"When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?"
That the coming of the Son of man, is here intended of Christ's coming at the commencement of the latter day glory, hath been alleged in the preceding discourse, and several considerations adduced in proof. Additional evidence will arise from a view of the prophecies relative to the great declensions which were to take place in the church, during the gospel day. These, we observed, are of two kinds, one, a corruption of religion, the other its rejection.
The intimations given of them in the new testament, are chiefly found in the writings of St, Paul, Peter and John. They are noticed also by Jude. The two former suffered martyrdom under Nero. When the time of their departure drew nigh, they had separately a view of the then future state of the church; "particularly of the declension which were to take place in the kingdoms of this world, shall become the kingdom of our Lord and Christ." St. John had the same opened to his view in the isle of Patmos.
St. Paul in his second epistle to the Thessalonians, after rectifying the mistake of those who thought the day of judgment then at hand, proceeded to inform them that there would be great declensions in the church before the end of the world. "Let no man deceive you, by any means, for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth himself above all that is called God, or is worshipped; so that as God, he sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God." The antichristian defection is here evidently intended. The apostle toucheth on the same subject in his first epistle to Timothy, and directs him "to put the brethren in remembrance of these things," to prevent surprise when they should happen. This was the first great declension which was to be permitted in the church.
In his second epistle to the same Christian bishop, written not long before his death, he resumes the subject of the defections which were to happen in the church, but with a more particular reference to defections of a different kind, and of a latter date. Having exhorted Timothy to faithfulness in the discharge of official duty, he adds a reason; "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts, shall heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables."
This doth not answer to the Romish defection. It was never the character of that church to "heap to themselves teachers." They never ran after those of other persuasions, who brought new doctrines. Their errors were of the contrary kind. They rejected and persecuted every teacher who did not derive from their infallible head, and teach as he directed. But "itching ears" have misled many of those, who "are moved away from the hope of the gospel. By turning to fables they have made shipwreck of faith, and fallen a prey to those who lie in wait to deceive."
St. peter wrote with equal plainness of the general defections; but those of infidelity are the subject of his prophecies -- "There shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heretics, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the truth shall be evil spoken of." The heresies here intended are depicted too minutely to be mistaken. The heresiarchs are described as immoral, vain and proud, pretending to superior knowledge and penetration, despising law and government, and trampling them under their feet.
Toward the close of his second epistle, the apostle remarks, that he "wrote to stir up pure minds by way of remembrance; that they might be mindful of the words spoken before, by the holy prophets" -- that is, of the predictions of inspired men, who had forewarned them of those deceivers -- "Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days, scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying where is the promise of his coming?" And he refers them to St. Paul, who had predicted their rise in the church -- "Even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you: As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things" -- He adds -- "Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware, lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness."
The short epistle of St. Jude is little other than a prophetic description of the same apostasy and its leaders, whom he terms "ungodly men, turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ -- These are murderers, complainers, walking after their own lusts, and their mouths speaking great swelling words -- But beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; how they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own lusts."
The errors of Rome are not here intended. They are manifestly errors of a later date, which were to appear after those of Rome should subside, having lost their influence. It is repeatedly noted that they were to arise in the last days. They are errors of which this age is witness -- errors which have spread, and are yet spreading? those of infidelity and atheism, with their usual attendants, immorality in every hideous form. We should therefore "remember the words which were spoken before" -- the warnings which have been given us of those defections, which were to intervene those of Antichrist, and the coming of the Son of man.
The Apocalypse, though of more difficult interpretation, contains some particulars sufficiently intelligible and to our purpose. The writer enlarges on the Romish apostasy, which he describes more minutely than any who had preceded him, both in its rise and progress, and also in the circumstances which should attend its overthrow. He foretells the spirit, pride, riches, glare of ornaments, strange abominations, and unprecedented cruelties; the power, signs and lying wonders, which were to render Rome the wonder and dread of the whole earth. The portrait is in every part so exact and circumstantial, that none who are acquainted with the history of that church, can mistake it; unless blinded by interest or prejudice.
The apostle predicts also the other great defection which was to follow the antichristian, though in language more obscure and figurative, "And I saw three unclean spirits, like frogs, come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet for they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth, and the whole world, to gather them to the battle of the great day of God Almighty." *
* Vid. a discourse on this subject by Timothy Dwight, D.D. President of Yale College, printed at Newhaven, A.D.1798.
It deserves particular notice that all these strange declensions, which were foretold, as to take place in the church, and world, are represented as antecedent to Christ's reign on earth, and terminating before the commencement of that blessed era.
It is farther to be observed that during the whole antichristian defection, God's "two witnesses were to prophecy clothed in sackcloth." God would have a small, but sufficient number of faithful servants, who, in low and humble circumstances, would maintain the truth and be witnesses for him during the reign of man of sin. But about the end of his reign, they will have finished their testimony. Their enemies will then prevail against them and destroy them, and for a short term there will be none to stand up for God + -- none to warn the wicked, or to disturb them in their chosen ways. And they are represented as exulting in their deliverance from the society of those who amidst their departures from the living God, had tormented them,++ by warnings of future wrath, and an eternity according to their works. For this is the way in which God's witnesses torment the wicked.
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+ Comparatively None. The number will be exceedingly small -- the times resemble those just before the flood, when Noah was said to stand alone. The pageantry of Romish worship may be kept up in that church, till mystical Babylon shall be destroyed, in the awful manner foretold in the Revelation; but infidelity hath long since, tipped the foundation of catholic religion, being grafted on the ruins of superstition. The absurd doctrines, and legendary tales of popery, may have been credited in the dark ages, when many of the clergy were unable to write their names, or so much as read their alphabet; but the belief of them is utterly inconsistent with the light everywhere diffused since the revival of literature.
++ Tormented them. This language is remarkable. It intimates that the pains occasioned in the wicked, by the warnings of the faithful are the same, in kind, as those of the damned, and that they are often severe. This accounts for the mad joy of infidelity -- for the frantic triumphs of those who have persuaded themselves that religion is a fable. It accounts for the representation here given of the conduct of an unbelieving world, when infidelity shall have become universal, and the dead body of religion lie exposed to public scorn. Such is the time here foretold -- a time when the age of atheism may be vauntingly termed "the age of reason."
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God's witnesses testify not only against antichristian errors, but also against infidelity and the immorality it occasions. When he ceases to have witnesses there will be none to testify against either the one or the other. The world must then be deluged in infidelity and atheism. This agrees with the representation given by the apostle; who describes the enemies of God as refusing graves to his slaughtered witnesses, and causing their dead bodies to lie exposed to public view, that they may rejoice over them, and congratulate one another on their deliverance from the company of those who had disturbed them in their sinful indulgences; and such as continuing to be the state of "the people, and kindreds, and tongues, and nations," till the witnesses are raised from the dead and ascend to heaven in the presence of their enemies; when Christianity will revive, and Christ's reign on earth begin.
These representations may be designed to intimate that the term in which infidelity will appear to be universal, will be so short that the warnings of the faithful will not be forgotten -- that they will be kept in mind by the exultations occasioned by deliverance from the fears of religion, and from the presence of those who had excited those fears, by exhibiting proofs of religion which they could not refute. And how natural and common are such exultations, with those devoid of religious fear? But agreeably to the view given by the apostle, when such shall have become the state of the world, and the nations shall be thus felicitating themselves in full persuasion that all religion is a dream, and death an eternal sleep, the signals of Christ's coming to take the kingdom, will be given, and witnesses of the truth of Christianity, which cannot be disputed, suddenly arise, to the surprize and confusion of scoffing sinners; multitudes of whom will be swept off by desolating judgments to prepare the way for "the people of the saints of the most high, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom." For that desolations are to close the sad scene of apostasy, and prepare Christ's way is clearly foretold; particularly by St. John, who beheld, in vision, "the kings of the earth, and of the whole world, gathered to the battle of the great day of God Almighty;" and saw such an effusion of their blood, that "the harvest of the earth might be considered as reaped, the vine of the earth as cut and cast into the great wine press of the wrath of God, whence flowed blood to the horses bridles." *
Thus from the general tenor of prophecy it appears that infidelity will have overspread the world when the Son of man shall come to reign upon it: And as this agrees to no other coming of his foretold by the prophets, there can be no reasonable doubt what coming is intended in the text. If we keep these things in mind, we will not wonder at the declensions of religion and prevalence of infidelity. They will remind us of the remark made by our Savior to his sorrowing disciples just before his sufferings, "these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them."
Before, or about the time of this coming of the Son of man, Antichrist will fall -- Mahomedan delusion terminate -- "The Jews look to him whom they pierced, and mourn -- be gathered the second time" from their dispersions, and returned to their own land, and the fullness of the Gentiles be brought in. Perhaps these may be the signs of Christ's coming, intended by the resurrection of the witnesses, When these events shall take place "the Lord will be king over all the earth. In that day there will be one Lord and his name one."
* Revelation xiv.15, 20.
If we do not mistake the coming of the Son of man, here referred to, gloomy is the prospect now immediately before us. Hitherto God hath had his witnesses; but ere long they will cease from their labors, and leave infidelity undisturbed.
That the cause of the redeemer was to be depressed, before its universal prevalence in the latter days, is plainly revealed. The only difficulty is to ascertain the manner. Bishop Newton expects another confederacy of the catholic powers to destroy the followers of the Lamb, which will so nearly succeed, that for a short term none will dare to appear as his followers. But if infidelity was to intervene the antichristian defection, and prevalence of religion in the latter days, is this hypothesis probable? Is it not more reasonable to expect that destruction of the witnesses in another way, and by other enemies -- by the mockers and scoffers of the last times, who should be generated by papal error and superstition? And doth not the present state of the world confirm these expectations? The catholic religion hath been declining for several ages. It received a deadly wound from Luther and his associates, which hath not yet been healed. From that period it hath dwindled, and is now little more than a name. But infidelity hath been, for almost an equal term progressing, and already stalks out to public view: Yea, it vaunts with shameless pride, as though sure of victory. And we are constrained to acknowledge, that "of a truth, it hath laid waste nations and their countries!"
Our expectation is farther confirmed by observing the change which is made in the weapons of internal warfare. These are no longer bonds, imprisonments, tortures and death, but the shafts of ridicule, and sneers of contempt. "Trials of cruel mocking," now exercise the faith and patience of the saints. Religion, the dignity and hope of man, hath become the sport of stupid infidels! The jest of sorry witlings! These hissings of the serpent are every where to be heard!
Internal malice, never before made so general attack in this way. Perhaps, with all his sagacity the adversary did not suspect that creatures made for eternity could be driven from the way of peace by the derision of fools, till taught it by experience. But this hath been found his most successful weapon! It hath done greater mischief to Christianity, than all the rage of persecution!
Many account it honorable, to suffer, pain or loss, with patience, and to face danger and death with fortitude; but few think themselves honored by scorn and reproach. Human nature is here attacked on its weakest side.
Some European scoffers, of high rank, during the last age took the lead in this mode of attack on Christianity; and have been followed by a countless throng of noble and ignoble, learned and unlearned, down to this day. Few infidels are so modest as not to affect wit on the subject of religion; few witticisms so contemptible as not to meet the approbation and receive the applause of brother infidels.
That strong combinations have been formed against Christianity, and also against civil government, in the kingdoms of Europe, and that they have too successfully undermined both, is an acknowledged fact.
In the leaders of those conspiracies we discover all the traits of character, attributed in prophecy to the scoffers who should arise in the last days. When every circumstance, in events so remarkable agree with the predictions, can doubt remain whether the predictions are fulfilled?
There hath been faith in this land. It is not yet extinct. But we are importing the principles, and practices of Europe. "The Mockers of the last times" are now to be seen on this side the Atlantic. "Many follow their pernicious ways." We have reason to expect the evils to increase till "The godly cease and the faithful fail" from among us. For when the Son of man cometh shall he find faith on the earth? This land will also be overspread with infidelity! "The whole world lie in wickedness!"
There may be partial revivals of religion, but no general reformation is to be expected; and after every refreshing, the declensions will probably be greater than before. Fanatic emotions, here and there, may flatter some who are friends to religion, but they only serve to accelerate the spread of infidelity.
It is a gloomy thought! The serious soul saddens; sorrow fills the good man's heart, if, when he sees little regard paid to religion, he expects yet greater defections! If when he sees but few of those who are rising into life, paying attention to the best things, he expects still fewer of their descendants to be wise and good! Yea that the declensions will continue and increase, "till all flesh shall become corrupt, and the earth be filled with violence!" Would to God these expectations might not be realized; for they are exceedingly distressing. But they appear to us to be dictated by the spirit of truth, and confirmed by the history of the world, and by the progress of events opening to view.
One consideration, however, ministers consolation, shining through the gloom; namely, the long, holy, happy period, which may be expected to follow the dark term now approaching.
By dark we mean only in a moral view. Respecting arts and sciences, mankind may never have been more enlightened than at present. But this is foreign to religion. When Egypt, Greece, and Rome, were the seats of the muses, they remained as devoid of religious knowledge, as the most ignorant barbarians. Arts and sciences may still flourish, and yet deeper researches be made into the arcana of nature, while religion is dying and atheism succeeding in its place.
Some intervening links are necessary to connect present age with the happy times now distant. Who shall fill them, the divine sovereign will determine. An hour of temptation must try all who dwell upon the earth. These are the times in which we are tried.
Do we envy those who may live during the Peaceful reign of the Redeemer? Let us not forget that we are favored above many who have gone before us -- above some of our contemporaries and probably above those who will succeed us, before the commencement of that happy era. Nothing necessary to salvation is denied us. If straitened it is in our own bowels. If faithful to improve the talents put into our hands, "our labor will not be in vain in the Lord" -- God will keep us to his kingdom. There we shall see Christ's glory, though we may never see it here as some others who come after us.
Be it also remembered, that the rewards of the coming world, will be proportioned to the difficulties we may have to encounter here in this. Those who make their way to heaven through darkness and temptations, and force their way through hostile bands, will rise to greater honors there, than though they had ascended by an easier and a smoother road. Nothing done or suffered in the way of duty will loose its reward. God hath not said "seek ye my face in vain."
"Wherefore, brethren give diligence to make your calling and election sure; for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall; for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory, both now and forever. Amen."