This age pretends to much knowledge beyond former ages, knowledge, I say, not only in other natural arts and sciences, but especially in religion. Whether there be any great advancement in other knowledge, and improvement of that which was, to a further extent and clearness, I cannot judge, but I believe there is not much of it in this nation, nor do we so much pretend to it. But, we talk of the enlargements of divine knowledge, and the breaking up of a clearer light in the point of religion, in respect of which we look on former times, as the times of ignorance and darkness, which God winked at. If it were so indeed, I should think the time happy, and bless the days we live in, for as many sour and sad accidents as they are mixed withal. Indeed, if the variety of books, and multiplicity of discourses upon religion, if the multitude of disputes about points of truth, and frequency of sermons, might be held for a sufficient proof of this pretension, we should not want store enough of knowledge and light. But, I fear that this is not the touchstone of the Holy Ghost, according to which we may try the truth of this assertion, that this is not the rule, by which to measure either the truth, or degrees of our knowledge, but for all that, we may be lying buried in Egyptian darkness, and while such a light seems to shine about us our hearts may be a dungeon of darkness, of ignorance of God and unbelief, and our ways and walk full of stumblings in the darkness. I am led to entertain these sad thoughts of the present times from the words of the apostle, which give us the designation of a true Christian, to be the knowledge of God, and the character of his knowledge, to be obedience to his commands. If, according to this level, we take the estimate of the proportion of our knowledge and light, I am afraid lest there be found as much ignorance of God, and darkness, as we do foolishly fancy that we have of light. However, to find it, will be some breaking up of light in our hearts, and to discover how little we know indeed upon a solid account, will be the first morning star of that Sun of righteousness, which will shine more and more to the perfect day. Therefore we should labour to bring our light to the lamp of this word, and our knowledge to this testimony of unquestionable authority, that having recourse "to the law and to the testimony," we may find if there be light in us or so much light as men think they see. If we could but open our eyes to the shining light of the scripture, I doubt not but we should be able to see that which few do see, that is, that much of the pretended light of this age is darkness and ignorance. I do not speak of errors only that come forth in the garments of new light, but especially of the vulgar knowledge of the truth of religion, which is far adulterated from the true metal and stamp of divine knowledge, by the intermixture of the gross darkness of our affections and conversation, as that other is from the naked truth, and therefore both of them are found light in the balance of the sanctuary, and counterfeit by this touchstone of obedience.
To make out this examination the better I shall endeavour to open these three things unto you, which comprehend the words.1st, That the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ is the most proper designation of a Christian, "Hereby we know that we know him," which is as much as to say that we are true Christians, -- 2dly, That the proper character of true knowledge is obedience, or conscionable practising of what we know, -- and then, lastly, That the only estimate or trial of our estate before God, is made according to the appearance of his work in us and not by immediate thrusting ourselves into the secrets of God's hidden degrees. "Hereby we know," &c. Here then, in a narrow circle we have all the work and business of a Christian. His direct and principal duty is to know God, and keep his commands, which are not two distinct duties as they come in a religious consideration, but make up one complete work of Christianity, which consists in conformity to God. Then the reflex and secondary duty of a Christian, which makes much for his comfort, is, to know that he knows God. To know God, and keep his commands, is a thing of indispensable necessity to the being of a Christian, to know that we know him is of great concernment to the comfort and well being of a Christian. Without the first, a man is as miserable as he can be, without the sense and feeling of misery, because he wants the spring and fountain of all happiness; without the second, a Christian is unhappy, indeed, for the present, though he may not be called miserable, because he is more happy than he knows of, and only unhappy, because he knows not his happiness.
For the first, then, knowledge is a thing so natural to the spirit of a man, that the desire of it is restless and insatiable. There is some appetite of it in all men, though in the generality of people (because of immersedness in earthly things, and the predominancy of corrupt lusts and affections, which hinder most men's souls to wait upon that more noble inquiry after knowledge, in which only a man really differs from a beast) there be little or no stirring that way, yet some finer spirits there are, that are unquiet this way, and, with Solomon, give themselves, and apply their hearts to search out wisdom. But this is the curse of man's curiosity at first, in seeking after unnecessary knowledge, when he was happy enough already, and knew as much of God and his works as might have been a most satisfying entertainment of his spirit, I say, for that wretched aim, we are to this day deprived of that knowledge which man once had, which was the ornament of his nature and the repast of his soul. As all other things are subdued under a curse for sin, so especially this which man had is lost, in seeking that which he needed not, and the track of it is so obscured and perplexed, the footsteps of it are so indiscernible, and the way of it is like a bird in the air, or a ship in the sea, leaving us few helps to find it out, that most part of men lose themselves in seeking to find it, and therefore, in all the inquiries and searchings of men after the knowledge even of natural things that come under our view, there is at length nothing found out remarkable, but the increase of sorrow, and the discovery of ignorance, as Solomon saith, Eccles. i.18. This is all the jewel that is brought up from the bottom of this sea, when men dive deepest into it, for the wisest of men could reach no more, though his bucket was as long as any man's, chap. vii.23. "I said, I will be wise, but it was far from me, that which is far off and exceeding deep, who can find it out?" Knowledge hath taken a far journey from man's nature, and hath not left any prints behind it to find it out again, but, as it were, hath flown away in an instant, and therefore we may ask, with Job, chap. xxviii. ver.1, 12, "Surely there is a vein for the silver," etc. "But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?" What Utopian isles is she transported unto, that mortal men, the more they seek her, find more ignorance, -- the further they pursue, they see themselves at the further distance? Thus it is in those things that are most obvious to our senses, but how much more in spiritual and invisible things is our darkness increased, because of the dulness and earthiness of our spirits that are clogged with a lump of flesh! For God himself, that should be the primum intelligibile of the soul, the first and principal object, whose glorious light should first strike into our hearts, Job testifies "how little a portion is known of him." When we cannot so much as understand "the thunder of his power," that makes such a sensible impression on our ears, and makes all the world to stand and hearken to it, then how much less shall we conceive the invisible Majesty of God? In natural things, we have one vail of darkness in our minds to hinder us, but in the apprehension of God, we have a twofold darkness to break through, the darkness of ignorance in us, and "the darkness of too much light" in him -- caliginem nimiae lucis, which makes him as inaccessible to us as the other, the over-proportion of that glorious majesty of God to our low spirits, being as the sun in its brightness to a night owl, which is dark midnight to it. Hence it is, that those holy men who know most of God, think they know least, because they see more to be known but infinitely surpassing knowledge. Pride is the daughter of ignorance only, "and he that thinketh he knoweth anything knoweth nothing as he ought to know," saith the apostle, 1 Cor. viii.2. For he that knoweth not his own ignorance, if he know never so much, is the greatest ignorant, and it is a manifest evidence that a man hath but a superficial touch of things and hath never broken the shell, or drawn by the vail of his own weakness and ignorance, that doth not apprehend deeply the unsearchableness of God, and his mysteries, but thinketh he hath in some measure compassed them, because he maketh a system of divinity, or setteth down so many conclusions of faith, and can debate them against adversaries, or because he hath a form and model of divinity, as of other sciences, in his mind. Nay, my beloved, holy Job attained to the deepest and fullest speculation of God, when he concluded thus, "Because I see thee, I abhor myself," and as Paul speaks, "If any man love God he is known of God, and so knows God," 1 Cor. viii.3. From which two testimonies I conclude, that the true knowledge of God consists not so much in a comprehension of all points of divinity, as in such a serious apprehension and conception of the divine Majesty as enkindles and inflames these two affections, love and hatred, towards their proper objects, such a knowledge as carries the torch before the affection, such a light as shines into the heart, as Paul's phrase is, 2 Cor. iv.6, and so transmits heat and warmness into it, till it make the heart burn in the love of God, and loathing of himself. As long as a man doth but hear of God in sermons, or read of him in books, though he could determine all the questions and problems in divinity, he keeps a good conceit of himself, and that "knowledge puffeth up," and swells a man into a vain tumour, the venom of poison blows him up full of wind and self-confidence, and commonly they who doubt least are not the freest of error and misapprehension. And truly, whoever seriously reflects upon the difficulty of knowledge, and darkness of men's minds, and the general curse of vanity and vexation that all things are under, so that what is wanting cannot be numbered, nor that which is crooked made straight, -- he cannot but look upon too great confidence and peremptoriness in all points, as upon a race at full speed in the dark night, in a way full of pits and snares. Oftentimes our confidence flows not from evidence of truth, but the ignorance of our minds, and is not so much built upon the strength of reason, as the strength of our passions, and weakness of our judgments.
But when once a man comes to see God, and know him in a lively manner, then he sees his own weakness and vileness in that light, and cries out with Isaiah, "Wo is me, I am a man of polluted lips," and he discerns in that light, the amiableness and loveliness of God that lavisheth his heart after it, and then, as Jeremiah saith, he will not glory in riches, or strength, or beauty, or wisdom, but only in this, that he hath at length gotten some discovery of the only fountain of happiness. Then he will not think so much of tongues and languages, of prophesyings, of all knowledge of controversies, neither gifts of body nor of mind, nor external appendages of providence will much affect him. He would be content to trample on all these, to go over them into a fuller discovery and enjoyment of God himself.
If we search the scriptures, we shall find that they do not entertain us with many and subtile discourses of God's nature, and decrees, and properties, nor do they insist upon the many perplexed questions that are made concerning Christ and his offices, about which so many volumes are spun out, to the infinite distraction of the Christian world. They do not pretend to satisfy your curiosity, but to edify your souls, and therefore they hold out God in Christ, as clothed with all his relations to mankind, in all those plain and easy properties, that concern us everlastingly, -- his justice, mercy, grace, patience, love, holiness, and such like. Now, hence I gather, that the true knowledge of God, consists not in the comprehension of all the conclusions that are deduced, and controversies that are discussed anent these things, but rather, in the serious and solid apprehension of God, as he hath relation to us, and consequently in order and reference to the moving of our hearts, to love, and adore, and reverence him, for he is holden out only in those garments that are fit to move and affect our hearts. A man may know all these things, and yet not know God himself, for to know him, cannot he abstracted from loving of him -- "They that know thy name will trust in thee, and so love thee, and fear thee." For it is impossible but that this will be the natural result, if he be but known indeed, because there is no object more amiable, more dreadful withal, and more eligible and worthy of choice, and therefore, seeing infinite beauty and goodness, and infinite power and greatness, and infinite sufficiency and fulness, are combined together with infinite truth, the soul that apprehends him indeed, cannot but apprehend him as the most ravishing object, and the most reverend too, and, if he do not find his heart suitably affected, it is an evident demonstration that he doth not indeed apprehend him, but an idol. The infinite light, and the infinite life, are simply one, and he that truly without a dream sees the one, cannot but be warmed and moved by the other.
So then, by this account of the knowledge of God, we have a clear discovery that many are destitute of it, who pretend to it. I shall only apply it to two sorts of persons, one is, of those who have it only in their memories, another, of those who have it only in their minds or heads. Religion was once the legitimate daughter of judgment and affection, but now, for the most part, it is only adopted by men's memories, or fancies. The greatest part of the people cannot go beyond the repetition of the catechism or creed. Not that I would have you to know more: but you do not understand that, only ye repeat words, without the sensible knowledge of the meaning of them; so that if the same matter be disguised with any other form of words, you cannot know it, which showeth, that you have no familiarity with the thing itself, but only with the letters and syllables that are the garments of it. And for others that are of greater capacity, yet, alas! it comes not down to the heart, to the affecting, and moulding, and forming of it. A little light shines into the mind, but your hearts are shut up still, and no window in them. Corrupt affections keep that garrison against the power of the gospel. That light hath no heat of love, or warmness of affection with it, which showeth that it is not a ray or beam of the Sun of righteousness, which is both beautiful for light, and beneficial for influence, on the cold, and dead, frozen hearts of mankind, and by its approaching, makes a spring-time in the heart.
But all men pretend to know God. Such is the self love of men's hearts, that it makes them blind in judging themselves, therefore the Holy Ghost, as he designs a Christian by the knowledge of God, so he characterizeth knowledge by keeping the commandments. "Hereby we know," &c. So that religion is not defined by a number of opinions, or by such a collection of certain articles of faith, but rather by practice and obedience to the known will of God; for, as I told you, knowledge is a relative duty, that is, instrumental to something else, and by anything I can see in scripture, is not principally intended for itself, but rather for obedience. There are some sciences altogether speculative, that rest and are complete in the mere knowledge of such objects, as some natural sciences are. But others are practical, that make a further reference of all things they cognosce upon, to some practice and operation. Now, perhaps some may think that the scripture, or divinity, is much of it merely contemplative, in regard of many mysteries infolded in it, that seem nothing to concern our practice. I confess much of that, that is raised out of the scriptures, is such, and therefore it seems a deviation and departure from the great scope and plain intent of the simplicity and easiness of the scriptures, to draw forth with much industry and subtilty, many things of mere speculation and notion, dry and sapless to the affection, and unedifying to our practice, and to obtrude these upon other men's consciences, as points of religion. I rather think, that all that is in the scriptures, either directly hath the practice of God's will for the object of it, or is finally intended for that end, either it is a thing that prescribeth our obedience, or else it tends principally to engage our affections, and secure our obedience, and so those strains of elevated discourses of God, his nature and properties, of his works, and all the mysteries infolded in them, are directed towards this end, further than mere knowing of them, to engage the heart of a believer to more love, and reverence, and adoration of God, that so he may be brought more easily and steadily to a sweet compliance, and harmonious agreement to the will of God, in all his ways. Nay, to say a little more, there are sundry physical or natural contemplations of the works of God in scripture, but all these are divinely considered, in reference to the ravishment of the heart of man, with the wisdom, and power, and goodness of God. And this shows us the notable art of religion, to extract affection and obedience to God, out of all natural contemplations, and thus true divinity engraven on the soul, is a kind of mistress science, architectonica scientia,(255) that serves itself of all other disciplines(256) of all other points of knowledge. Be they never so remote from practice, in their proper sphere, and never so dry and barren, yet a religious and holy heart can apply them to those divine uses of engaging itself further to God and his obedience: as the Lord himself teacheth us -- "Who would not fear thee, O King of nations," Jer. x.; and, "fear ye not me who have placed the sand," &c. Jer. v.22. So praise is extracted, Psal. civ.; and admiration, verses 1, 83. So submission and patience under God's hand is often pressed in Job. Therefore, if we only seek to know these things that we may know them, that we may discourse on them, we disappoint the great end and scope of the whole scriptures; and we debase and degrade spiritual things as far as religion exalts natural things in the spiritual use. We transform it into a carnal, empty, and dead letter, as religion, where it is truly, spiritualizeth earthly and carnal things into a holy use. &c.