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many there be who go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leadeth to life, and few there be that find it.”—Matth. ix. 13, 14.
As soon as these great numbers, who are going through the wide gate, and in the broad way, see any of their acquaintance beginning to strive to enter in at the strait gate, and to walk in the narrow way, immediately they are offended, and they try to stop them with urging the authority of the text - be not righteous over-much.” Why, say they, cannot you be content with the religion of your forefathers? You used to keep to your church, and you lived as good a life as any of your neighbours, and you were righteous enough; what occasion is there then for so many prayers, and sermons, and sacraments? Indeed you carry things quite too far, and if you do not stop in time, you will quite ruin your character.
This is their manner of talking to every man who is determined to save his soul. As soon as he begins to live different from his neighbours, and refuses to join with them in their way of murdering their time, they mark him out for a precise godly fellow. They think he makes more ado about religion than need be; and if, after many trials, they cannot laugh him out of his oddities, they heartily despise him for an over-righteous fool.
But if the same man should be convinced of the great change which Christianity ought to make in him; if he begin to talk of the necessity of the new birth, and of the Holy Spirit's beginning and carrying on a saving work of grace in his heart, without which no man is a Christian more than in name, then worldly men are thoroughly provoked-they cannot bear this enthusiastic stuff. But if he insist farther upon the necessity of Christ's righteousness, without which no sinner can be accepted and justified before God, and that his righteousness is imputed to the sinner by faith only, without any previous good works, although it be productive of all good works, for they are all the fruits of righteousness, these seem to worldly men the wild notions of a distempered brain. If he prove these points, and enforce them from plain passages of scripture, they are ever ready to object, what ! shall we not be accepted, if we do all the good we can, if we do no body any harm, but pay every one his own, and keep strict to our church, and go to the sacrament, as often as we have time to prepare, is not this being righteous enough? and although we fail sometimes, (as who does not?) yet is not God merciful, and will he not, for Christ's sake, forgive us ? These worldly men know of no righteousness, but' what consists in outward duties, in a mere outside conformity to some parts of the law. They forget that the law is spiritual, reaching to the very thoughts of the heart; and perfect, allowing of no offence, nor offering a pardon for the least, but pronouncing him guilty who offendeth in one point, and under guilt he must lie for ever, as to any thing he can do, unless he be justified freely by grace, through the righteousness of the Lord Christ. Whoever insists
upon these things is sure to be reckoned in the number of the over-righteous, and will certainly have this caution given him--"be not righteous over-much.”
It is certain then that the meaning of the text is generally mistaken. Natural men fancy it commands them not to take too much pains about saving their souls, nor to be singularly religious, but to be content to live according to the course and fashion of the world. More than this is being righteous over-much. Besides, many serious persons do not understand the text, and therefore have not an answer ready for the adversaries, who are at every turn misapplying this scripture, and putting a wrong sense upon it. The doctrine which it teaches ought also to be frequently inculcated and enforced, being one of the fundamental articles of our most holy faith. For these reasons I have determined to give the passage a particular consideration, and will endeavour to show,
First, negatively, what the words do not mean.
Secondly, what is their positive and precise meaning; and
Thirdly, I shall bring some arguments to prove. the doctrine contained in them. And while I am speaking to these points, may the Lord God open all your understandings clearly to see his mind and will in this scripture, and prepare your hearts to practise the duty which it enforces! May his good Spirit be with us for these gracious purposes, while I am,
First, showing what the words do not mean. They are generally understood in a wrong sense. People fancy they contain a caution against attaining too much of the righteousness which is of the laws whereas that is impossible. A man cannot have too much legal righteousness. Let him keep the law always and perfectly, in its spiritual nature, and in its full extent, yet he can be but righteous. He does not perform more than the law requires, he only pays it its just demands: for the love of God and the love of our neighbour comprehend the whole law. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Now we cannot love God too much, nor yet our neighbour, since we are required to love him as ourselves; and therefore if we love God with all the heart and soul, and mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves, yet we only do our duty-we do no more than is commanded us, and consequently we are only righteous, but not righteous over-much.
But, secondly, the scripture declares there is no man living, who so perfectly loveth God and bis neighbour as to attain the righteousness which is of the law. All have sinned, and have thereby robbed God of that love, and his law of that service, which are their due, and all are therefore unrighteous. The psalmist declares, (Psal. liii. 1,) " there is none that doeth good;" which words the apostle cites in this manner, Rom. iii. 9, 10: “We have before proved both Jews and Gentiles that they are all under sin, As it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one." Now since there is none so righteous, and much less
more righteous than the law requires, consequently there can be none, no, not one, righteous over-much.
Thirdly, to this agree the words of our blesseel Saviour, Luke, xvii. 10: “When ye shall have done all these things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants, we have done that which was our duty to do.” Who does all those things which are commanded him ? Not one; for all have sinned. But supposing he did, yet he would be only as righteous as the law requires. He would not be righteous over-much, because he would only do that which was his duty to do.
A fourth argument may be taken from hence. That any man living can be over-righteous, and do more than the law requires, is a popish tenet exploded by the whole protestant church, and particularly by the church of England, in her fourteenth article:
" Of works of supererogation.-Voluntary works, besides, over and above God's commandments, which they (the Papists) call works of supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake than of bounden duty is required; whereas Christ saith plainly, when ye have done all things that are commanded to you, say, we are unprofitable servants."
This article condemns the general interpretation put upon the text, and declares that it cannot be maintained without arrogancy and impiety. To these arguments I will add a
Fifth, taken from the character given in this verse of the men who would be over-righteous, namely, that they thereby destroy theniselves; the righteousness they are seeking will bring upon them destruction. “ Be not righteous over-much : why shouldst thou destroy thyself?” This single circumstance will help us to determine what kind of righteousness it cannot be; for it cannot be the righteousness of the law. This promises life to him that keeps it do
this, and thou shalt live," and therefore this eannot be a destroying righteousness. Indeed, if after a man has broken the law, he afterwards turns to it for righteousness, and hopes by his keeping of it to be made righteous, then he will destroy himself: because the law promises life only to perfect obedience, and threatens to put them who offend in one point under the curse; for he that offendeth in one point is guilty of all. This indeed is a destroying righteousness, opposite to which is the righteousness of the gospel. It is to save sinners from being destroyed by the law. It was wrought out for them by the God-man, Christ Jesus, and is imputed unto them by faith, and when they with the heart believe in it, they are then saved from destruction. Of this saving righteousness it is impossible a man should have too much. He must have all that is needful for his justification, and more than he needs he cannot have. He wants righteousnegs in an infinite degree, such as none can give him but the Lord our righteousness, and without this he cannot
be saved. It is evident then that the text speaks of a righteousness, to which, if a man trust, it will destroy him; which cannot be the righteousness of the law, for this promises life to them who keep it; nor yet the righteousness of the gospel, for this promises pardon and life to them who have broken the law, but believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And since it is neither the righteousness of the law, nor of the gospel, I come now, under my second general head, to consider what is the positive and precise meaning of the text, and what is the false pretended righteousness of which it treats.
The context may lead us to the true meaning. In what sense a man is commanded not to be righteous over-much may appear from the following words: 6 neither make thyself over-wise.” How can a man be over-wise ? Certainly he cannot know too much. Knowledge is part of the image of God in the soul, as the apostle teaches : “ the new man is renewed iġ