Chapter 10: A Stumbling-Block Removed
In vindicating the claims of the cross, I have been more anxious to illustrate and enforce the great truths which it discloses, than to reply to the cavils of those who contend with their Maker. Where the truth is clearly made out, it is enough for us to say to every objector, "Who are you, O man, that replies against God?" I do not mean by this to say, that the truth of God shuns investigation; for the more clearly it is exhibited and understood, the more certainly will it appear to be capable of the most satisfactory vindication. Where the minds of men, therefore, are honestly embarrassed in regard to it, there is an obligation, so far as it can be done, to remove this embarrassment; and more especially, where, in endeavoring to remove it, the opportunity is presented of exhibiting truth that has a practical bearing upon the conscience.
Such is the nature of the objection to be considered in the present chapter. The cross of Christ proposes to deliver, and actually does deliver, all who believe in it from eternal punishment. It is a redemption which assumes that the sinner deserves eternal death. Men have no difficulty in believing that they are sinners, and deserve punishment; but they have no inward sense of such a measure of ill-desert as indicated by the gospel, and they cannot feel that it would be right and just in God to inflict upon them this terrible doom. They have not, perhaps, so much the spirit of murmuring and complaint against the doctrine of future and eternal punishment, as of doubt and fear in relation to their own inward experience toward this great truth. No man is qualified to contemplate such a subject without strong suspicions of himself, nor without feeling, at every step of his inquiries, that he is liable to form false conclusions. May He, whose Spirit alone can guide the writer and the reader into all truth, graciously direct and influence both their minds to those convictions which alone magnify the salvation of the cross!
It will not be denied that the doctrines of future and eternal punishment, as revealed in the Bible, is a truth which is necessary to be believed, in order to true faith in Jesus Christ. This position is most certainly in keeping with the theory of Divine truth, and, so far as my knowledge extends, with the experience of mankind. I have never known a Universalist, who in other respects, gave any evidence of piety. As well might every other truth be displaced from the sacred page, as this. Dreadful as it is, it is recorded as on tablets of stone, and written with the finger of God. This is one of the great truths of natural religion, which are confirmed by a supernatural revelation. One great object of this revelation is to open more clearly to the view of men the scenes of the eternal world; to unfold the great catastrophe of this sublunary state of things, and disclose those glorious and those fearful retributions, which make up the history of eternity. There is a strong presentiment of future punishment, even in the minds of those who are not thus enlightened. The belief of the Divine justice has prevailed in every age and country. The history of the heathen world abounds in facts that indicate the belief that God will not permit the wickedness of men to escape with impunity. The apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, regards this belief as one of the laws of natural conscience. After describing the moral degradation of the Gentile nations, he speaks of them as carrying within their own bosoms this strong and inevitable conviction—"Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death." This voice of reason and conscience is echoed in the Scriptures; nor is it possible to resist the force of their instructions. They explicitly predict a future state of being, where the "worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched;" where is the "blackness of darkness forever;" where there is eternally ascending the smoke of torment. They speak of the impassable gulf, and the "second death," from whence there is no reprieve. Nor is this doctrine one of those mysterious truths which cannot be understood. It is not like the unfathomable nature of the Deity; it has no such incomprehensibleness thrown around it, as invests the doctrine of the Trinity, or the doctrine of the Son’s incarnation, or the undiscovered reasons of the eternal and unchangeable decrees of God. It is a plain and intelligible doctrine, revealed without concealment and without reserve; nor is there anything in it which the mind of man cannot reach, except that it penetrates into a boundless eternity. Nor, like some facts revealed in the Scriptures, does it resolve itself into the will of God as its ultimate reason, but is always represented as the claim of his righteous government, and as called for by the sin of man. Nor is it revealed as one of the minor and less important doctrines of the Bible, but one which can be impaired only by undermining the fabric on which the whole gospel rests. It is in every view fundamental to the Christian system, essential to the gospel, and necessary to its existence. If this doctrine were denied, the denial would, in its legitimate consequences, subvert the whole design of salvation by grace through the great Redeemer. If men do not truly deserve future and eternal punishment, then is there no grace in saving them; for grace consists in saving men, not from undeserved, but from deserved misery. If we could make the hypothesis that they were innocently exposed to the calamity of perdition, and rescued from it by the gospel, yet would there be no grace in the deliverance, unless they truly and properly deserved the damnation of hell. If the converse of this be true, then did the Son of God become incarnate, and suffer and die on the cross, to satisfy the claims of an unrighteous law, and to rescue men from an oppressive and unjust sentence. So that, however perplexing this truth may appear, it is the doctrine which explains the whole gospel, which shows why it is necessary and what it is, and explains and sets in its true light, and assigns its proper place and importance to every other truth inwoven with the method of man’s redemption.
It may perhaps serve to obviate the difficulty we are considering, to inquire into the true meaning and import of this truth itself. Men may be embarrassed on the subject of future punishment, by not clearly perceiving those great principles of rectitude on which it proceeds. Of one thing we may be satisfied—that God will not, and cannot do wrong. His government is a righteous and equitable government. "Is God unrighteous? God forbid? How then shall he judge the world?" Under a righteous government, none can be punished more than they deserve. They may be rewarded beyond their merits, as a matter of grace; but they cannot be punished beyond their deserts, as a matter of justice. It were no more consistent with the moral rectitude of God to punish the innocent, who do not deserve to be punished at all, than to punish the guilty more than they deserve to be punished. This is the intuitive decision of every man’s conscience, whether he be young or old, enlightened or unenlightened, in Christian or in pagan lands. None question the propriety and rectitude of some punishment for sin; and with as little reason may they question the propriety of punishing the offender in proportion to his demerit, or according to impartial and even-handed justice. This is the true doctrine of future punishment; the Scriptures reveal no other. All are not punished alike, but in exact proportion to their ill-desert. Should the time never come that the wicked have suffered all that they deserve to suffer, it will be because justice demands that their punishment should never cease.
The difficulty in relation to future and eternal punishment, is not, therefore, that it is unrighteous to punish men as much as they deserve, but in the fact that all do not see how they deserve the fearful and everlasting punishment threatened in the Bible. The issue is a most grave and serious one. When we have shown that the punishment which God inflicts is everlasting, and that God himself is righteous, we can do little more than leave the objector to make his cause good at the bar of eternal justice. Men are not satisfied with the truth that they deserve God’s wrath and curse, both in this life and that which is to come. Objections to it are met with almost everywhere, and from almost all classes of men; from the subtle and bold Universalist, who denies it; from the alarmed and awakened sinner who fears it; and even from some who, while they acquiesce in it, and humbly receive it on the Divine testimony, see it in a "temperature of mingled light and obscurity," and are looking for clearer and more satisfactory solutions of it in the more luminous disclosures of the eternal world. To not a few, it remains in impenetrable obscurity, with darkness for its habitation, and its pavilion thick clouds. They cannot connect with it those reasons with which it is connected in the Divine mind, and can only say, "It is a great deep;" and in their humblest contemplations of it, exclaim, "How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!"
It is no uncommon occurrence for men to complain of temporal judgments, and to inquire, what they have done to provoke the Most High to visit them, as he has done, in his anger. Nor is it any extraordinary event for them, in some subsequent period of their history, to be fully convinced that their complaints were groundless, and that they deserve the judgments which God has inflicted. They have come to more matured and just impressions of themselves, and no longer wonder why a holy God should look upon them with displeasure. The more seriously men reflect upon what God is, and what they themselves are, the fewer difficulties will they have in regard to eternal punishment. The views and feelings of different people on this whole subject are very various, and sometimes strangely inconsistent. There are those who find no difficulty in seeing that other men deserve this tremendous penalty; but they cannot see that they themselves deserve it. And there are those who have no difficulty in seeing that they themselves deserve it, while they have never been so clearly convinced as they desire to be, that others, and all, deserve it. There is no subject in relation to which they are more exposed to practice great self-deception. A deep sense of personal ill-desert is a most humbling, mortifying and withering thought; it makes the proud and self-complacent mind of man stoop; it bows and crushes his lofty spirit, and he resists it as long as he can. It is among the melancholy proofs of human apostasy, that no train of reflections is more unwelcome than that which is connected with his ill-desert; which impresses a strong conviction of guilt, and furnishes alarming presages of deserved wrath. It is not so much the apprehension of calamity and suffering from which the mind revolts, as that degrading sense of shame that comes upon it, because it must bear the blame as well as the woes of evil-doing. The practical difficulties which attend the doctrine of eternal punishment, arise from inadequate impressions of ill-desert. A strong sense of ill-desert not only prepares the mind to contemplate the eternal punishment of the wicked as a righteous measure of the Divine government, but is inseparable from a conviction of its rectitude. Where this impression exists, a man not only sees that God is angry with him, but that he has just reason to be angry. It is a remarkable fact, that when once the mind possesses a deep impression of ill-desert, it is a permanent impression; nothing can take it away. It may be doubted whether it can be taken away, either in this world, or that which is to come. No man ever undertook a more hopeless task than to measure the depth of his own ill-deservings; nor does he know that any line can measure it but eternity. If he were ill-deserving yesterday, he is still more ill-deserving today, and will be still more so to-morrow; and fifty, an hundred, a thousand years hence, if he continue in sin, he will be more ill-deserving still. After all his efforts he will find it impossible for him to fix upon any period in his future history in which he will cease to be ill-deserving, or in which a sense of his ill-desert will pass away. It is not wonderful, therefore, that men feel embarrassment in regard to the future punishment of the wicked, who have no just impressions of their ill-desert. It is only by a profound submission of the soul to a sense of its ill-desert, offensive and repugnant as it may be to the pride and peace of man, that he learns that God is just when he judges, and clear when he condemns. But whence his repugnance to a sense of ill desert? It is not necessary to go far in order to answer this inquiry. Ill-desert is that which is blameable and punishable in moral conduct. A sense of it arises from a sense of sin. God punishes men because they are sinners; and he punishes them forever, because their wickedness is so great, and their sin so exceedingly sinful, that eternal punishment is the true and proper expression of his displeasure. The true reason for his displeasure against sin is not because he is afraid that it will injure himself, for he is infinitely above it, and can and will make it subservient to his own purposes. Nor is it because he is afraid that it will injure his kingdom, and that his holy empire will receive any ultimate detriment from it. These tendencies he will restrain and counteract, and finally turn them to good account. He punishes it because it is sin; because it is hateful, and is, and must forever remain, displeasing to his pure and holy mind. Sin is the only thing in the universe that does displease him, and the sinner is the only being in the universe that he hates and will punish. He does not punish the winter’s cold, nor the summer’s heat, nor the pestilence, nor the tornado, nor the wild beasts of the desert, though they may spread desolation and death over the habitations of men; because, lamentable as these evils may be, they are not sinful—they indicate no inward wickedness, and call for no expressions of his displeasure. They do not deserve, and are not the proper objects of punishment. But when man sins, he makes himself vile, odious, and ill deserving; he draws down upon him the displeasure of that great and pure Being, in whose sight the heavens are unclean. Men have no just sense of their ill-desert, therefore, because they have no just sense of their sins. They are deeply concerned to have just impressions of their wickedness; but when you look over the world, through all climates, all ages, all classes of men, and within your own bosoms, you nowhere find those who have a just and proper sense of their wickedness. It may be doubted whether a true and just sense of it would not be more than the human mind could endure. I have seen people who had very strong views of their own sinfulness; but they were fearful spectacles of suffering, and more like some vision of the infernal regions than scenes usually beheld on this earth. The people of God often have very deep impressions of their sinfulness, but the agony produced by them is chastened and relieved by believing views of the cross. And not infrequently they themselves find great difficulty in coming to any such views of it as make the cross of Christ precious to them at all times. They are willing to acknowledge this difficulty, and are often heard to say, "Make me to know my transgression and my sin."—"Who can understand his errors? cleanse you me from secret faults!" Sin disguises itself and conceals its nature. It has a powerful, subtle, and sophistical advocate in every man’s heart to plead its cause, and hide its deformity; and if this be true of good men, how emphatically is it true of the wicked. With all its nauseous poison, to a corrupt and depraved mind, sin is always sweet and palatable. Monster as it is, it never shows itself in all its true deformity, or wears its own proper garb. It is forever calling itself by false names; or transforming itself into an angel of light; or tasking its ingenuity for some specious apology, some plausible excuse, by which it may be palliated. Even with all the light which the word of God has thrown upon the aggravated character of human wickedness, wicked men never see it in any degree as it is. They do not believe what God himself has said concerning it; they view with a jealous eye the descriptions he has given of their hearts; and not a few repel them as a libel upon their characters. No; men have no just impressions of their wickedness. They do not think of its intrinsic turpitude; they look not to the fountain of it within; they count not its numbers, nor measure its aggravations; they follow it not into its deep retirement and dark secrecy; they dream not of its nameless forms of omission and commission, of its utter want of affectionate and dutiful regard for God, and contempt and abuse of his authority and goodness. They have little self-inspection, and therefore discover no serious ground for self-reproach. The mind, like the eye of man, sees everything else more clearly than itself. No man, indeed, ever arrived to any just view of his sins by the mere process of human reasoning, or by anything short of the illuminating and convincing power of God’s Spirit. "When the Spirit of truth is come, he shall convince the world of sin."
Here, then, we find the cause of much, if not of all the embarrassment men feel in respect to future and eternal punishment. They have no just impression of their ill-desert; and because they have no adequate sense of sin and their own sinfulness, their embarrassment is always relieved just in the measure in which their understandings are illuminated, their consciences rectified, and their hearts affected, by a sense of sin.
Whence, then, is it that men find it so difficult to have just conceptions of their sin? There are several reasons for this fact that will occur to every reflecting mind. They themselves are sinners. It is impossible they should judge impartially on such a subject. They are the interested parties. They are sitting in judgment on their own case, which the common sense of mankind everywhere affirms they are not qualified to do. In human affairs, it is the appropriate business of the law to fix the ill-desert of crime; and it is the appropriate business of impartial men, appointed by the law, to decide the fact whether this ill-desert attaches itself to the accused individual. If a human legislature, composed of sabbath-breakers, were to enact laws which define the ill-desert of sabbath-breaking; or if a legislature of gamblers, or of duellists, or of adulterers, or of murderers, were to enact laws which define the guilt of gambling, duelling, adultery, and murder; who does not see that they would be under irresistible temptations to diminish the turpitude of these crimes? Or, if a jury were composed of people who were themselves in the prevailing habit of committing the crime for which they are called to sit in judgment on one of their fellow-men; who does not see that their verdict would not be very likely to be impartial? This is precisely the condition of all men, when sitting in judgment upon the ill-desert of sin. They are under strong temptations to palliate, if not to justify, their conduct, and to form as favorable an estimate of it as they can. If men could be found who were themselves perfectly sinless and pure, their judgment of the ill—desert of sin would be founded upon very different principles from those which influence ours; it would be less difficult for them to fall in with the revealed decisions of the impartial Lawgiver and Judge.
Our impressions of the ill-desert of sin are influenced also, by our constant familiarity with it. We are familiar with it in others, and we are still more familiar with it in ourselves. There is nothing with which the great mass of mankind are so familiar; and it were no marvel if their views of its ill-desert should be greatly biased by this familiarity. The first impressions of a stranger who has never before witnessed the scenes of wickedness that everywhere meet his eye in the metropolis, are very different from what they come to be after he has been familiarized with them for a series of years. The inward shuddering, the instinctive horror which they first excited have passed away, and he is tempted to regard them with a sort of indifference. A little child has a strong native propensity to sin, yet, when he first sees, or hears, or contemplates flagrant wickedness, his moral sensibilities are pained and shocked; but by a gradual familiarity with it, he survives the shock, and his sense of its turpitude not only becomes less and less vivid, but well near ceases to exist. It is thus that those who venture on forbidden paths so often make such rapid progress in sinning. Their familiarity with wickedness imperceptibly leads them on, and makes them insensible of its vileness. There was a time when the most abandoned sinner in the world would have trembled to think of the crimes he afterwards committed. Men first become familiar with sin in their thoughts; then, by small beginnings, they become familiar with sinful practices; then, because they do not look so frightful as before, they are familiar with sins of a deeper dye. Though all men have a witness for God in their own consciences, there is no man who is not lamentably familiar with the sin of disregarding the Divine authority, and violating the strongest moral obligations. This fact alone renders it a very difficult thing to form a just estimate of the turpitude and ill-desert of human wickedness. If in the same measure in which men are familiar with sin, it loses its ugliness, we need not wonder that in the same measure they cease to be disgusted with it, and their impressions of its ill-desert fall short of what it deserves in the sight of God. It is impossible for them to estimate its ill-desert as angels estimate it, as the Savior estimates it, and as the holy God estimates it. Even the best of men have, in this respect, placed themselves in a false position. They estimate it more justly than men who have no holiness, because they are sanctified in part, are partakers of a Divine nature, have imbibed the spirit of Christ, and feel toward sin, in some degree, as God feels, and hate it to a degree that makes it their sorrow and burden; but because their views and feelings toward it are by no means constant and uniform, and equally strong at all times, they fail of appreciating the turpitude and ill-desert of it, as they themselves will do when they have hereafter become holy as God is holy, and perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect.
Not only are all men sinners, and familiar with sin, but great multitudes have not an enlightened and tender conscience. It is not so much the province of reason to arrive at just conclusions in regard to the demerit of sin, as it is the province of conscience; and conscience may be easily blinded, bribed and corrupted to false conclusions. If we look into the Bible, we shall find that those of the sacred writers who had the deepest impressions of their personal ill-desert, were remarkable for that moral sensitiveness which results from tenderness of conscience. The offending psalmist felt no embarrassment in relation to his own ill-desert, when he said, "Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight—that you might be justified when you speak, and be clear when you judge." He acquits God of all severity, should he inflict upon him the sentence of his righteous law. He had the same views also of the ill-desert of his fellow-men; for he says, "If you, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?" It was, in his judgment, nothing more than strict, impartial justice, even should the fearful penalty fall upon the entire race. His conscience was thoroughly awake. When he contemplated his sins, he expressed his emotions in language unusually strong. "Mine iniquities," says he, "are gone over mine head—as an heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.—I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long.—I am feeble and sore broken; I have roared by reason of the disquietude of my heart." Such, too, were the views and experience of Paul, as he has represented them in the account which he has given of his early convictions—"For I was alive without the law once—but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death.—Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good." He records his approbation, not only of the precept of the law, but of its penalty; and "consents to it that it is good." His conscience was enlightened and tender. He felt the burden of his sins so deeply, that he exclaimed, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Even good men differ greatly in this tenderness of conscience. Some have deeper convictions of sin before their conversion; and some have deeper convictions after their conversion than before. But to whatever extent, and at whatever time, these convictions take place, the deeper, the more powerful, and pungent, and overwhelming they are, and the more they prostrate the sinner in the dust, the less likely are they to be forgotten, and the deeper is the impression they make of personal ill-desert. It is only because conscience is not duly awake and faithful, that men complain of the severity of future and eternal punishment. Where the conscience is sensitive, their difficulties arise from another quarter, they see clearly enough that it is perfectly just and right that God should condemn them; but they do not so readily see how it can be just and right that he should deliver them from this deserved condemnation. It is not necessary even to see themselves in all their odiousness in order to come to this conclusion. Conscience has no imputation of rigor against the condemning sentence. The truly convinced sinner clears God of all such unjust allegations. No words can express the enormity of his guilt. When men venture to pass judgment upon the government of God, and to arraign the penalty of his law as unjust and severe, it is because they have never felt the full weight of a self-condemning conscience. Conscience is blinded and stupefied. Just as the natural senses are sometimes paralyzed by the disease of the body, the conscience is paralyzed by sin, the great disease of the soul. Just as diseases of the body disturb the harmony of the animal functions, so that they no longer act in mutual concurrence and subordination, does sin disturb the harmony of the soul, so that its powers and faculties no longer act in due subordination and concurrence. The apostle speaks of those whose "mind and conscience are defiled;" its power and tenderness are impaired by sin. An obdurate conscience gradually becomes more callous and seared; whereas, a sensitive conscience becomes more and more sensitive, and the gentlest reproof renews its grief. An honest conscience does not ask how sin may be screened, but how it may be detected; nor does it ever so nicely philosophize as to inquire how little punishment it deserves. The vilest man admits a sort of proportion between sin and punishment; and it is only because a sense of guilt is not fastened on his conscience, that he hesitates to admit the proportion which God himself has established. Conscience sometimes awakes even in the bosoms of the vilest men when they come to their dying bed; and then they begin to feel the gnawings of the worm that will never die. Conscience must speak, sooner or later; it will speak hereafter; and when it does, its verdict will be the same with that of the righteous Judge. Men shun the warnings of conscience, little thinking of the peril of so doing. If they do not listen to them in seasons of mercy and health, they may break in upon them in the time of affliction and at the hour of death. They may indeed be stifled until after death, and for the first time heard only in the world of everlasting remorse and despair.
The difficulty of coming at a true sense of sin, is also to be attributed to the want of watchful and persevering efforts to restrain and subdue it. Our sense of the demerit of sin is always in proportion to our impressions of its strength and power; while our impressions of its strength and power are always graduated by our efforts to restrain it. A man never knows the power and malignity of a deadly pestilence, until he undertakes to subdue it; nor the fierceness of the raging flames, until he endeavors to quench them; nor the sweeping force of a rushing and resistless torrent, until he tries to obstruct or divert it from its course. It is not surprising that those who make no resistance to the force of their corruptions, who never attempt to restrain their sinful thoughts and desires, but allow themselves to be carried away by the subtlety or force of their evil inclinations, should have no just impressions of their guilty character. Let them, by daily watchfulness and prayer, and by summoning the greatest efforts of their resolution, endeavor to control their corrupt nature, and to stem its torrent; and they will see that nothing can set bounds to it, but the almighty power and sovereign grace of God. Their views of its malignity will no longer be speculative and theoretical, but the views of experience. Nothing which men can do sets in a clearer light the power of sin, than vigorous efforts to restrain it. They become sensible of their moral bondage, only by finding themselves unable to break its chains. A man who endeavors to be sincere and punctual in the performance of his duty; who cultivates a strong sense of his obligations to do all that God requires; who finds his joy in the fellowship and enjoyment of Him, the light of whose countenance feeds and satisfies the glorified spirits that are around his throne; soon becomes conscious of the melancholy extent to which sin obstructs his progress, cools his zeal, makes perpetual inroads upon his peace and spiritual enjoyment, corrupts his motives, disqualifies him for his duty, and obscures the light of God’s countenance. No sooner does he see and feel these things, than he has very different views of his character as a sinner, and of his true and intrinsic ill-desert, from those superficial views which are so common among men. His iniquity will appear hateful to himself, and he will no longer wonder that it is infinitely and eternally hateful to God, or that he should put upon it the stigma of his everlasting displeasure. It is impossible that those who make no efforts to restrain and subdue their moral corruptions, should have any just sense of the malignity of sin, or its proper demerit. They do not feel its power, and therefore have no proper sense of the punishment it deserves. They know little of its resistless nature, until they come to put their strong restraints upon it; and then they see how vile it is, and how ill-deserving they themselves are.
I will mention only one more fact that should be taken into the account when reflecting on this general subject—it is, the low estimate which men form of the spirituality and obligations of the Divine law. Sin is the transgression of the law. The law of God is the only unerring standard of moral character in the universe, and is alike applicable to all the various orders of intelligences in all worlds. It is founded on their nature and moral relations; is level to their intellectual capacity; comes home to their bosoms; requires what is right, and forbids only what is wrong; and enforces those great principles of truth and duty which are essential to the well-being of all creatures, by the authority of Him who is the Creator and Proprietor of all things, and is himself the eternal and undisputed Sovereign and Lawgiver. Were this law universally disobeyed in heaven, heaven would be instantly transformed into "a spacious hell." Because it is so universally disobeyed on earth, the world in which we dwell ever has presented, and still presents, such scenes of unkindness, hatred, revenge, pride, rage, ambition, envy, and every evil work. Because it is universally disobeyed and trampled on in hell, hell is what it is—a world where malevolence is unrestrained; and falsehood, deceit, violence, and every malignant passion, raging without control, constitute their own punishment, while they suffer under the frown and curse of the angry Lawgiver. This great rule of action draws the line of demarcation between the worlds of light and darkness; and in language, amid scenes, as full of fearful emphasis as the mind of man can conceive, warns men of the danger of infringing in the least degree upon those high and holy precepts and prohibitions, a sacred and inviolable regard to which constitutes all moral excellence and true blessedness. And why should it be the subject of complaint, that no being may cross this dividing line, without stepping into the world of darkness, and at every stage of his progress meeting his Maker’s wrath? Why should it be thought strange, that the farther and the longer he wanders, the more bitterly must he suffer? The law makes no provision for his release. Neither its precept nor its penalty intimates any way of returning to God; nor is there anything in the character of the transgressor that indicates the least desire or symptom of reformation. Sin begets sin, and sin only, and continues to beget it throughout interminable ages. The first step was the fatal step. Once initiated in a course of sinning, and an eternity of sinning and suffering is both the natural and legal consequence.
And where is the severity of the Divine government in such an arrangement as this? Is not the punishment exactly adjusted to the crime? Is it not even justice? Is it not the recompense strictly due to transgression? Does not the presumptuous and fearful deed which thus involves contempt of the supreme authority of heaven and earth, which aims at disturbing the moral order and government of the universe, and is, in itself, eternal repugnance to all that is good and excellent, draw after it everlasting ill-desert, and call for just such reprobation as the law prescribes? The justice of God consists in the impartial execution of his laws, without favor to the high or the low, and with exact regard to the character of his creatures. It knows neither angel nor man; it is alike a stranger to the seraph and the beggar. When angels set it at defiance, they must die. There was no return for them; nor had they, nor have they now, any desire to return, but are more fortified and obdurate in their rebellion the longer they persist in it, and are made to feel its woes. And if its condemning wrath were just to fallen angels, why is it not just to apostate men? Must these princes of heaven, who once occupied a throne near their Maker, become forever accursed and miserable for their rebellion, and shall man complain when he swells with insolence against his Sovereign Lawgiver, because he is cast down into the burning lake? The malignity of sin arises from the depravity of the sinner’s heart; but its enormity is measured by the greatness of the Being against whom it is committed, and its daring violation of his supreme dominion. Fallen angels have never been known to complain of the rigor of the Divine law; and why should man complain? Rather would I ask, why is not the rectitude of the law even more conspicuous towards fallen men?—men who live under a dispensation of mercy—a dispensation that has provided a way of return, as well as pardon, on the simple condition of acknowledging the justice and rectitude of the condemning sentence, and repairing to the appointed Savior? Men do not see the evil, nor feel the ill-desert, of that rash and presumptuous deed which violates and tramples on the law and authority of the great Supreme, and persists in unhallowed contempt of his government, because they depreciate that law and that authority. They do not feel the demerit of that blind and headstrong wickedness which crosses the line of demarcation between the empire of God’s friends and his enemies, and chooses to roam over the regions of sin and darkness, because they do what in them lies to obliterate the line itself. They make light of sin, because they make light of God; because they make light of his pure and holy law; and in the place of this unchanging and unerring standard of obligation, set up their own notions of right and wrong; appeal to the false customs and manners and principles of the world; reason not as God reasons, but pervert and lower that high standard which he has made the infallible rule of their conduct, and the righteous judge of their iniquity. The more men love the law of God, the more they will see the guilt of violating it. The more they honor the obligations and spirituality of this law, the deeper will be their impressions of their own aggravated criminality, and the less embarrassment will they feel in approving all its sanctions. A just view of the law of God is fitted to produce the conviction that the Supreme Lawgiver has established an exact correspondence between sin and its punishment, and that the decree which makes misery the eternal heritage of the wicked, is, and ought to be, irrevocable.
We cannot extend these thoughts. We shall be grateful if they serve to meet the difficulty to which they refer, and cast up this stumbling-block in the way of the cross. We shall be grateful, if they relieve any honest inquirer from embarrassment on a subject of deep practical interest to true piety and true hope.
Let the reader treasure up in his mind the following lessons, if he would not remain blind to his own character. Let him beware of making light of sin. What multitudes are there who do this! There have been those who carry their folly in this respect so far as to deny all distinction between sin and holiness, and who do all in their power to break down all moral discriminations. It may be expected of men who say they see no difference between what is right and what is wrong, that they should complain of the Divine judgments. And what multitudes are there, who, while they see the preposterousness of such false notions as this, yet look upon sin as a very light matter, and a trifling evil! The Scriptures represent it to be an exceedingly evil and bitter thing—the greatest evil that exists, or that can exist in the universe; yet how many look upon it as scarcely worth regarding, either by God or man! They may in theory deprecate it as they do any other evil, and at the same time show, by their life and conversation, that with them it is a matter of little concern. Multitudes there are, too, who turn the whole subject of human depravity into contempt and ridicule; who treat with levity that universal apostasy of man under which the whole creation groans, for the rebuke of which God has prepared his instruments of death, and for which Jesus died on the cross. Others, again, pretend not to see their sins, and like the children of Israel, whom God charged with flagrant violations of his law, assert their ignorance, and inquire, with the utmost temerity, wherein they have transgressed. They set at defiance all the consequences of sinning, bitter and dreadful as they are, both in this world and that which is to come, and rush on headlong to destruction. They despise the admonitions and threatenings of God’s word; and, as though they could not insure their final doom with sufficient certainty, wantonly make themselves merry with the idea of eternal punishment. Well does the inspired preacher affirm, "Fools make a mock at sin." In the opinion of men, sin may be a light matter; but it is not so in the judgment of God. There is no greater or more dangerous delusion, than to yield to the impression that it is a slight offence to trample on the commands of the great Jehovah. Never will you be made sensible of your blame-worthiness, so long as you have this spirit; but will go on in sin, trifling with your iniquity, until you mourn at the last, and say, "How have I hated instruction and despised reproof!" This insensibility to the ill-desert of sin is one of the crying evils of the age in which we live, and is a growing evil in the minds of the old and the young. The old become hardened in iniquity, and the young rapidly initiated in evil courses, because they so seldom reflect on the great evil of sinning against God. It will be a solemn hour when this delusion shall be swept away, and you see how great the guilt is which you have contracted. That hour must come, either in this or in the future world. Should it ever come in this world, oh, how will you feel that you ought to abhor yourselves, and repent in dust and ashes! Should it not arrive until after you have done with time, it will be such a day, as you have little thought of. When all your sins are brought to light, and the mask is fully taken off—when your iniquity is exhibited to yourselves and to the universe—the rocks and the mountains may fall upon you, but they cannot cover your shame, nor hide you from the face of him that sits on the throne, nor from the presence and wrath of the Lamb.
God, in his word, everywhere sets before men their sins; he takes great pains to give a right and kind direction to their thoughts, and to lead them to a self-inspection that shall be ingenuous and faithful. He expostulates and pleads with all flesh; he admonishes those who he will maintain this process, follow it up to conviction, and inflict the deserved punishment. Yet they either assert their innocence, or defend their cause by impugning his punitive justice. The controversy between God and wicked men is nowhere more obvious, than in the single point which relates to their own ill-desert. God affirms that the punishment which sin deserves is eternal death; and he will make this affirmation good, by executing this penalty upon all who obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wicked men affirm that it does not deserve such a punishment; and they are deeply interested in making their affirmation good. They have tried to do so in every age of the world, and are trying to do so still. One reason why they are God’s enemies, is that he is so just. They had rather there would be no God, than a being of such inflexible justice. They array themselves against his authority, dispute his right to govern them, endeavor to flee out of his hands, exert all the ingenuity of their reasoning powers to disprove and invalidate the equity of his claims; and whenever they are brought to despair of this, their dissatisfaction evinces itself in bitter complaints and murmuring. They reply against the Lord, contend with their Maker, and feel as though they never could give up the contest. This always has been one of the grounds of controversy between God and rebellious men, God claims the right thus to punish them, and they deny this right. God declares that it is no injustice thus to punish them, but perfect equity; and that if he had thus punished every transgressor he would have done him no injury. They, on the other hand, insist that it is the height of injury and injustice. And here God and wicked men are at issue—they are at issue upon a very important point, and one that involves the great principles of his government. If the sinner be right, God is wrong. If the sinner be right, all the fundamental principles of the gospel are false; and there is neither truth nor importance in the method of salvation which that gospel reveals. If the sinner be wrong, his error is a great and essential error, and his position is not less dangerous and criminal than it is false. In "visions of the night, when deep sleep falls upon men," Eliphaz once heard a voice saying, "Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall man be more pure than his Maker? Behold, he put no trust in his servants; and his angels he charged with folly. How much less in those who dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, which are crushed before the moth!" Forever let it be proclaimed, God is right, and the sinner is wrong!
On no subject is the radical difference between the righteous and the wicked more clearly evinced, than the one we have been considering. I do not find an instance in the Scriptures in which good men do not recognize the equity of the sentence that condemns them to eternal death. Christians all the world over acquiesce in the rectitude of this penalty, because God has revealed it, and they have confidence in him that he does and will do what is right; and because the more they know of themselves and of their own personal wickedness and ill-desert, the more is the conviction inwrought in their own conscious experience that they deserve such a doom. It is in this conviction that they begin their religion; and in this conviction, they hold on their way, ascribing righteousness to their Maker, and taking shame and confusion of face to themselves. In this cordial conviction, good men differ from all the wicked men in the world. It is no part of piety to contend with God’s justice. That controversy was terminated when the proud heart of the sinner was humbled, and he accepted the punishment of his iniquity, and submitted himself to the righteousness of God as revealed in the gospel of his Son. The Christian once loved sin, but now he hates it. He once justified it, but now he condemns it, and just as God condemns it. Such is not the character nor the experience of wicked men. They love sin still, and still justify it, and refuse to unite with God in condemning it according to its true desert. We here see one of the great points of difference between him that serves God, and him that serves him not. This was one of the points of difference between Saul at Tarsus, and Paul at Rome. This was one of the points of difference between the penitent and the impenitent malefactors who hung on the cross. This is one of the points of difference between the convinced sinner who rebels against the condemning sentence, and the humbled sinner who approves it.
Is the reader among the righteous, or among the wicked? Has he this evidence of being a child of God, that he sees and approves of the sentence that dooms him to eternal destruction? Does he justify his Maker in executing the penalty of his holy law? or does he complain with the Jews spoken of by the prophet, and say, "Wherefore has the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us?" Does he see and feel that it would be right, perfectly right, if he were a cast-away, and should suffer God’s righteous displeasure for ever?
We have been contemplating the grand obstacle which stands in the way of the sinner’s repairing to the cross. Nothing is more obvious than that no man accepts the gospel while he has a quarrel with the law; that no man can humbly receive the grace of God, so long as he cavils at his justice; that no man can feel his need of Christ and repair to him for salvation, until he knows and feels that he deserves the punishment from which Christ came to deliver. Some men feel this more deeply than others; but all must feel it in order to accept the gospel. Some have a greater sense of danger than of guilt; and some have a greater sense of guilt than of danger. But all who accept of Christ feel their need of him; and all who feel their need of him, feel their exposure to God’s righteous and eternal indignation without him. It is just as difficult for an unconverted man to love the grace of God as to approve his justice; for he cannot do the former until he does the latter. And here lies the grand obstacle in the way of his accepting the gospel. The gospel must be forever rejected, so long as men hate and oppose either the precepts or the penalties of the law. They will complain of difficulty in accepting it—they will resolve and re-resolve—they will postpone and procrastinate—and the cross of Christ will be a "stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence" so long as they stumble at the law. How many are there who feel that they cannot accept the gospel, because they cannot feel that they justly deserve eternal death! This is no theoretical difficulty, but one of everyday occurrence. It meets the parent in his interviews with his child; it meets the pastor in his associations with his people; it meets the moral sinner in his reliance upon his morality, the self-righteous sinner in his reliance upon his self-righteousness, the awakened sinner in his solemnity, and the convinced and unhumbled sinner in his contest with the Divine rectitude and justice. It is an obstacle that is fatal to acceptance of the gospel, so long as it lasts. And why—why should it last an hour? Where is your memory, and what has become of your conscience, that you doubt if God be clear when he speaks, and just when he judges? Oh, if all your sins were searched out; if they were all exhibited in their number and enormity; if he who counts the hairs of your head and the sands on the shore, should set them all before you; it would only be to torment you "before the time." It is true, they have not yet brought you to the place of the damned; but I pray you to see what they are doing, and awake to a sense of their criminality and ill-desert. Nothing is more burdensome, I know, and nothing more miserable, than a conscience enlightened by the Spirit of God, and distressed by a view of sin. And this is the reason why men contend so bitterly against the conviction, and grieve the Holy Spirit; and why so many never feel their need of Christ, and never accept his healing salvation. But resist it not. Welcome it—welcome it all. Pray for it. Supplicate the light of Divine truth and grace to shine into your minds, to penetrate your conscience, and to lay open your bosom to the powerful impression that you are lost and undone. This insensibility to sin and ill-desert is confined to our lost race, and our guilty world. You could not persist in it, but for the Divine forbearance and long-suffering. It will all leave you when you come to die, and stand before your Judge. Not a vestige of it will then be found. No state of mind will be more thoroughly cured hereafter than this; and there is no state of mind, the remembrance of which will probably add deeper anguish to the sinner’s everlasting woes.
I conclude this long chapter with the remark, that these claims of God’s justice emphatically recommend "the glorious gospel of the blessed God," and the cross of his dear Son. If you are conscious that you are a sinner, sensible that you are justly condemned, to you I have an errand that ought to be welcome. You have heard it a thousand times, and made light of it; but it was because you felt not that interest in it which you now feel. I have not a word to utter against the law which condemns you. It condemns me as well as you. It condemns us all. I dare not impugn it. I would not alter it by a wish. It is upon this firm basis of "justice and judgment," which are "the habitation of his throne," that God, in his ineffable wisdom, has built that blessed superstructure of grace and mercy, which shows how guilty, ill-deserving man can be just with God, and how God can be just in rescuing man from his deserved doom. The weight of sin is taken off from you, and in the eye of the law transferred to the mighty Sufferer on Calvary. It is for you but to accept the atonement which he has made, and the law is satisfied. Are not these glad tidings—glad tidings of great joy? Oh, I will cheerfully confess my ill-desert, especially if, by so doing, I may lay hold of Christ. Here is no ground for despair; here are grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ—and to you, who deserve to die! Rejected, they do but augment the righteous penalty which you deserve already—accepted, there is a ransom from the curse, and the seal and pledge of acceptance with God. It remains for you to choose whether you will be indebted to law and justice still, and pay the penalty, and exhaust the cup of Divine indignation; or gratefully consent to be indebted to Christ, and accept the ransom he has paid—If you pay the debt yourself, will it be "better paid?"
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