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individual, and do not spring from any principle within him.
To all such persons, spiritual truth must of necessity be repugnant, and, even when they do not actually oppose it, they will shrink from it, and avoid it. Nevertheless, as long as true Christianity and its demands upon the heart and conscience are upheld, even by a small number of earnest adherents, it may excite the hostility and scorn of numbers, and yet at the same time command their secret respect, and, as in apostolic times, it will steadily make its way in spite of opposition, insensibly quickening the consciences of the most hostile, and leading many to bow to its claims when humbled by suffering and misfortune.
But the burden which the consciousness of sin, and of alienation from God and true righteousness, imposes on the conscience, prepares many, who yet have no intention of relinquishing the pleasures of sin and of the world, to welcome any means which enables them to cast off that burden without having to make those sacrifices which Christianity demands. This is just what is offered to them by a merely formal and outward religion. A religion consisting chiefly of outward ceremonial, which assures its followers of salvation as long as they conform to it, which avoids all allusion to the more spiritual truths of Christianity, to the necessity of a change of heart and mind, and of dying to the world and to sin, which promises forgiveness to all alike, is just that which will always be acceptable to every natural man who wishes to quiet his conscience, while still retaining all his former inclinations, interests, and desires.
Such was, and still is, the character of the religion of Rome as followed by the majority of its adherents; and it has been the secret of its influence on, and support by thousands who, although its faithful followers, could hardly be called righteous, and whose unrighteousness, indeed, has at times called forth the protest and lament of the more earnest and thoughtful in its ranks.
But what was the result? The evil of sin, and the consciousness that it cut the sinner off from God, was obliterated, conscience was deadened and perverted, and the very meaning of spiritual things, and of the nature of sin and righteousness, became unknown to the majority. When, therefore, at the Reformation, the Bible, with its condemnation of sin, and its insistence on the necessity of righteousness, was brought to light, the majority, led by the priesthood, rebelled against its teaching; for while it condemned the sin they loved, and denied the value of the easy and pleasant religion by which they got rid of all sense of its guilt, their deadened consciences prevented them from recognising the truth of that teaching, and the greater number sided with those whose worldly interest and position were involved in the support of the old religion.
Yet the truth, and the newly-awakened spirit of inquiry, gradually undermined the authority of that religion and revealed its fallacies and superstitions, until, some few centuries later, the Latin nations cast aside its claims. But the process was destructive only, and the conscience of the people, still deadened by its influence, rendered them as blind and hostile as ever to the claims of truth. Nor was this all; for Christianity, inseparably associated in their minds with the doctrines of Romanism, and clothed in its garb, received all the discredit due to the latter, and was rejected, as it is to this day, as worthless and effete. Thus infidelity and atheism are the unfailing consequence of superstition and false religion, whenever men's minds are led to sift the claims of the latter; a result which is well exemplified by the unbelief which had spread through all classes in the latter days of paganism.
Something of the same process may be observed in
England during the last fifty or sixty years. In the last century, and in the early portion of this century, the majority of the people were irreligious and indifferent. Yet, there was much true religion, and there were many true Christians and preachers of righteousness who rebuked the ungodliness around them; and, as a consequence, Christianity had a power on the conscience, and commanded the secret respect of many of the most worldly, and led not a few who had once laughed at its claims to seek its consolations when humbled by sorrow and misfortune. During the last half-century, however, and until comparatively lately, religion has had an increasing influence on a large proportion of the community, so that it has been the custom with many to point with pride and satisfaction to the great religious piety of our age and country.
But the chief feature of modern religion is the enormous value attached to outward piety and ritual observance, and if so, it cannot fail to have that deadening influence on the conscience, and to produce that hostility to spiritual truth, which have been shown to be its natural effect. Modern 'ritualism' may be regarded as the most pronounced form of this outward religion, and although many may be opposed to it on account of the erroneous doctrines connected with it, yet the ritualistic spirit has leavened all classes and sections of professing Christians, so that what would have been regarded as excessive ritual, and as having a ' popish' tendency, fifty years ago, is now adopted by the most extreme phases of Dissent.
Moreover, everything is done to make this religion as palatable as possible by pleasing the taste, the senses, and the imagination; while, on the other hand, it will be observed that the pulpit, while often appealing strongly to the conscience with regard to the moral relations of man with man, seldom offends anyone by more spiritual appeals, and to many, the whole subject of Christian belief consists of the means by which their sins may be pardoned without change of heart or mind.
Is it any wonder that numbers, who would shrink and turn away from the solemn requirements of true Christianity, should gladly believe in, and give their support to a religion from which all offence' has been eliminated, which is agreeable in itself, which frees them from all anxiety about the future at so little cost, and leaves them free to pursue the pleasures and interests of the world without misgiving ?
Now, it is expressly said by the Apostle that this would be the characteristic feature of the last days of this dispensation, which he therefore warns us would be perilous. For he predicts that people would then have the ' form,' or outward appearance, of 'godliness,' while 'denying its power'-religious, but not righteous—and manifesting in their lives those evil dispositions which may be recognised as peculiarly characteristic of the present day.
Yet those who were once indifferent, and have now become religious, hear the Scriptures read every Sabbath day, or in other ways are constantly brought face to face with their more solemn warnings. But because those warnings are habitually ignored, or so modified as to offend no one, their force and importance gradually become more and more insignificant to the minds of those who hear them, and the very acquaintance with the truth, thus despised, hardens their conscience against it (Acts xix. 9). It would have been better that such people should have remained wholly irreligious than that, while urged to put on, and commended for, 'a form of godliness,' they should be thus led to ignore its power.'
In proportion, also, as they have quieted their consciences by the performance of the requirements of a superficial religion, so will their minds be armed against the truth ; and should Christianity, at any time, be forcibly presented to them, not merely as an easy means of relieving their anxieties about the future, but with all the offence of the Cross — demanding their very lives and affections, requiring them to forsake all things, to hate their lives in this world, and die to those pleasures and interests to which they have hitherto clung, and failing to comply with which their hopes of salvation would be baseless—then, no doubt, the hostility of those who have been accustomed to regard such doctrines with contempt, would be strongly aroused.
Thus, the soil is prepared for the advocates of unbelief. If, then, they can appeal to the unreason, the inconsistencies, and the contradictions of popular religion, and at the same time hold up to scorn and reprobation those very exhortations and warnings which have been hitherto ignored, and which, regarded apart from the true spirit of Christianity and the nature and reality of sin, seem to be only absurd and impossible demands, then it will be no wonder if the arguments against the Divine authority of the Bible, and the truth of Christianity, should be greedily accepted by many.
As long as the majority were indifferent only, and their consciences were not dulled by the influence of an outward religion, and as long as the truth had a body of witnesses who contended for it and upheld its more spiritual demands, the sceptical attack made but little progress, and the undeadened consciences of the indifferent secretly acknowledged the claims of Christianity, even while they laughed at it. But if a large portion of the indifferent, although not one whit less indifferent to really spiritual truth, have now become religious, and the voice of truth has been overshadowed by, and lost sight of amidst the meretricious pretensions of that outward religion which appeals so strongly to the