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ON THE JUSTICE OF GOD
2. Cor. v. 11.
Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade
DIFFERENT ages of the world have had their different errors and vices. In a former age, superstition was the reigning evil: in the present, profaneness and infidelity predominate. During the prevalence of superstition, erroneous conceptions were formed of the character of God, as a Being strict in exacting the performance of rites and ceremonies, rigid in his laws, and severe in enforcing penances. The present age has gone into the opposite extreme:-it has abandoned the ideas of justice and vengeance in the Divine nature, not considering God as a Judge who will render to every man according to his works, punishing the sinner with everlasting destruction; but rather as a tender Father, excusing the frailties of his children, and chastening and disciplining them here, in order to make them all finally happy hereafter. He is, according to the
popular notion, a God all mercy and love, incapable of anger or resentment; and though himself perfectly holy and pure, yet so indulgent to the frailty of his creatures as not to observe, with any vigilant attention, what is done amiss by them. Now as our religion always takes its character from the views we entertain of the Divine Being, so, in consequence of the change I have noticed, the form and complexion of religion amongst us has undergone a remarkable alteration. In the age of Superstition, ceremonial observances were multiplied; abundant charities were offered as commutations for sin, and severe penances and mortification were voluntarily endured as an atonement for it. Although the real nature of religion was entirely mistaken, yet the forms, however erroneous, under which it appeared, were universally prevalent. Pilgrimages were made, monasteries were built, and churches and masses were multiplied. For a short period after the Reformation, just and true ideas of the character of God prevailed among the Protestant churches; and a proper fear of his Name, and reverence for his authority, were united to the love of him as a Parent. But afterwards, infidels and professed Christians, led astray by a philosophizing spirit, succeeded in very generally establishing what they termed a more liberal notion of the character of God, and in subverting the faith of mankind in his retributive justice. The effect was, as they wished, to relax, in popular opinion, the obligations to holiness. The violation of the Divine Law was considered as a slight evil; the necessity of deep repentance and contrition for sin was superseded; the salutary dread of the judgments of God was ridiculed; the doctrine of the atonement was undermined; faith in Christ was degraded from the high rank it had hitherto held in the estimation of Christians; instead of a just distribution of rewards and punishments, the universal salvation of mankind was anticipated; and Christianity itself was reduced nearly to a level with natural relig ion. The standard of morals, was of course, lowered.
Christian vigilance, self-denial, and separation from the world were derided as superstitious. Vices were called by extenuating names, and the law of nature substituted for that of the Gospel. Hence a life of careless dissipation and pleasure came to be considered as a life of innocence and virtue.
That there is now a more general degree of profligacy and corruption of manners than prevailed a century or two ago, will probably not be denied; though it may be allowed that, in some respects, the present age has improved above those which preceded it. I would not ascribe this degeneracy of manners entirely to a mistaken view of the Divine nature, because I consider that error as partly its cause and partly its effect. False ideas of the Deity will necessarily produce a low state of morals; and a low state of morals will naturally occasion inadequate conceptions of the holiness of God. But of this I am well persuaded, that satan, the grand enemy of Christianity and godliness, could in no way so secretly and so successfully undermine both, as by substituting what might be conceived to be more honourable and liberal ideas of the Divine mercy, in the room of those awful views of his justice which the Scripture has represented to us. The promotion of the glory of God is thus made to coincide with the indulgence of the corrupt propensities of men; we are taught at once to violate the commands of God, and to allay our fears by the remembrance of his mercy. Religion itself is made the instrument of stifling the remonstrances of conscience; and even our knowledge of the Divine nature is employed to diminish our dread of sin.
I do not in this place address myself, on the subject of the Divine justice, to infidels. The arguments I wish to use are derived from the Scriptures, the authority of which they reject; yet even they, reasoning on the ground of mere natural religion, will be much perplexed to reconcile the moral constitution of the world with the views they entertain of the Divine nature.
The indulgent lenity they ascribe to God can never be shewn to be consistent with the awful visitations with which he often chastises the offences of man, unless they represent him as capricious and vindictive, as "such an one as themselves." My business, however, lies with professed Christians, who acknowledge their obligation to receive the views which Revelation gives of the Divine nature. Yet many of these, inadvertently it may be hoped, have imbibed what is termed a philosophical idea of the mercy of God; and finding the convenience of that opinion in the indulgence which it affords them, attempt to reconcile it with the representation given in Scripture of his character.
I do not suppose that the generality of such persons are very strict and accurate in their examination of Scripture: loose and superficial views are better suited to their state of mind. It may happen, however, that some more acute and ingenious person amongst them may display his critical ingenuity by a laboured attempt to explain away the plain and obvious language of the Bible. With such persons, however, I do not here wish to reason. They who neglect, or they who pervert, Scripture, equally shew dispositions unprepared to receive the truth. Of you, my brethren, I would hope, that you are deeply sensible of the importance of truth; that you earnestly wish to ascertain the exact views of Scripture; that you are prepossessed by no system, and have no prejudice in favour of your own notions of the character of God, but will receive, with "an honest and good heart," whatever you find declared respecting it in the Sacred Writings. It is this humble and teachable disposition alone which the Holy Ghost will bless with wisdom and knowledge: "the meek will he guide in judgment."
I will suppose, therefore, that some of those before me have inadvertently imbibed what they conceive to be honourable ideas of the Divine nature, and hope, though they own they have not well examined the question, that their opinions may in some way be reconciled
with the declarations of Scripture. I shall suggest, then, to your consideration some brief remarks on the character of God, as displayed by the Sacred Writers.
1. Let me call your attention to the history of the Fall.-In what light does it exhibit God? As a Being very indulgent to the frailties of his creatures? Adam sinned once, by violating his commands; and mark what was his punishment: he was driven at once from paradise; he became immediately mortal. But the effect of the Divine displeasure did not stop there. The whole earth was cursed for his sake. All his posterity were involved in his punishment: misery, and sorrow, and death, became their inevitable portion, and have continued to be so from generation to generation. Now this was the very first transgression of man, and therefore it calls for our particular notice. It was to be expected that God would display to his creatures his own views of sin, by the manner in which he visited their first offence against him. And this lesson we may actually learn: we see a punishment inflicted, which endures through almost numberless years; we see that punishment, in many respects, very severe, and not to be averted by repentance, but going down with man to the grave; and, what is most remarkable, extending to all the Sons of Adam, to endless generations, who had not been partakers of his crime. Now I would ask you whether this earliest fact which we know respecting God, and sin against him, exhibits him as so indifferent to the transgression of his law, so indulgent to the frailty of his creatures, so merciful and forgiving as you, perhaps, have imagined him to be? On the other hand, if God would have impressed his creatures with a dread of his justice, by a punishment which every man living should feel, of which he should carry about him daily the affecting proof, what course could he have taken better calculated to produce this effect? This was a fact for a world to contemplate;-a durable monument to be read by ages yet unborn;-a lesson to be repeated to them at the hour when the heart was most