Let us always remember that the purpose of religion is to promote the practice of moral righteousness, and to give weight to the eternal duties of morality. This is the one goal of all its doctrines and ordinances, as well as of its precepts.
In applying its doctrines to ourselves, or addressing them to others, we should therefore inquire to what uses of piety and virtue they are directed, how the heart may be amended, as well as the mind instructed, by them, what lesson were they intended to teach us, and what motives and incitements to godliness do they bring to our minds.
By thus applying them to their proper goals, and giving them their due force and direction, we shall find them very powerful instruments in the support and advancement of our virtue, of great use and efficacy in spiritualizing our affections, and weaning them from the things of this world.
But to rest in the belief of opinions, or the practice of ceremonies, as a goal, is to mistake their nature, and to lose their use and benefit. To substitute them in the place of real righteousness, is to pervert them into gross superstition.
If we want to increase in virtue and true piety, let us carefully examine our actions by their true standard, and seek to strengthen and improve the virtuous principle within us.
Let us remember, that to have kind affections, to be smitten with the beauty and excellence of virtue is not virtue. But to cherish and encourage these within their proper limits, to attend to the reasons for which they were given us, and to enter into the wisdom and purpose of God in giving them - this is virtue. Every attention to improvement, every endeavor after virtue, is virtue itself.
In the same way, to have the most just sense of right and wrong, to have the clearest convictions of duty in the mind, is not virtue; but to seek to improve this sense by reason and reflection, to keep the virtuous principle always awake and active in our hearts, this is virtue, and a duty of the greatest importance. In active life we are exposed to so many temptations, that, if we do not attend to this, our virtue will always be in danger.
What assurance can we have in our virtue, when it is never called to the trial, unless we frequently examine our hearts, and root the principles of it deep in the mind?
A life of action is the school and theater of virtue.
But, when we have not the opportunity of forming good tendencies into habits by exercise and practice, we may do it in a good degree by contemplation, and especially by the exercises of devotion and religion; which, aside from being duties that are indispensable and necessary in all, are also the direct means to sanctify the heart. In this situation, we ought studiously to embrace and even seek out all opportunities of doing Good.
Those who are not facing temptation should still be actively doing Good, rather than spending their days in a lazy thoughtlessness, which will weaken the mind, rob it of all its virtue, and leave it exposed in the day of trial.
Thus, by carefully improving the mind, and by properly governing ourselves, we shall, when we mix with the world, be armed against its temptations, and strengthen and increase the virtuous principle within us.
And then we shall secure the blessing of God on our endeavors, shall proceed from strength to strength in virtue, shall attain to the things that are more excellent, and go on to perfection!
(Adapted from the sermon, “The Nature and Obligation of Virtue,” by Dr. William Adams, Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, 1754.)