Then Agrippa said to Paul, You are permitted to speak for yourself. Then Paul stretched forth the hand, and answered for himself:…
The text is part of that narrative which relates to St. Paul's past conversation, wherein he described himself from the religious condition he then was in, and that, first, more generally, then more particularly. Generally: He was after the most strict way of religion. The original for religion, Plutarch tells us, cometh from the Thracians, eminently taken notice of for their devotion: and it is used sometimes in a good sense, sometimes in a bad sense, as it degenerateth into superstition. The original for sect is heresy, and so the several sects among philosophers were called heresies. It is the opinion of some that this word is always taken in an ill sense in the Scripture; but this place, with two or three more in the Acts, seems to imply the use of it in a middle or indifferent sense, any particular way that a man shall choose different from the road, although in the Epistles it is used in an ill sense. Therefore calls it Sects Christianorum, the sect of the Christians. Now, this way Paul walked in is aggravated in the superlative sense; and so Josephus speaks of the Pharisees as those that were most accurate in the observance of instituted and traditional obedience: more particularly his way is described by its denomination, a Pharisee. Now, the Pharisees were called either, as some say, from a word to open and explain, because they expounded the Scripture, or from a word to separate and segregate. Therefore, to be a Pharisee was to be a scrupulous, anxious man, who did subtly examine all things. Hence they were so strict that they would not sleep upon any easy thing, lest they should have any vain or indecent thoughts so much as in their very dreams; and because of this strictness it was that they were so admired among the people. From the text we may observe that an extraordinary strict way taken up in religion is thought a sure and a good foundation by many for their eternal happiness. To discover this false sign several things are considerable, as —
1. The way to heaven is a strict and exact way, and all our duties are to be done with a curious circumspection. Our prayers are to be exact prayers, our obedience exact obedience. The Scripture makes it an exact course, and therefore my dissolute, careless, negligent walking can no more claim a title to heaven than darkness to light. Attend to this, you whose lives are as most of the world are, proud as they, profane as they, contemning of religion as they.
2. Now, that godliness must be strictness appeareth partly from the nature of grace, which is contrary to our affections, and so doth with prevailing power subdue them to the grief of the unregenerate part. Hence the Scripture calls it mortifying and crucifying the old man, which implieth the pain and agony our corrupt part is exercised with by grace.
3. Again, godliness must needs be exact —
(1) Because our duties are so bounded and circumstantiated in their principles, manner, and ends, that to do any good action is always to hit the mark, as to sin is to miss the scope and white. There is so much required in the cause, in the manner, in the motive, that we may cry out for every particular duty, which Paul did for one main one, "Who is sufficient for these things?" so that negligence, formality, and lukewarmness can no more consist with godliness that is of a strict and exact nature than hell with heaven.
(2) Therefore, in the second place, it argueth a tongue and a heart set on fire from hell to reproach and cry out against strictness in the way to heaven. Oh consider either God's Word is wrong or thou art out of the way: thou art not yet such an atheist to assert the former, be therefore so far ingenious to acknowledge the latter.
(3) From hence it followeth that the number of those who are truly godly are very few. They are but a little flock; and they are but few, not only comparatively to the whole world, but in respect of titular and nominal Christians, who have the name and own the profession of Christ, but deny the power thereof.
4. As the way to heaven is a most strict and accurate way, so the Word of God doth only declare and reveal what that exactness is. So that as in matters to be believed there is no doctrine can be urged as necessary which is not contained in that writing, so in matters to be practised there is no degree or high strain of holiness that is a duty which is not also commanded in God's Word: those two commands, one negatively, "Thou shalt not lust," the other affirmatively, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and soul, and strength," do command for matter and manner all that possibly can be done by man, and therefore can never be fulfilled in this life, because of those innate and adherent corruptions in us.
5. Hence all strictness introduced that is not according to Scripture, how specious and glorious soever it may seem to be, yet it affords no true solid comfort to those that are employed therein.
(1) When the Scriptures or Word of God is accounted too low a thing to guide us, and therefore they expect a higher and more extraordinary teaching by the Spirit of God, and that for other matter than is contained therein.
(2) A second extraordinary strict way in which men support themselves is the undergoing voluntary penalties or bodily chastisements for sins past, or setting upon external austere discipline to prevent sin to come. The apostle describeth such (Colossians 2:21-23).
(3) An extraordinary strictness which maketh men confident is a voluntary abdication and actual dispossessing ourselves of all outward comforts, and applying ourselves only to religious exercises. How did this mistake seduce thousands of devout souls who were zealous for God, but wanted knowledge? Hence came those monasteries, renouncing of riches, wealth, and whatsoever comfort was in this life; as if those places, "Unless a man forsake all and deny himself, taking up the cross and follow Me," etc., did command an actual abdication of all, and not rather an habitual preparation of heart to leave them all when God shall call for them.
(4) Men may judge their spiritual conditions the better because of an extraordinary strictness in Church discipline and Church dispensations when yet there is no ground at all for it. That there may be overmuch rigour in discipline appeareth plainly in 2 Corinthians 2:7, where the apostle blameth them, "That they did not receive into favour that incestuous person who had truly repented." And the apostle doth in part suppose it is part of Satan's subtle devices, when he cannot destroy a Church by profaneness and dissoluteness, to overthrow it by too much severity.Use 1. Is there indeed a true Scripture strictness, without which heaven cannot be obtained? Then see what a gulf there is between heaven and you who live in all looseness, negligence, and careless contempt of what is good. The fire of God's wrath will be heated seven times hotter for such opposers as thou art.Use 2. Of admonition to examine and judge wisely of all strictness commanded to thee, for the devil may seduce thee in thy zeal, as well as in thy profaneness; and do not persuade thyself of grace, because of a more strict opinion or Church practice thou conceivest thyself to be in, for this is not the Scripture strictness in which the essence of godliness consists, for that lieth in the inward circumcision of the heart, in the powerful mortification of the affections, in walking humbly, in living by faith and heavenly-mindedness.
Parallel VersesKJV: Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Thou art permitted to speak for thyself. Then Paul stretched forth the hand, and answered for himself: