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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 this in 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 reject 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 soberly 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.
Wemeet with several comprehensive declarations in the sacred oracles; which must 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 variable“ness 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 apparent limitation is also implied when it is said that GOD IS LOVE.
“ Thus saith the high and lofty One, that inha“ biteth 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 the display 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 is nothing in the divine nature which can properly be called wrath, indignation, or avenging justice. But, whatever use ma be made of these speculations, 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, most impressive, or most 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 con
suming 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, trans“ gression, and sin." Yet these 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 he 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 has been : because the works of the Lord's power, and the effects of his justice and love, have been exactly as many and as 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 improvable 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 ungodliness. 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 which best promotes the interest of his universal and everlasting kingdom.
It may therefore suffice in general to observe, that the Lord 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 delights in goodness and mercy, and rejoices in his boundless power of communicating 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 has devised, whatever ignorance or presumption may imagine or assert.
II. We proceed then 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 has