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banished from view ; after the condition of society has been so much meliorated, and such wonderful improvements have been made in knowledge and the arts of life ; when Christian institutions with all their becoming observances, have supplanted the absurd and degraded rites of Heathenism, and the charms of refinement have thrown their lustre over the whole aspect of civilized men ; when, in the words of one who was a better politician than he was a theologian, “ Vice has lost half its venom, by losing all its grossness,"—it may not be grateful, I say, to believe after all this progress in refinement and grace, that there should still lie against the majority of our species so fearful a charge as this, in all its depth and dimensions. And if an enlightened Christian observer, looking abroad from this vantage ground on some scene of peculiar busy speculation, should, like St. Paul at Athens, have his spirit stirred within him at seeing the city wholly given to idolatry, and should, like him, be moved to raise a note of remonstrance so loud as to awaken an interest to know the result of his observations, they would probably be as much astonished at his doctrine as were the refined and philosophical Athenians, and would probably answer, like them, “ Thou bringest certain strange things to our ears.” It would serve to dispel much of the delusion on which all this surprise and reluctance is founded, could we see as God seeth, with all these external meliorations, how comparatively small has been the moral improvement of our species! Amidst all these surprising movements towards realising the finest conceptions of philosophy, how little advance has been made towards realising the demands of revelation ! amidst the thousand forms of godliness that prevail around us, how little of its power is exerted in the human heart ! amidst all the ardor with which the endless varieties of knowledge are pursued, how little is directed to Him, whom to know aright is life eternal ! and amidst all this flood of moral and intellectual light, which has been poured from Heaven upon the habitations of men, we might see how this is only a manifold condemnation, because light has come into the world, and men have loved darkness rather than light. When God arises to judge the world in righteousness, and makes manifest the secrets of all hearts, every mouth shall be stopped, and all the world shall become guilty before him.
Whatever the object be, which stands between a man and his Maker, that is the object of his idolatry. Whatever principle so effectually exalts itself in his heart, as to withdraw his affections from God, and prevent his being brought into subjection to the obedience of CHRIST; whatever closes his soul against the visitations of the Holy SPIRIT; whatever it be, whether in Heaven above, or on the earth beneath, which exercises that exclusive jurisdiction over his mind, which belongs to the Supreme and only Potentate, that object, or that principle, is an abomination to the LORD his God; and until it be utterly abolished and put away, the LORD, as a mighty and strong one, hath precisely the same controversy with that man which he hath with all who have not kept themselves from idols.
It is readily conceded that, in the gradations of society and in its several stages of outward improvement, this principle may be modified to an almost endless extent, but what we would have you bear in mind is, that in the sight of God its evil character and pernicious tendency are always the same. The idolatry of a refined and intelligent age may assume a different guise from that of a dark and sensual period. In countries blessed with the light of Christianity, men may not fall down to stocks and stones, nor call in the aid of the painter and the statuary to give a sensible image to the object of their adoration, and yet it is possible that the homage paid by them to an abstract sentiment of honor may be as profound, and the sacrifices offered to it may be as bloody, and as abominable in the sight of God, as were ever burnt on the altars of the Druids. Parents may not cause their tender offspring to pass through the fire to Moloch, but they may immolate them before the shrine of Fashion, or consecrate them to the cruel and souldestroying service of the god of this world. And while it raises a cry of horror among us, when from the shores of a distant and benighted land tidings are brought to our ears of some bloody massacre at the car of Juggernaut, while the story of a new sacrifice at the shrine of Superstition, wafted to us from some lonely island of the ocean, communicates a thrill of virtuous resentment through the bosom of a whole community, it is very possible that, in many bosoms so gracefully and feelingly alive to the degradation of their species, the Allseeing Eye may discern the substantial existence of that very principle which is at the bottom of all this cruelty and abomination. God looks at principles; we regard their effects. When the sinful purpose has embodied itself in action ; when sin is finished and bringetb forth death ; when it confronts us with the ghastly malignity of its essential character ; when hatred puts on the guise of murder, and sensuality grovels as beastly drunkenness, we cannot help regarding it with unmingled indignation and horror. But to the Omniscient Mind, under all its disguises, and in all its forms, it is only that spirit which everywhere worketh in the children of disobedience. Amidst the latency of a disembodied principle it appears to him only as that accursed thing which his soul abhorreth; and he considers that individual in whose bosom it dwells, and whose conduct it rules, just as truly joined to his idols, as if he bowed down every day to a graven image which his own hands had made.
Having thus established our general position, I proceed to illustrate it in a few particulars :
First. Take that class of our fellow creatures, for example, who are lovers of sensual pleasures more than lovers of God. Read the history of that man's life who has made pleasure his idol, and sacrificed everything at the shrine of selfish gratifications, who, day after day, has sat down to eat and risen up to play, without ever calling to mind the giver of those blessings of which he was in the habitual enjoyment; who, instead of eating and drinking in order to live, lives only to eat and to drink; who is so completely occupied in his pleasures and his appetites that God is not in all his thoughts; who thinks it no profit to pray unto him, and who cares not to serve him ; whose glory is in his shame; who minds earthly things, and covets earthly gratifications, and is altogether of the earth, earthly. Peruse the melancholy history of such a life, from beginning to end, and then say what circumstance is wanting to complete that eritire alienation of the heart from God which he stigmatises as idolatry. How could the Supreme be more effectually deposed from his throne than he is from that man's affections? How could he possibly pour greater contempt on all the pure commandments of his Maker than by such a life as we have described? Would it in the least heighten his apostacy, or aggravate his forgetfulness of God, were he even to personify his pleasures, or to raise a molten image to his lusts, after the most disgusting example of the ancient idolaters? Would it, in fact, add to the estrangement of his affections from the most high God, were he to perform the orgies, and chant the pæans, and adopt all the folly and all the mockery of the former superstition ? Were he actually to embody the inward conceptions of his lust, and surround them with all the pomp of an outward and visible adoration, would it alter his intrinsic character in the eyes of Him with whom we have to do? No: if the high consideration and honor which belong to God, and to bim only, are taken away from him, it matters little whether they are bestowed on the devices of a refined sensualism, or on the grosser objects of Pagan idolatry. The Supreme is, in either case, dethroned from his lawful sovereignty, and another reigns in his stead. His holy law is violently torn from that preeminence which it justly claims, and some other principle made to occupy its place. Whether they are the abstract devices of a corrupt imagination, or the personifications of a beastly sensualism, which are thus exalted in the place of Deity, he cannot but look upon the wretched being, who has given himself up to such a wilful delusion, as plunged in all the guilt, and obnoxious to the punishment of those who do not like to retain God in their knowledge.
Second. Again, we read of a covetousness, which is idolatry. One of the most decided points in the controversy between mankind and their Maker, is respecting the relative value of the goods of this world. His word has stamped them with the impress of an inferior worth, and most emphatically commands us not to set our hearts upon them; while the constant endeavor of mankind is to exalt them into objects of preeminent importance; to attach to them an inordinate value, and bestow upon the attainment of them their most zealous and persevering labor. Now, of all the forms of idolatry, as this is the most common, so it is the least excusable. “ The covetous man,” says an able writer, “is not like the sensualist, goaded on by the power of native appetite, but by the force of a habit which he has himself created. Instead of embarking in the heat of passion, he sits down with all the calmness of calculating principle; he consecrates the best powers of his mind, the noblest faculties of his soul, and the warmest affections of his heart, to the great object of a fortune in this world; he makes the acquirement of gain the settled aim, and the prosecution of that aim the settled habit of his existence. With the wealth he has gotten by his own hands, does he feel himself as independent of God as the Pagan does, who, happy in the fancied protection of an image made with his own hand, suffers no disturbance to his quiet from any thought of the real, but the unknown Deity. Baal and Moloch were not more substantially the gods of rebellious Israel, than Mammon is the god of his affections." Nor would it in the least aggravate his forgetfulness of God, if the fortune which is first in his thoughts, and uppermost in his desire, were represented by a visible image and enshrined on a pedestal, around which he might assemble his household, and make it the object of their morning and evening devotions. It is thus, my brethren, that God may discover the essentials of idolatry amongst the men of a refined and enlightened period; thus may he maintain the charge against us, after the visible tokens of it have been abolished, and the material images of it have been overthrown. No wonder, then, that He who cannot be mocked by a vain show of lip service, while the heart is given to another, should so affectionately warn his ch from covetousness; no wonder that He who will not give his glory to another, should direct the exhortation of our text to every kindred and tongue and people, and wherever his name is heard, or his word is read, among the populations of earth, that he should solemnly admonish them, by his apostle, to keep themselves