength of parts, or knowledge of the world ?. They are infinitely wiser in the necessary points, than multitudes who have. What if they cannot promote our temporal views? They will never betray us, they will never injure us; they will always forward us in the way to eternal happiness. Keeping at a distance from such as these, who, we must be sensible, merit other treatment; and paying court to persons of bad or no principles, and blamable lives, for the superficial agreeableness or misused abilities that they have, for the gay appearance they make, or the little present services, which they can do us; is so unequitable in itself, and so grievously and evidently prejudicial to the cause of religion and probity and common good ; that they, who indulge themselves in it, have great need to suspect the rightness of their own minds, and to apprehend imminent danger of their being further depraved. There is indeed a variety of connexions in human affairs, that may often prevent us from taking the different notices of different characters, which are their due: but unless we honestly endeavour it, and contrive for it, as far as we can; and lament, not in words of form and excuse now and then, but from the bottom of our hearts constantly, that we cannot do it more; we are either bad persons within, or very imperfectly good. With whom then, let us ask ourselves, do we love to associate, and what familiarities do we choose ? Can we say ; if not, will we qualify ourselves for saying, with the Psalmist: I am a companion of all them that fear thee, and keep thy commandments * My delight is upon the saints, that are in the earth, and
2 Peter i. 1.
such as excel in virtue t.
But conversing with religious people is peculiarly requisite in irreligious times; when the godly man ceaseth, when the faithful fail from among the children of ment. In proportion as the number becomes smaller, * Psal. cxix. 63. + Psal xvi. 3. # Psal. xii. 1.
it naturally invites to make the union stricter, on various accounts. Prevailing neglect of God and his commands can hardly fail to excite anger in pious breasts : but grief it must cause. Rivers of water run down mine eyes, because men keep not thy law *. Now both indignation and sorrow require vent. Do we then feel neither on this occasion ? Or if we do, to whom shall we give them vent, but to such as will cordially sympathize with us ? Or if we want not their acquaintance for any such reason, we may for another, that is more important. Our Saviour hath forewarned us, that because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold t. Were only those around us in this danger, we should labour to prevent it: but we ourselves run, it may be, an equal risk of declining, first into lukewarmness, then into doubt, then into apostasy. Therefore St. Paul directs to the same remedy with that in the text, as a sovereign and specific antidote. Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing
from the living God: but exhort one another daily, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin I. Some society we must have. By seeking that of good persons, we shall have less need to spend much of our time with the bad; and be less hurt by that portion, which we are obliged to give up to them. They will not so readily dare to tempt us: mere good breeding will be one check upon them, when they perceive, by the company we keep, and the tenor of our common speech agreeing with it, that we have made a Christian life our deliberate choice. And this will be a vast security and ease to us. It is in effect saying, though meekly and modestly, yet so as will awe the generality of the world, Away from
* Psal. cxix. 135. + Matth. xxiv. 12. # Heb. iii. 12, 13.