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Sermon 28 - The Danger of Deviating from Divine Institutions

By Andrew Lee

      Colossians ii, 8.

      "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ."

      St. Paul was the apostle of the Gentiles. The care of the churches gathered among them devolved particularly on him. At the writing of this epistle he had no personal acquaintance with the church to which it is addressed.* Epaphras, a bishop of the Colossians, then his fellow prisoner at Rome, had made him acquainted with their state, and the danger they were in from false teachers, who, during the absence of their minister, labored to turn them from the duplicity of the gospel; and this letter was written, through divine influence, to guard them against those deceivers, and persuade them to abide in Christ.

      * Verse 1.

      To this end he counselled them to keep to the divine directions, carefully avoiding every alteration, or addition, which might be urged upon them by uninspired men, though they might come with a shew of wisdom and humility, and profession of regard to the honor of God and happiness.

      Many of the most successful attacks on God's earthly kingdom have been made in this way. Open rebellion against God, is found chiefly on those who have no faith in him; who are therefore devoid of his fear. Others are tempted mostly to other sins, and induced to make indirect opposition to the divine government, from them, the tempter hides the truth, and leads them into error, and thus causes them to pull down the cause which they aim to build up, and fight against God with a view to serve him.

      So much of God appears in his works, that comparatively few can be made to doubt his existence, or his providential government. Hence few are prevailed with to renounce his fear and rise directly against him; but many are deceived, and consequently engaged to act with his enemies.

      Here a common source of seduction hath been suggesting improvements on divine institutions--that 'this' and 'that', which God hath not ordered, would help his cause and promote his interest. Sometimes the improvements are attempted under pretence of divine order, and urged with his authority; but this veil is not always spread over endeavors to change his institutes. They are often urged as means adapted to help his cause, without pretence to divine order requiring the use of them; Much, it is alleged, is left to human discretion. This taken for granted, the rest is easy. It is only to say 'these measures' are wise and good, calculated to help on the cause of God, and whoever denies it, is considered as fighting against God.

      Thus men are led away from the divine institutions to those of human invention. Human wisdom is exalted above divine; and all with a view to glorify God!

      Thus was the tempter laboring, through the instrumentality of his agents, to seduce the Colossians, when this epistle was written, and it is chiefly intended to counteract their influence, and prevent that church from being moved away from the hope of the gospel, which they had received.

      In discussing the subject, We shall first 'glance at the measures used by those deceivers'--then consider 'the success which hath attended this mode of fighting against God, and seducing mankind, adding a few observations on the influence of tradition and the rudiments and customs of the world'.

      The Colossian seducers appear to have been of two kinds--Jewish and Gentile. The former seem not to have differed from those at Rome, Corinth, Galatia, and those in Judea. They were Jewish Christians, who were so attached to the Mosaic ritual, that they wished to continue it, and graft Christianity upon it, rendering the religion of Christ only an appendage to that of Moses. They insisted that the ceremonial law remained in force--insisted especially on the observance of circumcision; and probably on the traditions so highly valued by the Pharisees. But the apostle assured this Gentile Church, that they were complete "in Christ", and needed nothing of this kind to recommend them to God, or to secure his favor--that "Christ had blotted out the hand writing of ordinances, and taken it away, nailing it to his cross"--that the ceremonial law, being only "a shadow of good things to come," was fulfilled in Christ, and no longer obligatory; and warned them to stand fast in their Christian liberty, and suffer no man to judge them respecting such things, or impose such burdens upon them.

      The Gentile seducers were converts from Paganism, and no less eager to introduce the tenets and rites of their superstition. One of the errors, which, from the particular mention made of it, they seem to have urged, was the worshipping of angels, "Let no man beguile you of your reward, in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind." *

      * Verse 18.

      Mankind seem, at a pretty early period, generally to have given into the idea of so vast a distance between God and man, that man is unworthy to come into his presence, and can approach him acceptably only through a mediator. But just views of a mediator were never communicated to the scattered branches of our race, or soon lost from among them. Most of the heathens offered religious homage to departed heroes; or to those who had been revered while inhabitants of earth. To them were their prayers addressed, that they might bear them to the God of nature, and by their influence render him propitious.

      Here was the appearance of humility--So sensible of their unworthiness that they dared not approach God in their own names, or present their own petitions--others who had ceased to sin, and been admitted to the divine presence, must intercede for them. But this was "a voluntary humility"--not ordered of God--a mere matter of human invention.

      A mediator is indeed necessary for man since the fall; but man is not left to choose his mediator. One every way suitable is provided, through whom we may have access to God: "There is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus."

      The apostle further observes, that those who directed them to worship angels, arrogated a knowledge of matters not revealed. God hath given no intimation of such use to be made of angels, but ordered man to approach him in the name of Christ. Those who go to God in other ways, or depending on other intercessors, are said "not to hold the head." * "The head of every man is Christ." + Such people will lose their reward. "Let no man beguile you of your reward, in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels"--The rewards of grace are promised to obedience but not to "willful worship, or voluntary humility." The utmost these can hope is forgiveness.

      *Verse 9. + 1 Corinthians xi. 3.

      When Paul assured the Colossians that they were "complete in Christ," he had reference to the errors of all the deceivers who were laboring to seduce them. Gentile philosophy is as useless to the Christian, as Jewish rites. Christ hath the fulness of the Godhead dwelling in him. We' have only to rely on divine mercy, through faith, in him, and we shall not be ashamed.

      Such we conceive to be the sum of the instructions and warnings here given to the Colossians. They were only to keep to the divine directions, and seek salvation agreeably thereto, regardless of 'the traditions of men and rudiments of the world'.

      All error is deviation from divine rule. To this men are tempted with a view to honor God. This is a fruitful source of error. And when error is once generated, it is often diffused and perpetuated by tradition, custom, and 'the rudiments of the world'.

      We proceed to consider 'the success which hath attended this mode of fighting against God--that is, suggesting improvements on divine institutions and appointments'.

      The first attempt to seduce our race seems to have been of this kind. "The woman being deceived was in the transgression," Made upright, she could not have been persuaded to disobey God, unless she was led to believe that she might, some how, honor God in consequence of that disobedience. But how?--"In the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened; and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil"--Then she could honor God better than while destitute of knowledge which would liken her to superior intelligences. "And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof and did eat." Thus some suppose the tempter to have prevailed against her. It may be thought strange that she should expect good to rise out of evil. Her descendants have often entertained such expectations; but they are depraved, and their minds are darkened.

      Whether this was the sophism by which Satan's victory was obtained, we presume not to determine. It is however certain that he prevailed by deception; by persuading our common mother that advantage would accrue from ceasing to follow the divine directions.

      Cain, her eldest son, fell into a sin of the same kind; was induced to change divine institutions. "Cain brought the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord," instead of the firstlings of the flock. The fruit of the ground did not typify the sacrifice of Christ, and had not been ordered of God. It was a mode of honoring him of Cain's devising. He thought to improve on divine appointments; or dared to change them to suit his circumstances. "Cain was a tiller of the ground." The fruits of the ground were the product of his own labors --"Of such as he had, he would bring his offering. What advantage would accrue from changing with his brother to procure what God had required? God needed nothing and could receive nothing from his creatures."

      Abel believed himself under obligation to conform to the divine order, and in that way to seek the divine favor. Cain had not this faith. He was confident that another way would do as well; and followed the dictates of his own fancied wisdom. * Therefore their different reception. Had Cain been equally obedient with Abel no difference would have been made. Cain is appealed to, to judge of this matter for himself--"If thou dost well, shalt thou not be accepted?" TO do well, is to regulate principle and practice by the divine order; in both these Cain was deficient. They are commonly united. Error in principle occasions error in practice.

      * These are not mere conjectures--they are intimated by St. Jude, when he declares the schismatics of his day "have gone in the way of Cain and Core." Core, or Korah, certainly attempted to change a divine order by which the functions of the priesthood were appropriated to the family of Aaron. And the schismatics, who were contemporary with the apostles, set themselves up for teachers in the church without a regular, or supernal call to the ministry. These went in the way of Cain. His sin must therefore have been a departure from divine institutions.

      Not many ages after the deluge idolatry was introduced into the world, and corrupted and spoiled the worship of God. This seems to have been, at first, a design to improve on the homage which was paid to the true God.

      Adoration offered to other than God, is idolatry. This is of two kinds--that offered to angels, and departed spirits, and that offered to the heavenly bodies and to images. The former is said to have been originally designed to engage those to whom it was addressed to act the part of mediators with God. The heavenly bodies were adored as the supposed residences of Deity. Image worship was intended to help devotion. It was thought that visible representations would serve to impress a reverence for the objects of worship on the mind, and solemnize the heart. With this view, images and paintings were introduced into temples and places of worship. They appeared to have effect. The worshippers seemed more devout. A happy discovery, which had not occurred to Omniscience!

      To increase the good effects, further improvements were suggested. Images were made of the precious metals, and enriched with gems and costly attire, and art was exhausted to embellish them. They were also consecrated with magnificent and solemn rites. After consecration, the celestials to whom they dedicated, were supposed to descend and dwell in them, and thus to be present with their worshippers, to hear their prayers, witness their gratitude, and smell a sweet savor in their sacrifices. And as temples were built, and images consecrated chiefly to inferior deities, who were worshipped as mediators, the homage which was paid to them was suited to the conceptions which the worshippers entertained of the objects of their worship; and being mostly taken from among men, the offerings were adapted to the characters which they had respectively sustained while resident in the body. Hence the homage paid to Baal, Moloch, Mars, Bacchus, Venus and others. Thus every abomination was sanctioned, and made an object of religion!

      The use of images was common among the Easterns at an early period, and communicated to the Hebrews, who were conversant with them, before their settlement in Canaan. In Egypt, or certainly in the wilderness it was found among them. They were particularly guilty of this sin while Moses was on the mount with God. And the use which they then made of images was the same which hath been mentioned. As soon as the golden calf was finished, Aaron, who had entered into their views, made proclamation--"Tomorrow is the feast of the Lord--[of Jehovah."] Moses, who had greatly helped them in the worship and service of God, was gone, and the idol was intended to supply his place; to help their devotion, and excite them to honor the true God! "Up make us Gods-- for this Moses--we wot not what is become of him."

      The idolatrous worship of the Romanists in later ages is of the same kind. Their churches abound with rich images, and are adorned with exquisite paintings; the likeness of Christ agonising on the cross, and other affecting representations, designed to impress religious subjection the heart and excite devotion. Such is the use which they profess to make of them. And they seem not devoid of effect. Protestants who have attended their worship, have observed greater appearances of fervor, and greater moving of the passions, than are usual in the religious assembles of other denominations of Christians. And their adoration of angels and departed saints, is only as of mediators and intercessors, who may present their prayers, and obtain favor for them--the very idolatry of paganism.

      In these things there is a shew of wisdom and humility--wisdom to devise means to impress a sense of religion, and humility to draw nigh to God by the intervention of those more worthy than themselves; and the means seem not destitute of influence; they produce warm zeal, and all the fervor of devotion; yea, all those feelings and emotions which are thought by some to constitute the offence of religion.

      And why is not all this right? Why are not these ways of honoring God and exciting devotion commendable, when they render the worshipper thus fervent in spirit to serve the Lord?

      The reason is obvious--they are not required--yea, they are forbidden of the divine Sovereign. "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him 'only' shalt thou serve. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the earth--I the Lord thy God am a jealous God."--

      Pretending to honor God by direct disobedience is peculiarly affrontive. Such worshippers "provoke him to his face. Their offerings his soul hateth. They are a smoke in his nose, and a fire that burneth all the day." Every thing of this nature, whatever may be its design, is rebellion against God. Against no other sin hath he manifested greater indignation.

      No instance can be adduced of such homage being accepted, or of good resulting from such worship. Yea, it hath commonly been followed with the severest marks of the divine resentment. Witness the evils which came upon Israel when they made the golden calf, to help their devotions. Witness those which fell on the family and kingdom of Jeroboam, when he forsook the appointed worship of God, and the ministry of the Levites whom God had appointed to wait at the altar. Jeroboam did not introduce the worship of Baal, or the other heathen gods. This was done afterwards by the influence of Jezebel. He only appointed other places of worship, beside that which God had chosen, and consecrated others to minister who had not the attachments of the Levites to the house of David and city of Zion, and made images to help the devotion of his people; and lo! his family perish; a brand of infamy is set on his name; and because his people walk in his ways, they are finally "broken and cease to be a people!"

      The divine resentment of attempts to change the ordinances of God, or make innovations in his worship even where they seem 'to have been done out of concern for his honor', is left on record in his word. Saul once offered sacrifice. The necessity of his affairs seemed to require it. He professed to have done it with reluctance, but to have thought it his duty--"I said the Philistines will come down upon me, and I have not made supplication unto the Lord: I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering." But Saul was not of the family of Aaron, to whom the right of sacrificing solely appertained by divine appointment. Hence instead of conciliating the divine favor, his officious zeal offended heaven--for that act of disobedience he was threatened with deposition; and a repetition of attempting to improve on divine orders, in sparing the best cattle of Amelek to sacrifice unto the Lord, confirmed the sentence, * placed another on the throne, and led to the ruin of the rebellious prince. Uzzah only put forth his hand to steady the trembling ark, and was struck dead for his rashness, beside the ark of God. +

      * 1 Samuel xiii. 1-14, xv. 15-13. + 2 Samuel vi. 6, 7.

      Some spoiled through philosophy and vain deceit, have made changes in the divine institutions, and attempted improvements upon them, since the commencement of the gospel day. This hath been a leading trait of character in the chiefs of the Romish church. Many of the heads of that communion have signalized themselves in this way. And some of their alterations have operated to impress what was thought to be religion, as hath been observed. Another way in which they have manifested the same disposition hath been the multiplying of holy days. Under various pretences, nearly half the days in the year have been consecrated to religion, by order of those gods on earth. Some real, and many fictitious saints, have days consecrated to their memory.

      Here is a great shew of wisdom, and zeal for God, and his cause in the world; calling men so often from their temporal concerns to attend to the duties of religion! Who can do other than approve it? Doubtless many have been deceived by appearances, and considered those as wise and good who have done these things. But this is far from being their character. These have been the doings of "Antichrist, the Man of sin --the Son of perdition! Because of these things cometh the wrath of God, on the children of disobedience!" All these specious measures are no better than Saul's sacrificing, Uzzah's steadying the ark, and the use of images in divine worship! They are opposition to the orders of the Most High, and rebellion against him.

      "Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God; in it thou shalt not do any work" --Whoever takes it on himself to alter this appointment, "thinks to change times and laws;" which was foretold of him who should "speak great words against the Most High." *

      * Daniel vii. 25.

      The Lord's day, is the only day which God hath sanctified under the gospel dispensation. This infinite wisdom judged sufficient. Had more been requisite, more would have been consecrated by divine order. But not a hint of any other holy day is to be found in the New Testament. +

      * * * * *

      + Neither the day of Christ's birth, death, resurrection or ascension appear to have been regarded as holy time, or any way distinguished from the other days of the year, during the apostolic age. The former of these is not marked in the scriptures. Whether it happened on the twentyfifth of December, or at some other season is uncertain. So are the times in which the apostles and primitive Christians suffered martyrdom. These events are veiled. Divine providence hath hidden them from mankind, probably for the same reason that the body of Moses was hidden from Israel--to prevent its being made an object of idolatrous worship--or for the same which is supposed to have occasioned our Lord's seeming neglect of his mother, and his severer reproof given to Peter, than to any other of his disciples--"Get thee behind me Satan;" namely, that idolatrous honor, which he foresaw would be afterwards paid them by some called Christians.

      Easter is once mentioned in our translation of the New Testament; but it is not found in the Greek original. The word there used is "Pasxa," the Passover. It is mentioned only to note the time in which Herod intended to have brought forth Peter and delivered him up to his enemies. *

      * Acts xii. 4.

      * * * * *

      Occasional calls there may be to fasting and thanksgiving; and we have scripture warrant for attending them in their seasons. But fixing on certain days of the year, or month, statedly to call men from their secular business to attend to religion, and requiring the consecration of them to religion is adding to the book of God. However well intended, it goes on mistaken principles, and however specious in appearance, is affronting the wisdom and authority of heaven.

      Most of the errors referred to above, are found among Pagans or Catholics; but is nothing of the same kind chargeable on Protestants? "Are there not with us sins against the Lord our God?" And of the same nature with those we have been contemplating? The knowledge of other's errors in ay be for our warning; but the knowledge of our own is requisite to our reformation. Where then are we directed of God, religiously to observe Christmas, Lent, or Easter? Where to attend the eucharist only twice or thrice a year; and never without one, or more preparatory lectures? * Where to add a third prayer at the administration of that ordinance, when our divine pattern only blessed the bread before he distributed it to his disciples, and gave thanks to the Father, before he divided to them the cup? Where are we directed to attend quarterly seasons of prayer, or to hold weekly conferences for religious purposes?

      * * * * *

      * We would not be understood to intend that all religious meeting on week days are unlawful. Special occasions often require them. But the Lord's day is the only time set apart by divine order for the stated attendance. No other hath he consecrated to the business of religion. Neither would we be considered as denying the legality of ever uniting to seek the Lord previous to the celebration of eucharist. We may look to God to assist and accept us in every duty. But if we consider these preparatory exercises as indispensibly requisite, and as constituting a part of the duty, we do it without divine warrant.

      From an attention to the gospel history, we are induced to believe that the celebration of that ordinance constituted a part of the common duties of every Lord's day, while the apostles ministered in the Christian church; + and that an attendance at the sacramental table, was not distinguished by any special preparatory exercises, diverse from those which anteceded other sanctuary duties. No trace of distinction, in these respects, is to be found in scripture; neither precept nor example can be adduced to support it. Whence then its origin?

      + Acts xx. 7.

      Did not it derive from Rome? We know the errors of the Romish church relative to the eucharist; and their tendency to induce a belief that it is more holy, and requires greater sanctity in communicant, than is requisite to an attendance on other ordinances. And the same notion is prevalent and many who have withdrawn from the communion of that church. Many serious people who attend other religious duties with pleasure and advantage, are afraid to obey Christ's dying command! Is not this a relic of popery? When Luther left the papal communion, his reformation, particularly relative to this ordinance, was but partial. Many other protestants retain a tinge of catholic leaven. Is not the distinction respecting the sanctity of divine ordinances from this source? It is not found in the gospel. If the exercises under consideration serve to perpetuate this unscriptural distinction, and to drive men from a plain and important duty, they have a baleful effect. They may be well intended. Doubtless they are so by the generality of those who attend them. It is painful to be obliged to dissent from men whom we receive as brethren, and revere as Christians. But after much deliberation, such are our views of the subject before us; and we offer them to the serious consideration of the followers of Christ.

      * * * * *

      But these are well intended. So probably was Uzzah's steadying the ark--But some of these do help on the cause of God, and even more than the stale attendance on Lord's day duties. So thought those who introduced images and paintings into churches. [Some indeed attend those who neglected Lord's day duties.]

      Have we then discovered defects in the divine plan! And do we feel ourselves capable of making emendations in it!--Of "teaching eternal wisdom how to rule!"--How to effect its purposes of mercy!

      Beware 'lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world and not after Christ'. Vain man would be wise--He naturally thinks himself qualified, even to ameliorate divine institutions. Temptation to this sin coincides with a natural bias in depraved humanity. Many and very mischievous errors have issued from it. Would we escape the snare, we must listen to the apostle speaking in the text. The sum of his advice is to keep to the divine directions, especially in matters of religion. These are contained and plainly taught in the holy Scriptures, which we have in our hands, and of the sense of which we must judge for ourselves; remembering that we are accountable to God the judge of all.

      As some are 'spoiled through philosophy and vain deceit', others are corrupted by regard to 'the tradition of men and rudiments of the world'. This endangered the Colossians, and eventually ruined the church at Rome. The leading errors of paganism were thereby introduced into that Christian church, and rendered it completely antichristian. Errors which seemed to have been destroyed by Christianity, were again revived, and the abominations which they had occasioned, were acted over again with enlargements!

      The 'traditions of men and rudiments of the world', have still their seducing influence. Most men swim down with the current of the times --adopt the sentiments and conform to the usages of those with whom they live. The popular scheme of religion, they consider as the orthodox scheme, and the religion of the land, the true religion. Therefore is one nation Papists, another Protestants, one Calvinists, another Lutherans. These differences of sentiment do not arise from differences in the mental constitutions of nations, but from the accidental differences of situation.

      Few have sufficient independence of mind to "judge of themselves what is right." Many who "call Christ Lord, receive for doctrines the commandments of men." Therefore doth religion vary like the fashions of the world. Was the fashion of the world to be the rule of judgment, it might be wise to follow it: But "we must every one give an account of himself to God," and be judged by the rule which be hath given us. It becomes as therefore to "call no man master, because one is our Matter, even Christ." To him we are accountable. At our peril do we neglect obedience to his commands.

      It concerns us to do all things according to the pattern drawn out before us in the Scriptures. Against the natural bias to affect improvements on divine institutions, and against the prevalence of fashion and contagion of popular opinion, we should be particularly on our guard. "For cursed is every one who confirmeth not all the words of God's law to do them, and all the people shall say, Amen."

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