Page images
PDF
EPUB

taught by Him who 'spake as never man spake.' Addressing himself to the most subtle and malignant of all his adversaries, the Pharisees, he said, 'If ye were blind, ye should have no sin,' John ix. 41. That is, had ye not had sufficient opportunities to become acquainted with me and my doctrine, then your rejection of me and my Gospel could not justly be imputed to you as a crime. In a subsequent discourse, addressed chiefly to his disciples, the same idea is still more clearly and fully advanced. Referring to the unbelieving and persecuting Jews, he says, 'If I had not come and spoken unto them,' and 'done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin,' John xv, 22, 24. Our position is also maintained in St. Paul's celebrated discourse before the Athenian court, a copious abstract of which will be found in the seventeenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Speaking of some of the grossest ages of idolatry, he affirms that the times of this ignorance God winked at.' That is, he passed over these ignorant violations of his law, without any special recognition of the offence, on the broad and equitable ground that where there is no law,' none published and made known, 'there is no transgression,' Rom. iv, 15.

But voluntary ignorance furnishes the transgressor with no excuse. Indeed, it is so far from being a misfortune, that it is a crime; a crime superadded to the act of transgression, greatly enhancing the amount of his guilt. In making this declaration, we advance no unsupported hypothesis. It is a point settled by the most express averment of Him who is, by his own designation, 'THE TRUTH' itself. "This is the condemnation, that is, this is the reason why any shall finally fall under the punitive wrath of the sovereign Lawgiver, 'that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil,' John iii, 19. This is a principle, the equity of which is recognized by all civil governments. No criminal is excused, because, through ignorance, he has transgressed the laws of his country, when it can be proved that those very laws have been published throughout the land. If the fact of the promulgation be clearly established, ignorance of the general enactment, or of any of its specific provisions, can never be pleaded as any palliation of the crime committed by the transgressor. And, certainly, the principle is founded in the reason and fitness of things; for a deliberate refusal to know our duty is equivalent to a fixed determination not to do it. The truth is, every man is held responsible for his conduct in view of just that measure of light with which God has been pleased to favor him, whether he choose to avail himself of it or not. This thought is beautifully illustrated and fully sustained by our Lord's words, recorded in the twelfth chapter of St. Luke's Gospel : 'And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes,' verses 47, 48. The antithesis here intended seems to lie in the case of two servants, the one of whom receives an express command from his master, which he wilfully violates; while the other, though he receives no such express order, does, nevertheless, fall into such in. stances of misbehavior, as he cannot but know to be inconsistent with his duty and office in general; by which means he exposes

himself to some degree of punishment; though, other things being equal, he is less criminal than the former. So far as the government of God is concerned, the principle here laid down is maintain. ed in all parts of his moral empire. For unto whomsoever much is given, this is the conclusion to which Christ himself conducts us,—' of him shall much be required.'

In judging of the turpitude of an action, therefore, we should always investigate the situation and privileges of the agent; for the degree of guilt is invariably graduated by the number and value of those means and opportunities of spiritual improvement, the use of which has been perversely declined. It is on this ground that we perceive the indisputable justice, and feel the awful force of those fearful maledictions, pronounced by the compassionate Saviour against certain cities which had long enjoyed, but criminally abused, the greatest possible advantages under his personal ministry. The bare recitation of his words is enough to thrill the soul with terror, and make it tremble in the presence of the Lion of the tribe of Judah!' "Then began he,' says the evangelist, 'to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were wrought, because they repented not: Wo unto thee, Chorazin! wo unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained till this day. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee,' Matt. xi, 20–25.

2. The law must not only be known, but must itself be practicable, in order to render the violation of it a crime. By its being practicable, I mean, its precepts must be such that they can be obeyed. An absolute incapacity to comply with the precepts of any code, fully exculpates the transgressor. He cannot, on any known principle of justice, be held responsible for not doing what he could not possibly do. The converse of this proposition is almost too absurd to need refutation. What would be thought of a master who should command his servant to take wings and carry a despatch the distance of a hundred miles, in a single minute ; and threaten him with the severest punishment, in case of disobedience? Would not every ingenuous mind regard not only the master as a monster in human shape ; but the servant as being perfectly excusable for not obeying such a command ? Now, the principles of justice are the same throughout the whole Universe of God. They are the same in heaven that they are on earth. What is wrong in one being is wrong in another. And, therefore, the Word of God considers and treats no man as a transgressor who has not power to obey. God is not a hard master. His law is holy, just, and good; and misery was never introduced into the world but by an avoidable departure from its precepts.

We do not mean to affirm that man, in his fallen and crippled estate, abstractly considered, can 'fulfil all righteousness. When God first made man, he made him “sufficient to stand,' as well as

'free to fall:' and so long as his faculties remained unimpaired, obedience to every precept of the Divine law was, even without supernatural aid, a perfectly easy task. His capabilities were, every way, commensurate with the requirements of his Maker. There was perfect harmony between him and the moral government under which he was placed; and obedience was almost as natural as the operations of animal life. The claims of his moral governor were, therefore, met with a faultless compliance. Obedience involved no cross, no sacrifice, no painful effort. And all of this by the simple unaided power of that nature with which his God had invested him. But this is far, very far, from being his present character and condition. He is now weak and powerless. He has lost his primitive innocence, and with it its lofty prerogatives. Thrown upon his own resources, and left to himself, obedience to his Divine ruler is out of the question. We might, with equal propriety, expect the Ethiopian to change the color of his skin, or even the leopard his spots. Circumstanced as he is, apart from the redemption that is in Christ, obedience is as well naturally as morally impossible. To look for it is to seek the living among the dead. We can, therefore, by no means subscribe to the modern doctrine of natural ability. In every point of view, we think it highly objectionable. To us, it ap. pears as unscriptural as it does unphilosophical; and as contrary to Christian experience as it is to the Word of God, and the actual condition of poor fallen human nature. Even after the judgment is convinced, and the will receives its proper inclination, there are still, independently of Divine influence, insuperable difficulties in the way of obedience. This not only accords with the experience of all those who have passed from death unto life, but is most incontestably the doctrine of the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. How else shall we understand the author when he says, 'For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members ? * *'For to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.' Hence, the same writer, in his letter to the Galatians, after stating in most emphatic terms the weakness of our common nature, and the perpetual contest between the flesh and the 'spirit,' concludes with this humiliating averment: “So that ye cannot do the things that ye would,' chap. v, 17.

The com. pilers of the Thirty-Nine Articles' are therefore fully sustained by the Sacred Oracles, when they say, 'The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and works, to faith and calling upon God; wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God, by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that good will.' This is most unquestionably the true view of the subject. The ability to comply with the Divine requirements for which we contend is not one which we naturally possess, but one which is communicated by grace. It is not an inherent, but an extrinsic ability. It is an ability that, at once, humbles the pride of man, and magnifies the glory of Divine grace. We can, it is true, 'do all things that God requires us to do; but then it is only

“through Christ who strengthens us,' Phil. iv, 13. The law does not relax its claims, and come down to the weakness of our nature; but it is grace that brings us up to its unyielding demands, its immutable standard; and thus . reigns through righteousness unto eternal life.' When God commands, he gives us power to obey. Along with the Divine precept, there goes an inspiring energy. This may be illustrated by the case of the man who had a withered hand, mentioned in the twelfth chapter of the Gospel by St. Matthew. It certainly will not be maintained that the individual in question had natural ability to obey the command of Christ, “STRETCH FORTH THINE HAND. This was wholly out of his power. A moral ability, according to its modern technical import, he may have had, and most probably did have, to stretch forth his withered hand, in compliance with the Saviour's injunction. He was willing to do it. Nothing was necessary to prompt his inclination. But still, obedience was out of the question, without the supernatural communication of a supernatural power. That power was dispensed by Christ, and obedience followed as a thing of course. Just

SO,

the sinner, perishing in his sins, is utterly incapable of those holy exercises which the law demands,—those acts of obedience exacted at his hands, apart from preventing, co-operating, and strengthening grace. By nature, he wants the ability as well as the inclination; and for both he is dependent on Him from whom cometh every good and perfect gift. God must work in us both to will and to do. The help that is done on earth, the Lord doeth it.' 'By grace are ye saved through faith ; and that not of yourselves. This is what we call a gracious ability;* and to our minds, at least, there is a peculiar appropriateness in the designation.

Now this view of the subject, while it magnifies the riches of Divine grace, divests the sinner of no portion of his responsibility. He is condemned not only for the abuse of his natural powers, but also and especially for his perverse rejection of Divine aid. God has laid help on one mighly and willing to save, 'even unto the uttermost. The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared unto all men. This grace is not only free to all our fallen species; but is earnestly, sincerely, and with the most benevolent intention, proffered to them. And it is the voluntary rejection of this grace that constitutes the chief ground of our criminality. He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the only begotten Son of God.' Because I have called and ye have refused, I will laugh at your calamity, and mock when your fear cometh. Here, then, we see the true ground of man's responsibility, and the only reason of his final condemnation. God's law, through that grace which he withholds from no man, and which he

* I am aware that the propriety of this phrase has frequently, and especially of late, been called in question. One writer of high standing denominates the use of it 'darkening counsel by words without knowledge;' and another, of equal eminence, says, 'it is using words without meaning.' I cannot but regard such declarations, however, as the result of inattention, or prejudice, or perhaps both. The phrase does certainly convey a definite meaning; and I must think that these genilemen, for whose talents and piety I have the highest respect, will, after a little consideration, have the candor to acknowledge it; whether they acquiesce in that meaning or not. For ourselves, we can neither give up the phrase nor the meaning, till our views of evangelical truth undergo a material change.

freely proffers to all, is practicable: its precepts can be obeyed-its requirements fulfilled. The sinner rejects this grace, disobeys his God, and is lost for ever!

3. The law must not only be known and practicable, but the transgression of it must be voluntary, in order to the criminality of the violator; that is to say, the will must go with the act. As forced obedience is no obedience, so forced transgression is no transgression. The association of the terms, forced and transgression, involves an absolute contradiction. To apply them to one and the same action, would be as well a solecism in language, as an abandonment of the very first principles of moral philosophy. Transgression as much implies moral freedom as does obedience. Indeed, without such freedom there could be no such thing as sin, and would be no such thing as punishment, in the whole Universe of God! No one would think of condemning the pistol in the hands of the highwayman, nor of inflicting capital punishment on the machine that might chance to take away the life of a human being. Freedom of will is essential to moral agency, and moral agency is indispensable to criminality. And that man is possessed of such freedom is matter of universal consciousness. This is evident from the fact that it is recognized in all civil and social compacts. Wherever mankind exist in society, the world over, the principle here laid down is conceded and acted on. All human laws, forbidding, condemning, and punishing vicious actions, are grounded on the acknowledged supposition that man is possessed of freedom of will, by which he could have avoided the very actions for which he is condemned. Such enactments evidently suppose that the interdicted deed may or may not be done, at the election of the persons whose conduct they are designed to influence. Accordingly, in whatever instance such freedom of will, such capability of doing or not doing, is not presupposed, the operation of such enactments is suspended. They were never designed to affect any but moral agents; and none others are held responsible. The unavoidable injuries inflicted by one member of society upon another, as well as the random and lawless sallies of the idiot and madman, are supposed neither to involve the least degree of criminality, nor to deserve the smallest amount of punishment. Numberless other instances might be adduced in which the practice of mankind implies their belief in the truth of the position which we here maintain.

We might, however, after all, concede what some mental philosophers, both ancient and modern, have resolutely argued, namely, that this universal consciousness of moral freedom is a mere “fallacy,' were it not for the strong and decisive testimony of the Sacred Oracles. "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.' And what saith the Scripture ?'Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life,' John v, 40. 1*** How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not,' Luke xiii, 34. Why will ye die? Ezek. xxxiii, 11. In the mouth of three such witnesses, the point is sufficiently established.

Finally, if man is not a moral agent, then he is not a subject of moral government; and is neither rewardable nor punishable, upon

« PreviousContinue »