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These three Reasons, which St. Peter gives for Adherence to Christ, refer to as many general Principles or Maxims :
As first, That Religion, the only Means by which Men can arrive at true Happiness, by which they can attain to the last Perfection and Dignity of their Nature, does not, in the present Circumstances of the World, depend on human Reasoning or Inventions: For, was this the Case, we need not to go from home for Religion, or to seek farther than our own Breast for the Means of reconciling ourselves to God, and obtaining his Favour, and, in consequence of it, Life eternal. Upon such Supposition, St. Peter argued very weakly, in saying, To whom shall we go? For to whom need they go to learn that which they were well able to teach themselves ? '
The second Principle referred to is, That the great End of Religion is future Happiness; and consequently the best Religion is that which will most surely direct us to eternal Life. Upon this Ground St. Peter prefers the Gospel of Christ: Thou hast the Words of eternal Life.
The third Thing is, That the Authority and Word of God is the only sure Foundation of Religion, and the only reasonable Ground for us to build our Hopes on. Thus B 2
St. Peter accounts for his Confidence in the Religion which Christ taught: We know, and are sure, that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.
In this State of the Case the Neceflity. of Religion in general is supposed; and the only Question is, from what Fountain we must derive it. The Dispute can only lie between Natural and Revealed Religion: If Nature be able to direct us, it will be hard to justify the Wisdom of God in giving us a Revelation, since the Revelation can only serve the same Purpose, which Nature alone could well supply.
Since the Light of the Gospel has shone throughout the World, Nature has been much improving; we see many Things clearly, many Things which Reason readily embraces, which nevertheless the World before was generally a Stranger to. The Gospel has given us true Notions of God and of ourtelves, right Conceptions of his Holiness and Purity, and of the Nature of divine Worship: It has taught us a Religion, in the Practice of which our present Ease and Comfort, and our Hopes of future Happiness and Glory, consist; it has rooted out Idolatry and Superstition; and by instructing us in the Nature of God, and discovering to us his Unity, his Omnipresence, and infinite Knowledge, it has furnished us even with Principles of Reason, by which we reject and condemn the Rites and Ceremonies of Heathenism and Idolatry, and discover wherein the Beauty and Holiness of divine Worship consist: For the Nature of divine Worship must be deduced from the Nature of God; and 'tis impossible for Men to pay a reasonable Service to God, till they have just and reasonable Notions of him. But now, it seems, this is all become pure Natural Religion; and 'tis to our own Reason and Understanding that we are indebted for the Notion of God and of divine Worship: And whatever else in Religion is agreeable to our Reason, is reckoned to proceed entirely from it: And, had the Unbelievers of this Age heard St. Peter's piteous Complaint, Lord, to whom shall we go? they would have bid him go to himself, and consult his own Reason, and there he should find all that was worth finding in Religion.
But let us, if you please, examine this . Pretence, and see upon what Ground this Plea of Natural Religion can be maintained. If Nature can instruct us sufficiently in Religion, we have indeed no Reason to go any-where else; so far we are agreed : But
whether Nature can or no, is, in truth,
rather a Question of Fact, than mere Specubusinoer lation; for the Way to know what Nature
can do, is to take Nature by itself, and try · its Strength alone. There was a Time when Men had little else but Nature to go to; and that is the proper Time to look into, to see what mere and unassisted Nature can do in Religion. Nay, there are still Nations under the Sun, who are, as to Religion, in a mere State of Nature: The glad Tidings of the Gospel have not reached them, nor have they been blessed, or (to speak in the modern Phrase) prejudiced with divine Revelations, which we, less worthy of them than they, so much complain of: In other Matters they are polite and civilized; they are cunning Traders, fine Artificers, and in many Arts and Sciences not unskilful. Here then we may hope to see Natural Religion in its full Perfection; for there is no Want of natural Reason, nor any Room to complain of Prejudices or Prepossession : But yet, alas! these Nations are held in the Chains of Darkness, and given up to the blindest Superstition and Idolatry. Men wanted not Reason before the Coming of Christ, nor Opportunity nor Inclination to improve it: Arts and Sciences had long before obtained their just Perfection;
the Number of the Stars had been counted, and their Motions observed and adjusted; the Philosophy, Oratory, and Poetry of those Ages are still the Delight and Entertainment of this. Religion was not the least Part of their Inquiry; they searched all the Recesses of Reason and Nature; and, had it been in the Power of Reason and Nature to furnilla Men with just Notions and Principles of Religion, here we should have found them: But, instead of them, we find nothing but the grossest Superstition and Idolatry; the Creatures of the Earth advanced into Deities, and Men degenerating and making themselves lower than the Beasts of the Field. Time would fail me to tell of the Corruptions and Extravagances of the politest Nations. Their Religion was their Reproach, and the Service they paid their Gods was a Dishonour to them and to themselves : The most facred Part of their Devotion was the most impure; and the only Thing that was commendable in it, is, that it was kept as a great Mystery and Secret, and hid under the Darkness of the Night; and, was Reason now to judge, it would approve of nothing in this Religion, but the Modesty of withdrawing itself from the Eyes of the World.