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fings of this Life (as they are commonly efteemed) may not always be fo. We are to understand this (as was hinted above) of that kind of Affiftance which is neceffary to enable us to do the Duties of our Stations, and to qualify us for Favour and Acceptance with God. For as to thofe kinds of Improvements by which different Men excel one another in the Perfection of their fpiritual Eftate, these are (or may be at least) fubject to the Will of God, as directed by the general Views of his Providence, as all other Bleffings are. All whom God calls to Salvation by the Gospel, fhall have the Means of qualifying them felves for it, by the Conditions of the Gofpel, if they will honefly and carefully endeavour after it. But it will not follow that all may attain to the fame Degree of Perfection. God hath created Men to different Degrees of Happinefs in this World, and he may have created them to different Degrees of Glory in the next; which I re mark, that we may not think the worfe of our Prayers, if, when we are not wanting in any Thing which is neceffary to a common Virtue, there fhould be fome rare Examples, which by all our Endeavours we cannot come up to. It may be the Will of God that we fhould advance no farther; and if it is fo, there we must be content to reft; nor fhould we be any more displeased with ourselves, because we cannot reach the Perfection of the beft, than the beft are, or ought to be, that they cannot equal the Perfection of Angels.
2. From the Matter of our Prayers I now pafs on to the Difpofition of Mind with which we ought to pray; and this in general must correfpond with those Profeffions which Prayer imports. For Falfhood is an immoral Thing, and falfe Profeffions, under the Shew or Mask of Religion, are of all kinds of Falfhoods the worft. Every Chriftian is fuppofed to believe in Chrift; and it is felf-evident, that without the Faith of a Chriftian, the Prayer of a Chriftian cannot ftand. But if a Man has Faith, he may be wanting in Obedience; and it is a Point well worth confidering, how far an immoral Life difqualifies us for the Duty of Prayer.
Prayer. St. Paul exhorts us to lift up holy Hands, 1 Tim. ii. 8. And the wife Man tells us, that the Sacrifice of the Wicked is an Abomination, Prov. xxi. 27. This implies that the Acceptableness of our Prayers with God doth greatly depend upon our moral State. Yet we must not fay that it fo much depends upon our moral State, that every Defect will unqualify us; for it is by God's Grace that we are enabled to do well; and this Grace is to be obtain'd by asking for it. My Way of thinking in this Matter is this; 1. That the lowest Degree of Virtue is fufficient to qualify us to afk that Help from God, which is neceffary to our farther Growth and Improvement. Some Degree of Virtue is neceffary to qualify us to pray; for when Men, quite carelefs and hardened in their Sins, prefume to pray (as they may do for Cuftom or Fashionfake) they do but add Sin to Sin; because they make a Profeffion of Reverence to God with their Mouths, whilft their Hearts are far from him. But if a Man has fo much Thought and Reflexion as to be convinced of his evil Ways, and to take up fome good Refolutions of Amendment for the Time to come, he may pray to God to ftrenghten thefe good Refolutions, and to place his imperfect Repentance to his Account fo far as the Value of it will go. For why? He asks only what is fit for God to give, and what he hath given us Encouragement in his Word to believe, that he will beflow. But this I would have underflood of private Prayer only; for in publick Prayer there is another Confideration to be taken into the Account. In private Prayer the Tranfaction lies only between God and a Man's own Conscience; and God who fearcheth the Heart, feeth the Correfpondency of our inward Sentiments with our outward or verbal Profeffions. But when a Man joins with a Congregation of Chriftians in publick Prayer, the Tranfaction lies alfo between him and the Church, to which he offers him. felf as a publick Example; and where an Example is offered, there ought to be Confiftency, otherwife the Nature of the Example changes. And therefore those
who are fcandalously immoral in their Lives, are not qualified to join in Prayer in the publick Affemblies or Congregations of Chriftians: For a Man's Behaviour is a much better Evidence to the World of his inward Difpofition, than a mere Profeffion can be, which, when it agrees not with the general Tenor of his Life, will be look'd upon as Hypocrify; and Hypocrify makes a bad Example worse instead of mending it. This exactly agrees with the ancient Difcipline, whereby publick notorious Offenders were excluded from the Prayers of the Church, as well as from the Participation of the Holy Sacrament. But of this more hereafter, when I come to treat of the SacraAnd therefore, 2. Tho' the lowest Degree of Virtue is fufficient to qualify us to afk that Help from God which is neceffary to our farther Growth and Improvement; our general Intereft with God, and confequently the general Efficacy of our Prayers, will depend upon the Measure of our Improvement. The Bleffings of Providence are the proper Inftances of God's Love to us; and this we feel within ourselves, that the more we love our Friends, the more ready we are to listen to their Requests. And reasonable it is that it fhould be fo; for it is fhewing a proper Diftinetion to real Merit, which is or always ought to be the Foundation of Love. With God it always is fo, who being infinitely removed from the Weaknesses, and Paffions of Men, efteems every Man in Proportion to his Virtues. This thews the Reafon of those Passages in Scripture (of which there is a great Variety) where God is reprefented as taking Pleasure in the Homage paid him by good Men; as having his Eyes over them, and his Ears open to their Prayers: And if he is kind to the Unthankful and to the Evil, it is not because they pray to him, but because, for Reasons of Providence, he fees it to be convenient.
This is a great Encouragement to well-doing, that is makes God our Friend, who will be ready to hear us in all Things that we call upon him for. And this is the proper Foundation for that Trust in God which
feafons our Devotions, and makes them to become an Offering of a fweet Smelling Savour. St. James exhorts us to ofk in FAITH, nothing wavering, fam. i. 6. And our Saviour-All Things that ye shall afk in Prayer BELIEVING, ye shall receive, Mat. xxi. 22. A bad Man cannot ask in Faith; and therefore bad Men are not fit to pray, any farther than (as I faid juft now) for that Grace which is neceffary to enable them to repent and amend. But good Men, whatever be the Subject of their Prayers, may ask in Faith, and ought to do fo; becaufe where there is a proper Foundation for Trust in our own Conduct, to suspect that God will reject our Prayers, is to difpute his Goodness. It is fuppofed that a good Man will ask nothing but what it is fit for him to afk, and with fuch Submiffion to the Will of God in doubtful Points as Religion implies. And therefore the Faith here recommended is not an Affurance that God will grant us precisely the individual Thing we may wish for, but that or fomething equivalent to it. In fhort, it is an Affurance that all Things shall work together for good to them that love God; and when we are fully poffeffed of this Belief, we have all the Comfort within ourselves that Religion can yield.
There is one Difpofition more mentioned in Scripture, and that is Fervency; which implies not only Attention, but fome Earneftness of Defire alfo to obtain what we pray for. Want of Attention in Prayer (fo far as it is avoidable by a common Degree of Prudence) is a fure Token of a careless Mind, and fhews great Irreverence to Almighty God. But we are not to think the fame of every wandering Thought, which may arife from mere Inadvertency, Surprize, or a strong Attachment of Mind, when, in his general Temper and Difpofition, a Person is ferious and devout. If a Man wants the Spirit of Devotion, his Prayers will be faulty, how punctually foever he may attend at the Time of Praying. But if he comes poffeffed with humble Reverence to God, be the Interruptions which he may cafually feel, more or lefs, they will not spoil
the Virtue of his Prayers. The general Honefty of his Intentions, will fupply fuch particular Defects as these. And if Men attend to what they are about when they are faying their Prayers, and confider the Value of the Bleflings they afk, they cannot want Earneftness; such a Degree of it, I mean, as is fuitable to their natural Tempers. They may not feel perhaps Extasies and Tranfports, nor is it neceffary that they fhould; for this plain Reafon, because it may not be always in their Power. Every Man may be Sober and Serious; but every Man cannot work himfelf up into a Paffion. This depends upon Conftitution, and Occafions, and Circumflances accidentally adminiftred; and therefore it would be judging very ill, if a Man, in all other Respects well difpofed, fhould find fault with himself, and think his Prayers will not be heard, because they are not offered up with a Degree of Warmth and Vehemency, which he is not accustomed to find upon any other Occafion. We may have the more Satisfaction in our Prayers perhaps, the warmer they are; and there may this good Effect follow, that as the Impreffions of Religion are the more ftrong, fo they may be alfo the more lafling: For which Reafons no Helps fhould be neglected, which are proper to raise and quicken our Devotions. The Piety of Chriftians fince the Reformation, hath furnished us with a Variety of Books ferving as Helps to Devotion; and I doubt not but many have found and will find very good Improvement from the Ufe of fuch Books: But they are to be used with Caution. For thefe Writers above all others are most apt to give a Scope to their Imaginations, and affect more to draw fine Pictures than to exprefs what is juft and natural in human Life; and if Men will not be pleafed with themfelves, unless they can feel fuch Difpofitions as will answer to every high flown Expreffion which they meet with in fuch Books, they will be made very uncafy, and very unreasonably fo. Perhaps thefe Writers themselves felt nothing equal to their own Defcriptions; but if they did, why must the Warmth of