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The Severity of God,
Hebrews xii. 29.
For our God is a consuming fire.
is a very deplorable thing, that your preachers can never expatiate on the goodness of God, without having just grounds to fear that you infer dangerous consequences from their doctrine. That goodness, of which God hath made such tender declarations; that goodness, of which he hath given us such astonishing proofs; that goodness, which seems so proper to make us love him above all things; that goodness, through our abuse of it, contributes the most, to rivet our infidelity, and to increase our misery. We freely acknowledge, therefore, that with fear and trembling we endeavored last Lord's day, to display its greatness, and, though all our protraïts were infinitely beneath the criginal, though we esteemed it then our happiness, and our glory, not to be able to reach our subject, yet we have been afraid of having said too much. When, to prevent the fatal effects of despair, we assured you, that though you had trafficed with the blood of the oppressed, or betrayed the state, or sold your country, yet you might derive from the ocean of: divine mercy, a pardon for all these crimes, provided you were enabled sincerely to repent, and thoroughly to reform them ; when we said these things, we revolved in our minds these discouraging thoughts: perhaps, some of our hearers may poison our doctrine: perhaps some monster, of which
nature produceth an example in every age, actually saith to himself; I may then, without despairing of my salvation, traffic with the blood of the oppressed, betray the state, sell my country, and, haring spent my life in these wicked practices, turn to God on my death-bed. You will allow, we hope, that the bare probability of our having occasioned so dangerous a wound, ought to engage us to attempt to heal it, by contrasting to-day the goodness of God with his severity. · The text we have chosen is the language of St. Paul, Our God is a consuming fire; and, it is worthy of observation, we have scrupulously imitated the apostle's example in making this subject immediately succeed that which we explained last Lord's day. The gospel of last Lord's day was a passage in Isaiah, God will abundantly pardon; for. his thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are our ways his ways'; for as the heavens are higher than* the earth, so are his ways higher than our ways, und his thoughts than our thoughts, ch. lv. 7. The gospel of this day is, Our God is a consuming fire. St. Paul hath made a similar arrangement, and him we have imitated. In the verses which precede our text he hath described, in a very magnificent manner, the goodness of God in the dispensation of the gospel. He hath exalted the condition of a christian, not only above that of the heathens, who knew the mercy of God only by natural reason, but even above that of the Jews, who knew it by revelation, but from whom it was partly hidden under veils of severity and rigor. . Ye are not come,' said he, unto the mount that be touched, and that burned with fire, nor: unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words, which voice they that heard, intreated that the word should not be spo
ken to them any more. But yè are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born, which are written in heaven, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel, ver. 18, &c. But what consequences hath the apostle drawn from all these truths? Are they consequences of security and indifference, such as some christians draw from them, such as some of you, it may be, drew from the prophet's doctrine last Lord's day? No; they are consequences of vigilance and fear: Sie that ye refuse not him that speaketh: for if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, múch : more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven ; for our God is a consuming fire, ver. 25.
Our God is a consuming fire. These words are metaphorical; they include even a double metaphor. God is here represented under the emblem Cof fire, agreeably to what the psalmist saith, Shall thy wrath burn like fire ? Psal. Ixxxix. 46. There is no difficulty in this first metaphor. But the second, which representeth the conduct of God towards impenitent sinners, as wrath, vengeance, anger, is very difficult, and requires a particular explication. In order to which we will attempt three things.
I. We will endeavor to harmonize our text with other parallel passages, and to give you distinct ideas of that which is called in God, wrath, anger, vengeance, and which occasioned our apostle to say God is a consuming fire.
II. We will prove that this attribute agrees to God in the sense that we shall have given.
III. We will endeavor to reconcile the doctrine we preach to day with that which we preached last Lord's day; the justice of God with his goodness; and by this mean to engage you to love and adore God as much when he threateneth as when he promiseth, as much when he presents his justice as when he displays his mercy. This is the whole plan of this discourse.
I. We will endeavor to give you distinct notions of that which the scripture calls the wrath, the anger, the rengeance of God.
Recollect a remark, which we have often made, that is, that when the scripture speaks of the perfections and operations of God, it borroweth images from the affections and actions of men. Things that cannot be known to us by themselves, can be understood only by analogy, as it is called, that is, by the resemblance they bear to other things, with which we are better acquainted. Divine things are of this kind.
From this remark follows a precaution, which is necessary for the avoiding of error whenever we meet with an emblem of this kind descriptive of God in the holy scriptures ; that is, that we must carefully lay aside every part of the emblem, that agreeth only to men from whom it is borrowed, and apply only that part to the Deity which is compatible with the eminence of his perfections.
Sometimes the part that ought to be laid aside is so obvious that it is impossible to mistake it. For example, When the scripture attributeth to God hands, or feet, sorrow, or tears, or jealousy, it is very easy, methinks, to separate from emblems of this sort all that can only agree with the natures of frail, or with the conditions of sinful men.
But sometimes it is not quite so easy. The difficulty may proceed from several causes, of all which
I shall mention but one at present, and to that I entreat your attention. Some men have false notions of grandeur, and none are more likely to entertain such notions than those divines, who have breathed only the air of the study, and trodden only the dust of the schools. Such divines, having never sweetened their manners by a social intercourse with rational people in the world, have often contracted in that way of life, a sour, morose disposition, and their tempers have tinged their ideas of grandeur and glory. I am greatly inclined to believe that some ideas, which several school-men have formed of the liberty and independence of God, have arisen from this disposition. Divines, who had sweetened their manners by associating with rational people in the world, would have attributed to God a noble and magnanimous use of his liberty and independence. They would have said, God is free and independent, then he will always do justly and equitably; then he will require of mankind only that which bears a proportion to the talents he hath given them; then misery will be the consequence of nothing but vice, and felicity will always follow virtue. If the scriptures sometimes represent God by emblems, which seem opposite to these notions, sensible men would have considered, that one part of them ought to have been cautiously separated from the other, because it was incompatible with the eminence of the perfections of God. But these school-divines have attributed to God such a conduct as their own savage tempers would have observed, had they been vested with divine power. To each of them the prophet's reproach may be very properly applied, These things hast thou done, and thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself, Psal. I. 21. They said, God is free, therefore he may appoint