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destruction of the flesh, or the eternal and more dreadful destruction of themselves, is at God's sovereign disposal. So much for the nature of excommunication.
THIRDLY, I come to shew by whom this punishment is to be inflicted.
1. When it is regularly and duly inflicted, it is to be looked upon as done by Christ himself. That is imported in the definition, that it is according to his will, and to the directions of his word. And therefore he is to be looked upon as principal in it, and we ought to esteem it as really and truly from him, as if he were on earth personally inflicting it.
2. As it is inflicted by men, it is only done ministerially. They do not act of themselves in this, any more than in preaching the word. When the word is preached, it is the word of Christ which is spoken, as the preacher speaks in the name of Christ, as his ambassador. So when a church excommunicates a member, the church acts in the name of Christ, and by his authority, not by its own. It is governed by his will, not by its own. Indeed it is only a particular application of the word of Christ.—Therefore it is promised, that when it is duly done, it shall be confirmed in heaven; i.e. Christ will confirm it, by acknowledging it to be his own act; and he will, in his future providence, have regard to what is done thus as done by himself: he will look on the person, and treat him as cast out and delivered to Satan by himself; and if he repent not, will for ever reject him : Matth. xviii. 18. “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven.” Jobn xx. 23. “ Whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." I shall now as was proposed,
II. Endeavour to shew who are the proper subjects of excommunication. They are those members of the church who are now become visibly wicked; for the very name and nature of the visible church sbew, that it is a society of visible saints, or visibly holy persons. When any of these visible saints become visibly wicked men, they ought to be cast out of the church. Now the members of the church become visibly wicked by these two things:
1. By gross sin. Saints may be guilty of other sins, and very often are, without throwing any just stumbling-block in the way of public charity, or of the charity of their Christian brethren. The common failures of humanity, and the daily short comings of the best of men, do not ordinarily obstruct the charity of their brethren; but when they fall into any gross sin, this effect follows; for we naturally argue, that he who hath committed some gross sin, hath doubtless much more practised less and more secret sins; and so we doubt con
cerning the soundness and sincerity of his heart. Therefore all those who commit any gross sin, as they obstruct the charity of their brethren, are proper subjects of discipline: and unless they confess their sin, and manifest their repentance, are proper subjects of excommunication. This leads me
2. That the members of the church do especially become visibly wicked, when they remain impenitent in their sins, after proper means used to reclaim them. Merely being guilty of any gross sin, is a stumbling-block to charity, unless repentance immediately succeed; but especially when the guilty person remains obstinate and contumacious; in such a case he is most clearly a visibly wicked person, and therefore to be dealt with as such; to be cast out into the wicked world, the kingdom of Satan, where he appears to belong.-Nor is contumacy in gross sins only a sufficient ground of excommunication. In the text the apostle commands us to inflict this censure, not only on those who are guilty of the gross sins of fornication, idolatry, and drunkenness, but also on those who are guilty of covetousness, railing, and extortion, which, at least in some degrees of them, are too generally esteemed no very heinous crimes. And in Rom. xvi. 17. the same apostle commands the church to excommunicate “them who cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine they had learned ;" and in 2 Thess. iii. 14. to excommunicate every one who should not obey his word by that epistle.” Now according to these precepts, every one who doth not observe the doctrine of the apostles, and their word contained in their epistles, and so, by parity of reason, the divine instructions contained in the other parts of scripture, is to be excommunicated, provided he continue impenitent and contumacious. So that contumacy and impenilence in any real and manifest sin whatsoever, deserve excommunication.
III. I come to speak of the ends of this ecclesiastical censure. The special ends of it are these three.
1. That the church may be kept pure, and the ordinances of God not to be defiled. This end is mentioned in the context, verse 6, &c. “Know ye not that a little leaven leveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may
be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” When the ordinances of God are defiled by the toleration of wicked men in the church, God the Father, Jesus Christ the head and founder of the church, the religion of the gospel, and the church itself, are dishonoured and exposed to contempt. And that the other members themselves may not be defiled, it is necessary that they bear a testimony against sin, by censuring it whenever it appears among them, especially in the grosser acts of wickedness. If they neglect so to do, they contract guilt by the very neglect; and not only so, but they expose themselves to learn the same vices which they tolerate in others; for a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” Hence that earnest caution of the apostle, Heb. xii. 15. “Looking diligently, lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up, trouble you, and thereby many be defiled.”
2. That others may be deterred from wickedness. As the neglect of proper censure, with respect to visibly wicked church members, tends to lead and encourage others to commit the same wickedness; so the infliction of proper censure tends to restrain others, not only from the same wickedness, but from sin in general. This therefore is repeatedly mentioned as one end of the punishments appointed to be inflicted by the law of Moses : Deut. xiii. 11. “And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more such wickedness as this is among you."
3. That the persons themselves may be reclaimed, and that their souls may be saved. When other more gentle means have been used in vain, then it is the duty of the church to use this, which is more severe, in order to bring them to conviction, shame, and humiliation : and that, by being rejected and avoided by the church, and treated with disrespect, they may be convinced how they deserve to be for ever disowned of God; that by being delivered unto Satan, they may learn how they deserve for ever to be delivered up to him; that by his being made the instrument of their chastisement, they may learn how they deserve to be tormented by him, without any test day or night, for ever and ever. This, with the counsels and admonitions by which it is to be followed, is the last mean that the church is to use, in order to reclaim those members which are become visibly wicked. If this be ineffectual, what is next to be expected is destruction without remedy.
I shall apply this subject in a brief use of exhortation to this church, to maintain strictly the proper discipline of the gospel in general, and particularly that part of it wbich consists in excommunication. To this end I shall just suggest to you the following motives.
1. That if you tolerate visible wickedness in your members, you will greatly dishonour God, our Lord Jesus Christ, the religion wbich you profess, the church in general, and yourselves in particular. As those members of the church who practise wickedness, bring dishonour upon the whole body, so do those who tolerate them in it. The language of it is, that God doth not require holiness in his servants; that Christ doth pot require it in his disciples; that the religion of the gospel is not a holy religion ; that the church is not a body of holy servants of God; and that this church, in particular, hath no regard to holiness or true virtue.
2. Your own good loudly calls you to the same thing. From what hath been already said, you see how liable you, as individuals, will be to catch the contagion, which is easily communicated by reason of the natural depravity, in a degree at least, remaining in the best of men. Beside, if strict discipline be maintained among you, it will not only tend to prevent the spread of wickedness, but to make you more fruitful in holiness. If you know that the eyes of your brethren observe all your conduct, it will not only make you more guarded against sin, but more careful “to maintain good works,” and to abound in “the fruits of the Spirit.” Thus you will have more abundant joy and peace in believing.
3. The good of those who are without should be another motive. What the apostle saith with reference to another subject, 1 Cor. xiv. 24, 25. is perfectly applicable to the case before us : “But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: and thus are the secrets of his heart made ma. nifest; and so falling down on his face, he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.” If strict discipline, and thereby strict morals, were maintained in the church, it would in all probability be one of the most powerful means of conviction and conversion towards those who are without.
4. Benevolence towards your offending brethren themselves, calls upon you to maintain discipline in all its parts. Surely, if we love our brethren, it will grieve us to see them wandering from the path of truth and duty; and in proportion as our compassion is moved, shall we be disposed to use all proper means to reclaim and bring them back to the right way. Now, the rules of discipline contained in the gospel are the most proper, and best adapted to this end, that infinite wisdom itself could devise. Even excommunication is instituted for this very end, the destruction of the flesh, and the salvation of the spirit. If, therefore, we have any love of benevolence to our offending and erring brethren, it becomes us to manifest it, in executing strictly the rules of gospel discipline, and even excommunication itself, whenever it is necessary.
5. But the absolute authority of Christ ought to be sufficient in this case, if there were no other motive. Our text is only one of many passages in the scripture, wherein strict dis
cipline is expressly commanded, and peremptorily enjoined. Now, how can you be the true disciples of Christ, if you live in the neglect of these plain positive commands? “If ye love me,” saith Christ, “ keep my commandments;” and, “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I have commanded you.' But, “He that loveth me not, keepeth not my sayings.” “ And why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" If you strictly follow the rules of discipline instituted by Christ, you have reason to hope for his blessing; for he is wont to bless his own institutions, and to smile upon the means of grace which he hath appointed.