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Till therefore we make our self-denial as universal as our corruption; till we deny ourselves all degrees of vanity and folly, as earnestly as we deny ourselves all degrees of drunkenness; till we reject all sorts of pride and envy, as we abhor all kinds of gluttony; till we are exact in all degrees of humility, as we are exact in all rules of temperance; till we watch and deny all irregular tempers, as we avoid all sorts of sensuality, we can no more be said to practise self-denial, than he can be said to be just, who only denies himself the liberty of stealing.
And till we do enter into this course of universal self-denial, we shall make no progress in true piety, but our lives will be a ridiculous mixture of I know not what: sober and covetous, proud and devout, temperate and vain, regular in our forms of devotion, and irregular in all our passions, circumspect in little modes of behaviour, and careless and negligent of tempers, the most essential to piety.
And thus it will necessarily be with us, till we lay the axe to the root of the tree; till we deny and renounce the whole corruption of our nature, and resign ourselves up entirely to the Spirit of God, to think, and speak, and act; by the wisdom and purity of religion.
Let it be supposed, that religion required us to forget a language that we loved and had been bred in, and constantly to speak in a language that was new and difficult.
Could we possibly forget our former language that we loved, and was natural to us, any other way than by denying ourselves the liberty of ever speaking it.
Could we forget it by only forbearing to use it on some particular occasions? Would it not be as necessary to. abstain from thinking, reading, and writing in it, as to abstain from using it in conversation? Could we render our new language any other way
habitual or natural to us, than by making it the language of all seasons.
Now this may teach us the absolute necessity of an universal self-denial, for though religion does not command us to part with an old language that we love, yet it commands us to part with an old nature, and to live and act by a new heart and a new spirit.
Now can we think to part with an old nature, by fewer rules of abstinence, than are necessary to get rid of an old language? Must we not deny ourselves the liberty of ever acting according to it? Can we get rid of it, by only denying it in particular instances? Must it not be as necessary to abstain from all its ways of thinking and wishing, liking and disliking, as to practise any abstinence at all? For if the whole is to be changed, if a new heart is to be obtained, we are doing nothing, whilst we only renounce it in part, and can no more be said to live by a new heart, than they can be said to speak only a new language, whose general conversation is in their old natural tongue.
Indeed, a little attention to the nature of man, and the nature of Christianity, will soon convince us that self-denial is the very substance, the beginning and ending of all our virtues. For,
First, Christianity is the cure of the corruption of our natural state. Now what is the corruption of our natural state? Why it consists chiefly in tempers and passions, and inclinations that fix us to bodily and earthly enjoyments, as to our proper good.
Now how is it that Christianity cureth this corruption of our nature? Why it cureth this corruption of our nature, by teaching us to live and act by principles of reason and religion.
What are these principles of reason and religion?
They are such as these:
possibly be happy, but in such enjoyment of him as he is pleased to communicate to us.
Secondly, That our souls are immortal spirits, that are here only in a state of trial and probation.
Thirdly, That we must all appear before the judgment-seat of God, to receive the sentence of eternal life, or eternal death.
These are the chief principles of reason and religion, by which every Christian is to live; judging and thinking, choosing and avoiding, hoping and faring, loving and hating, according to these principles, as becomes a creature, that is sent hither to prepare himself to live with God in everlasting happiness.
Now who does not see, that this resolves all our religion into a state of self-denial, or contradiction to our natural state?
For first, what can be a greater self-denial, or more contradictory to all our habitual notions, and natural sentiments, than to live and govern ourselves by a happiness that is to be had in God alone? A happiness, which our senses, our old guides, neither see, nor feel, nor taste, nor perceive? A happiness, which gives us neither figure nor dignity, nor equipage, nor power, nor glory amongst one another?
Look at man in his natural state, acting by the judgment of his senses, following the motions of his nature, and you will see him acting as if the world was full of infinite sorts of happiness.
He has not only a thousand imaginary pleasures, but has found out as many vexations, all which show, that he thinks happiness is every-where to be
found, for no one is vexed at any thing, but where ? he thinks he is disappointed of some possible happiness.
The happiness therefore of religion, which is an happiness in God alone, is a great contradiction to all our natural and habitual tempers and opinions,
not only as it proposes a good, which our senses cannot relish, but as it leads us from all those imaginary enjoyments, upon which our senses have fixed our hearts.
To think of religion in any other sense, than as a state of self-denial, is kuowing nothing at all of it: for its whole nature is to direct us by a light, and knowledge, and wisdom, from God, which is all contrary to the darkness, ignorance, and folly of our natures.
It is therefore altogether impossible for any man to enter into the spirit of religion but by denying himself, by renouncing all his natural tempers and judgments, which have been formed by the blind motions of flesh and blood, and strengthened by the example and authority of the world. He cannot walk in the light of God, but by rejecting the dreams of his senses, the visions of his own thoughts, and the darkness of worldly wisdom.
We may let our senses tell us, what we are to eat and drink, or when we are to sleep; we may let them teach us how near we may draw to a fire, how great a burden we may carry, or into how deep a water we may go: in these things they are our proper guides.
But if we appeal to them to know the true good of man, or the proper happiness of our rational nature; if we ask them what guilt there is in sin, or what excellence there is in piety; if we consult them as our guides and instructors in these matters, we act as absurdly as if we were to try to hear with our eyes, or see with our ears.
For our senses are no more fitted to tell us our true good, as we are Christians and rational creatures, than our eyes are fitted to instruct us in sounds, or our ears in sights.
Religion therefore has just so much power over us, as it has power over our natural tempers, and the judgment of our senses; so far as it has made us deny ourselves, and reject the opinions and judgments of flesh and blood, so far has it settled its power within us.
Hence appears the absolute necessity of our Saviour's proposal to mankind, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and follow me.
For it plainly appears from the nature of the thing, that no man can follow Christ, or walk in the light that he walked, but by denying himself, and walking contrary to the darkness and errors of his own heart and mind.
All our ways of thinking and judging of the nature and value of things, are corrupted with the grossness and errors of our senses.
We judge of every thing in the same manner that the child judges of his playthings; that is, it is by our senses alone that we pass the judgment, though we act with the reason of men.
The world is made up of fine sights, equipage, sports, show and pageantry, which please and captivate the minds of men, because men have yet the minds of children, and are just the same slaves to their senses that children are.
As children and men see the same colours in things, so children and men feel the same sensible pleasures, and are affected with external objects in the same manner.
But the misfortune is, that we laugh at the little pleasures, poor designs, and trifling satisfactions of children, whilst, at the same time, the wisdom, the ambition, and greatness of men, are visibly taken up with the same trifles.
A coach-and-six, and an embroidered suit, shall make a great statesman as happy as ever a go-cart and feather made a child.
When a man thinks how happy he shall be with a great estate, he has all the same thoughts come into his head that a child has, when he thinks what he would do with a great sum of money; he would