"He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor; nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor." Psalm 15:3
Among the many sins for which God is contending with England, and especially with the professors of religion in it, I doubt not but one, and that none of the least, is, the gross misgovernment of their tongues. The abuses of the tongue are many, one whereof is the malignity of it. And whereas in David's time a malignant and virulent tongue was the badge and cognizance of an atheist: "Behold, they belch-out with their mouth: swords are in their lips: for who, say they, doth hear? "Psalms 59.7; now, alas! this spot is become the spot of God's children, and high professors of religion. A man can scarce come into any company, but his ears shall be filled with censures, detractions, reproaches; party against party, person against person. Instead of that old Christian love and charity for which the ancient Christians were noted and applauded even by their adversaries, " Behold," said they, "how the Christians love one another!" men's hearts are generally full of rancor, and their tongues of sharp reflections, contemptuous and reproachful expressions, censures, and slanders, against their absent, and ofttimes innocent and more worthy, brethren. This is the disease which I would endeavor to administer some physic to from these words.
The coherence is plain. David proposeth a question: "Lord, who shall abide in your tabernacle ? Who shall dwell in your holy hill?" (Psalm 15.1) By which you may understand either Sion, where the ark then was, or Moriah, where the temple was to be built; and by either of them, the church of God here, and especially the heavenly temple hereafter.
So that it is as if David had said, and asked, " What is the qualification of the true members of God's church, of the citizens of the New Jerusalem? By what properties are they known and distinguished from other men ? " To this, David does not answer, that they are so differenced by their high talks, by their crying-out upon the sins of other men, or the wickedness of the times by their frequent attendance at God's tabernacle; but by the uprightness of their hearts, by the good government of their tongues, by the holiness of their lives: " He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart." verse 2.) And in this third-verse that I have now read: He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor." It is the last Clause which I intend to speak to, because it will comprehend the former: "Nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor." The Words I Shall explain in the handling of the doctrine, which is this:--
DOCTRINE: It is the duty, and must be the care, of every true Christian, not to take up a reproach against his neighbor. I shall first explain the point, then prove it, and lately apply it
I. For EXPLANATION, three things are to be inquired into:--
QUESTION I. " Who is my neighbor ? "--There are some men of fame in the world that will tell you, that, " in the language of the Old Testament, by 'neighbor' is to be understood' one of the same country and religion,' popularins Israelita; " and it is the peculiarity of the gospel, that every man is made my neighbor. But if we examine Scripture, we shall find this to be a gross mistake. I need not go farther for the confutation of it than to the Decalogue itself: " You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." (Exod. 20. 16.) I suppose it will seem a very hard saying to affirm, that it is lawful to bear false witness against a stranger. So when God commands, " You shall not lie carnally with your neighbor's wife," (Lev. 18. 20) I presume these gentlemen would not allow themselves that liberty with the wife of a stranger. If God may be his own interpreter, this controversy will quickly be ended from Lev. 19., where, if you compare two verses,--verse 18, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," with verse 34, "But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; "--you will not need the help of an artist to form this conclusion, that" the stranger is, in God's account, and ought to be in mine account, my neighbor." To the same purpose you may please to compare two other places of scripture together: Deut. 22. 4, "You shall not see your brother's ass nor his ox fall down by the way, and hide yourself from them; you shall surely help him to lift them up again; " With Exod. 23.4, 5: " If you meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely bring it hack to him again. If you see the ass of him that hate thee lying under his burden, you shall help with him." He who is my " brother, "which is nearer than a neighbor, in the one place, is mine " enemy," and he that " hates me" in another place. And it is further observable to this end, that the Hebrew word and the Greek a "neighbor," is usually rendered in Scripture by eteros ''another;" as: "He that loves another hath fulfilled the law, for the law saith, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Rom. 13. 8, 9.) Most true therefore is that of St. Augustine, Proximus est oamnis homo homini" Every man is a neighbor to any other man." Nay, the more intelligent part of the Jews were of this opinion; and Kimchi upon these words saith, " He is called my neighbor with whom I have any business." And the scribe, of whom we read, Luke 10, knowing tile mistakes of many of his brethren, asks our Savior this question, " Who is my neighbor ? " (Verse 29.) And our savior gives him an answer, the sum of which is this, that even the Samaritan was to be looked upon as his " neighbor."
Question II. " What is a reproach ? "I answer, in general,
1. It is nothing else but an evil report, or an evil speech, uttered concerning another. Now a report is evil two ways:--
(A.) When it is evil in itself, a false report.--When a man belies his neighbor, and bears false witness against him, either in judicial proceedings, or in common conversation. These kinds of evil reports David was exercised with: " False witnesses did rise up; they laid to my charge things that I knew not." (Psalm 35. ll.)
(B.) When it is evil to a man's neighbor, when your speech tends to your neighbor's disparagement and defamation.--And here I must inform you, that a man may be guilty of reproaching men by commendations, as David speaks of his enemy: " His words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords." (Psalm 55. 21.) It is the usual practice of some men to smooth the way to a reproach by a commendation to raise a man's reputation, that he may tumble it down with more advantage.
2. When a man publisheth a neighbor's secret infirmities or sins.-This all causes allow to be a kind of detraction: and good reason; for through the matter may be true and good, yet the principle from whence this proceeds is evil. It proceeds from want of love to my neighbor, and of the just care that I ought to have of credit; and the ends, either of speaker, or of the speech in its own nature, or of both, are evil,--even to bring his neighbor into contempt or disgrace.
3. When a man aggravates the real or supposed faults of his neighbor either in opinion or in practice.--Certainly the professors of this age, and this city, are deeply guilty in both these respects.
(A.) In aggravating other men's real or supposed errors and mistakes.--Often times men call that an error through their won ignorance or prejudicate opinion, which in the judgement of far wiser and better men than themselves, and in reality, is a precious truth of God; and the pardonable mistakes of their neighbor they decry as fundamental and damnable errors, or at least as errors dangerous to salvation. I am far from pleading for errors that are really damnable, or highly dangerous, such as those of the Papists, Socinians, Quakers, and the like; but there are other and lesser differences among Protestants, who, "holding the Head," as the apostle speaks, differ in doctrines of less moment, or in the methods and modes of worship, in rites and ceremonies, which possibly one man thinks to be necessary, another to be lawful and indifferent, another sinful; and by these differing opinions it is lamentable to consider, and, I confess, I cannot think of it without horror and loathing, how Protestants traduce and defame one another. The one is "superstitious, idolatrous, a formalist, a profane person, and one that hath no sense of religion." The other is an " heretic, a schismatic, a fanatic, a licentious, lawless person, that follows his own sensuality, and hath not the fear of God before his eyes." Thus they mutually rail at one another, as if they had neither sense nor conscience. Nay, the disease is grown to that height, that, not content to censure men's opinions they will also judge of their consciences and secret intentions, as if they maintained such doctrines against the light of their own consciences; a censure which proceeds from deep ignorance of the merits of the cause. It were, I confess, a very desirable thing that all men were of one mind; and Christians indeed are to labor for it, and to pray for it: "I beseech you, brethren by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among; you; but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment." (l Cor.1. 10.) But if a man consider the great weakness of most men's understandings, the infinite variety of their parts and apprehensions, educations, inclinations, interests, or what the scripture hath foretold, "There must be heresies, that they which are approved may be made manifest," (I Cor. 11. 19,) I think he will conclude, that he who shall expect this absolute harmony and uniformity in this world must either dreamer or a dote. And therefore the Holy Ghost hath directed us what to do in case of such differences of judgment; to wit, to talk charitably toward those that differ from us: "If your brother be grieved with your meat, now walks you not charitably; " (Rom. 14. 15 ;) and to agree with others as far as we can: " Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in anything you be otherwise minded, Good shall reveal even this unto you. Notwithstanding whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing." (Phil. 3. 15, 16.) But for those mutual reproaches and censures one against another, I must take the boldness to charge you all, as you tender your salvation, to have a care of them; for though these points wherein you differ be disputable, yet this is out of all dispute, that you ought to "love your neighbor as yourself," and that you ought not " to take up a reproach against your neighbor." And therefore take heed, lest while you condemn another man for disputable and lesser errors, you do not run into an indisputable crime and fundamental miscarriage.
(B.) Men are guilty of reproaching their neighbors by aggravating their errors in practice and conversation.--When men censure and reproach others for things indifferent and of small moment: as, for example, in their habits and garbs. I am not ignorant that there are great miscarriages in men's habits, and that the bush that hangs at the door does frequently discover what is within, and tell the pride of men's hearts; and there are certain bounds and limits to be observed, that men's habits be agreeable to their quality, estate, calling, and condition in the world: but yet there is a just latitude in these things; the lawfulness of them does not consist in a mathematical point; these are to be regulated by the custom of times and places. Now if a man see another that does a little vary from his fancy or practice, whose garb is a little more ornamental than his, though not much extravagant; if now he Judgeth the state of this man, and concludes him to be a profane or carnal person, this is a " reproach." So, again when a man commits some miscarriage towards his neighbor through carelessness, or forgetfulness, or mistake, it is a common thing for men to charge it as a malicious design, intended for their hurt: this is a " reproach." And you may easily multiply instances in your own thoughts.
QUESTION III. "What is it to take-up a reproach against a man's neighbor ? "
I answer: It is a defective manner of expression and therefore is diversely supplied; but especially and most reasonably two ways: and, accordingly, a man may be guilty of taking-up a reproach against his neighbor two ways:--
1. When he takes it up into his mouth.--The Hebrew word is often so used; as Exod. 20. 7: "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." Not take it; that is, not lift it up upon your tongue, or not take it into your mouth. So, Isa. 14. 4: " You shall take-up this proverb against the king of Babylon; " that is, You shall take it up into your lips, you shall utter and - publish it. Thus, Ezek. 26. 17: " They shall take-up a lamentation for thee; " which is explained in the following words: " And say to thee, How art you destroyed! " And therefore, elsewhere, the word "lips" or "mouth" is added; as Psalm 16.4: " Their drink-offerings of blood will I not offer, nor take up their names into my lips." Psalm 1. 16: " What hast you to do to declare my statutes, or that you should take my covenant in your mouth ? "And this phrase of taking-up may possibly respect the situation of the mouth above the heart; which, according to the opinion of the Hebrews, is the seat of the understanding. As if he had said: " If there should rise in your heart an evil thought or device against your brother, let it die there; let it never come up into your mouth." Now, in this respect, a man may be guilty of this sin of taking-up a reproach against his neighbor two ways:--
(A.) When he is the author and first raiser of a reproach.--Such as Sanballat was: " There are no such things as you say, but you feignest them out of your own heart." (Neh. vi. 8.)
(B.) When a man is the spreader or promoter of it.--Suppose it comes from another fountain, if you art the conduit pipe by whom it is conveyed to others, you art guilty of it. " You shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among your people." (Lev. xix. 16.)
2. When a man takes it into his ear.--So some expound these words:" You shall not receive, not admit, not endure, a reproach against your neighbor." You know, the receiver of stolen goods is as obnoxious to the law as he that takes them away: so then a man may be guilty of this sin, not only by speaking, but also by the hearing of a reproach against his neighbor; and so he may be three ways:--
(A.) When a man quietly permits it, and gives no check to it.--This certain the great law of charity commands me not only to do no harm to my neighbor, but also to suffer no hurt to be done to him which it lies in my power to prevent or remove. If another set his house on fire, I must lend my help to quench it; I must pull my neighbor's ox out of the pit, though another man hates him in; and, consequently, when the good name of my neighbor is invaded by another, if I patiently bear the reproach, I make myself guilty.
(B.) When a man hears a reproach against his neighbor greedily; and with delight.--It is a sin, and that of no small size, for a man to take pleasure in the sins of others; and therefore the apostle makes it an aggravation of sin: " Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them." (Rom. 1. 32.) " Charity rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth." (I Cor. 13. 4, 6.) Consider, I beseech you, the commonness of this sin. If a reproach be fastened upon one who is a man's enemy, or of another party, men commonly hear such reproaches with delight; not considering that this is not only a blemish to his own party, but also a blot to Christianity, a reproach to the Protestant religion, a sin against God and against the gospel, a scandal to men; and these things should rather call for tears, than laughter and approbation. And therefore, when a man seems to approve another man's reproach, and encourage the reproacher, he involves himself in the guilt of it. It is the saying of a very learned man upon the Proverbs, that " it is not easy to know whether is a greater sinner, or whether is the greater plague to a commonwealth,--he that spreads a reproach, or he that willingly receives it."
(3.) When a man easily believes reproach.--It is said indeed, "Charity believeth all things; " (I Cor. 13. 4, 7;) but the object of this belief is the good of my neighbor, and not his evil. Charity readily believes well concerning its neighbor, where there is the least color or foundation for it; but it is slow to believe evil concerning him; and when a man is prone to believe evil concerning another man, it is a great sign of an uncharitable disposition: the reason is, he cause men do most readily believe those things which comply with their own desires and inclinations; as, in wars and differing factions, every man is apt to believe good tidings concerning his own party. Good men are the least suspicious, and slowest to believe evil of others; of which you have are remarkable instance in Gedaliah: when Johanan told him of Ishmael's design to murder him, it is said, he "believed him not." (Jer. 40. 14.)And when it was pressed upon him a second time, and Johanan offered to punish the conspirator, and to prevent the execution of the treason, he said, " You shall not do this thing: for you speakest falsely concerning Ishmael." (Verse 16.)
You may observe how backward fond parents are to believe any ill report concerning their children: and whence does this proceed? Even from an inordinate love and kindness to them; and therefore, on the contrary, men's credulity unto evil reports concerning their neighbors does proceed from want of love and affection to them. So much for the explication.
II. The proof of the doctrine shall consist in the representation of the sinfulness and injury of this practice of censuring, back-biting, and reproaching of others. And that I may more effectually dissuade and affright myself and you from it, I shall discover to you how pregnant a sin this is: there is a complication of injuries in it. It is injurious, first, to God; Secondly, to yourselves; Thirdly, to the party censured or reproached; Fourthly, to other men.
(A.) To God and Christ in divers particulars.
1. It is an invasion of God's prerogative.--You know how dangerous a crime this is, when it is committed against an earthly prince; nor can you in reason think it less criminal and hazardous, when it is committed against Him who "accepts not the persons of princes," and who is"greater than the kings of the earth." And therefore observe how severely God rebukes this sin in Rom. 14.; when men did censure and reproach one another, either for the observation of days and meats, as guilty of superstition, or for the neglect of them, as proceeding from licentiousness; what saith the apostle? "Who art you that judges another man's servant? " (Verse 4.) And, " But why do you judge or set at nought your brother ? for we shall all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ." (Verse 10.) As if he had said, "You do set yourself on the throne of God, and you do take God's work out of his hands."
2. This is a manifest breach of the laws of God and of Christ.--The things, as I said before, which you do censure and reproach another for, are oftentimes doubtful and liable to dispute; but the command of God against this sinful practice is evident, and without controversy. He whom you censure possibly may sin; but you that do reproach him certainly does sin, and that against clear light; and so you do put your-self into the number of those that "rebel against the light," which is mentioned as a great aggravation of sin. (Job 24. 13.) The law of God has so evidently forbidden this sin, that if your conscience does not smite you for it, if you can't go on quietly in this sin, it is a sign you art in a deep sleep, if not " dead in trespasses and sins." That this practice is so great a breach of the laws of God and of Christ, will appear by these particulars:--
(A.) It is against particular and express scriptures, forbidding this practice.--The text is evident: it is not like some places of scripture, which are " hard to be understood," and soon " wrested; " but it is so plain, that " he that runs may read it: " none shall dwell in God's holy bill that allow themselves in this practice. Again: " You shall not raise a false report " against your brother. (Exod. 23. 1.) A false report: either that which you know to be false, then you are guilty of forgery; or that which in the issue shall be found to be false, in which case you are guilty of rashness and uncharitableness. In the Hebrew it is " a vain report," a report that lacks the solidity of thorough information, and of real use to your neighbor. " Speak not evil one of another. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law; " (James iv. 11 ;) and so, in the grossest sense, is an Antinomian. Ministers must put people in mind "to speak evil of no man." (Titus 3. 2.)
(B.) This is against the fundamental law of love and charity, which is the chief of the laws of God.--So great a law, that the rest of the laws of God must give place to it. Sacrifice, Sabbath, the worship and service of God, must frequently give place unto this duty of mercy and charity to men; by which you may see, as how great a duty this is, so how great a sin the violation of this command is. God accepts no man's person, he regards no service, where this is wanting. Though men pretend, or express, ever so much love to God, though they do or suffer ever so much for him, yet if they "have not charity, it profiteth nothing." (I Cor.13. 3.) And, " in this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever does not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loves not his brother. If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" (I John 3. 10; 4.20.)
But possibly some may ask, " Who, then, is my brother, to the love of whom I am thus obliged ? Possibly he is one of my own party and religion; and such I do love." No, every man is your brother in this sense, and the object of your love. It is true, good men are the principal objects of your love; but not the only objects of it. The commands of the gospel in this matter are general: "Honor all men. Love the brotherhood;" (1 Peter 2. 17 ;) that is, love them in a more eminent degree. "As we have opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith." (Gal. 6.10.) But now, all persons, yes, even those that censure and reproach others, will pretend they love them: but, be not deceived: if you do sincerely love your neighbor, you will be ready to do all good offices for him, to seek his good, to maintain his credit, to interpret all things in the best sense, to cover his failings. " Charity shall cover the multitude of sins." (I Peter 4. 8.) Did you love your neighbor, you would not be so apt to censure him, so greedy to hear, nor so ready to believe, evil reports concerning him. When God shall come at the last day to try men's love to their brethren by the rules and characters of it which he did prescribe in 1 Cor.13, I doubt multitudes of persons will be found deeply guilty, that thought themselves in a manner wholly innocent. You should do well to study that chapter, and to labor thoroughly to understand it; and that I commend to you as an excellent antidote-against this wicked practice.
(C.) This is a sin against that great and royal law of Christ, which even the heathens have admired, and the emperor Severus did so highly applaud: "Whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." (Matt. 7. 12.)--Now, let your own consciences answer the question: Would you be thus dealt with by others ? Would you have all your infirmities sharply censured ? your secret miscarriage published to the world? the whole course of your lives ripped up, and all your actions severely examined ? No, no; they that are so forward to censure the real or supposed miscarriages of others, would have their own more tenderly dealt with; and, generally; those that are most severe judges of others are most partial to themselves. They that will most freely defame other men, will not endure to be reproved and admonished themselves. They that will turn the edge of the sword to others, would have the back only turned to themselves.
(D.) It is a sin against the great law of maintaining peace amongst men. "This is prescribed as a remedy against this very sin: " Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another." (Rom. 14. 19.) " Follow peace with all men."(Heb. 12. 14.) " If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men." (Rom. 12. 18.) He said indeed, If it be possible, because in some cases it is impossible to have peace with wicked men without the neglect of our duty, and without the loss of truth and holiness; but as far as it is possible, we are obliged to promote it. But what peace can there be in the midst of censures and reproaches ? The natural offspring of such parents are contentions, divisions, animosities; while peace lies bleeding and languishing.
(E.) It is against that great command laid upon all Christians, of excelling other men.--Christ requires more from Christians than he does from other men: "What do you more than others ? " (Matt. v. 47.) Christians must be free from the vices of other men: " This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you walk not as other Gentiles walk."(Eph. 4. 17.) So, Luke 12. 25, 26: "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship; " they are proud, ambitious, imperious. " But it shall not be so among you ;" Christians must be in the world like "lights shining in a dark place." They must have all the virtues that others have, and they must be clean from all the vices and lusts in which others live. Now, the very Heathens have condemned this practice of reproaching and traducing others: detractors were infamous amongst them; and therefore it is a shame this should be practiced by Christians.
(F.) This is a sin against the whole design and scope of the scriptures.--These are, as I may say, the two poles, upon which the heavenly globe of the scripture turns; the love of God, and the love of our neighbor." You shall love the Lord your God with all the heart, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt.22. 37, &c.) " Love is the fulfilling of the law; " (Rom. 13. 10 ;) and the law is enforced by Christ, John 13. 31: " A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another." So, than, all the scripture has but one neck; and this the detractor cuts off, and so makes himself the greatest anti-scripturist in the world.
3. This is a great injury to God, because it is a confederacy with God's greatest enemy, the devil.--God judges of men's relations by their works, and not by their talks. " If you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham." (John 8. 39.) And, verse 41:"You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do." Now this among others is the devil's great work and office, who is hence called "the accuser of the brethren," (Rev. 12. 10,) and from whence he hath his name diabolus, which is "a calumniator, a slanderer, a reproacher." And these men, as they do the devil's work, so they are called by the devil's name: " Not slanderers ;" in the Greek, mh eicxolous, " not devils." (1 Tim 3. 11.) And as they do the devil's work, so they serve the devil's great design. " God is love," and therefore his design is to promote love in the world. The devil is a malignant and hateful spirit, and his work is to promote hatred, contention, and strife among men: and that is effectually done by this way.
(II.) This is an injury to yourself in these particulars:--
1. Hereby you do contract guilt, the worst of all evils.--A man's sin may injure another man; but the greatest and the worst part of it falls upon his own head. "Wickedness," saith Seneca, " drinketh up the greatest part of its own poison." He that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul." (Prov. 8. 36.) You woundest another man's name; but you woundest your own conscience: which of these is the worst? He whom you reproaches gets a blot before men; and you do procure to yourself a blot before God. You accusest him before other men; and your conscience will accuse thee for it before God.
2. Hereby you do expel or weaken that excellent grace of love, that necessary and fundamental grace, that sweet and amiable grace.--As all virtue is a reward to itself, so is this in a more special manner. Infinite is the pleasure of the holy soul, in loving God, and loving all men, and loving enemies. O, this is a most delightful work ! And, on the contrary, hatred, and malice, and envy, as they are most sinful, so are they very miserable, works, and a great torment to him that has them. While the mind of a wicked, malicious man is like "the raging sea," continually " casting up mire and dirt," and is its own tormentor; the mind of a good man, exercising itself in love, is, as it were, " a sea of glass like unto crystal," calm and serene; it enjoys God, and itself, and other men, yes, even a man's enemies: by this holy art a man may get comfort out of his enemies, whether they will or no.
3. Hereby you do lay a foundation for your own reproach.--" Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again." (Matt.7. 1, 2.) I think this text should strike a terror into all persons who are guilty of this sin. The law of retaliation prescribed by God is frequently inflicted by him also: "He shall have judgment without mercy, that has shown no mercy. ' (James 2. 13.) So that you do engage the great God against thee, to pour contempt upon your name, and to make thee a reproach in the world.
(III.) It is a great injury to he person whom you do censure and reproach; and that in these particulars:--
1. You do rob him of he best treasure which he has in the world. --"A good name is rather to be chosen than riches; " (Prov, 12. 1;) and, consequently, you art more criminal than he that dies by the hands of justice for taking away another man's goods: you rob him of that which you are not able to give him; you rob him of the most lasting good which he has, and that which alone will abide after death. So that your cruelty extends beyond the grave, and tends to this,--to make his name rot above ground, while his body rots in it. And this injury is the greater, because it cannot be prevented: there is no fence against this vice; it is the arrow that flies by night, which no man can either observe or avoid, and it is an injury which can hardly be repaired. Breaches in men's estates may be made up, liberty lost maybe recovered, a conscience wounded may be healed; but a reputation can hardly ever be restored. Calumniare fortiter, aliquid adhaerebit, " Slander a man resolutely, and something, to be sure, will stick."
2. Hereby you do disenable him from getting good, both as to his outward and as to his inward man. As to his outward man: who knows not the necessity of a good name for the successful management of a man's worldly concernment ? By one act of this sin you may possibly undo a man and all his family. It hinders him also from receiving inward good as to the state of his soul: at least he is not likely to get any good from thee. Whereas it is your duty to " rebuke your neighbor, and not to suffer sin to rest upon him;" (Lev. 19. 17; ) this is the way to make that work altogether unsuccessful: it stops his ear against your counsels, it hardens his heart against your admonition; and many times such reproaches make men careless, and by degrees impudent; and when once they have lost their reputation by your calumnies, they are not careful to regain it, and, it may be, judge it impossible.
3. Hereby you do hinder him from doing of good in the world.--It is certain, a good name is of absolute necessity to make a man considerably serviceable in the world: when a man hath once lost this, the very good which he does is despised and disregarded. And this reason especially concerns you in the reproaching of three sorts of person, which I do therefore in a special manner caution you against.
(A.) In reproaching of magistrates, of kings, and persons in authority.--Magistrates, though bad in themselves, yet are to be looked upon as great blessings; and if we had the Persian experiment of absolute anarchy but for a few days, that every man might do that which seemed right in his own eyes, we should all be sensible of this truth. Now, the magistrate's reputation is the great supporter of that majesty and authority which he bears, and the magistrate's authority is the people's benefit. And therefore all persons should be tender in this particular; they should not expose kings and magistrates to contempt and scorn, nor beget irreverence in people toward them. And therefore they ought to take heed, not only of divulging false reports concerning them, but even such as possibly may be true; they must take heed of publishing the secret miscarriages of princes; for this, as I told you, is a sin against any man, but much more against person in authority.
(B.) Against ministers.--Their name is most necessary for their use-fulness in the word. And therefore, when a man defames a minister, beside that injury which is common to other men, he does this peculiar mischief,--he endeavors to rob the world of all the good which such a person may do in it. I cannot but take this occasion to vent my great grief, and the scandal I justly take, at those ministers and Christian, who, if a man differ from them in some doctrines or rites of less moment, (though otherwise never so eminent,) make it their business to disparage and bespatter him, and think they do God good service, in blasting his reputation, representing him as a Papist, Socinian, time-server, &c. In the fear of God, consider the sinfulness of this practice. Whatsoever good such a person might do in convincing, converting, and building-up of souls, so far as this is hindered by your means, the blood of such souls will fall upon your head: nay, which is more, although good should not be hindered by it, yet you shall answer for all that might have been hindered by it. And for this reason Constantine the Great did profess that if he should know any secret miscarriage of a minister, he would cover it with a mantle.
(C.) Against good men, or eminent professors of religion.--Who, I confess, when they are bad, are the vilest of men; and when their sins are known and public, they ought to be used with most severity; and such shall have the hottest place in hell who use religion as a cloak for their villainies: yet, when the sins of such persons are secret and scarce known, we should take heed of spreading of them. Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon," not for their sakes, but for the sake of religion, which infinitely suffers by their misdemeanors, and the reproaches which arise from them.
(IV.) This is a great injury to other men, in these particulars:--
1. You corruptest others by your example.--Especially ministers and eminent professors of religion,--they should, above all others, avoid this sin, because their actions are precedential. They that will not follow your counsel, will imitate your example; and though our Savior hath cautioned us concerning the Pharisees, " What they bid or teach you, observe and do; but do not after their works; " (Matt. 23. 3;) yet, in spite of all that Christ hath said, men will take a contrary course: they will not hear your sermons, but will diligently attend to your conversations. O consider this: every time another hears thee censuring and reproaching your neighbor, you do in effect preach and persuade him to this practice; you settest a copy which other men may write after, when you art gone into another world; and no man knows how far the contagion of such an evil example may spread, nor how great afire a little spark may kindle.
2. You art a disturber of human society, an incendiary in the place where you dwellest.--The peace and tranquillity of cities and kingdoms are often disturbed by this means. "Whence come wars and fightings among you ? Come they not hence, even from your lusts that warring our members ? " (James 4.1.) They do not come from men's lusts as they remain in their own hearts, for so they are secret and unknown to the world j but as they break out, first in their lips, and then in their hands.
3. You art a great enemy to the church of God, however you may seem to yourself or others a zealous friend of it.--It is not easy for any man to conceive the great mischief which these censures and reproaches produce in the church: they break the peace of it, and fill it with sharp contentions and divisions; yes, they strike at the being of it. You know, "a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand:" they do their part to pull-down the glorious building of the church, so as one stone should not be left upon another. They eclipse the glory of the church, which does not consist in external splendor, in riches and ornaments, but in love, peace, and unity among themselves. This was Jerusalem's beauty, that it was ~ built as a city that is compact together." (Psalm 72. 3.) This hinders the growth and progress of the church and of religion. When persons professing religion allow themselves in such sins which are not only offensive to God, but also odious in the world, it fills the minds of men with powerful and invincible prejudices against religious men, and against religion itself for their sakes. I must tell you, if the professors of religion would learn the government of their tongues, and the right ordering of their conversations, it would be the likeliest means to propagate religion in the world. And, Christians, if ever you would do this, do it now; never was it more necessary or seasonable to wipe-off those stains and blemishes which at this day lie upon religion for the neglect of this duty by the professors of it. And thrice blessed are all you that contribute to so glorious a work as the restoration of that beauty and glory which religion once had in some of our remembrance. But when the tongues of Christians are exercised in this sinful practice, beside the particular injury to the person reproached, it hinders the conversion and salvation of others. Consider, I beseech you, a little, the greatness of this sin. You think it a great crime (and so it was) in Elymas the sorcerer, who, when Sergius Paulus called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired them to preach to him the word of God, " Withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith." (Acts 13. 8.) he did this by his words, and you doest it by your actions. You doest the devil's work in stealing the seed of the word of God out of men's hearts, and making it unfruitful. These practices beget in men a mean esteem and contempt of God's word, when they see how little good it does to others, and how little power it hath with you that profess it.
Before I come to the application, two questions are to be answered:--
QUESTION 1. " May I not speak evil of another person when it is true ? "
1. A man may be faulty in so doing--The real secret faults of your neighbor, as I told you, you ought not unnecessarily to publish. And suppose there be no untruth nor injustice in it; yet there is uncharitableness and unkindness in it; and that is a sin. You wouldest not have all truth said concerning yourself, nor all your real faults publicly traduced. " Out of your own mouth will God judge thee, O you wicked servant !" Yes, your own tongue and conscience shall another day condemn thee.
2. You may speak evil of another person when necessity requires it.--It may be necessary sometimes for his good; and so you may speak evil of him unto those that can help it; as a man may acquaint parents with the miscarriages of their children, in order to their amendment. Thus Joseph brought to his father the evil report of his brethren. (Gen.27. 2.) sometimes this may be necessary for the caution of others; as, if I see a man ready to enter into intimate friendship and acquaintance with a person whom I know to be highly vicious and dangerous, I may in such a case caution him against it; for, certainly, if charity commands me, when my neighbors's ox is ready to fall into a pit, to do my endeavor to prevent it, much more am I obliged to prevent the ruin of my brother's soul, when I see him so near destruction. But for a man to do this unnecessarily and unprofitably,--this is the sin I have been speaking of.
3. If you will speak evil of other persons, do it in the right method,--Christ hath given us an excellent rule: " If your brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, you hast gained your brother. But if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more. And if he shall neglect to listen to them, tell it unto the church." (Matt.18. 15, 17.) But if men will be preposterous, and will not follow Christ's order, but, instead of private admonishing, will publish men's faults to others, herein they make themselves transgressors.
4. In doubtful cases, silence is the safest way.--It is rarely men's duty to speak evil of men; and when it is not their duty to speak, it is not their sin to be silent. It is seldom that any [one] suffers by my silence, or concealment of his fault; but great hazards are run, and many persons commonly are made sufferers, by my publication. Now, as charity commands me to pass the most favorable judgment, so wisdom obligeth me to choose the safest course.
QUESTION II. " But what, if that man I speak against be an enemy to God and his people ? May not I in that case speak evil of him ? Does not that zeal I owe to God engage me to speak evil of such a man as far as I can with truth ? " This, I believe, is that which induces many well meaning persons to this sinful practice of detracting from divers worthy persons, ministers, and others, as supposing them to be enemies to God and to his ways; and so they think their reproaching and censuring of such persons is nothing but zeal for God.
For answer to this, consider,
1. There is abundance of sinful zeal in the world and in the church.--Therefore the apostle gives us a caution: " It is good to be zealously affected always in a good things." (Gal.4. 18.) otherwise we know it was from zeal that Paul persecuted the church. (Phil .3. 6.) Zeal, indeed, is an excellent grace in itself; but nothing [is] more frequently both pretended where it is not, (and where envy, interest, or malice lie at the bottom,) and abused where it is.
2. True zeal hath an equal respect to all God's commands, and especially to those that are most plain and most considerable.--It is at least doubtful, whether the man you traducest be an enemy to God and his ways; sure I am, it is so with some ministers and Christians that are highly censured and reproached by those that differ from them; and it were great impudence to deny it: but this is a certain truth and evident duty: " You shall not take up an evil reproach against your neighbor."
3. consider how easy a mistake is in this case, and how dangerous.--Peradventure he whom you called an enemy to God, will, upon inquiry, be found a friend of God and his ways. But what dose you mean by" the ways of God? " Possibly your own ways or party that you art engaged in: take heed of that. If you would judge a right, you must distinguish between the circumstantials and the essentials of the ways of God. Suppose a man be an enemy to your party, and your way and manner of religious worship and government; yes, let us suppose that you are indeed the way of God, wherein yet you may be mistaken; if, now, this man be an able and zealous assertor of the substantial and fundamental truths of God and ways of holiness, and this be attended with a holy and exemplary life, who dare say that this man is an enemy to God and his ways ? O my souls come not into the secrets of such persons!
4. You must not go out of God's way to meet with God's enemies.--If any man be really an enemy of God and of his truths and ways, I do not persuade you to comply with him, or by sinful silence to betray the cause of God; only let me entreat you to do God's work in God's way: you may apply yourselves to him, and endeavor to convince him; you may speak or write against his doctrine, provided you do it with modesty and moderation, and not with that virulence and venom wherewith too many books are now leavened. But, for this way of detraction and reproach, it is a dishonorable and disingenuous way, it is a sinful and disorderly way, it is an unprofitable and ineffectual way, and no way suitable either to the nature of God whom you serve, or to the rule and example of our blessed Saviour, or to the great principle of love and charity, or to that end which you are to aim-at in all things,--the honour of God, and the good of other men..
III. Now I come to the application.
USE 1. Lamentations for the gross neglect of this duty, or the frequent commision of this sin.--What tears are sufficient to bewail it? How thick do censures and reproaches fly in all places, at all tables, in all conventions! And this were the more tolerable, if it were only the fault of ungodly men, of strangers and enemies to religion; for so saith the proverb, "Wickedness proceedeth from the wicked." When a man's heart is full of hell, it is not unreasonable to expect that his tongue should be " set on fire of hell; " and it is no wonder to hear such persons reproach good men, yes, even for their goodness. But, alas! the disease does not rest here: this plague is not only among the Egyptians, but [among the] Israelites too. It is very doleful to consider, how professors sharpen their tongues like swords against professors; apt one good man censures and reproaches another, and one minister traduceth another; and who can say, "I am clean from this sin? " O that I could move your pity in this case! For the Lord's sake, pity yourselves, and do not pollute and wound your consciences with this crime. Pity your brethren: let it suffice that godly ministers and Christians are loaded with reproaches by wicked men; there is no need that you should combine with them in this diabolical work; you should support and strengthen their hands against the reproaches of the ungodly world, and not add affliction to the afflicted. O pity the world, and pity the church which Christ hath purchased with his own blood, which, me thinks, bespeaks you in those words: " Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O you my friends; for the hand of God hath touched me." (Job 19. 21.) Pity the mad and miserable world, and help it against this sin; stop the bloody issue, restrain this wicked practice amongst men as much as possibly you can, and lament it before God; and for what you cannot do yourselves, give God no rest until he shall please to work a cure.
Use II. CAUTION, Take heed you be not found guilty of this sin.--Wherein any of us have been guilty, let us be truly and thoroughly humbled for it; and for the future let us make conscience of abstaining from it. I will suppose what I have said may be sufficient for arguments to convince and for motives to persuade you; and therefore I shall only give you some directions in order to the practice of this duty: and, to assist you against this sin,
DIRECTION 1. Avoid the cause of this sin.--This is the most natural and regular way to cure a disease, by taking away the cause of it. Particularly take heed of these things as the causes of this sin:--
1. Take heed of Uncharitableness in all its kinds and degrees, malice, envy, hatred.--Where these diseases are in the heart, they will break-out at the lips. " Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."(Matt. 12. 34.)
2. Take heed of loquacity and multitude of words.--A man need not seek far for perpetual motion; he may find it in some persons' restless and incessant tongues. Now, persons of this temper will not want matter of discourse, and therefore pick-up and spread-abroad all sorts of censures and reproaches against others, not so much out of malice against them, as for their own diversion and ease, that their tongues may not want exercise. Take heed of this: it is in itself a sin, an abuse of the tongue, a wasting of time, a reproach to yourself; it makes you cheap and mean and contemptible in the eyes of others, and especially of wise and good men; and it is also the cause of many other sins.
3. Take heed of pragmaticalness, which is, when men are inquisitive and busy about other men's matters.--A sin often reproved in scripture:" For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all." (2 Thess.3. 11.) "Let none of you suffer as an evil-doer, or as a busybody in other men's matters." (1 Peter 4. 15.)You may observe how Christ reproves this in his own dear apostle:"Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow you me." (John 21. 21, 22.) As if he had said, "Mind you your own business; do not busy your head about other men."
4. Take heed of man-pleasing.--There are many whose great employment and business it is to spread evil reports concerning others, who are therefore called " tale-bearers; " and this they do to please the humours of persons with whom they converse, unto whom they know such discourse is most acceptable. And thus many persons make themselves guilty in hearing reproaches, and not checking them, because they will comply with the company, they will not displease nor offend their friends. Take heed of this, and remember that severe sentence of the apostle: " If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ."(Gal. 1.10.) He that pleaseth other men, so as to neglect any duty, or to commit any sin, whatsoever he pretends, he is not the servant of Christ .
DIRECT. II. Learn the government of your tongues--Consider the necessity of it. The apostle James lays the stress of all religion upon it: " If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, this man's religion is vain." (James 1. 26.) And if this be true, I am sure there are many high professors that must be blotted out of the saints' calendar. Consider also the easiness of this government of the tongue. Men have more command of their tongues, and of their outward members, than they have of their inward motions, concupiscence, and passions. If tongues be unruly, God and nature have given you a bridle to restrain them, " fence of the teeth," as the poet speaks.
DIRECT. III. Learn distrust of reports.--It is a good rule, "Learn to disbelieve." Fame hath lost its reputation long since; and I do not know any thing which it hath done in our age to regain it; and therefore it ought not be credited. How few reports are there in any kind, which, when they come to be examined, we do not find to be false! For my part, I reckon, if I believe one report in twenty, I make a very liberal allowance. And especially distrust reproaches and evil reports, because these spread fastest, as being grateful to most persons, who suppose their own reputation never so well grounded as when it is built upon the ruins of other men's.
DIRECT. IV. Reproach no man for that which you do not thoroughly understand.--This, I am sure, is highly reasonable; and he that does otherwise is altogether inexcusable, because he runs an infinite hazard, lest, while he opposeth a man, he be found to fight against God. And truly, if this rule were practiced, some kinds of reproaches would be rare in the world: for persons of true and clear understanding are not apt to reproach others for different opinions in lesser matters . They consider the weakness of human nature, and the necessity of mutual forbearance. It is the weaker sort that are here, as in other things, most querulous; and generally where there is least light there is most heat. Those persons by whose censures and reproaches the church of God among us is most miserably torn and wasted, are generally the more ignorant part of Christians. How many are there that are full of rage one against another for being either for a form of prayer or against it, either for the ceremonies or against them, that never searched into the state of the controversy, and never took pains to examine the arguments on both sides, which in all reason they ought to have done, or else at least to have restrained their tongues from such unreasonable and sinful censures and reproaches ! These, I say, are the persons that are most guilty, nay, upon the matter, the only guilty persons, except such whom base lust and interest does corrupt and work to these animosities.
DIRECT. V. Converse much with yourselves.--It is want of business at home in men's own hearts, that makes them ramble so much abroad, and rake into the lives of others. Study yourselves more, and other men less. Did you search your own hearts and lives, you would find as much cause of self-judging and self-abhorring, that you would have little cause to despise others, and much cause of compassion toward others.
DIRECT. VI. Judge of others as you would do of yourselves and your own actions.--It is worth our consideration, what a great difference there is between the judgment men pass upon themselves, and [upon] other men. As for themselves, all their errors are but small mistakes. and all their sins against God, however attended with ugly circumstances of light) of consent of the will, custom, and allowance, yet they are but sins of infirmity, if themselves may be judges in their own cause. Their injuries to men are but small and trivial offences; and they do indeed expect both from God and man a pardon, of course, which if they have not, they judge God to be harsh and severe, men to be cruel and implacable. But when they come to pass judgment upon other men, the tables are turned, some mistakes are damnable delusions, and all their sins against God, which they can observe, are evidences of a naughty heart, and inconsistent with grace; and the of fences of others against them are inexcusable and intolerable, great affronts and indignities. Whereas, on the contrary, you should, as it was said of a great man," Be severe to yourself, and candid to others; " because you knowest more wickedness by yourself, and more aggravation of your own sins, than of all the sins that are in the world. But at least all the reason and justice in the world requires this, that you should weigh yourself and others in the same balance, that you should try your own and their actions by the same touchstone; and more need not be done. You who art so prone to flatter yourself, would certainly be more indulgent to other men, and pass a more favorable construction upon their actions.
Puritan Sermons 1659-1689 Richard Owen Roberts, Publisher