. . . every man is bound to profess and practise always what he apprehends to be truth.
This has the greater strength, because it comes in the form of an appeal for exact godliness. I do not mean a hypocritical appeal, for this principle has the appearance of godliness to men’s consciences.
Yet it is very dividing: for, first, when many things lie in men’s own thoughts, they cause much strife within themselves; their reasonings are very divers: even though they have all the same tincture from the same affections, and are swayed by the same ends. Then when these things come abroad, before others, who have not the same reasonings nor the same affections to give them such a tincture, but reasonings and affections running quite another way, and not the same ends to sway them but quite different to point them a contrary way, there must needs be much strife, such divisions as will be hard to reconcile. If men sometimes can hardly prevail with their own thoughts to bring them to agreement, notwithstanding the sway of their own affections and ends, how are they like to agree with others whose affections and ends are so various from theirs?
Secondly, if men do immediately profess and practise what they conceive to be right, they must necessarily profess and recant, recant and profess. For in many things, what they apprehend to be true at one time, they suspect and even see cause to deny at another. And what confusion and disorder would there be in matters of religion, if continually by some or other there should be profession of things as true and good, and calling the same things presently into question, yea within a while denying and renouncing them!
Thirdly, when a man has once made profession of what he conceives to be a truth, differing from others, if it proves to be a misapprehension there lies a great temptation upon him to stand out in it, to strive to defend it to the utmost. For nothing is more contrary to a man’s nature than to acknowledge himself to be mistaken in his understanding, and to lie down in the shame of rashness and inconsiderateness in his actions. Therefore whatsoever men’s own thoughts be within, in their own spirits, they had need take heed what they do when they come to make open profession, and practise what they apprehend, and engage themselves thereby to maintain. There are not many who attain to Augustine’s self-denial, to publish retractations to all the world. Now if a man through the strength of this temptation shall still retain what he has made profession of, and others shall see his weakness joined with wilfulness, they must oppose him in it, and so contention and division is likely to rise higher and higher. In regard therefore of the great usefulness of this point, and the difficulty of the right understanding of it, I shall endeavour to speak to it under these three heads.
First, to shew wherein profession is necessary.
Secondly, in what matters men may keep in what they think they understand to be truth so as not to profess or practise it.
Thirdly, I shall propound some rules of direction to shew in what manner a man should make profession of what he conceives to be truth, though it be different from his brethren.
For the first. Certainly profession in some things is very necessary. Romans 10:10: ‘With the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.’ Confession is here joined to believing, as necessary to salvation. This I conceive to be the meaning of those places which hold forth the necessity of baptism, ‘He that believes and is baptized, shall be saved.’ Augustine in one of his Sermons De Tempore, says, ‘We cannot be saved, except we profess our faith outwardly for the salvation of others.’ And Christ (Mark 8:38) says, ‘Whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of Man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with his holy angels.’ And it is observable, that they follow upon those words, ‘What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ As if Christ should say, ‘If you would not lose your souls eternally, look to this, make profession of the truth, as you are called to it. Though you live in a wicked and an adulterous generation, yet be not ashamed of me before them; for if you be, your souls may go for it eternally.’
Zwingli in his third Epistle says, ‘We may as well, with a Diocletian, worship before the altar of Jupiter and Venus, as conceal our faith under the power of Antichrist.’
Now though profession be necessary, yet in what cases we are bound to profess, and in what not, is no easy matter to determine.
Suarez, a man of great judgement, yet falling upon this question, when a man is bound to make profession of the truth, says: ‘We cannot give rules in particular, when there is a necessity of profession, in regard to the good of our neighbour, but it must be determined by the judgement of prudence.’
But though the determination may be very difficult, yet we may assert these five cases to bind us to profession:
First, when the truths are necessary to salvation, and my forbearance in them may endanger the salvation of any. The salvation of the soul of the poorest beggar, is to be preferred before the glory, pomp, outward peace and comforts of all the kingdoms on the earth; and therefore much before my private contentments. In extreme danger of life there is no time to reason what in prudence is fit to be done, but save the man’s life if you can, and reason the case afterwards.
Secondly, when not to profess shall be interpreted to be a denial, though in case of a lesser truth. I must not deny the truth, even the least truth interpretative;1 I must rather be willing to suffer, than that the truth should suffer by me so far. This was Daniel’s case when he would not cease his praying three times a day, neither would he shut his windows, though it endangered his life. A carnal heart would say, Why might not Daniel have been wiser? He might have forborn a while, at least he might have shut his windows. No, Daniel was willing to venture his life in the cause, rather than he would so much as by way of interpretation deny that honour that he knew was due to God.
Thirdly, when others shall be scandalized, so as to be weakened in their faith by my denial; yes, so scandalized as to be in danger to sin, because they see me not to profess. In this case we must venture very far, we should take heed of offending any of the saints, so as to grieve them. But when the offence comes to weaken their faith, to occasion their sin, there we should venture very far to our own outward prejudice, rather than so to offend them.
Fourthly, when an account of my faith is demanded, if it be not either in scorn to deride or in malice to ensnare, but seriously, so as the giving it may be to edification, especially in a way of giving a public testimony to the truth, 1 Peter 3:15: ‘Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.’ If to every one, much more to magistrates.
Fifthly, so far as those whom God has committed to my charge for instruction are capable, at some time or other I must manifest that truth of God to them that may be for their good, according as I am able.
This duty of profession is a duty required by an affirmative precept; though we are bound always, yet not to all times — semper, but not ad semper. We must always keep such a disposition of heart as to be ready rather to give testimony to any truth of God, if called to it by God, than to provide for our ease or any outward comfort in this world, so as we may be able to appeal to God in the sincerity of our hearts, to judge of that high esteem we have of his truth. Lord, if thou shalt make known to me now or at any other time, that thy Name may have any glory by my profession of any truth of thine, whatsoever become of my outward peace, ease, or contents, I am ready to do it for thy Name’s sake. ‘There is a time’, says Hugo, ‘when nothing is to be spoken, a time when something, but there is no time when all things are to be spoken.’
There are six other cases in which you are not bound to profess.
First, when you shall be required in way of scorn, or to ensnare you. This were to cast pearls before swine.
Secondly, you are not bound to make profession of a truth to those who are not able to receive it, whose weakness is such that they cannot understand it till they have grasped some other truths as a basis. ‘I have many things to say,’ says Christ, ‘but ye are not able to bear them.’ So St. Paul, ‘Hast thou faith? have it to thy self.’ He speaks in the case of doubtful things, which will trouble weak ones.
Thirdly, when men’s hearts appear so corrupt that there is apparent danger of abuse of truths, to the strengthening of them in their lusts. There are precious truths that many ministers cannot speak of before people without trembling hearts; and were it not that they believed they were the portion of some souls in the congregation, they dare not mention them.
Fourthly, when your profession of some truths will take off men’s hearts from others that are more weighty and necessary. The rule of the Apostle, Romans 14:1, holds forth this, ‘Receive not those men who are weak in faith to doubtful disputations.’ This may hinder them in the great things of the Kingdom of God, ‘Righteousness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost’, verse 17. As if the Apostle should say, ‘Let them be well established in them; but these doubtful disputations will hinder them in such things as these are.’
Fifthly, when my profession at this time in this thing is likely to hinder a more useful profession at another time in another thing. Proverbs 29:11: ‘A fool uttereth all his mind; he that is wise keeps it in till afterward.’ It was the wisdom of Paul when he was at Athens, not immediately to break out against their idols. He stayed his due time, and yet all the time he kept in his uprightness in the hatred of idolatry as much as ever.
Sixthly, when our profession will cause public disturbance, and that to the godly. The disturbance of men’s corruptions who will oppose out of malice, is not much to be regarded. When it was told Christ the Pharisees were offended, he cared not for it, but he made a great matter of the offence of any of his little ones. When men who love the truth as well as we shall not only be against what we conceive truth, but shall be offended, and that generally at it; if we have discharged our own consciences by declaring as we are called to it what we conceive to be the mind of God, we should sit down quietly, and not continue in a way of public offence and disturbance to the saints. The rule of the Apostle will come in here: ‘Let the spirit of the prophets be subject to the prophets.’ We should wait till God will in some other way or at some other time have that prevalence in the hearts and consciences of his people which we conceive to be truth, and which they are now so much offended at. There could never be peace continued in the Church if every man must continually, upon all occasions, have liberty openly to make profession of what he apprehends to be a truth; when such a liberty is exercised there will be no end to contention, even though the Church, which is faithful and desires unfeignedly to honour Christ and his truth, be never so much against it.
In divers of these cases the consideration of that text, Ecclesiastes 7:16, is very suitable, ‘Be not righteous over much, neither make thy self over wise; why shouldst thou destroy thy self?’ Amongst other things, this is included in the scope of the Holy Ghost: when you apprehend a thing to be a truth, do not think that you are bound at all times, upon all occasions, to the utmost to profess, practise, promote that truth, without any consideration of others; being carried on with this apprehension, ‘It is a truth, come of it what will; whatsoever becomes of me, whatsoever trouble shall follow upon it, I must and will profess it; and publish it again and again to the death.’ In this you had need look to your spirit, in this you may be over-just, and make yourself over-wise. Though there may be some uprightness in your heart, some love to Christ and his truth, yet there may be mixture of your own spirit also, you may stretch beyond the rule. This is to be over-righteous, to judge that you act out of a zeal to God and his truth when you go beyond what God requires.
It is true that at no time, upon no occasion, though your life and all the lives in the world depend upon it, must you deny any of even the least truths. But there may be a time when God does not require of you to make profession of everything you believe to be a truth.
You will say, ‘This tends to looseness, to lukewarmness, to timeserving; men pretending and pleading discretion, grow loose and remiss, and so by degrees fall off from the truth.’
Let men take heed of that too, ‘Be not overmuch wicked, neither be thou foolish’ (Eccles. 7:17). As you must be careful not to go beyond the rule of truth so take heed you fall not off from it, for in so doing you will grow wicked and foolish, yea very wicked, over-wicked, God will meet with you there too. Wherefore verse 18 of the same chapter says : ‘It is good thou shouldst take hold of this, yea also from this withdraw not thine hand.’ Take both, be careful of yourself in both, but especially mark the last clause of the 18th verse: ‘He that feareth God shall come forth of them all.’ The fear of God possessing your heart will help you in these straits; by it you will be delivered from being ensnared by your indiscreet, sinful zeal, and it shall likewise keep you from bringing misery upon yourself by falling as far on the other hand to compromise and timeserving. The fear of God will ballast your soul evenly, it will carry you on in a way that shall be good in the eyes of the Lord, and of his saints.
There is a natural boldness and a mixed zeal in many who are godly, that carries them on in those ways which cause great disturbance to others and bring themselves into great straits and snares. And these men are very ready to censure others for remissness and looseness, who do not as they do. But for this Scripture reproves them, shewing that it is not fleshly wisdom and providing for ease that is the reason why others do not as they do, but the fear of God in a right way ballasting their spirits. God will own his fear to be in their hearts, ordering them aright, when your disorderly, mixed zeal shall receive rebuke from Christ.
‘But does not Christ say that he came into the world to witness to the truth, and is not every truth more worth than our lives?’
That man who, in the former five cases in which profession is shewn to be our duty, shall witness to the truth, shews that truth is indeed precious to him, and gives that testimony to the truth that he was born for, although in the six latter he shall forbear.
But when these latter cases shall fall out, how shall the truth be maintained? Will it not suffer much prejudice?
- Christ will not be dependent on men’s weaknesses for the maintenance of his truth.
- If every man, according to his place, deliver his own soul and declare (observing the rules we shall speak to presently) what he conceives to be the mind of God, though he shall not either in words or practice continually hold forth the same, yet thereby the truth is maintained.
- The truth is maintained by forbearing that practice which those opinions of men that are contrary to the truth, put them upon. Not doing as they do is a continual witness against them, and so a witness for the truth. This is a Christian’s duty at all times. Although I must never upon any ground do that which my conscience says is in itself sin, in the least thing, yet I am not always bound to do that which my conscience says is in itself good (as it may fall out), in some great thing. A thing in itself evil can never be made my duty to do, whatever circumstances it may be clothed with, whatever good I conceive may be done by it. But a thing in itself good may by circumstances attending it be such that at this time it is my duty to forbear it, so that in not doing it I cannot be charged of a sin of omission, of not living according to what my judgement and conscience is convinced to be truth and good.
That we may understand yet further our duty of profession so as we may cause no divisions by it, let these five rules be considered for the ordering of it.
- First, we must be well grounded in fundamentals, before we make profession of other truths. Seldom or never have you known men who in the beginning of their profession of religion have laid out the first of their strength in controversies, but that they have vanished and come to nothing in their profession. Be first well rooted in the faith, in the great things of godliness, the absolutely necessary things of eternal life, and then your searching into other truths of God which are for your further edification will be seasonable.
- Secondly, take heed that what you do be not out of affectation of novelties which men naturally have itching desires after. It is very pleasing to the flesh to convey new things to others, to be the first that shall bring to others things which before they understood not, whatsoever the things be. As there is much wickedness in raising up old errors as if they were new truths, so there is much vanity in bringing forth old truths in novel and affected phrases, as if men desired to be thought to find out some new thing that yet hath not been, or is very little known in the world, when indeed upon examination, when it is unclothed of its new expressions, it proves to be the same old truth that ordinarily has been known and taught, and so the man is seen to be one who knows nothing more than ordinary. Take heed of this vanity of spirit in the holding forth of truth, especially when in public you speak of God’s truths. Speak of them with reverence of the name of the great God, as the oracles of God, clearly, plainly, not in obscure, uncouth, unknown expressions, as the oracles of the idols were wont to be delivered in.
- Whatsoever is differing from others who are godly, is not to be held forth and professed without serious examination. We may venture more suddenly upon those things which are generally received by the saints; but if they be differing, then we had need examine them over and over again, with a jealous eye over our own hearts, and to take heed to our spirits, and how we behave ourselves in such things in which we are likely to go away so much differing from so many of our godly, able brethren. We must take heed of publishing any such things rawly, undigestedly, lest we wrong the truth of God and make the profession of it become ridiculous. If the thing be true today, it will be true tomorrow.
- We must not think it enough boldly to assert things, but according to the rule of the Apostle (1 Pet 3:15) we must give an account, (1) with meekness. We must not do it in a passionate, conceited way, not with our affections hurrying and tumultuous, not after a contentious manner, as if we desired victory rather than truth; but with quietness and composedness of spirit. We must not think it much to bear contradiction from others, yea though it should arise to contemptuous carriage against us. And with fear, that is, either in respect of ourselves who make the profession, or in respect of those before whom we make it. For ourselves, we must not do it in a conceited way, not in a high, arrogant way, with foolish confidence in ourselves and in our own apprehensions and abilities, but with fear, shewing that we realize our own weakness, vanity, and nothingness. (2) In respect of those before whom the profession is made. We must manifest our due, reverent esteem of them. No unbecoming behaviour, no scornfulness, lightness, contempt. If it be before magistrates, whatsoever they are in regard of their persons, yet reverential respects ought to be given to them in regard of their places. And if they be men of worth, learning, graces, public use in the Church or State, that respect that is due to their worth is to be manifested also in our carriage towards them. Grace teacheth no man to be unmannerly, rude, scornful, furious, or foolish.
- If you would make profession of or practise any thing differing from others who are godly and judicious, you should first acquaint those who are most able, with what you intend, and not go to youths and women and weak ones first, seeking to promote what you apprehend by possessing their hearts first with it, and to get them to be a party for you. This is not the way of God. If God has revealed some new thing to you, if you have some new light which is not yet made known to your brethren, you should first go to those who are most able to judge, acquaint them with what apprehensions you have, and see whether they cannot make it appear to you that you are mistaken. If they cannot, they may confirm you in the truth, that you may go on in it with the more confidence.
If churches were settled as they ought to be, I should think it very ill for any minister to preach any thing not ordinarily received by the saints, before he has acquainted other elders and even some of other churches with it. If, out of an eager desire to be foremost in venting some new thing, they shall do it merely from themselves, they may be a means to raise and engage themselves in woeful disturbances before they are aware. That common union and fellowship that there is between elders and churches requires mutual advice and consultation in matters of difficulty, though to lay a law upon them to advise in everything, be it never so clear, would be hard.
This article was first published in the March 1974 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine. This is chapter 11 of Burroughs’ Irenicum (2nd edition 1653). The whole book contains an acute analysis of religious divisions. Another chapter ‘What we are to bear in others’ (Chapter 9) is reprinted in The Reformation of the Church, ed. I. H. Murray. The text has been to some extent modernized and some long sentences divided.
- Presumably Burroughs means that a silence which can be interpreted as a denial of the truth is not to be defended.
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