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It is no uncommon thing to distinguish between a formal requirement, and that which affords the ground or reason of that requirement. The goodness of God, for instance, though it is not a law, or formal precept, yet virtually requires a return of gratitude. It deserves it; and the law of God, formally requires it on its behalf. Thus it is with respect to the gospel, which is the greatest overflow of divine goodness that was ever displayed. A return suitable to its nature is required virtually by the gospel itself, and formally by the divine precept on its behalf.
I suppose it might be taken for granted that the gospel possesses some degree of virtual authority; as it is generally acknowledged, that by reason of the dignity of its author, and the importance of its subject matter, it deserves the audience and attention of all mankind; yea more, that all mankind who have opportunity of hearing it, are obliged to believe it. The only question is, therefore, whether the faith which it requires be spiritual, or such as hath the promise of salvation.
We may form some idea of the manner in which the gospel ought to be received from its being represented as an embassy. We are ambassadors for Christ, saith the apostle, as though God did beseech by us, we pray in Christ's stead, be ye RECONCILED to God. The object of an embassy in all cases is
* 2 Cor. v. 20.
peace. Ambassadors are sometimes employed between friendly powers for the adjustment of their affairs: but the allusion in this case is manifestly that of a righteous prince who should condescend to speak peaceably to his rebellious subjects, and as it were, to intreat them for their own sakes, to be reconciled. The language of the apostle supposes the world is engaged in an unnatural and unprovoked rebellion against its maker; that it is in his power utterly to destroy sinners; that if he were to deal with them according to their deserts, this must be their portion: but that through the mediation of his Son, he had, as it were, suspended hostilities, had sent his servants with words of peace, and commissioned them to persuade, to intreat, and even to beseech them to be reconciled. But reconciliation to God includes every thing that belongs to true conversion. It is the opposite of a state of alienation and enmity to him.* It includes a justification of his government, a condemnation of their own unprovoked rebellion against him, and a thankful reception of the message of peace; which is the same for substance as to repent and believe the gos pel. To speak of an embassy from the God of heaven and earth to his rebellious creatures being entitled to nothing more than an audience, or a decent attention, must itself be highly offensive to the honour of his majesty; and for such language to proceed from his professed friends, must render it still more so.
* Col. 1. 21.
"When the apostle beseecheth us to be reconciled to God, I would know, says Dr. Owen, whether it be not a part of our duty to yield obedience? If not, the exhortation is frivolous and vain."* If sinners are not obliged to be reconciled to God, both as a Law-giver, and a Saviour, and that with all their hearts, it is no sin to be unreconciled. All the enmity of their hearts to God, his law, his gospel, or his Son, must be guiltless. For there can be no neutrality in this case: not to be reconciled, is to be unreconciled; not to fall in with the message of peace, is to fall out with it; and not to lay down arms, and submit to mercy, is to maintain the war.
It is in perfect harmony with the foregoing ideas that those who acquiesce in the way of salvation in this spiritual manner, are represented in so doing, as exercising OBEDIENCE; as obeying the gospel, obeying the truth, and obeying Christ.† The very end of the gospel being preached is said to be for obedience to the faith among all nations. But obedience supposes previous obligation. If repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ were not duties required of us, even prior to all consideration of their being blessings bestowed upon us, it were incongruous to speak of them as exercises of obedience. Nor would it be less so to speak of that impenitence and unbelief which expose men to eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power, as con
* Display of Arminianism, Chap. x. † Rom. x. 16. vi. 17. †Rom.i.5.
sisting in their not obeying the gospel.* The passage on which the former part of this argument is founded, (viz. 2 Cor. v. 19, 20.) has been thought inapplicable to the subject, because it is supposed to be an address to the members of the church at Corinth, who were considered by the apostle as believers. On this principle Dr. Gill expounds the reconciliation exhorted to of submission to Providence, and of obedience to the discipline and ordinances of God. But let it be considered whether the apostle be here immediately addressing the members of the church at Corinth, beseeching them, at that time, to be reconciled to God: or whether he be not rather rehearsing to them what had been his conduct, and that of his brethren in the ministry, in vindication of himself and them from the base insinuations of false teachers. The great evils that had crept into that church had been principally owing to them. The methods they appear to have taken to supplant the apostles, were those of underhand insinuation. By Paul's answers they appear to have suggested, that they were either subtil men, who by their soft and beseeching style ingratiated themselves into the esteem of the simple, catching them as it were with guile; (2 Cor. i. 12. xii. 16.) or weak-headed enthusiasts, beside themselves, (ch. v. 13.) going up and down, beseeching people to this and that; (ch. xi. 21.) and that as to Paul himself, however great he might appear in his letters, he was nothing in company: His bodily presence, say they, is weak, and his speech contemptible.
* 2 Thess. i. 8, 9.
In the first epistle to this church, Paul generously waved a defence of himself and his brethren, being more concerned for their recovery to Christ, than their opinion of them: yet when the one was accomplished, he undertook the other; not only as a justification of himself and his brethren, but as knowing that just sentiments of them bore an intimate connexion with their own spiritual welfare. It is thus that the apostle goes over their various insinuations, acknowledging that they did indeed beseech, intreat, and persuade men; but such conduct did not arise from the motives of which they were accused, but from the love of Christ.......If we are beside ourselves, it is for your sakes.
If the words in Ch. v. 19, 20, be an immediate address to the members of the church at Corinth, those which follow in Ch. vi. 1, must be an address to its ministers; and thus Dr. Gill expounds it. But if so, the apostle in the continuation of that address, would not have said as he does, In all things approving OURSELVES as the ministers of God: his language would have been, In all things approving YOURSELVES, &c. From hence it is manifest that the whole is a vindication of their preaching and manner of life, against the insinuations of the Corinthian teachers.
There are two things which may have contributed to the misunderstanding of this passage of scripture: one is the supplement you which is unnecessarily introduced three times over in Ch. v. 20, and vi. 1.