Religion the Highest Wisdom, and Sin the Greatest Madness and Folly
Adapted from a Sermon by Samuel Davies
"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!" Psalm 111:10
Wisdom is considered to be such a good quality by any reasonable person, that those who best knew the dignity of their own nature, have had no higher ambition than to be esteemed and called lovers of it. The word 'philosopher' is rooted in this idea; it literally means no more than a lover of wisdom. On the other hand, there is hardly any character deemed more reproachful, or that is more resented, than that of a fool. Men are often as jealous of the reputation of their intellect as of their morals, and think it as great a reproach to be without sense as without goodness.
There is a broad spectrum in the reasoning abilities of men, from those whose thoughts rarely rise from the simple things of life to those who have been gifted with uncommon reasoning ability. These have been the first inventors and developers of useful arts and sciences; which others, not gifted with such understanding, are able to put in practice for their own purposes, though they were not able to discover them by themselves.
In many respects, the world of our day is greatly improved from early times. What many arts and trades have emerged to fill our lives with every necessity and comfort! How deeply have some penetrated into the world of knowledge! They have traced the secret workings of nature; they have even investigated the worlds above us, and explored the distant planets.
When you see this advancement, you would come to the conclusion that mankind is a wise race of creatures; and indeed in such things as these, they reveal great abilities. Almost every man in his area of expertise can manage his affairs with sound judgment. Some can manage a farm; others are skilful in mechanics; others have a turn for business affairs; others can unfold the mysteries of nature, and carry their searches far into the scientific worlds; others can lead an army, or govern a nation. In short, every man chooses a path which he believes will contribute to his earthly advantage; and then, with some degree of judgment, takes the necessary steps to make it come through.
But is this all the wisdom that is suitable for a creature meant for eternity? Has he a good understanding, who only acts with reason in the affairs of this life; but, though he is to exist forever in another world, and to be perfectly happy or miserable there, yet will not think about the concerns of his immortal state? Is this wisdom? Is this consistent even with common sense?
No! I say this with real sadness and solemnity, the most of men in this respect are fools and madmen! And it is impossible for the most unwise person to act more foolishly about the affairs of this life, than they generally do about the affairs of religion and eternity!
There is such a thing as a partial madness; a person may have, as it were, one weak side to his mind, and it may be sound and rational in other respects. There are cases of people you may meet with that will talk reasonably with you, and you would not suspect their heads are disordered until you touch upon some particular point, and then you are to expect reason from them no more; they talk the wildest nonsense, and are governed entirely by their imaginations.
This is the case, sadly, with most of mankind in the present case. They are wise for this world; they talk and act at least in keeping with common sense; but hear them talk and observe their conduct about the concerns of their souls, and you can call them reasonable creatures no longer! They "are ‘wise’—in doing evil! But how to do good they know not;” (Jer 4:22) “no one understands; no one seeks for God." (Rom 3:11) To bring them to themselves by exposing to them their madness, is what I hope, by the power and help of the Holy Spirit, this sermon will do.
The text shows us the first step to true wisdom, and the test of common sense: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding." This is so frequently repeated, that it may pass for a Scripture maxim: and we may be sure it is of central importance. Job starts the question, "Where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?" He searches throughout nature in search of it but cannot find it; he cannot purchase it with the gold of Ophir; and its price is above sapphire. Finally he remembers the early instruction of God to man, and there he finds it: "‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.’” Job 28:28. Solomon, the wisest of men, begins his proverbs with this maxim, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." Proverbs 1:7; and he repeats it again, Proverbs 9:10, " The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight."
The fear of the Lord, in Scripture, does not only mean that reverence which we owe as children to our heavenly Father, but frequently stands for the whole of practical religion; and so it is explained in the last part of the verse in the expression, “all those who practice it.” The fear of the Lord, from this perspective, implies all the graces and all the virtues of Christianity; in short, all that holiness of heart and life which is necessary to the enjoyment of everlasting happiness. So that the sense of the text is this:
"To practice religion and virtue, to take that way which leads to everlasting happiness, is wisdom, true wisdom, the beginning of wisdom, the first step towards it; unless you begin here, you can never attain it; all your wisdom, without this, does not deserve the name; it is madness and nonsense. To obey God's commandments is the best test of a good understanding; a good, sound understanding have all those who do this, all of them without exception; however weak some of them may be in other things, they are wise in the most important respect; but without this, however cunning they are in other things, they have lost their understanding; they contradict common sense; they are beside themselves. In short, to pursue everlasting happiness as the end, through holiness as the means, this is wisdom, this is common sense; and there can be none without this."
Wisdom consists in two things: choosing a right end, and using the right means to obtain it. Now what end can be more fitting to a creature which will live forever than everlasting happiness? And in what way can it be obtained, but in the way of holiness? Consult the judgment of God in his Word; consult your own conscience, or even common sense, and you will find that this is the case. Therefore he is a man of sense who pursues this end in this way. But he is a fool, he is terribly unwise, who chooses an inferior end, or that pursues this in a wrong way.
In the time that we have I will only mention a few instances of the folly and madness of those who do not make the fear of the Lord, the beginning of their wisdom.
I. Men will not take the precautions in religion which they naturally take in other cases.
It is very possible the love of ease and pleasure, and a self-flattering disposition, may lead you to setup a plausible system of religion for yourself; a religion that boasts of great hopes with little evidences, and that allows you many indulgences, and lays few restraints upon you; a religion purged, as you imagine, from some of the burdensome and gloomy teaching of Christianity, and that releases you from those restraints, so painful to a wicked heart, which the holy religion of Jesus demands of you.
It is very possible that you may hope you will obtain eternal happiness without such pains, and without observing the strictness of universal holiness; you may indulge hopes of heaven, though you indulge yourselves wilfully in sin; you may flatter yourselves that God is not so unalterably just, as the sacred Scriptures describes him; and that his threatenings are only tremendous sounds without any intention of being executed in all their strictness; you may flatter yourselves that the punishments of a future state are not intolerably dreadful, nor of everlasting duration; you may excuse and diminish your sins, and make a great many plausible apologies for them.
But are you sure of your ideas? Do you have evidence for them, on which you may venture your eternal all? Think the matter over seriously again; are you certain that these things are so? and are you willing to perish forever if they should be otherwise? What if you are wrong? What if you should find God to be as strict and holy as his Word describes him? What if all his dreadful threatenings should be sincere and true, and your sins are infinitely more serious in his eyes than in yours? What if in a little time you should find that the Scriptures give a more just account of the punishments of hell than your self-flattering heart suggested to you, and that they are indeed intolerable, and strictly eternal? What if you should find, when it is too late to correct the mistake, that those neglected, ridiculous things: regeneration, conversion, holiness of heart and practice, the mortification of sin, and serious devotion; what if you should find they are absolutely necessary to everlasting happiness? What if it should appear that the wilful indulgence of the least known sin will eternally ruin you? Stand and pause, and ask yourselves, What if you should find that this is reality, quite the opposite of what you flattered yourselves? What will become of you then? You are undone, irreparably undone throughout all eternity!
Well, to speak humbly, this may be the case, for whatever you know; and is it not then the part of a wise man to plan against such a dreadful outcome? Will you run so terrible a risk and yet claim to be wise? Do you esteem a life of religion so burdensome, that you had better take such a desperate risk than choose it? Do you esteem the pleasures of sin so sweet, so solid, so lasting, that it is in your interest to run the risk of intolerable, eternal misery, rather than part with them? Can you come to such a conclusion as this while in possession of your senses?
Indeed No! A person with whom fleshly pleasures for a little time, the sordid pleasures of sin, outweigh an eternity of perfect happiness cannot be in senses. He is certainly not in his right mind, who would rather be tormented in hell forever, than lead a holy life, and work to escape the wrath to come! Therefore act in this as you do in other uncertain circumstances: choose the safest side. Believe and take heed to what God has said; Be holy in all manner of conversation; strive with all your might to enter in at the straight gate; receive Christ as your Lord and Savior. Do this, and you are safe, let the case be as it will; there are no bad consequences that can possibly flow from this conduct. It will, on the whole, be the most pleasant for you, even in this life; and your reason will tell you, that this is a more certain way to escape everlasting misery, and secure eternal happiness, than the opposite conduct.
But if your mind is resolutely set on running the risk, and fool-hardy enough to venture your eternal all upon such improbabilities, not to say impossibilities, you give up the character of a reasonable being; you are mad in this respect, however wise you may be in others.
We come to a second instance of folly and madness:
II. It is the greatest folly to believe, or profess to believe, the great truths of Christianity and yet act quite contrary to such a belief!
"They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work!" Titus 1:16. How many are there who profess God to be the greatest and the best of beings and yet neglect him, and pay more attention to a thousand other things! They acknowledge that he is desirable and do not desire him! They acknowledge him to be their King and they do not obey him! They acknowledge him to the source of all good and do not express their gratitude to him.
They confess that heaven is better than earth and yet they pursue the things of this life, at the expense of all the happiness of heaven. They believe that their souls are of more importance than their bodies and yet they will not take care for them even half as much as they take of their bodies. They confess that a life of sin and impenitence is very dangerous, and that it will end in everlasting misery; yet, with this confession in their mouth, and this conviction in their consciences, they will, they obstinately will, go on impenitently in sin!
They acknowledge that religion and virtue are excellent things and yet they never make it the main business of their life but live carelessly without them. They believe they are sinners, worthy of punishment and yet they are generally as unconcerned as if they were innocent. They believe that Christ is the only Savior of sinners and yet they are as little concerned to get a saving interest in him as if they could be saved without him. They believe that all the pleasures of this transient life are infinitely inferior to the pleasures of true religion and the happiness of the heavenly state; they believe these ungodly pleasures will ruin them forever if they continue in them, and yet they will persist in them, though by this they throw away their everlasting happiness, and earn eternal misery!
This is what they believe, or they say they believe; and our country is full of such 'believers'; but what illogical, self-contradicting creatures they are! What madness is it to believe something that leads to nothing but condemnation of their way of life, and the aggravation of their sin! Do they really believe these things or do they not? If not, then what foolishness is it to say they believe them! Do they think they can fool Him who searches the hearts and the thoughts? or have they no other end in their profession of religion, than just to be esteemed Christians by men? Can they think that their faith will cover them in contradicting it? or that they can sin safely, because they sin against knowledge? Are these the conclusions of a sound mind? Must not a man be out of his senses, before he can believe such things? But if you suppose they do, it is certain they are entirely mad in this affair.
Think about it! to neglect God, and holiness, and heaven when they know they are of infinite importance! to choose the ways of sin when they believe they will end in ruin! Is this the conduct of a wise man?
If a sick man were to tell you he is certain to die unless he takes such a medicine and yet you should see that he does not take it but continues to drink the most deadly poison; what would you think of him? Would you not conclude either that he did not believe himself, or that he was deranged? But this is the very conduct of many professed believers, who yet think they have no small share of wisdom. I will not dispute your wisdom about your secular affairs; you may be wise to do evil; but I am sure in these instances you are quite delirious; and yourselves will be convinced of it to your cost, when God will say unto you, "Fool! This night your soul is required of you!" (Luke 12:20)
All your attempts to defend or excuse your conduct only aggravate your folly. Do you say, "Your lusts are stubborn and ungovernable, and you cannot restrain them?" I do not doubt that this is true; but is this a reason why you should be so easy and careless? Are your enemies so strong? And will you, on that very account, be faint and inactive in your resistance? Ought you not to rise and cry to God for his grace to change your nature; to subdue these strong sins, and make you holy, since without it you cannot be saved?
Besides, consider whether your pretended excuse is not a real aggravation to your sin. "Your lusts are so strong," you say, "that you cannot restrain them." What is this but to say that you are so wicked that you have no heart to break off from sin! and is the fact that your sin is entrenched, an excuse for it? Does not common sense object against such an absurdity? Do you plead, that "you intend to repent of this inconsistent behaviour in the future?" But if true religion is an excellent thing, as you say you believe, why do you not choose it now? the sooner the better?
Again, is it not the greatest folly to indulge yourselves in a practice that you deliberately intend to repent of? If your present conduct is wise, why do you intend to repent of it? the very intention implies that you are even now convinced it is foolish; and what will your repentance be but a deep sense of your folly? And can there be a greater madness than deliberately to do anything which at the very time you intend to repent of? Is there anything more absurd and ridiculous? Is this your conduct in other things? Will you make a bargain which you know you will afterwards repent of? Will you put a plan in motion which you deliberately intend afterwards to condemn and be sorry for? Can you do such things and yet be offended to be called fools?
Further, why do you intend to repent? Is it because you hate sin? No! for if that was the reason, you would immediately stop it. Is it because you love God and holiness? No! for then you would devote yourselves to the service of God immediately, and could not bear to wait. But you intend to force yourselves to a little remorse of conscience, when the punishment of sin is just ready to fall on you, with no other motivation but just to escape it! And can you think there is any value in such contrived sorrows, that do not come from hatred of sin, or love to God, but merely from self-love and a guilty fear of punishment? Can any wise man consider this as repentance to life, or hope that God will accept it?
Finally, are you sure of that uncertain future, in which you purpose to repent? Is there any man in his senses that dare pretend he is certain of another day? or that he will not die by some sudden accident, or in a debilitating sickness, in which he has no time nor ability to repent?
The third instance of folly and madness is:
III. It is the greatest folly for men to pretend to love God, when their state of mind and their conduct are inconsistent with it, and plainly prove the contrary!
If you go around Christian circles with the question, "Do you love God? do you love him above everything else?" You will hardly meet with anyone who wont answer to the effect that, "Yes, to be sure; I have loved him all my life." Well, but where is the evidence and effects of this love?
If you say you are people’s friend, they naturally expect you to act accordingly all the time; otherwise they will see through the pretence and conclude that it is only flattery. They expect you to often think of them with kind thoughts, to always be ready to intervene for their good, to take care to please them, to not allow others to freely slander their name, and delight in their company. These are the inseparable effects of love. And certainly, if you sincerely love God, your love will have such effects; especially since, if you love him at all with sincerity, you love him above all other people and things.
But people will insist that they love him above all and yet very seldom or never think of him with any affection! They profess that they love him above all and yet indulge themselves in sin, that abominable thing, which he hates! They profess that they love him above all and yet make little effort to please him, and to do his will! They profess that they love him above all, and yet are unconcerned about the state of the church in the world, which is dear to him, and careless about his honour and glory! They profess that they love him above all and yet have no pleasure in addressing him in prayer, and the other ordinances of his grace, where he spiritually meets with his people. They love him above all and yet love and delight in a thousand other things more than him!
They would highly resent it if one should begin to question the sincerity of their love; and they hope God will accept of it, and reward it. But can anyone in their right sense think that this will pass for true and supreme love with him who knows all things? They cannot expect that their fellow-creatures would accept such a love; and is it not the greatest madness to imagine that God who knows everything will?
Indeed it may astonish anyone who knows what love is, to find that most people pretend they love God, even while they are giving the most glaring evidences of hostility towards him; and after all, it is almost impossible to convince them that they do not thoroughly love him. What madness has seized the world, that they will not be convinced in such a plain case! What base thoughts must they have of God, when they think to satisfy him with such an empty compliment, and hypocritical profession!
A fourth instance of folly and madness:
IV. It is the greatest folly for men to hope for heaven, when they have no evidences at all of their title to it, or fitness for it!
Is it not common sense, that one is happy only in things that he has a interest in, and delights in? Can a illiterate peasant find pleasure in deep scientific theories? Can a man of pleasure and business find pleasure in the frugal, simple life of a hermit? Can a man, whose appetite is spoiled by sickness, enjoy happiness in the middle of a feast? No, nothing can make a person happy but what is suited to his interests and disposition. And yet there are thousands who have no interest in the enjoyment of God, no pleasure in thinking of him, or speaking with him, no delight in his service and acts of devotion who yet hope to be forever completely happy in these activities in heaven.
The happiness of heaven, as we have often heard, consists in such things as these, and how can you hope to be happy there while you have no pleasure in them? There are thousands who have no delight in anything holy or pious but only in the gratification of their senses and the enjoyment of earthly things who yet hope to be happy in heaven, in the absence of all sensual and earthly enjoyments. There are thousands who now ridicule the society of the pious as intolerably strict who yet deceive themselves in thinking that they will be perfectly happy in the company of saints and angels, where the lowest is incomparably more holy than the most sanctified person on earth.
And are they reasoning well, who can hold to such absurd hopes? Does not common sense tell us, that God, who does everything wisely, will bring no one to heaven except those whom he has made fit for it beforehand? And that as no one will be sent to hell except those that were previously wicked; so no one will be admitted into the world of glory except those who are previously made holy?
And no one first starts to be holy in heaven or wicked in hell: both types bring with them those dispositions which are fit for their respective places and employments. How absurd is it, therefore, to hope for heaven while you have no heavenly dispositions! You may as well hope to see the sun without eyes.
Further, God has assures you in his Word, and you profess to believe him, that without regeneration, faith, repentance, and an interest in Christ, and universal holiness you cannot enter into his kingdom; and yet, are there not some of you who are foolish enough to hope for it, though you have none of these?
A fifth instance of folly and madness:
V. It is the greatest madness to be more concerned about the affairs of time than those of eternity!
It should be evident to anyone thinking clearly, that the happiness and misery which are extreme, and which will endure forever are of infinitely greater importance than all the enjoyments and all the sufferings of this fleeting life. And you will hardly meet with anyone who will not agree with this. But sadly! How astonishing it is, when we examine the conduct of most people! Are they as much concerned about the eternal world to which they are hastening as the trivial concerns of time? Are they as serious and zealous to obtain everlasting happiness as to gain the riches of this world, or to gratify their sensual appetites? Are they as careful to avoid everlasting misery as to avoid sickness, poverty, or any other physical misfortune? Are they as careful to avoid sinning, which ruins their souls forever as of drinking poison, which may endanger their health or physical life?
How is it with you? Are not the concerns of this life the main objects of your thoughts, your cares, and efforts? And what, in the end, can be a more foolish? You are preferring the trivial pleasure of an hour to a substantial good of endless duration! You are careless about everlasting torment and yet cautiously avoid the light sufferings of a few moments! It does not matter what you think or say in this matter; it is what you do that determines the verdict; and does this not that show that fleeting time outweighs a vast eternity with you? And what can be more absurd! If you should throw away an estate to gain a penny; if you should run upon a drawn sword to escape a prickle; if you should prefer pebbles to crowns and kingdoms, darkness to light, or one luxurious meal to the support of your whole life, it would be less shocking than your attitude concerning eternity!
I might give you many more instances of the madness of those who do not begin this wisdom with the fear of the Lord but the practical implications from the subject are so many and important, that we will take the rest of the time for them.
1. Since there is so much folly in the world in matters of religion, how astonishing it is, that this folly is not universally despised and ridiculed, or pitied and lamented!
If men act a foolishly in other things, they soon become the object of laughter and contempt to the critical and witty part of mankind; and the thoughtful and benevolent view them with compassion. But let them act ever so foolishly in the concerns of eternity, no one seems to notice at all; the absurdity is in no way shocking; to the contrary, most commend their conduct by imitating it themselves! And if any are so wise as to find fault with this madness, they are termed fools themselves, and the general laugh is turned against them!
How unaccountable is this, that men who act prudently in other things, and are easily shocked with a mad and foolish behaviour, can view the folly of mankind in this respect without horror, or perhaps even approvingly! The only reason for it is, that most people are madmen in this respect, and the folly is approved because it is common! To be exceptionally wise is to be foolish, in the opinion of the world; and to be fools with the multitude is the readiest way to get the reputation of wisdom! They prove religion to be folly, by a consensus of opinion; and as many who are fools in this affair are wise in other respects, their judgment is implicitly accepted. But please, I appeal to you, use your own reason, and judge impartially for yourselves, and I am sure you will see the wild absurdity of their conduct! Be nobly different in beginning wisdom with the fear of the Lord; and whatever others think of you now, God, angels, and godly men will applaud your wisdom; and even those who ridicule it now, will approve of it at last.
A second practical implication is:
2. How the ungodly despise and demean those who make true religion their great concern as weak, silly creatures!
Sinners, let your own reason determine, can there be anything more foolish than your own behaviour? And is it appropriate for you to call others foolish? Sadly! you have reason to turn your contempt on yourselves, and to be struck with horror at your own wilful stupidity! Do you, who lack the sense to keep out of everlasting ruin, set yourselves up as the standards of wisdom! Are you wise men who throw away your eternal happiness for the trifles of time! No! truly, they alone are wise who are wise for eternity!
You may excel them in a thousand things; nature may have favoured you with a better intellect; you may have had a better education; you may be better acquainted with men and books; you may manage your worldly affairs with better judgment; in such things you may be wiser than many of them. But they are wise for eternity! They have the sense to escape everlasting burnings! They have wisdom to obtain eternal happiness! And this is a more important piece of wisdom than all your advantages. The wisdom of Solomon, of Socrates, or Plato, is the wildest madness, without this. How absurd is it therefore for you, without this, to put on the character of men of wisdom, or even of common sense!
We come to a third practical implication:
3. How absurd is it for men to pretend they will not apply themselves to religion, for fear that it will make them miserable or troubled!
In reality, sinner, you cannot be more miserable and troubled than you are already; and you will never come to yourselves until, like the prodigal son, you determine to return to your father's house. And will you continue blindly on a course that leads to eternal misery for fear of being miserable? Will you ruin your soul for fear of the trouble you might have in seriously thinking of it!
4. Since men are such fools in matters of religion, since they criticize it with so much severity and contempt, how astonishing is it that God should send down true religion, into our world, where it is so much neglected and abused! Where the holy Word meets with but few hearts that will cherish it; where its professors neglect it, contradict it, and by their practice call it madness; and where even its friends and subjects frequently treat it very unkindly! What astonishing condescension and grace is it, that God has not left our mad world to themselves, since they are so averse to being saved! But consider! he has sent his Son, he has instituted the gospel, and a thousand means of grace, to bring them to themselves!
5. And lastly, we may therefore conclude, that human nature is exceedingly depraved and disordered.
I think this is as plain as any physical disorder of the body. Men are universally reluctant as to religion; and on this account our world is in great disorder. The same natural faculties, the same understanding, will, and affections, which make us able to act with prudence in the affairs of this life are also sufficient for the affairs of religion. But, sadly! with regard to this, they are disordered, though they exercise themselves aright about other things.
They can acquire the knowledge of languages and sciences; but, sadly! they have no desire to know God, and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent. They understand how to trade, and carry on schemes for this world; but they will not act wisely for eternity. They have sense enough not to run into the fire, or to drink poison; but they will run on in the ways of sin to everlasting misery. They will ask the way when they have lost themselves; but how hard is it to bring them to ask, “What shall I do to be saved?” They will ask help for their bodies from their fellow-creatures but how hard is it to bring them to the attitude of earnest petitioners to ask immortal blessings for their souls from God!
In short, they can plan with prudence, and act with vigour, courage, and perseverance, in the affairs of time; but in the concerns of true religion and eternity they are ignorant, stupid, lazy, and careless! And how can we account for this but by supposing that they are degenerate creatures, and that their nature has suffered a dreadful shock by the first fall, which has deprived them of their senses?
Alas! this is a truth too evident to be denied!
May God have mercy on our souls, that we may all believe his Word that:
“He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name! (10) The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” (Psa 111:9-10)