LECTURE XIII. ON THE GOSPEL CALL.
Elements of the Gospel. Substance of the Gospel Call. Its Freeness. On Faith and Repentance as Conditions of Salvation. On the Use of this Term. The Universality of the Gospel Offer. Principles of the Divine Procedure. Infinite Value of the Sacrifice of Christ. Harmony of Unlimited Call with the grand Characteristics of the Scheme of Redemption. Consistency of the Unlimited Offer with the Interests of Holiness. Special Encouragement given to the Convicted and the Desponding. The Gospel Call Honest and Sincere. Express Declarations of Scripture. Conduct of God in giving the Means of Grace Outward and Inward. Forbearance and Kindness. Recorded Instances. Objections Answered. Quotation from Howe.
IN the application of redemption the Holy Spirit is the grand agent; and I therefore judged it expedient to state at considerable length the proofs which establish the reality of his influences. I have directed your attention also to what may be called the economy of divine influences; and have presented you with a brief sketch of the principal operations of the Holy Ghost. In the application of redemption the Spirit is the chief, but he is not the sole agent; for we ourselves are called to be active. The blessings of redemption are offered to us in the gospel, and we are invited and commanded to accept them with becoming readiness and gratitude. The next subject then, which presents itself for consideration, is the gospel call; under which are included its various overtures, and invitations, and requirements.
The gospel is the good news of salvation. It is the revelation of the scheme of mercy–a message or proclamation from the Omnipotent Ruler of the universe, calling on us to return to our allegiance, and to accept of pardon, sanctifying influence, and eternal life. It may tend to simplify our conceptions of the gospel, or the message of mercy, if we regard it as consisting of three parts, or comprehending three things,–a revelation, a call or invitation, and a promise. It contains, first, a revelation or declaration of the wonderful plan which God, in infinite love, has adopted for the deliverance of our fallen race from guilt and misery, and for raising them to imperishable happiness and glory. It is this part of the gospel more especially that is styled the testimony, or record, or witness of God–a term peculiarly significant and instructive. In its primary acceptation that term refers to the deposition or testimony given by a witness on oath in a court of justice. It intimates therefore that the Most High God condescends to present himself to his creatures in that character and attitude; that in addressing us in the gospel, he speaks to us in a manner the most solemn and emphatic, that what he declares to us is truth, nothing but truth, and the whole truth, respecting our immortal interests, which it is necessary for us to know. The gospel comprehends, secondly, a call or invitation, under which may be included its various overtures and proposals, its entreaties and exhortations, its demands and injunctions. The overtures and invitations and injunctions of the gospel spring up naturally out of its discoveries, and the great object of them is to call on man to believe its discoveries, and to accept of its blessings. These various overtures, and invitations, and demands, constitute substantially one call; but that call is exhibited in these diversified forms and aspects, because the author of it presents himself both as a benefactor, tendering blessings to our acceptance, and as a sovereign requiring our obedience. These overtures, and invitations, and requirements, are enforced by what may be regarded as the third part of the gospel, namely, by a promise, or a collection of promises; the import or amount of which is, that salvation shall infallibly be bestowed on all who are willing to accept it as the free gift of God, through Jesus Christ. The overtures and invitations of the gospel are enforced not only by “promises exceedingly great and precious,” but by denunciations the most terrific and alarming. These denunciations are dictated by boundless compassion, as well as by inflexible justice; they are naturally presupposed in the overtures and promises of the gospel; but, strictly speaking, they do not constitute an integral part of it, and are rather to be regarded as its necessary appendage or accompaniment.
It is the second part of the gospel that I am at present to consider; that is, its call or offer, comprehending its invitations, and exhortations, and requirements. And what I have to say in the discussion of this topic may be summed up in the following propositions:–
1. The substance of the gospel call is this: that men return to God, and accept of the blessings of salvation. The gospel addresses men in the character of sinners, of creatures involved in guilt and obnoxious to punishment. While it reveals a remedy for their miseries, it requires them to consider and believe its announcements, to forsake those sins which must otherwise prove their ruin, to accept of a free pardon, and to consecrate themselves to the service of their rightful Sovereign. In other words, the substance of its demands is comprehended in faith and repentance.
These two duties, if duties we may call them, we shall afterwards have occasion to consider at greater length. It may be sufficient to remark, in the mean time, that by faith we are to understand such a belief in the testimony of the gospel as is accompanied with the acquiescence of the will and the heart in its proposals and invitations; and by repentance we understand a sincere abandonment of sin, and a return to the love and the service of God. Repentance implies, of course, what indeed the original term naturally imports, a radical change of mind, the adoption of new views, and principles, and sentiments.
That repentance and faith comprehend all, or almost all that is included in the invitations and requirements of the gospel, may be presumed from the fact, that they are expressly specified as the sum and substance of apostolic preaching. “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” That the essence of the various invitations and injunctions of the gospel is contained in faith and repentance, is a proposition, of the truth of which we might farther satisfy ourselves, by examining these multitudinous invitations and in junctions in detail. Take as a specimen the beautiful epitome of them given in Isaiah Iv.:
Ho, every one that thirsts, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money: come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money, and without price. Where fore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfies not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David. Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, who will have mercy upon him, and to our God, who will abundantly pardon.
What exhortation or injunction is there in that most affectionate address which may not, without twisting or torturing, be resolved into one or other of the important and comprehensive duties already mentioned?
Thus, then, it appears that repentance and faith include the essence and substance of those evangelical invitations, and exhortations, and injunctions. But it is proper to add, that on the obvious and reasonable principle, that the prescription of the end includes also the prescription of the means, the command to believe and repent may be regarded as including a command, to observe diligently those external ordinances, appointed as the means of producing and invigorating faith and repentance, such as prayer, the reading of the word, and the hearing of the word. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” “Blessed is the man that hears me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.”
If the preceding remarks are well founded, they show how just and important is the answer given to one of the questions in our Shorter Catechism, an answer against which some have objected with an unreasonable fastidiousness, as if it countenanced a legal or anti-evangelical spirit. “That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption.”
I may add that, even from the preceding remarks, it is also in some measure apparent, that the gospel call is eminently proper and reasonable. What can be imagined more proper than that creatures which have transgressed the law, and insulted the authority of him who is the author of their being, and the giver of all their enjoyments, and whose law is unimpeachably just and excellent, should forsake their transgressions, and return to his service? And since, in infinite love and mercy, he has provided for them a most expensive remedy, what more reasonable than that they should consider attentively the nature of that remedy, believe what he declares to them respecting it, and accept of it with cordiality and gratitude?
2. The gospel call or offer is free, and, in one sense, unconditional. We can easily imagine, that as a price for the blessings of salvation, we might have been required to pay a vast amount of silver or gold, or to perform some arduous and perilous service, or to endure severe privations and sufferings. But no such payment, and no such services or sufferings are demanded. The blessings of salvation are tendered to us as a free gift; we have only to accept of them, and they are ours. Hence it is that we are invited to “buy them without money, and without price.” Hence, too, it is said, “Whoso ever will, let him take of the water of life freely.” And hence also it is said, “We are justified freely by his grace, and that “by grace ye are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
It is then an important characteristic of the gospel offer that it is free; that it is fettered by no harsh or capricious restriction, burdened by no unreasonable or impracticable condition. But how is this representation reconcilable with what has been already stated? Are not faith and repentance demanded as indispensable prerequisites or conditions of salvation? Is there not a marked difference in this respect between the purchase and the application of redemption? In the one we are passive, and in the other we are active. And if redemption can now be said to be free, would it not have been still more free if faith and repentance had been dispensed with; if men had been completely and absolutely passive in the whole affair from first to last; and if God had conferred on them his blessings, merely by an exertion of his own resistless might, and without a single act or volition on their own part?
This objection merits our attentive consideration. Let us examine it, however, and we shall perceive that it is founded on misapprehension, and that the requirement of faith and repentance is not incompatible with the free and gracious character of the gospel salvation, and the gospel offer. It is readily admitted that, in reference to the requirement of human agency, there is a difference between the purchase and the application of redemption. In the purchase of redemption, or in the great work of atonement for sin, we are required to do nothing, not because such a requirement would have been unreason able or unjust; but because we can do nothing, and because Christ has already done all. But in the application of redemption, including, under that expression, our attainment of a personal interest in its blessings, we are not permitted to be entirely passive; we are required to repent and believe. To reconcile the requirement of faith with the free and gracious nature of justification, one of the fundamental blessings of salvation, it has been remarked, that though faith may be regarded as a work, it is not as a work that it justifies. A similar remark might, perhaps, be made respecting repentance, and the connexion between faith and repentance on the one hand, and all the blessings of salvation on the other. It is not as works, or as earn ing these blessings that they are connected with them.
Important as the remark is, it does not go to the bottom of the difficulty. It is more to the purpose to observe, that such is the nature of the Christian salvation that its blessings cannot be enjoyed without faith and repentance. Reflect for a few moments on the subject, and you will perceive this clearly and distinctly. The Christian salvation comprehends restoration, not simply to happiness, but to a happiness suited to the nature of men as intelligent and moral agents,– to a happiness originating in holiness. It im plies, therefore, the exercise of right sentiments toward God; of sentiments of veneration, confidence, and love. But these sentiments cannot possibly be exercised by creatures who have sinned, unless they return to God from their state of alienation and apostasy; that is, unless they repent. Not less necessary is the faith or belief of the gospel. Supposing it possible, would you have thought it desirable to be admitted to pardon and peace with God, without any knowledge of the way in which pardon and peace are procured; to have been left ignorant of the incarnation and sacrifice of the Son of God, and, consequently, of our inestimable obligations to his unspeakable kindness? Surely not. But the thing supposed is not practicable. To enjoy our deliverance we must know our deliverer, and we must know what he has done or suffered for us. The price and means of our redemption are far more stupendous and wonderful, and exhibit a far more impressive demonstration of the love as well as of the holiness of God, than its results or blessings; and without a know ledge of that price, and these means, or what is virtually the same thing, without a belief of the gospel testimony respecting the abasement and death of Jesus Christ, there could not be an adequate or proper enjoyment of these blessings. What serves to enhance incalculably these blessings, what chiefly imparts to them their relish, is, that they are procured by the blood of the Savior; nor can we taste them aright without faith in that precious blood.
Thus, then, it appears that the appointment connecting the blessings of salvation with faith and repentance is not an arbitrary one; that it results necessarily from their nature, and from the means by which they have been procured. Less than faith and repentance could not have been required in order to our possession of them; but more is not demanded; and, consequently, they could not have been offered on terms more easy, or in a manner more free and gracious. The truth is, that faith may be regarded just as our acceptance of these blessings; and in this very aspect it is often exhibited in scripture. Without our acceptance they cannot be ours; but our acceptance does not impair their gracious character. It would indeed be as ab surd to suppose that our acceptance of them constitutes our title to them, or to regard it as the work or price by which they are purchased, as it would be to suppose that a beggar s acceptance of an alms trans forms it into wages, or that a criminal s acceptance of a pardon implies a declaration that he never violated the law.
Perhaps, it may still be said,–admitting the indispensable necessity of faith and repentance to the enjoyment of the gospel salvation, and admitting, of course, their consistency with the gospel offer, would not salvation have been still more free, if faith and repentance, instead of being required as duties, had been produced in us entirely by the simple fiat of omnipotent might? A satisfactory answer to this question, it is not difficult to give. Faith and repentance, from their very nature, are acts performed by the beings of whom they are predicated; and to suppose them to be produced or exercised without any volition or exertion on their part, is to suppose a monstrous absurdity–a palpable contradiction. To accomplish such an achievement, is beyond the power even of omnipotence an assertion which we may make with confidence, while, however, it becomes us to make it with reverence. But though the Almighty cannot effect contradictions or impossibilities, he has unlimited control over the minds of men,–he can excite them to consider their ways, and to renounce their sins; and he can excite them to reflect on the gospel testimony, and to esteem it “a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation.” In other words, he can, by his preventing and co-operating grace, excite them to repent and believe. This, in fact, he actually does in every instance where faith and repentance are produced and exerted. Hence it is that faith and repentance are the result both of divine and human agency, the subject at once of promise and precept,–graces, if viewed with respect to God, and duties, when contemplated with respect to men. Such, then, is the free and gracious character of the gospel offer, that not only are its blessings tendered to the acceptance of the vilest transgressors “without money and without price,” but in every instance in which they are accepted, the acceptance is itself the effect of divine influence.
I have thus endeavored to give the explanation or the philosophy, as it may be called, of the conduct of God in pursuing a different procedure in the application, from that pursued in the purchase of redemption,–in leaving us passive in the one, but calling on us to be active in the other, by demanding from us faith and repentance, as necessary pre-requisites or antecedents. That explanation, as now appears, may be compressed into a single sentence. The Almighty thus acts be cause, as it is to be expected from his infinite wisdom, he is determined to treat us according to the nature with which he has endowed us,–to deal with us not as inanimate substances, or irrational animals, but as intelligent and moral agents.
The preceding remarks will assist us in determining how far, or in what sense, faith and repentance are terms or conditions of salvation. You are all aware that these expressions are objected to by some as equivocal, and by others as anti-evangelical,–as inconsistent with the free and gracious nature of the Christian redemption. If these expressions were employed to convey the idea of anything meritorious, or to insinuate that salvation is in any respect, of works, they would be most improper; and it cannot be denied that, in that sense, they often have been, and often still are used. On the other hand, if they are understood to denote indispensable pre-requisites,–things, in the order of means, which are absolutely essential,–they involve nothing that is at all objectionable. In this acceptation they are employed by many of the soundest and best of our old divines, and even by some,–by Jonathan Edwards, for example, whose sentiments were ultra-orthodox, if we may be permitted the expression. In this sense, also, they are used in our subordinate standards. In the answer to the thirty second question of the Larger Catechism, it is said, that “God requires faith as the condition to interest sinners in the Mediator.”And in “the Sum of Saving Knowledge,” it is said, that “God requires no other conditions but faith, and is well pleased to justify sinners upon that condition.”
For many years past, the expressions in question have been employed by comparatively few writers and preachers whose sentiments are decidedly evangelical.
Since, then, they are confessedly ambiguous, and since they may convey an erroneous impression, the question naturally occurs, Ought they to be banished entirely from our theological vocabulary? This, I apprehend, would not be expedient, and that for three reasons. In the first place, no other words, as Mr Hall remarks in vindicating his use of them, convey so exactly and forcibly the idea of necessary antecedents; and such is the imperfection of human language, that it is not a sufficient reason to relinquish a word that it has been frequently misapplied. In the next place, the entire avoidance of these expressions would naturally lead the common people to regard, with an unfounded and mischievous jealousy, all those authors who have employed them,–among whom, as we have seen, may be found some of the ablest and soundest of our divines. And, lastly, there is reason to apprehend that, in consequence of the extensive prevalence of Arminian, or legal doctrine, in both our established churches, dissenters, in their laudable solicitude to avoid it, have not unnaturally been impelled into the opposite extreme,–that, in some instances at least, their ministers have felt themselves fettered in enforcing the demands and requirements of the gospel, and have failed to inculcate, with suitable energy, the obligation of the unconverted to believe and repent. Such, if I mistake not, has been hitherto the extreme into which the ministers of our own denomination have been in greatest danger of running. On the whole, therefore,–though in strictness of language it is, perhaps, a catachresis, or abuse of terms, to speak of the acceptance of a blessing as the condition of obtaining it,–it does not seem advisable to abandon entirely the expressions in question. It seems better to employ them sparingly, and to explain frequently the sense in which they are employed,–to intimate that they are meant to convey the idea not of merit or desert, but of fit and necessary antecedents, or of indispensable pre-requisites.
Excusable or justifiable as may be the occasional use of these expressions, it must be remarked that language has been employed in reference to this subject, which is not only indefensible but dangerous. Those ministers in our established churches who are regarded as Arminians, but many of whom ought rather to be considered as Pelagians, are accustomed to say that men must forsake sin in order to come to Christ, and they are accustomed to speak of repentance, and certain other things as recommending men to the favour of God, or as qualifications necessary to fit or entitle them to apply to the Savior. They thus indirectly insinuate, if they do not explicitly inculcate the doctrine, that it would be presumptuous and unwarrantable for the sinner to hope for the blessings of salvation till he has first made himself in some measure worthy to receive them. Language of this kind seems to have been exceedingly prevalent in Scotland during what is called the Marrow Controversy, about a century ago; those who wish for fuller information on this point, and on several collateral topics, will do well to read the “Act of the Associate Presbytery concerning the Doctrine of Grace,” and the treatise by the late Mr Brown of Whitburn, entitled “Gospel Truth Stated and Illustrated.”
An opinion nearly allied to that just mentioned was broached a few years ago by an eminent living writer and preacher, in this country, whose sentiments on almost all the other peculiarities of the gospel are clear and accurate. In his “address to the Inhabitants of the Parish of Kilmany,” and in his “Tron Church Sermons,” Dr Chalmers maintains the propriety of inculcating abstinence from sin, and the performance of duty as a species of preparation for the exercise of a humble reliance on the atonement and grace of the Savior. But there is unquestionably one most momentous truth which that representation tends to conceal, and one most erroneous and injurious impression which it tends to convey. By fixing the attention of the unconverted sinner on certain things which he is to do or to attempt while in the attitude of waiting for that supernatural influence, which is to enable him to believe, it prevents him from perceiving that pardoning mercy and quickening grace are every moment placed at his acceptance. It naturally induces him, therefore, to think that for the want of faith he is to be pitied rather than blamed, and it may thus prevent him from doing what is his instant and most urgent duty, namely, to look directly to the Savior, and to accept without hesitation or delay of the mercy and grace offered to him.
It is, however, but fair to allow that the language employed by the writer referred to, when stating his opinion, is somewhat crude; and, as generally happens, the crudeness of the language seems to proceed from crudeness of thought, so that it is probable that his sentiments differ from those generally held by evangelical divines more in appearance than in reality.
To ascertain the sentiments of any individual, how ever illustrious, on any subject, is a matter of very subordinate importance in comparison of ascertaining the truth in reference to it. And the subject more immediately under consideration is not one involved in much obscurity, or one in reference to which it is difficult to ascertain the truth. It is unquestionably the duty of every minister of the gospel to inculcate on his hearers the immediate renunciation of all known sin. But to inculcate the renunciation of sin as constituting a right to accept of the blessings of salvation, or even as a preparation for embracing the gospel, seems evidently unwarrantable; for as it is never too early to inculcate repentance, so it is never too early to inculcate faith on the unconverted. Indeed, until the sinner look to the Savior, and until he obtain some “apprehensions of the mercy of God in Christ,” it is impossible for him to cherish emotions of genuine contrition and godly sorrow. While, then, from the very first he is to be urged to “cease to do evil, and to learn to do well,” from the very first also, he is to be urged to consider and “believe the gospel report,” and to “commit his soul to him who can keep it against the great day.” Such is the free and gracious nature of the overtures and invitations of the gospel, that neither external reformation nor anything else, is demanded as a qualification or title to capacitate or warrant perishing sinners to apply to the Redeemer. They are invited, and therefore authorize to come to him without a moment s delay, to come to him just as they are, laboring under the burden of guilt and depravity; and to accept at once of a free and complete remission, and of regenerating and sanctifying grace. And hence it follows, farther, that instead of regarding peace, and hope, and joy, as blessings which it would be presumptuous for them to expect till they have arrived at some remote stage in the Christian course, they are to regard them as blessings, their immediate enjoyment of which is prevented only by their own criminal unbelief, or, in other words, by their non-acceptance.
3. The gospel offer is universal and unlimited. Not only are the blessings of salvation tendered to men freely and gratuitously, they are tendered to all men without restriction or exception. It is said to have been the opinion of the celebrated Richard Baxter, that the gospel call is addressed chiefly, if not exclusively, to sensible sinners, as he designates them, that is, to those who are sensible of their situation, who are in some degree awakened to a perception of their guilt, and an apprehension of their danger. But though special encouragement is given to such persons, no class of sinners is excluded. “The gospel is to be preached to every creature.” “The Spirit and the bride say, come. And let him that hears say, come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” While “the weary and heavy laden,” are invited to come to the Savior and to accept of rest, “the stout-hearted, and they who are far from righteousness, are commanded to hearken,” and to accept of a righteousness and a salvation brought near to them.
It is on the universality of the gospel offer that the author of the book called the “Marrow of Modern Divinity” founds the assertion, that the “Father has made a deed of gift, or grant, of Christ unto all man kind.” This position was strenuously defended by Mr Boston, and the ministers associated with him in what is termed the “Marrow Controversy.” In defending that position Mr B. scrupled not to assert further, that “Christ is the Savior of the world by office,” and that Christ was given, not to the elect only, but to sinners indefinitely; elect or non-elect sinners of the race of Adam without exception.” He mentions, at the same time, that the purchase as well as the application of redemption is peculiar to the elect. The expressions employed by himself and his associates are not always the most precise or happy; and it may be doubted whether their sentiments also are not chargeable with some degree not only of confusion, but of contradiction. By the deed of gift, or warrant, they do not mean that sinners are actually put in possession of the blessings of salvation, but merely that they are warranted to accept of them; and, accordingly, Mr B. states expressly, that by this language he “understood no more than the revelation of the divine will in the word, affording a warrant to offer Christ to all, and a warrant to all to receive him.” But of the truth and importance of these cardinal positions they seem to have entertained a distinct apprehension and a firm persuasion. The procedure of God in making a universal and unlimited offer of the blessings of salvation, is entitled to special attention, as it presents a remarkable contrast to the ordinary conduct of men. How rarely does it happen that human teachers, and human benefactors, and human potentates, make an unrestricted offer of such blessings as they have to bestow, or that they dispense their blessings “without respect of persons,” without regarding the rich and the learned more than the indigent and the illiterate. Plato wrote on the door of his academy, “Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here.” Jesus Christ invites the simple and the ignorant to enter his school and learn the lessons of celestial wisdom. It is the saying of a heathen poet, “I hate the uninitiated vulgar, and drive them from me. “The Son of God addressed the greater part of his discourses to the “common people,” and appointed his gospel to be “proclaimed to the poor.” What is still more wonderful, the blessings of salvation are offered to men irrespectively, not only of external but of moral distinctions; for not only the poorest but the guiltiest and vilest of human beings are invited to accept of them. When a rebellion breaks out in an earthly empire, and when it is judged expedient to issue a proclamation of pardon to those who will lay down down their arms and return to their allegiance, it is usual to except those who were the ringleaders in the revolt, or whose crimes have been peculiarly atrocious. It is often proper and necessary that it should be so, and it might seem natural to anticipate that the principle would be acted on in the divine government. This is the manner of men “but as the heavens are high above the earth, so are the ways and the thoughts of God high above the ways and the thoughts of men.” In issuing the proclamation of pardon, the Supreme Ruler makes no exceptions or restrictions. There is indeed an apparent exception; but it is an exception in appearance, not in reality. There is one sin which is declared to be unpardonable; but from the occasion on which the declaration was uttered, it is certain that the two principal elements in that sin are a deliberate and contemptuous rejection of the blessings of salvation, and an obstinate resistance of those gracious influences which, if not resisted, would have terminated in conversion and reconciliation.
But on what principles are we to explain and vindicate this part of the divine procedure? Does not the offer of pardon not only to ordinary transgressors, but to those “whose sins are red as crimson,” tend to encourage sin? Admitting this procedure to be a signal display of goodness and mercy, how is it to be reconciled with wisdom, and justice, and holiness? Would it not have a better effect, if, instead of mercy being extended to flagrant offenders, they had been universally consigned, under the divine as under a human government, to merited vengeance,–that others might “hear and fear, and do no more wickedly?” These questions introduce us into a field of speculation, both interesting and instructive; and of which, therefore, it will not be improper to take a brief survey.
In answer to these questions it may be remarked, first, that facts seem to justify the wisdom of the divine procedure in the unlimited invitations of the gospel; for it has often happened that atrocious transgressors have repented and embraced with joy the overtures of mercy, while all the counsels and warnings of religion have been set at naught by persons whose characters are stained by no scandalous enormity. I do not mention at present the case of the thief on the cross, and that of Saul of Tarsus, for they were altogether extraordinary, and of course exceptions to the remark rather than exemplifications of it. There are other instances, however, recorded in scripture; and, besides these, observation will supply examples in abundance. “Manasseh did evil above all that were before him in Jerusalem;” but when “he was in affliction he besought the Lord, and the Lord was entreated of him.” During the personal ministry of our Lord and of his forerunner, “publicans and harlots repented, and entered into the kingdom of heaven; “ while “pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves.” Not a few of the ferocious rabble who clamorously desired the murder of the prince of life “gladly received the word;” and a great company even of the priests were obedient to the faith; of the multitude at Corinth who believed the gospel, and were “washed, and sanctified, and justified,” some had previously wallowed in every species of carnality and impurity. It may, perhaps, be said that it was only in consequence of the irresistible or invincible influence of divine grace, that these atrocious transgressors repent ed; and the same grace could have produced repentance in the comparatively pure and moral. The remark may be just, but it is irrelevant. It is readily admitted that no man repents except in consequence of supernatural influence; but the assertion of the Savior respecting the publicans and harlots as contrasted with the scribes and pharisees, and his parallel assertions respecting the inhabitants of Sodom, and Tyre, and Sidon, as contrasted with those of Chorazin, and Bethsaida, and Capernaum, proceed on the assumption that some oppose a greater degree of resistance than others to the lessons of the divine word, and the influences of the divine Spirit. If, then, those who are regarded as the “filth and the offscouring” of society are often more ready than its respectable members to comply with the calls of religion, or if they oppose to these calls an inferior measure of resistance, would it not be inconsistent with wisdom as well as with mercy, to exclude them from the fountains of life and purity, by the impassable fence of a divine interdict?
It may be remarked, next, that there is often a fallacy in the judgments which we form respecting the moral diversities which subsist among the characters of men; and that these diversities present a very different aspect to the eye of omniscience and of infinite holiness, from that which they exhibit to our imperfect vision. “Jehovah sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart;” and many whose outward conduct is comparatively decent, and who are admired and applauded by men, may be more vile, in the estimation of heaven, than some who are regarded by their fellow-creatures with emotions of disgust and abhorrence. And, after all, the moral differences and inequalities among men disappear almost entirely, when their characters are tried by the standard of absolute rectitude. To a spectator standing on the earth, the inequalities of its sur face appear prodigiously great; its mountains seem to tower to an immeasurable height above its plains and valleys; but to an eye viewing these inequalities from the heavens, they would be scarcely perceptible. In like manner, the distance between the best and the worst of men shrinks into insignificance, when compared with the distance between sinless holiness, or infinite purity, and the character even of the most virtuous and amiable of human beings. The wonder, then, is, that mercy should be extended to any of the human race at all, not that it should be extended to the more as well as the less vile.
In farther explanation of the divine procedure in offering a gratuitous pardon even to the “chief of sinners,” I may advert to the defense made by the Savior, when accused of admitting such individuals to his personal intercourse:
Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receives sinners, and eats with them. And he spake this parable unto them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which was lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he lays it on his shoulders rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, That likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents, more than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.
Not contented with this illustration, the Savior, for the purpose of impressing the same lessons, delivered on the same occasion two additional parables,–the parable of the lost piece of silver, and the singularly beautiful and affecting parable of the prodigal son. But does not each of these parables intimate that the compassion which dwells in angelic bosoms, and that, too, which dwells in the bosom of the Deity, resemble human sympathy in this respect, that the greatest concern is felt for those who are in greatest danger; and that, as men feel most for those who are most helpless, other circumstances being equal, so the universal Parent feels a more tender pity (if we may so conceive of it) for those who, if they were the most debased, were also the most destitute and wretched of his children? And would not this principle, and the conduct to which it impels, recommend themselves to the benevolent feelings and affections of the heart, if not also to the approbation of a cool judgment and a dispassionate conscience? Should this be deemed a fanciful and unsatisfactory speculation, no such objection will apply to the consideration next to be adduced. I remark, then,
That the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, on the ground of which pardon is proclaimed, possessed infinite worth and value. It is only through the medium of his atonement that the forgiving mercy of God is exercised, and that any of the human race are saved; and those whose sins are fewest and least atrocious, as well as those whose sins are greatest in number and enormity, must be indebted to him for the blessing. But, in virtue of the infinite dignity and excellence of his person, his oblation possesses infinite merit and efficacy. It is therefore perfectly adequate to cancel the greatest as well as the lowest amount of guilt. “The blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, cleanses us from all sin.” And as his sacrifice is possessed of infinite merit, so the blessings procured by it are characterized by infinite amplitude, incapable of being exhausted or diminished, however vast may be the numbers admitted to share in them. Such being the value of the Savior’s sacrifice, and such being the amplitude and abundance of the blessings of his redemption, would it not have been strange and unaccountable, if not unreasonable and inequitable procedure, to exclude any sinner, however guilty and vile, from the offer of those blessings? Such a procedure would have betokened the indigence and impotence of humanity; but it would ill have com ported with the riches and omnipotence of divinity.
It may be remarked farther, that the procedure under consideration harmonizes most admirably with the grand characteristics and the leading designs of the scheme of redemption. One of the chief objects of that stupendous scheme is, to aggrandize the goodness of God, to display his “manifold grace,” and his “tender mercy.” “That in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.” “It is of faith that it might be by grace.” But the greater the guilt, the depravity, and the danger of the persons who are pardoned, and sanctified, and saved, the greater is the mercy manifested in their pardon, the more astonishing the power which “plucks them as brands from the burning,” purifies them from their pollution, and “makes them kings and priests unto God, even the Father.” If “the whole need not the physician, but they who are sick,” they whose maladies are peculiarly malignant stand in peculiar need of his assistance; and were he to withhold his kind offices from such, would it not throw a shade over his skill or his compassion? The power of divine grace is illustriously displayed, when men the most guilty and depraved, under the renovating and transforming influence of the Holy Ghost, become the most illustrious patterns of humility, and faith, and patience, of zeal, and charity, and holiness. “Much is forgiven them, and therefore they love much.” Like Paul, “they labor more abundantly than others.” In their original state, the most precious stones, the sapphire and the diamond, may be scarcely distinguishable from the rock by which they are incrusted, or the earth in which they are imbedded; but how bright and beautiful do they be come when cut and polished by the hand of the artist? And thus, too, these specimens of human nature, which at first are least attractive, or most repulsive, when polished and adorned by the divine sanctifier, sometimes emit most copiously the living rays of intelligence, piety, and love, and will form at last the most resplendent ornaments in the mediatorial crown of the Son of God.
Perhaps it may be thought that enough, and more than enough, has been said to show, that the offer of salvation to the chief of sinners displays the condescension and compassion, the goodness and grace of the Almighty. But the question is, Is this proceeding consistent with rectitude and holiness? Does it not encourage men to “continue in sin that grace may abound?” The objection proposed in this form has a show of force; but a careful examination will prove that it is a show, and nothing more. It is not from the mere naked fact, that God pardons or offers it to per sons of the most aggravated guilt, that we are to judge of the moral tendency of this proceeding. We must take into account the mode in which the pardon is granted, the medium through which it is dispensed, the conditions, if we may use the term, on which it is offered, and the additional blessings, which form the inseparable precursors or accompaniments of the par don. And in these, when combined, we shah1 find a bulwark which ought to protect the divine benignity in this procedure against all human perversions. In reply, then, to the question just propounded, I would remark, that the bestowal of pardon, even on the great est transgressors, cannot encourage them to sin; for that pardon is bestowed through the medium of the sacrifice of Christ; and it is bestowed on those only who exercise faith on that sacrifice. But that sacrifice lays a foundation for a most important difference between the administration of the Almighty and that of every earthly potentate. There are crimes against human society so fearfully great, that, to permit the perpetrators to pass with impunity, would contravene the very ends of government, and endanger not only the welfare but the existence of the state. To pardon such crimes without an ample satisfaction, would be impolitic and improper, absurd and ruinous. But so ample is the satisfaction rendered by the sacrifice of the Son of God, that no pardon granted in consideration of it can give any encouragement to a repetition of the offense. So impressive a display does it afford, not only of the goodness, but of the severity of God, not only of his infinite mercy, and his superabundant grace, but of his inflexible justice, and his immaculate purity, that none can look attentively at it, or exercise faith in it, without being inspired at once with a dread and a detestation of sin. It is impossible, then, that those on whom pardon is actually bestowed can think lightly of sin, or cherish a wish to continue under its dominion. No man who wrought a miracle in the name of Christ could lightly speak evil of him; and none can feel persuaded that they are indebted to him for deliverance from everlasting destruction but must be actuated by an ardent gratitude towards him, and an anxious desire to “keep his commandments.” And if, from the mercy extended to them, others take encouragement to persist in a course of disobedience, they grossly abuse the goodness of God, and must themselves take the blame, and bear the consequences. They “wrest” that part as they wrest “other” parts of the divine conduct, to their own destruction; but their reasoning is a most evident wresting, not a legitimate construction of the divine conduct.
It may be observed, yet farther, that the gospel call, though unlimited, cannot encourage sin; for it comprehends an injunction to repent, as well as to believe. If that call required men to assent to the discoveries, and accept of the blessings of the gospel, without requiring them at the same time to “break off their sins by repentance,” it might be alleged, not only with plausibility, but with truth, that it encouraged them to persist in their iniquities; and there would be a manifest impropriety in addressing it not only to great sinners, but to sinners of any class whatever. The very sup position, however, involves an incongruity and a contradiction. The redemption of Christ includes deliverance from sin, as well as from misery; and from their very nature, its blessings, as was formerly demonstrated, cannot be attained or enjoyed without repentance, as well as faith. Even then, if the gospel proclamation had not enjoined repentance directly and explicitly, it must have enjoined it virtually and implicitly. But it demands it in terms the most peremptory and emphatic, the most solemn and impressive. Its language is, “Repent, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out. 1 “Except ye repent, ye shall” inevitably “perish.” “Come out from among the wicked, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you.” Can exhortations like these, even though addressed to the greatest transgressors, encourage them to sin? On the contrary, they are evidently fitted at once to alarm and to soften, to impress fear, to inspire hope, to conciliate confidence, and attract love; and while they display most gloriously the benevolence and mercy, they display with equal luster the righteousness and holiness of him from whom all emanate.
These remarks naturally pave the way for another observation, namely, that the bestowal of remission of sins, even on those whose guilt is of the darkest dye, cannot encourage them to transgress; for remission is never bestowed, except in conjunction with renovation or regeneration of nature. This observation, as I have hinted, results naturally from that last illustrated; for, strange as it may sound to some, repentance and re generation are substantially the same. They are described in scripture by the same terms; they refer to the same momentous moral change, and differ only as exhibiting it in different aspects; the first describing it in reference to the obligations of men to aim at it; the latter, in reference to the divine agency in producing it. This change implies the implantation of new and heavenly principles and affections; and, by the constitution of the scheme of grace, it is an indispensable prerequisite to the remission of sins, to re-establishment in the divine favour, and to the enjoyment of the divine fellowship. By nature men are “dead in trespasses and sins,” and until they are “quickened from the death of sin,” and possessed of the rudiments of a new nature, they are devoid of the divine image, and disqualified for performing the functions, and relishing the enjoyments of the spiritual life. Regeneration, therefore, while it is one of the blessings of the “great salvation,” is the portal of admission to all the others. “If I wash thee not,” said the Savior to one of his disciples, “thou hast no part with me.”“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. But if such be the place assigned to regeneration in the Christian system, if it be the first of spiritual blessings in the order of time, as well as in point of value, the bestowal of forgiveness in connexion with it cannot encourage sin; and if forgiveness may be thus be stowed even on the most profligate and abandoned, why may it not also be offered to their acceptance?
I shall only add, farther, what ought carefully to be remembered, that while forgiveness is offered to all, it is not actually conferred on all; and that the season allowed men to accept of it is limited and precarious. It is offered to the “chief of sinners,” in common with those whose transgressions are less aggravated; but neither the one class nor the other have any security that the offer of it today will be repeated tomorrow. From the present scene, with all its opportunities and privileges, they are every moment liable to be removed into the eternal world. Let it be recollected, too, that while a few flagrant offenders are selected to be trophies of divine grace, and monuments of divine mercy, “patterns,” like Paul, “of all long-suffering,” to encourage the guiltiest to apply for pardon, by far the larger proportion of them are abandoned to be the monuments of divine justice, and the victims of divine wrath, “suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” A remark similar to that which has often been made with respect to the thief on the cross, is applicable to them: A few are saved, that none may despair; but only a few, that none may presume. It often happens, also, that the career of such persons is terminated most abruptly; that, while planning iniquitous projects, or rioting in guilty pleasures, they are arrested by the arm of vengeance, and, without a moment s warning, immured in that infernal dungeon from which there is no escape. Let it be remembered, in fine, that to what ever class of sinners men belong, whether their offenses be numerous and aggravated, or comparatively few and inconsiderable, if they refuse to repent and accede to the proposals of mercy, they must at last, not only “come short” of heaven, but be doomed to the ever lasting miseries and horrors of hell. If these facts were properly pondered, they would impress the boldest and wickedest of men with a salutary fear, they would effectually prevent them from trifling with the proposals of mercy, and would impel them to “flee,” without a moment s delay, to “lay hold for refuge on the hope set before them in the gospel.”
Thus, then, we have seen that the gospel offer is universal and unlimited; and we have seen, farther, that this property of it, while it furnishes a magnificent display of the love and the mercy of God, is perfectly consistent with his wisdom, his righteousness, and holiness; and that, unless it be awfully abused, it affords no countenance or encouragement to the com mission of sin.
To the preceding remarks it may form an appropriate appendage to add that while the gospel offer is universal and unlimited, it is so constructed as to hold out special encouragement to two classes of persons to apply for pardon, namely, the convicted and the desponding. If we read the scriptures attentively, we shall find that the invitations and promises addressed to those two classes are unusually numerous, and are characterized by unusual earnestness and tenderness. For this feature of the gospel call, it is not difficult to account. The convicted are more likely than others to comply with that call; and the desponding are prone to exclude themselves altogether from its gracious proposals. That call, therefore, while it excludes and discourages none, is so framed as to furnish peculiar encouragement to those who are more likely than others to profit by it, or who stand in peculiar need of it. And it is almost superfluous to add the obvious remark, that the circumstance just specified affords an interesting manifestation both of the wisdom and the compassion of the Almighty.
4. The gospel call is honest and sincere. This property may be thought a self-evident one; to doubt or deny it seems both impious and absurd; and yet it is liable to more specious objections than any of those already considered. It will therefore be proper to ad vert, first, to the positive evidence by which it is established, and then to the principal objections which have been urged against it.
As the gospel call or offer is universal and unlimited, what we mean when we assert that it is honest and sincere, is substantially this, that the Almighty wishes all men to accept of the blessings of salvation. That this is the natural import of numberless declarations, and warnings, and invitations of scripture, or, at least, an evident and necessary inference from them, admits of no reasonable doubt. “He will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” “He is not willing that any should perish, but would have all to come to repentance.” These assertions require no comment; and a simple assertion from the Almighty, “from the strength of Israel, who will not lie,” ought to command the unhesitating assent of his intelligent creatures. In the present case, however, we have more than a simple assertion. Religion, with all its solemnities, can present few things more solemn than the oath of God; and as if to prevent the possibility of doubting the sincerity and earnestness of his wishes for the happiness and salvation of men, he has been pleased to confirm his word by an oath, an oath sworn by his own immutable and eternal existence.
“As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die, O house of Israel.”
The declarations of God constitute obviously the most authentic and unequivocal indications of his sentiments. And if words are capable of expressing any sentiment whatever, the declarations now quoted authorize us to conclude that God wills not, or wishes not, the destruction, but the salvation of men; and, consequently, that his unrestricted offer of pardon is perfectly honest and sincere.
Impious as it would be to question the sincerity of that offer, we are prone to indulge ungenerous suspicions respecting it; and as the subject is one of vital interest, it may not be unnecessary to adduce some farther considerations calculated to prevent doubt and invigorate faith. It may be remarked, then, that though we are extremely apt to err when reasoning a priori from the divine attributes, in the present case these attributes supply an argument, or at least a presumption, well entitled to attention. We know that God is in finitely good; and though his goodness does not ope rate but in unison with his wisdom and his other perfections,–though it is not a blind impulse to communicate happiness without regard to considerations of propriety and justice, still it is evident that as a being who is good,–infinitely good, he can “take no plea sure” in the misery of his creatures on its own account; and not only so, but that he must delight to promote their happiness, as far as the promotion of it is compatible with objects yet more important. But in virtue of the ample satisfaction to his justice rendered by the sacrifice of his Son, pardon can be dispensed to men of every tribe and every tongue, in entire consistency with the honor of his character, and the principles of his government. And can we contemplate attentively the tortures and agonies to which the Almighty subjected the Son of his love, and not feel that the salvation of sinners is an object on which his heart is set, an object which he desires with a vehemence and intensity im measurably transcending all the longings of human love and human pity.
In farther corroboration of this conclusion, I may appeal to the conduct of God in putting men in possession of the external means of salvation, and in operating on their hearts by the influences of his Spirit. Suppose that the Almighty had done nothing more to accomplish the salvation of men than sent his Son to make an atonement–suppose that no renovating and purifying Spirit had been promised, and that no pro vision had been made for the application of the purchased redemption, even on that supposition he would have removed all impediments to their salvation, except those only which originate in their own infatuated indifference to their immortal interests and their criminal repugnance to the requirements of religion. He would have displayed a love unspeakably and immeasurably great; and though we have no reason to think that in that case any of our wretched race would have been saved, they would have been left utterly “without excuse,” their destruction would have been evidently of themselves, the exclusive result of their own deliberate and willful rejection of salvation. Not only, however, has he sent his Son to make atonement for our transgressions, by suffering the ignominious death of the cross, he has promised to “give his Spirit to them that ask him.” And for what purpose is the divine Spirit offered and promised to men? To enlighten and quicken them, to enable them to acquiesce in the proposals, and accept of the blessings of salvation; to cleanse their souls from the pollution of sin, and to “seal them to the day of redemption.” While that heavenly agent is ever near to them that seek him, and ready to second their feeblest attempts to comply with the overtures of mercy, he is often “found of them that seek him not,” visiting in sovereign love individuals the most unlikely, and reclaiming those who are pre-eminent for wickedness. Of him, not less truly than of the Savior, it may be said that he “stands at the door of men’s hearts and knocks; and if any man hear his voice, and open the door, he will come in and sup with him.” Here, then, is another most powerful proof of the willingness, or, if we may use the term, of the solicitude of God to rescue men from sin and from its consequences. And if we are warranted to attribute to him such a solicitude, how can we question the sincerity and earnestness of the invitations and overtures, of the remonstrances and warnings, addressed to sinners indiscriminately in his word.
I may appeal next to the forbearance and kindness which he exercises toward sinners. If their destruction is an object of indifference to him, it would be easy for him to abandon them to the just and natural consequences of their own folly; to give them up to “eat the fruit of their own ways,” as the scripture expresses it, “and to be filled with their own devices.” Or, if their destruction were an object not of indifference or aversion, but of desire and delight, with what facility could he inflict the vengeance they have merited at his hands? Instead of this treatment, he spares them year after year in the land of the living, and the place of hope; loads them with providential benefits, and plies them with the overtures of his grace. And what is his design in all this? He himself assures us that he waits to be gracious;” that “his goodness” is intended to “lead to repentance;” and that “his long suffering is salvation,” that is, is designed to terminate in salvation. Such is the benevolence of God, that he does not inflict even temporal calamities on guilty individuals and nations, but with emotions analogous to that reluctance and regret with which an affectionate parent would correct a disobedient child, or a merciful prince pass sentence of death on an incorrigible rebel. It is true that there must be a wide difference between emotions of the same general character as felt by men and as felt by God; and that he cannot experience literally any feelings of regret or sorrow. But in so far as human can represent divine emotions, we are warranted to affirm, that it is with sentiments approaching to, or resembling repugnance and regret, that he contemplates the misconduct of transgressors, and inflicts punishment upon them. “He does not afflict willingly, or grieve the children of men.” To his ancient people he says, “How shall I give up Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboim? mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together.” If such be the emotions with which the Supreme Ruler inflicts temporal judgments, much more, we may presume, must it be with regret and reluctance that he inflicts eternal and heavier punishments. Nor is this a mere conjecture, or a mere inference; for we know that the compassionate Redeemer wept tears over lost souls; and though we cannot suppose that tears are shed, or that grief is felt in heaven, we must believe that, in so far as the change in his circumstances admits it, he still views the impenitence and ruin of men with similar emotions; for though his condition is changed, his heart is still the same. We are warranted, then, to ascribe to him a real aversion to the destruction, and a real desire for the salvation, of sinners; and if such be the sentiments of the Son of God, they must be those also of the eternal Father; for between the sentiments of divine persons there cannot be the slightest discordance. It is almost superfluous to add, that if there exist in the divine mind such an aversion and such a desire, the overtures and calls of the divine word must be honest and sincere; for of such an aversion and such a desire they are the exact counterpart, the natural and appropriate expression.
In proof of the desire of God for the salvation of all men, and consequently of the sincerity of the universal offer of salvation, I may advert, lastly, to the character of those who have been saved in time past, and to the circumstances connected with their conversion and salvation. Individuals the most unlikely, offenders the most atrocious, while hurrying impetuously along the career of folly and iniquity, have been arrested by a divine hand, and turned into the path of life and happiness. Of those who have been saved, the greater proportion have been sustained under much weakness and much sorrow, reclaimed from manifold declensions, and conducted through multitudinous perplexities and dangers. Now the word of God authorizes us to believe that in these wonderful operations he is influenced, in part at least, by a wish to encourage sinners in every successive age, to apply for pardoning mercy, sanctifying grace, and eternal life. “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first,” or as it should be rendered, “in me the chief,” namely, of sinners, “Jesus Christ might show forth all long suffering, for a pattern to them who should hereafter believe on him to everlasting life.”
Brief and hasty as is the preceding sketch, it seems abundantly sufficient to authorize the conclusion that the overtures and invitations of scripture calling on sinners, without exception, to accept of salvation, are not only sincere and cordial, but inexpressibly earnest and affectionate. It has already been hinted, however, that this is a position beset with difficulties of no inconsiderable magnitude. The questions naturally suggest themselves. If the Most High is really averse to the final perdition, the eternal death of all men, why does he not prevent it? If he wills sincerely and cordially the salvation of all, why does not he effect it? Is not he omnipotent, and cannot he then do whatever he pleases? “Who hath resisted his will?” Since it is certain that multitudes of the human race will perish eternally, are we not warranted to conclude that the Almighty does not will their salvation? Nay, does not his word intimate this, they are “ordained to that condemnation;” and consequently, that their destruction is the consequence of a divine purpose, or decree?
To escape the difficulty suggested by these questions, some authors have maintained that it is improper to ascribe to God in any sense whatever, a will or wish for the salvation of all men. Such is the solution adopted by Dr Hill, and by some other Calvinistic divines. But to deny the existence of such a will or wish in every sense, is virtually to evacuate and nullify the whole body of the unlimited calls, and invitations, and overtures, and warnings of the gospel. Let us try, therefore, whether it is not possible to discover some less objectionable solution.
The difficulty, it will be perceived, consists chiefly in this, in ascribing to the Almighty,–to him who does whatever he pleases, a wish or intention which is not realized, which seems, therefore, to be frustrated and disappointed. But that difficulty will vanish if it can be demonstrated that there are things which, as the moral governor of the world, the Most High may will, not absolutely, but conditionally, which he may wish to be effected, not in any way whatever, but only in one particular mode; in other words, that there may be results which, if contemplated simply in themselves, he may, or rather from his nature, must desire, but for the accomplishment of which he may not judge it expedient to put forth all his power. In such cases his wish or desire may be not only honest but earnest, and yet it may not be realized. If the discussion related to in animate substances or physical phenomena, it might be difficult to imagine how such cases could occur; but the discussion relates to moral and accountable agents, whom he is bound to treat according to the rational and moral nature with which he has endowed them, and to suppose the existence of such conjunctures or occasions with respect to them, involves no difficulty whatever. Such occasions it is abundantly easy to adduce. Take as an example, the prohibition or injunction addressed to our common progenitors, forbidding them to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. To suppose that the Creator wished them to violate that prohibition, and thus to fall from innocence and happiness, would be at once impious and absurd. It would be to suppose that he delighted in sin and misery, and that he wished them to violate his own law. But his law was merely the expression or promulgation of his will, and to suppose him to have willed or wished them to violate it, is to suppose him to have willed them to act in opposition to his will, a direct and palpable contradiction. It was then the will or wish of God that our first parents should stand, and yet he did not think it proper to prevent their fall. Here, there fore, is an unequivocal and indubitable instance in which the Supreme Ruler willed or wished a certain result, and yet that result was not realized. He willed or wished it as a thing which in itself was most congenial to the purity and benignity of his nature, but in his infinite wisdom he judged it improper to exert all the energies of his omnipotence to effect what was the object of his desire, and to prevent what was the object of his aversion.
Nor need it be thought at all wonderful that there should be results which God regards as desirable, and which he actually and earnestly desires, though he will not ensure them at any expense, however great; and that there should be other results which he regards as undesirable, and to which he feels sincerely averse, though he will not interfere to prevent them. This is exemplified, in fact, in reference to every sin that is committed. It is a result opposed to his law, and opposed therefore to his will, of which his law is just the expression. In reference, therefore, to every sin, it may be said most truly that it is his wish that men would not perpetrate it; and that it is his wish that they would perform the duty opposed to it.
Let us now apply the general principle exemplified in these instances to the case under our immediate consideration. As a being of infinite holiness and infinite benevolence, the great Creator must desire the holiness and happiness of his creatures. Viewed in themselves these are objects congenial to his nature, which he must regard with satisfaction, and complacency, and delight; and on the other hand the disobedience and the consequent misery and destruction of men are repugnant to his nature, and are objects which he must regard with aversion and abhorrence. He must wish, then, that all to whom the proposals of reconciliation are addressed, would turn and live; and it must be with emotions somewhat analogous to those of human regret that he contemplates the obstinacy and the ruin of the finally impenitent. But though we may be incompetent to explore them, there may be reasons which would render it improper for him to do more than he has done to ensure their salvation and to prevent their destruction. It would, however, be manifestly absurd to deny on that account that, in a sense the most just and important, he wills or desires their repentance and salvation. And if so, it necessarily follows that the overtures and invitations, the warnings and entreaties in which he embodies and expresses his will and desire, are unimpeachably honest and sincere. It will serve to diminish still further the difficulty connected with the sincerity of the gospel offer, if we can adduce any probable illustrations or arguments tending to show that while the Almighty may be truly averse to the destruction of men, it is yet not unsuitable to his character to give up the im penitent to the consequences of their own folly. It may be remarked, then, that we would not think it incompatible with the character of the most humane and compassionate of earthly potentates to abandon an obstinate and irreclaimable offender to reap the just consequences of his guilt; nor would we think it inconsistent with the character of the most tender and affectionate of human parents to permit an incorrigible son to experience the effects of his own folly and perversity. Why, then, should it be thought incompatible with the benignity and clemency of the supreme potentate and the universal parent, to leave his rebellious subjects and his disobedient children to “eat of the fruit of their own ways, and to be filled with their own devices?” Have not they violated obligations to allegiance and obedience immeasurably stronger than those which attach to the subjects of any earthly sovereign, or to children of any earthly parent? and before they are finally abandoned, is not incalculably more done to prevent their destruction?
Perhaps it may be thought that these illustrations instead of diminishing or removing, tend rather to augment the difficulty; for it may be alleged that an earthly potentate ought not to consign a rebellious subject to the last inflictions of the law, and that a human parent ought not to disown a disobedient child, till they have first expended their utmost efforts to reclaim and reform those who are amenable to their authority. This rule may apply to earthly parents; but whether it applies, without any limitation to earthly potentates, may admit of doubt. It admits, however, of no doubt that maxims which apply to finite and created beings, invested with authority over their fellow creatures, will not apply, without important modifications and restrictions, to the infinite and independent Creator,–“the blessed and only potentate.” Even we “ourselves being judges,”it does not seem incumbent on him, or proper for him, to do all that his irresistible might could effect for averting the destruction, and ensuring the salvation of men. What is proper and equitable is, that he would in this case, as in every case, not do all that mere might could accomplish, but only all that com ports with his wisdom, his justice, his majesty, and with his other perfections and prerogatives. But if sinners persist obstinately to despise his word and resist his spirit, to abuse his bounty and insult his authority, infinite goodness does not seem to require him to do all that infinite power could do for their salvation; while to do so would be unsuitable to his majesty, and inconsistent with his wisdom. Even we ourselves, with all our infirmities and partialities, must admit that, with regard to such contumacious and irreclaimable offenders, divine righteousness should hold its resistless course, and that the Supreme Ruler should display his power, and glorify his justice in their condemnation and punishment.
How far it is proper for the Almighty to put forth his gracious influence for the purpose of reclaiming sinners, we cannot exactly determine; this is a problem which only his own infallible wisdom can decide. But that there are limits beyond which his grace and his forbearance ought not to be extended, seems manifest even to our apprehensions. To set this matter, if possible, in a still clearer light, I would remark, that the opposite opinion, the opinion that God is bound to do all that omnipotence itself can do for the salvation of men, leads to conclusions and consequences at once irrational and impious, and perhaps little anticipated by some who are disposed to adopt it. It leads naturally to the conclusion that goodness is the only attribute which an infinitely perfect Being ought to exert, or at least to the conclusion that the requirements of justice, and the dictates of wisdom and the claims of greatness ought all to be subordinated to the promoting of a mere instinctive benevolence. It tends there fore to annihilate all moral government, to deny entirely the propriety and expediency of the Creator dealing with his intelligent creatures according to their intelligent nature. On the same principles on which it is maintained that the Deity is bound to do all that omnipotence can do for the salvation of men, it must be maintained that he is bound to prevent the perpetration of every sin whatever.
This, however, is a position tantamount to the assertion that he ought, in every instance, to interfere to prevent the abuse of those rational and moral powers with which he has endowed men, and thus derange or destroy their free agency. But if so, he ought not to have created rational and moral agents at all; and, consequently, he ought not to have brought a race of creatures like men into existence. If it was proper for him to give them being, it must be proper for him to treat them agreeably to their intelligent and account able nature; that is, to subject them to a moral law, to address to them considerations fitted to influence their reason and their will, to reward them for obedience, to punish them for rebellion, and to set limits to the patience and forbearance exercised towards those who have revolted, if, in sovereign mercy, he propose to them overtures of reconciliation. Even then, if we could have assigned no reason why the Almighty does not exhaust all the resources of omnipotence for preventing the destruction of men, we might have presumed that he had sufficient reasons for his conduct; and to every objector we might have said with perfect propriety, “Nay, but O man, who art thou that replies against God? shall the thing formed, say to him that formed it, why hast thou made me thus?”But we are able to do more than this. We can discern considerations and reasons which, even to our apprehension, make it appear proper and congruous that the Most High should not do all that mere might can do to check the guilt and prevent the ruin of men, or to bring them to repentance and salvation. Thus, then, I have endeavored to show, first, that there may be results which the Almighty may, or must, desire, if contemplated simply in themselves, but which it may not be fit or proper for him to effect, at whatever expense. I have endeavored to show next, that while, from the infinite goodness and holiness of his nature, he must feel averse to the disobedience and the destruction of men, and while he must desire their obedience and their happiness; he is not only under no obligation to do all that he can do to prevent the former and promote the latter, but that to do so would neither comport with the greatness and majesty of his character, nor with the principles of their nature as moral and responsible agents. From these important principles it necessarily follows, that the calls, and proposals, and invitations addressed to sinners in the word of God, are not only honest and sincere, but inexpressibly earnest and affectionate. They are just the natural and appropriate expression of that wish for the holiness and happiness of his intelligent creatures, which the Creator, as a being of infinite excellence and perfection, must cherish with an immeasurable intensity. Like many other difficulties and disputes in morals and religion, the difficulty connected with the gospel offer affords an instructive example of the im perfection of human language, for it originates chiefly in the ambiguity of a word. This call is apt to appear to us insincere, because it expresses a will or wish which does not take effect; and it seems to us impossible that he who is Almighty should will or wish any thing that is not infallibly accomplished. “His counsel shall stand, and he will do all his pleasure.” We are apt, however, to forget that there is a wide difference between willing a thing absolutely or unconditionally, and willing it with certain modifications, or on certain conditions. God does not will the salvation of all men, absolutely and unconditionally, and altogether irrespectively of their conduct, or all would infallibly be saved. He wills or desires it conditionally, but not on that account the less truly or sincerely. Hence, also, we may perceive that, in one sense, the will of God may be said to be disappointed or frustrated, while, to assert that in another sense, would be not only false, but impious. And hence, too, we may perceive that, though there may be an apparent, there is no real inconsistency between the assertions, that God desires the salvation even of the unbelieving and the impenitent, and that their destruction is yet the object of his purpose and decree. He desires their salvation, as a thing in itself agreeable to the benignity and holiness of his nature; but he has good reasons for not exerting all his power to subdue their obstinacy, and he resolves to punish them for their unbelief and their disobedience.
It is almost unnecessary to add, that the reason now assigned to prove the sincerity of the gospel offer, if well founded, is far more satisfactory than the considerations generally adduced. These considerations are such as the following: That the counsels and invitations of the gospel are addressed to all, because, though intended to produce their full effect only on the elect, it is not known to the inspired witness, or to ministers of the gospel, who the elect are; because these counsels and invitations declare the duty of all; and because they are productive of important benefit even to those who do not comply with them. Some of these considerations seem exceedingly questionable; but even were they admitted to be just, they are altogether inadequate to remove the difficulty. But in maintaining the sincerity of the universal offer of the gospel, on the ground of a will or desire in the Deity for the salvation of all, we occupy a position completely impregnable. It is true, at the same time, that in occupying this position we stand at the threshold of other questions of great difficulty, as well as of great importance. With these other questions it is not necessary at present to intermeddle; some of them we have already had occasion to discuss, and for the discussion of others a more convenient opportunity will afterwards occur. I may just remark, that the circumstance that the important conclusion, which we have endeavored to substantiate, places us in the immediate vicinity of difficulties, ought not to be a bar against occupying it, for the same thing holds with re spect to numberless other facts and doctrines. Such, indeed, is the nature of religious truth, or such is the imperfection of our faculties, that we cannot move a few steps in almost any direction, from ground where we distinctly see our way, and “walk at liberty,” with out entering on those interdicted territories which are covered with a perpetual mist, and entangled by briars and thorns.
I have insisted on this subject at far greater length than I anticipated, but not at greater length than is demanded by its intrinsic importance, and by the misapprehensions extensively entertained with regard to it. Doubts and suspicions of the sincerity of the invitations and calls of the gospel are not only most painful and distressing, but most mischievous and injurious. They discourage the hearers of the word in the attempt to seek salvation; and on its preachers their effect will be not less pernicious, as they must inevitably paralyze their ministrations, and prevent them from urging on their fellow-men the message of mercy, with anything like suitable earnestness and energy. I shall, therefore, reckon it a service of no small value, if I have succeeded in fortifying the mind of any individual against the admission of such doubts, or in expelling them from any mind on which they have already effected a lodgment. To dissipate completely the difficulties connected with this subject may be an impracticable achievement, but it is a matter of no small moment to reduce them as much as possible, both in number and magnitude. Whatever difficulties, however, may still continue to perplex us, let us not even for a moment indulge suspicions of the veracity or the good ness of God. Let “us ascribe righteousness to our Maker.” “Yea, let God be true, and every man a liar.” Let us remember that it cannot be too deeply imprinted on the minds, either of the hearers or the preachers of the gospel, that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ possesses infinite merit and value; and that it is adequate, therefore, to cancel the highest amount of guilt; that the offer of salvation on the ground of that sacrifice, is characterize, not only by unimpeachable honesty, but by inconceivable earnestness and tenderness; and that all who perish under the gospel, perish solely in consequence of their own willful and contemptuous rejection of the blessings offered to their acceptance. Let it not be said that the final destruction of the unbelieving and the impenitent is irreconcilable with the grace and the benignity of God, or with the power and compassion of Christ. “What if some do not believe; shall their unbelief make the faithfulness of God of none effect? God forbid.” It is certain that the wicked are consigned to eternal destruction in con sequence of a sentence passed by God as the righteous ruler of the universe; and that in one sense they perish by his will and his decree. In another and most important sense, “it is not the will of God that any should perish;” but it is his will “that all should be saved;” and, therefore, the sinner is the author of his own destruction. Men are spiritually diseased; and if they reject the means of cure, they must become the victims of eternal death; but let us not on that account, question either the virtue of the remedy, or the skill and compassion of the physician.
It would be improper to take leave of this subject, without recommending to you, and recommending in the strongest terms, the treatise of the great John Howe, entitled “The Reconcileableness of God s Prescience of the Sins of Men, with the Wisdom and Sincerity of His Counsels, Exhortations, and whatsoever Means he uses to prevent them.” This treatise was composed at the request of the Hon. Robert Boyle; and by a late most competent judge it is pronounced the most profound and valuable of all the writings of its great author. You will find in it a solution of the difficulty relative to the sincerity of the gospel offer substantially the same as that now given: and you will find in it a most masterly discussion on many other collateral topics, to which I have not adverted. A more useful exercise could hardly be re commended to students of divinity than to make an abridgment of that treatise, exhibiting the essence of the argument, and excluding those digressions, which, less or more, disfigure almost all Howe s writings. Some most valuable remarks on the same subject occur in another of his performances, his sermon entitled The Redeemer s Tears, Wept over Lost Souls, and the appendix subjoined to it. With a pretty long extract from that sermon, I shall conclude the present discussion. After remarking that expressions in scriptures ascribing to God the passions of anger and grief, do not signify the same thing as when applied to men, the author thus proceeds:–
But we must take heed, lest, under the pretense that we cannot ascribe everything to God that such expressions seem to impart, we therefore ascribe nothing. We ascribe nothing, if we do not ascribe to him a real unwillingness, that men should sin and perish; and, consequently, a real unwillingness that they should turn to him and live; which so many plain texts assert. And, therefore, it is unavoidably imposed upon us to believe, that God is truly unwilling of some things which he doth not think fit to interpose his omnipotency to hinder; and is truly willing of some things, which he doth not put forth his omnipotence to effect. That he most fitly makes that the ordinary course of his dispensations towards men to govern them by laws, and promises, and threatenings (made most express to them that live under the gospel) to work upon their minds, their hope, and their fear, affording them the ordinary assistances of supernatural light and influence with which he requires them to comply; and which, upon their refusing to do so, he may most righteously withhold, and give him the victory to their own ruin, though often times he doth, from a sovereignty of grace, put forth that greater power upon others, equally negligent and obstinate, not to enforce, but effectually to incline their wills, and gain a victory over them to their salvation.
Nor is his will toward the rest altogether ineffectual, though it have not that effect. For whosoever thou art that livest under the gospel, though thou dost not know that God so wills thy conversion and salvation, as to effect it, whatsoever resistance thou now makes, though thou art not sure he will finally overcome all thy resistance, and pluck thee as a firebrand out of the mouth of hell; yet thou canst not say his good will towards thee hath been without effect at all tending thereto. He hath often called upon thee in his gospel to repent and turn to him through Christ: he hath waited on thee with long patience, and given thee time and space of repentance; he hath within that time been often at work with thy soul. Hath he not many times let in beams of light upon thee? shown thee the evil of thy ways? convinced thee? awakened thee? half persuaded thee? and thou never hadst rea son to doubt, but that if thou hadst set thyself with serious diligence to work out thy own salvation, he would have wrought on, so as to have brought things to a blessed issue for thy soul.
Thou might discern his mind towards thee to be agreeable to his word, when he hath testified to thee he desired not the death of sinners, that he l has no pleasure in the death of him that dies, or in the death of the wicked, but that he should turn and live, exhorted thee, expostulated with thee and others on thy condition, ‘turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?’ he hath told thee expressly thy stubbornness and con tending against him did grieve him, and ( vex his spirit; that thy sin when thou hast indulged thyself, hath been an abomination to him, that it was the abominable thing which his soul hated, that he was broken with the whorish heart of such as thou, and pressed therewith, as a cart that was full of sheaves.
Now such expressions as these, though they are borrowed from men, and must be considered suitably to God, though they do not signify the same thing with him as they do in us, yet they do not signify nothing. As when hands and eyes are attributed to God, they do not signify as they do with us, yet they signify somewhat correspondent, as active and visive power; so those expressions, though they signify not in God such unquiet motions and passions as they do in us, they do signify a mind and will, really; though with the most perfect calmness and tranquility, set against sin, and the horrid consequences of it, which yet, for greater reasons than we can understand, he may not see fit to do all he can to prevent. And if we know not how to reconcile such a will in God, with some of our notions concerning the divine nature, shall we, for what we have thought of him, deny what he hath so expressly said of himself, or pretend to understand his nature better than he himself, doth?
Robert Balmer, “On the Gospel Call,” in Academical Lectures and Pulpit Discourses (Edinburgh: William Oliphant and Sons, 1845), 1:459-508. [Some reformatting; some spelling modernized; and underlining mine.]