« הקודםהמשך »
the difference of the language you use in speaking of your virtues and duties? If you cannot without affection adopt their humiliating expressions, it must arise from one of these causes : either your conduct and character are far more holy than theirs were ; or they knew far more of God and of themselves than you do. You are either much better men; or you are much less acquainted with those things, which are essential to a right judgment of characters and actions.
When the apostle said, “ That God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined into our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ;" he assigned the real cause of the lowly opinion which eminent saints have ever entertained of themselves : and a want of this divine illumination gives occasion for that favourable estimate which numbers form of their virtues and characters. If then this be the case, or if there be the least probability that it is so, would it not be wise in you, my friends, to intreat the Lord, that he would “ open your understandings to understand the Scriptures:” and would it be improper for you frequently to meditate with fixed attention on the glorious perfections and holy commandments of God? Let me affectionately beseech you to compare the duties, on which you depend, with the standard of holy writ; to watch your own hearts, while engaged in religious duties; and to examine impartially your motives in those services, to which you annex some confused idea of merit, and that you hope will make amends, in part at least, for the undeniable defects of your character. A day approacheth, in which every eye shall behold a far more glorious scene, than that which overwhelmed the mind of the prophet Isaiah. The divine Saviour will appear “ in his own glory, and in the glory of the Father, with all his holy angels." Then every action will be weighed in an impartial balance ; every character fully made known; and every unpardoned transgressor struck dumb in the presence of his Judge; or only able to say, “ Woe is me, I am undone !" while the awful words, “ Depart ye cursed into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels,” shall fill him with terror, and sink him into despair. But at present there is hope: and those discoveries of guilt which tend to humble us, and prepare us for welcoming the salvation of God, should be considered as inestimable mercies, the forerunners of “joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
2. But perhaps, these subjects have rendered you uneasy and dejected; and you have on that account deemed it best to divert your attention from them, and at any rate, to keep on good terms with your own consciences. You therefore neglect the Scriptures, and such books, company, or preaching, as formerly disquieted you; and hearkening to worldly counsellors, seek relief from diversions, indulgences, or a hurry of business; or perhaps try to dispel melancholy by a cheerful glass. Thus numbers close their eyes against the light, because they hate it; till the Lord gives them up to judicial blindness.
My beloved fellow-sinners, as you value your immortal souls, do not yield to such temptations. Do not shrink from the discovery of your real character and condition while hope remains. The knowledge of the disease is the first step towards recovery: but a groundless imagination, that there is no danger, is the common prelude to an incurable prevalence of the malady. As reasonable agents, examine this matter with an accuracy and impartiality, proportioned to its importance: that in case your confidence of safety should be found a mere presumption, you may now seek and obtain that inward satisfaction, which the prophet felt, when assured that "his iniquity was taken away and his sin purged." Can you doubt, whether it be better to discover your danger now, or to remain strangers to it, till God shall call you to receive your eternal retribution ?
But are any of you so deeply convinced of sin, as to be ready to say, “Woe is me, I am undone !" Let me caution you, my brethren, against desponding fears. The wreck and ruin of self-confidence makes way for evangelical
hope. The Son of God came into the world to save sinners, to seek that which was lost, not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance, to reconcile enemies by the blood of his cross, to receive gifts for the rebellious, to justify the ungodly, to sanctify the unholy: to give life to the dead, strength to the helpless, liberty to the captive, and felicity to the wretched. He invites all who are athirst, yea, all that are willing, to come and buy of him the blessings of salvation, without money, and without price. “ Him that cometh unto me,” saith the Saviour, “ I will in no wise cast out.” hold then the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.” He is “ the author and finisher of faith ;” and he hath pointed out to you the proper way of seeking peace and salvation, in these most instructive and encouraging words; “ Ask and it shall be given you ; seek and you shall find ; knock and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” Matt. vii. 7, 8.
But some hearers of the gospel are sufficiently confident that their sins are forgiven, and that they have experienced that change which is described in the Scripture : yet they are not disposed to say, “ Here I am, Lord, send me.” They show no zeal for the honour of God, -no readiness for self-denying services,-no tokens of being constrained by the love of Christ to live as his devoted servants. It does not appear that their terrors were accompanied by humiliation and hatred of sin, or their comforts by the sanctification of the Spirit unto obedience. But let us all beware of this delusion; “ for every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.”
Finally, my Christian brethren, I beseech you by the mercies of God, to desire an increase of that spiritual knowledge which produces humility; but at the same time to watch against discouraging fears, while conscious of integrity in your professed faith and love, and your desire to honour the Lord by thankful obedience. For these indulged and needless apprehensions render the mind too feeble for active service, or patient suffering; and they give your religion a forbidding and unamiable aspect. Let us therefore unite all our contemplations on other subjects, with frequent meditations on the mercy and grace of God our Saviour; be very careful not to grieve the Holy Spirit by evil tempers or a selfish behaviour; and diligent in every means of grace. Above all, let us pray without ceasing for such a sweet sense of the Lord's pardoning mercy and abundant grace, as may animate all our endeavours to shew the holy tendency of our principles, and to make those “ ashamed who would falsely accuse our good conversation in Christ."
The sacred writers do not inculcate holy practice from such considerations as are commonly suggested by moralists and philosophers. The beauty of virtue, its utility to mankind, and its benign effects on the health, peace, interest, and reputation of the possessor, may he mentioned with propriety as subordinate recommendations: but the authority, command, example,
and glory of God, constitute the primary motives and ultimate object of genuine holiness, and every duty should be enforced by the encouragements and obligations of the gospel. “ Beloved,” says the aged apostle, “ let us love one another, for love is of God, and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth.God; he that loveth not, knoweth not. God: for God is LOVE.-In this was manifested the love of God towards us; because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him." Let us then,
I. Inquire how such compendious propositions as that of the text should be understood.
II. Illustrate the truth and importance of it, from the dealings of God with his creatures, especially with mankind.
III. Point out certain perverse inferences which are frequently deduced from it.
IV. And Lastly, make some practical use of the subject.
I. In what manner ought we to understand such compendious propositions as that of the text?
There is a peculiar curse, as it were, connected with indolence and levity in the grand concerns of religion. If a man will trifle in matters of the last importance, and if instead of carefully examining the meaning of an expression, as it stands in the context, and forms a part of a consistent revelation, he only attend to the mere sound of the words, allowing his prejudices and passions to interpret them; he will surely be taken in a snare, and perhaps left to wrest the Scriptures to his own destruction. The diligent and faithful servant will not only consider a few words of the commands or directions of his master, but he will observe the whole of them, weigh their import, and endeavour fully to understand them. This is the proper use of reason in respect of divine revelation. We are neither authorized nor qualified to sit in judgment on the testimony of God, to rejeet any part of it as useless or injurious,-to propose alterations, or to make additions. All such attempts are both absurd and presumptuous in the extreme. But our rational powers are the gift of God, to whom we are accountable for our use of them: and as we should so erly examine what ground we have to believe the Scriptures to be a divine revelation ; so we ought to study them with diligence and teachableness; and depending on the promised assistance of the Holy Spirit, endeavour to find out the real meaning of every proposition contained in them.
We meet with several comprehensive declarations in the sacred oracles, which should always be explained by comparing them with such passages as more fully state and unfold the doctrines of Christianity. The apostle John, in another place, says, that “God is light:” James'affirms, that “ He is the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness or shadow of turning :" and Paul declares, that “Our God is a consuming fire.” Now, a man would not think of inferring from this last expression, that the Lord cannot exercise mercy, but must punish and destroy all sinners without exception; and this may shew us, that limitations are also implied, when it is said, that GOD IS LOVE.
“ Thus saith the high and lofty One, who inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy ;" if then the Lord's name be holy, he is holiness as certainly as he is love. The same might be shewn in respect of all his perfections ; except that love takes the lead, as it were, in all the displays which he makes of his glorious character.
We discourse indeed on such subjects like children; we are wholly incapable of conceiving aright of the divine nature; the attributes of the Deity doubtless exist and operate with a simplicity that we cannot explain, and probably there is not that entire distinction between the effects of mercy, justice, truth, and holiness, in the divine nature and conduct, which appears to our contracted minds. Yet it may encourage us, under this
our conscious incapacity, to reflect that the Lord himself speaks to us in our own language; as more conducive to our benefit, though less flattering to our pride. Philosophers, it is true, frequently reject the style of Scripture, and attempt to prove, that there cannot be any thing in the divine nature which can properly be called wrath, indignation, or avenging justice. But, whatever there may be in such speculations, when cautiously managed; or whatever use may be made of them, in teaching us to exclude from our thoughts concerning the infinite God, every idea which originates from the corrupt passions of our fallen nature: it is evident that this is not the best method of addressing mankind; neither the most intelligible, impressive, or useful : for it is not the style of the only wise God himself. In speaking to us, he has seen good to adopt that kind of language, which is commonly used by the unlearned, that is by an immense majority of the human species.
We must therefore continue to discourse of the divine attributes, as distinct though harmonious: and when we read that “God is love," we must suppose that a different instruction is intended, than when we are told, that “Our God is a consuming fire.” The declaration that the Lord is “ a holy and just God," has a different meaning from the encouraging assurance, that “ He is merciful and gracious, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin." Yet those distinct attributes perfectly harmonize in the divine character, and only seem to limit each other: for the Lord is infinite in wisdom, justice, holiness, goodness, mercy, and truth; exactly as if each attribute subsisted alone in his incomprehensible nature.
We must not, however, imagine, when it is said, that God is love, or truth, or vengeance, that these properties are so essential to him, that they cannot but act to the utmost in all possible cases; as fire cannot but burn, whether the effects be useful or destructive ; or as water must rush downward, when obstructions are removed, whether it fertilize or deluge the country. We should remember that the Lord acts with most perfect freedom, and unerring wisdom, “ according to the counsel of his own will.” It is therefore impossible that any divine attribute could have been exercised in a greater degree, or in a different manner than it hath been ; because the works of the Lord's power, and the effects of his justice and love, have been exactly as many and great, as infinite wisdom determined they should be.
We may perhaps discover a faint illustration of the subject, in the conduct of two affluent persons, both apparently very liberal. The one not duly estimating the real value of riches, or the true ends of generosity, scatters abroad, with a lavish hand, till he exhausts the very resources of his bounty ; while his indiscriminate liberality often encourages vice, and does more harm than good to society. The other considers his wealth as an improveable talent: he gives and spends only when he judges that it will answer some good purpose ; he frequently rejects importunate applications, but on other occasions he is bountiful without waiting to be solicited.' He studies to exercise beneficence in consistency with justice, and to retain the ability of permanent usefulness: he aims to render his liberality subservient to the best interests of mankind, and uniformly to discountenance sloth, profligacy, and ungodlinesg.–And thus, while he seems to limit his bounty, he renders it more abundantly and durably useful, by regulating it with prudence and discretion.-In like manner, the wisdom and justice of God may appear to restrain the exercise of his love: but they only direct it in that manner, which is most worthy and honourable to his name, and render it impossible that any thing should be done of a contrary nature and tendency.
It may therefore suffice in general to observe, that the Lord, in communicating good, and exercising mercy, acts freely and according to his own perfections, and not by constraint, or reluctantly ; that loving-kindness is his peculiar honour, which adds lustre to all his other attributes; that he delighteth in goodness and mercy, and rejoiceth in his boundless power of communieating felicity; that he is not in any respect less holy, just, and true,
than if he had shewn no mercy; and that it is impossible he should communicate more happiness, upon any other plan, than he actually will communicate in that way which his infinite wisdom hath devised; whatever ignorance or presumption may imagine or assert.
II. Then we proceed to illustrate the truth and importance of the doctrine contained in the text, from the dealings of God with his creatures, especially with the human race.
This will be rendered very evident, by considering a gradation of events, in which the Lord hath exercised love and mercy to the full extent of the explanation already given; yea, far beyond all that ever could have entered into the heart of man to conceive, had it not been revealed.
Let us then endeavour to realize, as far as such poor worms are able, the infinite and self-existent God, from all eternity possessed of such essential glory and felicity, as were incapable of increase or diminution.
Thus circumstanced, he could have no other possible inducement but love, or a disposition to delight in communicating happiness, in creating the universe, and producing a vast variety of beings capable of life and enjoyment. The inanimate creation was formed perfectly good, and exactly suited to the use and benefit of living creatures. The numerous orders of these, from the invisible animated atom, to the bright Seraph before the throne, were all made complete in their kind, adapted to the place and design of their existence, and capable of a measure of enjoyment; and, except as sin has deranged the original constitution of infinite love, no creature is left destitute of a degree of happiness equal to its capacity. In meditating, however, on this subject, we must recollect that “the creation groaneth and travaileth in pain,” through the sins of man: his cruelty and tyranny add immensely to the sufferings of innocent animals, and he is punished in them, as his property and the subjects of his original dominion.
It is also worthy of observation, that no rational creature has ever been deprived of that adequate felicity allotted to it, except in the case of transgression ; at least we have no intimation of such a fact, either in the works or in the word of God. None has been degraded to an inferior situation, rendered uncertain in respect of the future, or distressed by terror, bitterness, or vanity. On the contrary, we have every reason to conclude, that the capacities of all obedient creatures continually expand; that their enjoyment proportionably increases; and that they all will become more and more blessed to all eternity. In these things surely God is Love.
If the case of infants should be thought an exception, seeing they suffer and die without personal criminality; we may observe, without entering upon an intricate controversy, that all who believe the Bible, must allow the human race to have become sinful and mortal by the fall of Adam : and they who reject revelation, will not find less difficulty than others, in accounting for the present condition of mankind. If, then, every branch fell when the root was overthrown: “ if we are born in sin, and the children of wrath ;" it behoves us to be silent on this subject, and to wait for the clearer light of the great decisive day. For indeed it is highly probable, that the case of infants will not only then appear consistent with the divine justice, in respect of their present sufferings, but one grand display of the divine mercy and goodness, in the felicity by which these sufferings were succeeded.
The Lord having created various orders of rational creatures, hath manifested his love, by condescending to become their moral Governor. Infinite wisdom, justice, goodness, and truth, are indispensably requisite in the Sovereign of the universe. Such a government must be infinitely perfect, and of the highest possible advantage to all creatures. “ The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice;" for nothing, but enmity and rebellion, can be dissatisfied with this arrangement. The law, also, being holy, just, and good, was dictated by perfect love. Like a wise and kind father, the Lord requires us to love him with all our hearts, and to love others as ourselves :