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HOME > Library > Books > Samuel Clarke (Protestant Preacher) > The Character of a Good Man (Sermon)
~ SERMON ~
"The Character of a Good Man"
by Rev. Samuel Clarke
1780 Edition from
"For I know him, that he will command his children, and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment."
The virtues, upon the account whereof these great blessings were promised to Abraham, were personal: but the blessings themselves, it is evident, were, with regard to him, figurative only; being fulfilled not till some hundreds of years after, upon his posterity; whereas, he himself did but sojourn in the land of promise, as in a strange country, and confessed that he was a stranger and pilgrim on the earth. From whence the apostle to the Hebrews very justly infers, that Abraham understood the promised blessing, with regard to himself, to be of a spiritual and better kind. Ch.9:14, 16, 10, “For they that say such things, declare plainly that they seek a country; a better country, that is, an heavenly; for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
The particular virtue which procured to Abraham the character given him in my text, was his keeping the way of the Lord, that is, his adhering to the belief and worship of the one true God of the universe, in opposition to the general corruption of the idolatrous nations among whom he lived; and his commanding his children and his household after him, to do the like. It was his examplary1 putting in practice what Joshua publicly declared before all the tribes of Israel, that he also would do in the like case: ch. 24:15, “If it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose ye this day whom ye will serve; whether the Gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the Gods of the Amorites in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” In the New Testament, this practice is styled, Rev. 25:2, not, as we render the words, “getting the victory over the beast,” but, “getting the victory, or overcoming, from out of the midst of the beast;” that is, adhering steadfastly to the true religion, in the midst of idolatrous and corrupt nations.
The great and principal design of every man's life, ought to be the promoting of the glory of God; the encouraging of virtue, and discouraging every kind of vice. Not that any man is obliged to be perpetually employed in actions that are immediately of a religious nature; or that all his thoughts and discourses are to be wholly confined to things sacred: but that his principal and final aim, his general and constant view, the settled temper and disposition of his mind, and the habitual tendency of all his actions, be the establishing of truth and right in the world. And when once a man has habitually fixed to himself this great end, and it is become, as it were, his natural temper; when he is “transformed,” as St. Paul expresses it, “by the renewing of his mind,” and his “meat and drink,” as our Savior speaks concerning himself, is to “do the will of his Father which is in Heaven:” this love of goodness, will naturally, like all other habits, influence even the most common actions of his life: even when he is not actually thinking of it, but employed perhaps in the most vulgar affairs, or even in diversions themselves; yet still everything he does, will habitually have somewhat in it, tending to promote a general sense of truth and equity, a general regard to God and virtue. The great and principal design of every man's life, ought to be the promoting of the glory of God; the encouraging of virtue, and discouraging every kind of vice. Not that any man is obliged to be perpetually employed in actions that are immediately of a religious nature; or that all his thoughts and discourses are to be wholly confined to things sacred: but that his principal and final aim, his general and constant view, the settled temper and disposition of his mind, and the habitual tendency of all his actions, be the establishing of truth and right in the world. And when once a man has habitually fixed to himself this great end, and it is become, as it were, his natural temper; when he is “transformed,” as St. Paul expresses it, “by the renewing of his mind,” and his “meat and drink,” as our Savior speaks concerning himself, is to “do the will of his Father which is in Heaven:” this love of goodness, will naturally, like all other habits, influence even the most common actions of his life: even when he is not actually thinking of it, but employed perhaps in the most vulgar affairs, or even in diversions themselves; yet still everything he does, will habitually have somewhat in it, tending to promote a general sense of truth and equity, a general regard to God and virtue. And whatever his particular state, relation, or circumstances of life be; he will particularly apply the proper advantages and opportunities, wherewith that state or those circumstances more peculiarly furnish him to promote the same ends of virtue and goodness.
As a Magistrate or Governor he will take care that that weight and power of influencing others, which the superiority of his station gives to his example, shall be directed constantly to the interest of virtue. In the execution of laws, in which matter there is room for great variety of prudent or imprudent exercise of power, he will always endeavor to put the stress of authority, upon urging men to do these things which will really make them better, and deterring them from such practices as are intrinsically in their own nature evil or vicious; that so the laws of God and man may uniformly promote one and the same end, for the punishment only of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well: and with regard to ambition, or the increase of his own power and dominion; he will take much more pleasure in being able to be publicly beneficial to mankind, by maintaining their just rights and properties; than in obtaining to himself power, for power's sake.
Again: A person of this disposition, if he be in his station a Preacher of the Gospel; he will not have in his view the temporal grandeur of any particular sect or party of men; but will always endeavor to set before men the truth of God in that native simplicity, and represent to them the religion of Christ, in the manner our Lord himself represented it, to be such a reasonable service, as that it may effectually convince the minds of gainsayers, and, by the irresistible force of truth and reason, compel them to submit themselves to the obedience of Christ. And above all things he will take care to give evidence in his whole behavior, that he himself sincerely believes and expects that judgment to come, which he sets forth to others as the great argument that must oblige them to embrace the truths, and to obey the precepts of the Gospel: according to that direction of our Savior, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in Heaven.” If he lives in a corrupt and degenerate age, he will principally set himself, with all meekness and gentleness, to oppose the particular corruption of the age he lives in; endeavoring, by all fair and righteous methods, to bring as many as possible to the acknowledgment of the truth.
Lastly, such a person, if he be in the capacity of a father or master of a family, will take all proper occasions to instill right notions of truth and virtue, into those over whom the circumstances of his state and relation naturally give him an influence. And by his private example, showing in his most free and retired conversation, that he has constantly upon his mind that real regard to God and virtue, which it is more easy and usual to make show of in public; he will with great efficacy promote the true honor of God, and the advancement of sincere religion. For, formal admonitions and public declarations concerning matters of religion, are apt to be of very small force, either towards fixing in the mind right principles, or forming in the manners a habit of virtuous practice; if in the private life and conversation of those by whom families are to be directed, there appear profaneness and impiety, or lewdness and debauchery, or tyrannical oppressiveness and violent and unreasonable passions. How affectionate soever the exhortations of the preachers of the Gospel be, and how often soever repeated instructions be given to young persons, either in schools or otherwise; yet if the examples they find at home in the practice of common life, be vicious, debauched, and altogether contrary to the precepts and admonitions given them in form; the effect of all such instruction cannot but be, comparatively speaking, very inconsiderable. Nor is there any other possible way, by which there can be any hope that the arguments of religion should come to have their due weight, and general efficacy in the world; unless they, whose state, relation, and circumstances, give them a natural influence over many, will show in the whole course of their private conversation, and in the freest and most retired part of common life, that they have really upon their minds a sense and concern for religion; that they have habitually in all their actions a constant regard to God, and a sincere desire to promote the knowledge of truth, and the practice of virtue and goodness amongst men. This was the temper of Abraham; upon account of which, that great character is given him in the text, with a repeated assurance of the blessings designed him: “I know him, that he will command his children, and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham, that which he hath spoken of him.”
The words, “he will command his children and his household after him,” seem to imply, as if it was in Abraham's power to undertake for those that were to come after him, what they should do; and as if they were originally under an obligation to perform what he should require of them. Which in general, it is evident, cannot be true: because then it would follow, that all other heads of families had the fame authority likewise; and consequently, the posterity of every family, lying under the same obligation, would be under a necessity, wherever any false religion prevailed, to continue forever, in the profession of such false religion: directly contrary to Abraham's own practice, who, being born among an idolatrous and corrupt people, “got him out from his country, and from his kindred, and from his father's house,” Gen. 12:1. Neither, where the truth itself prevails, is it sufficient that those who come after, follow it barely upon the command of those who went before: because, though it be indeed, by chance, the truth only, which they follow; yet, they not knowing it to be so, but following it merely upon such a principle, as would equally have made them follow any error, it is, with, regard to the morality of their act, the very same thing as if they were not in the truth. But in some particular cases, and with regard to some particular things, such circumstances there may be, as may make it very reasonable for parents and governors to command their children and their households after them; and very reasonable for these, to be under the strictest obligation to obey such commands. Where things are in their own nature absolutely and confessedly indifferent, there the command of proper superiors is manifestly the only rule of action. On the other side; where things are already made necessary by a superior obligation, as where there is a clear and express command of God; or where things are intrinsically and essentially obligatory in their own nature, as is the study of truth with sincerity and impartiality, and the practice of all moral and eternal virtues; there the instruction and direction, and example and authority of natural superiors, is the proper means of laying before ignorant and thoughtless minds, and of enforcing upon them, those original and antecedent obligations. This latter, was the case of Abraham in the text: he was to command “his children and his household after him,” that they should “keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment:” that they should worship the true God in opposition to idols, and that they should practice justice and righteousness towards men. The things were in themselves necessary, of intrinsic eternal obligation; and the command of Abraham was the setting that obligation before their eyes; teaching them to see it, and have a just sense of it, reminding them to attend to it, and pressing and enforcing it upon their minds. In this case therefore, Abraham might well undertake, and it is his great commendation that he did so, to command, as far as in him lay, his children and his household after him: because the things themselves, together with his command, clearly carried along with them their own evidence and conviction. The grounds and reasons of which conviction nevertheless, in the midst of universally corrupt and idolatrous nations, might very possibly and probably, in his family, as well as in all those around him, not have been attended to; had they not been seconded by his instruction, example, and command. “I know Abraham that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord.”
Another instance, wherein there seems to be an obligation laid upon posterity, by an act of those who went before them; is the case of circumcision. Gen. 17:9, “God said to Abraham, thou shalt keep my covenant, thou and thy seed after thee, in their generations: - every man-child among you, - that is eight days old, shall be circumcised, - for an everlasting covenant: and the man-child who is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people: he hath broken my covenant.” Circumcision was a token of the covenant between God and that people; and an obligation upon the circumcised person, to keep the law: yet 'tis evident an infant at eight days old, could not give his consent, to take upon himself any such obligation. The reason why the obligation was valid upon him notwithstanding was this: God was pleased to promise to Abraham and his posterity such and such particular blessings, as were entirely a free gift, and which he was not in justice under any obligation to have promised. These blessings, he limited to the conditions of a particular covenant; and the seal or token of that covenant, was the ceremony of circumcision. Now if the person who, without his own consent, was circumcised the eighth day, would not afterwards perform the conditions of that covenant; there was no wrong done him, if he received not those blessings, which by free gift only were annexed to the performance of the conditions of that particular covenant. And he might moreover very justly be punished, for rejecting that covenant; because God has, without controversy, a right to require from all his creatures obedience to such commands as he thinks fit to impose upon them, whether they themselves give their assent to his commandments or no.
By analogy drawn from this right of circumcision, it has for very many ages been a general practice in the Christian church, to receive infants by baptism into the obligations of faith and obedience to the Gospel; and to make profession for them, what they are to believe and obey. Whether this analogy be rightly drawn, or no; and be a sufficient and adequate foundation, for what has been built upon it, is a controversy which I shall not at present enter into: but what has been already said upon the unquestionable case of circumcision, and upon Abraham's command in the text, “to his children and to his household after him,” and upon the nature of these sorts of obligations in general; the proper application I shall make, is, to consider briefly what obligation lies upon those, who without their own knowledge or consent have been baptized in their infancy, and have had a baptismal vow made for them by others; what obligation really lies upon them to embrace and obey the Gospel, in the whole course of their lives. Now it is very evident, generally speaking, that no man has a right to make any promise for another, without his own consent; and no man is obliged to make good any such promise, if there lies upon him no other obligation, but what arises merely from such a promise, made without his knowledge or content. Neither is it sufficient, that the things promised to be done, are really for the person’s own advantage who is to perform them. For every person, when he arrives at years of understanding, has in all such cases, a right to judge for himself what is for his own advantage; and it is not what another thinks, but what he himself is convinced to be for his own benefit, that must finally determine him to choose and act. Wherefore, indeed, all undertakings of this kind, such as are baptismal vows made on the behalf of infants, are not to be esteemed as promises what the person shall do, but what he shall be taught, what he shall be instructed, what he shall be reminded and called upon to do, and to take upon himself that he will do. For the true ground of obligation in this case is, that the things themselves to be performed are in their own nature such, as every person, when he arrives at the full use of his reason, would be indispensably obliged to perform, whether others had beforehand undertaken for him any such thing or no. To inquire carefully into the will of God, to believe what God declares, and to do what he commands, are obligations absolutely incumbent upon every man, though they had never been bound upon him by any vow or promise: and therefore the vow made at baptism on behalf of an infant, is not so truly the ground of his being obliged; as the necessary obligation of the things themselves, is that which makes the vow itself to be valid upon him. Nor is any promise made by others, so properly with intention to lay any obligation upon the person, or to tie him up to anything which he would not otherwise have been bound to perform; but the true design is only in the way of kindness and assistance, to remind him of an obligation, absolute in itself, that he carefully enquire after, and believe and obey the will of God. And this may, very easily, be of great benefit and usefulness. For every man being obliged to study impartially the will of God, and to improve himself in the knowledge of truth and in the practice of virtue, and to live up to the best light he can obtain; it is plainly of very great advantage to men, to be from the beginning instructed in the way of truth, to have examples set before them of virtue and righteousness, and to be reminded and called upon to consider and attend to those obligations, which are incumbent upon men whether they attend to them or no. The great and righteous judge of the whole earth knows how to have compassion upon the ignorant, and upon them that are out of the way; and will reserve mercy in store, according to the exigency of every man's case, for those who, through ill instruction, wander in the ways of error. But it is a mighty advantage, and a particular blessing, to be originally led into the way of righteousness. For so in the text, it is not only recorded in commendation of Abraham, that he would “command his children and his household after him;” but it is taken notice of also in the way of consequent benefit to them, that they would accordingly “keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment.”
I shall conclude, with making this one only further observation. Since “keeping the way of the Lord,” signifies clearly, in Abraham's case, believing the true God, as well as doing righteousness; and since under the Gospel still more emphatically, sincere faith is always insisted upon, as well as virtuous practice: it may very naturally be enquired, if believing does not, like our actions, depend upon the will; but if men must believe what they have good evidence for, and cannot believe what they see no reason to be convinced of; how then can believing be a duty, which a man should be bound to perform? The answer plainly is: that that believing, which is the duty of a Christian, is not, in the strict sense of the word, that bare assent of the understanding, which is not in our power to withhold; but it signifies, in the moral sense, that good disposition of the mind and will, by which a man is disposed to attend to, and examine impartially, to confider and receive willingly, what upon due enquiry he shall find to be the will of God; not carelessly and credulously, but upon sober reason, and proper evidence. And so likewise on the contrary; unbelief, in scripture, does not signify disbelieving what wants just and sufficient proof; but it always means either carelessly or negligently rejecting without enquiry and without reason; or else rejecting willfully and obstinately, through the love of sin and vice. And this is evidently the case of all profane, loose, and debauched infidels; who, merely because they hate to be reformed, pretend to disbelieve, what if they seriously examined as they ought to do, they would find all possible reason to embrace.
Read more sermons by Samuel Clarke.
"And the LORD said, 'Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.'" Genesis 18:17-19 KJV
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