From the October and November 1810 issues of the Baptist Magazine
On the Mercy of God.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. Psalm ciii, 8
If anything can be adapted to arrest the attention of human beings, and to make our holy religion attractive and interesting, it is that amiable view in which it places the Governor of the world. We acknowledge that the Scriptures, from which we derive our best ideas of the Supreme Being, frequently describe him in such language as to overwhelm us with dismay. With awful sublimity they set forth his nature and the terror of his judgments, He bowed the heavens and came down, and darkness was under his feet. The Lord thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave his voice, hailstones and coals of fire. When they delineate the grandeur of his Power, He bindeth up the waters in his thick clouds, and the cloud is not rent under them. The pillars of heaven tremble and are astonished at his reproof; he divideth the sea with his power, and by his understanding he smiteth through the proud. By his Spirit he hath garnished the heavens, and his hand hath formed the crooked serpent. Lo these are part of his ways, but how little a portion is heard of him, and the thunder of his power who can understand? But are these Scriptures intended only to alarm us? Certainly not; they give us these awful notices for the most benevolent purposes–that by contemplating the majesty of God we might form a more just conception of the depth of his mercy! These Scriptures, which tell us that he fills heaven and earth; his understanding is infinite; his ways unsearchable; he sitteth on the circle of the earth, and hangeth the world upon nothing; inform us also in a style equally glowing, and in terms equally emphatical, that he is superior in tenderness to the most affectionate parents. This is our present subject, and for its development we remark.
1. That though the glory of God appears to have been the chief end of all his operations, yet he has in the manifestation of that glory comprehended the felicity of sinful creatures. In contemplating this subject, it is almost impossible not to recollect one circumstance in the Mosaic history, calculated at once to surprize us, and to encourage our hope in the compassion of God. We refer to that remarkable petition, I beseech thee shew me thy glory. What Moses could expect to behold is not our province to determine. But what revelations did the divine Being make of himself, when at the request of his creature, he had so fair an opportunity to exhibit all the terrors of his majesty? The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin. In this manner does God comprehend the felicity of his creatures while he manifests his own glory.
The spring of action in the Divine Being has been a subject of frequent enquiry. Some, from an idea that God uniformly acts according to the fitness of things, have referred it to his Rectitude, of which they suppose all his moral perfections to be modifications. Others refer all to his Goodness, and imagine that the approbation of his own benevolence as exercised for the promotion of happiness in the universe is the defined object of all his works. The question is attended with many difficulties, but what subject is free from them? The most profound philosopher feels himself impelled to resolve the simplest appearances and operations of nature into the general name of phenomena; and we act but the same humble part, when after all our efforts to investigate the counsels of Jehovah, we retire from the mighty labour, and exclaim, Such things are too wonderful for me, they are high, I cannot attain them. But there is one light in which we may view the subject to advantage; at least, it will not lead us into any considerable error. We refer to the sentiment already expressed, That in all his works the Divine Being has a primary regard to his own glory, and in the manifestation of that glory comprehends the felicity of his creatures. The sublimity of the divine Character is the foundation for the former part of this proposition: for if he is the greatest, wisest, and best of beings, his honour must be of greater importance than that of all other beings, and the promotion of it must be the highest end. But if he were not to act with the highest regard to his own honour, or consider that as only a secondary point, he would deny his own supremacy, and pay a supreme regard to some object infinitely below himself.
Let us then suppose that this is a proposition in which we are all perfectly agreed, that the glory of his perfections is the primary object of all the plans and works of God. This is a topic that will open to us the depths of divine mercy; for while the Infinite Deity is contemplating with inconceivable approbation, the exercise of his power, wisdom and goodness, he condescends to include in that complacential regard, the immortal felicity of guilty men!
In the manifestations of his glory, Jehovah gives us the most awful intimations of his Eternity. While he despatches death, with all his harbingers of fevers, plagues, pestilence, and famine, who arrest our fainting companies and mingle them with the dust; he lifts his hand to heaven and says, I live forever! But all such intimations have proceeded from the very bosom of divine Mercy; for while we are learning from them the mortifying lessons of human frailty, they lay the basis of those celestial pleasures which are at the right hand of God, and receive additional excellence from the immortality of their duration.
In the manifestations of his glory the great and infinite God has given us the most glorious notices of his own Happiness. We learn this from the loftiness of his nature, the independence of his throne, and the purity of his character. But these discoveries are not intended to increase our misery; they proceed from the very bosom of divine Mercy, that by contemplating the fulness of his excellence, we might perceive how capable he is of communicating happiness to his creatures, and feel the inspiration of that desire that can be gratified with nothing short of alliance with the Deity.
We are favoured with some discoveries of the Grandeur of God. His throne is in heaven, he dwells in light inaccessible, tempests and lightnings wait his commands, his omnipotence balances the universe, and hosts of seraphim adore at his feet! But these representations are not intended to overwhelm a humble mind with dread and to discourage its attempts to converse with heaven. No: they proceed from the very bosom of divine Mercy, that we might rejoice in the amazing condescension of God, and be convinced of the dignity of the relation which he has graciously formed with us.
We have seen the Holiness and Justice of the Divine government fully asserted and tremendously exemplified. God declares himself so pure that he cannot look on iniquity, and so just that he will avenge the affronts offered to his law. But however distressing these declarations may be to a miserable sinner, they are not intended to suppress the aspiration of that hope which would find a resting place in the tenderness of our Divine Father. No: they proceed from the very bosom of Mercy, that by forming a proper view of the character of God, we might escape the displeasure which our crimes have awakened, and avail ourselves of the atonement and intercession of the Redeemer.
In the manifestations of his glory, God has given us the most interesting exhibitions of his Power and Wisdom. We behold them in the formation and support of the universe, in the maintenance of order, and the vindication of his honour. But these exhibitions are not designed to appal us; they proceed from the very bosom of Mercy, that we might feel ourselves happy in the recollection that these very attributes are engaged to display all their magnificence in the accomplishment of our redemption.
O the depth of the divine condescension! God is so great, that he has no need of our services; our crimes can never interrupt his felicity, nor can our most ardent devotions give any new lustre to his glory. But the independence of his nature does not prevent the exercise of his compassion; for though he exists independent of the light that surrounds him; though his happiness is independent of the adorations and songs of ministering spirits about his throne; though he receives no advantage from the tears of bleeding penitents; Yet he interests himself on their behalf. The high and lofty one of Israel, that inhabiteth Eternity, will dwell with that man who is of an humble and contrite heart! Who can associate ideas so vastly opposite? Who can imagine the least connection between a handful of ashes and an infinite God? Between a trembling criminal and the Judge of the universe; between a feeble sinner and the high and lofty one of Israel; between an atom of a moment and him that inhabiteth Eternity! The Mercy of God forms this alliance; The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, of tender mercy and plenteous in redemption.
2. We remark that though the provocations of men have seemed in many instances to demand immediate punishment, yet God has shewn a reluctance to inflict it; and has delayed his vengeance as long as the good of his creatures and the honour of his government would permit. Infidelity has abounded in all ages; and though it has been attended with numberless absurdities, it has found the most strenuous advocates in those very persons who have pretended almost to adore the truth. These offspring of a spurious charity have contemplated without emotion the crimes of individuals and of societies; and feeling little dislike to these disorders themselves, they have imagined that the Judge of quick and dead would act an unamiable part were he to discover the least resentment. It therefore becomes necessary to remove this specious objection to the exercise of the divine Equity, and to shew the propriety of that economy which relates to the punishment of sinners; for if there is no justice in their punishment, there can be no mercy in bearing with their provocations.
We clearly perceive from the order and beauty of the world that it could not be the production of chance. Every thing discovers a matchless contrivance, and therefore must have had some intelligent Author. We as clearly perceive from the regular returns of day and night, the revolutions of the seasons, and the preservation of the different species of the animal world–that those things which were created have a preserver; and it is most natural to conclude that the Being who formed them exercises this prerogative and benevolent care over them. We reason further that if this Being pay such exact attention to the irrational parts of creation, it is at least highly probable that he will pay a proportionate regard to those creatures whom he has enriched with intellectual faculties, and rendered capable of honouring him in the exercise of their superior endowments. As a consequence of this argument, we conclude, that if the Author of nature pay such attention to mankind as their rank in the scale of being seems to require, he must have some form of government by which to regulate their conduct–that government must be established on some laws–and these laws must require conformity to the will of the Legislator, and be attended with certain penalties in case of disobedience. Now it flows from this chain of reasoning, that if it is the necessary prerogative of God, for the preservation of moral order, to require universal obedience to his laws, the punishment of sin is absolutely indispensible: the very nature of law and the equity of God as the Guardian of the rights of his creatures, inflexibly requiring it.
This mode of reasoning suggests to us a very interesting enquiry. If God is perfectly equitable in his government, and always acts according to the fitness of things; why does he suffer that impious wretch to accumulate such an infinitude of blasphemies and cruelties, to the injury and ruin of his fellow creatures? Why does not his Justice arrest that execrable man, whose vices have ruined his family, and whose pernicious example has poisoned the minds of all the youth around him? Why does not his Wrath awake against that ambitious mortal who makes his way to a throne by depopulating whole countries, and whose ravages are followed by the curses of innumerable widows and orphans? Why is that old man whose age is blotted with the vilest enormities, permitted still to infect the world; and by the continuance of his odious life suffered to support a sentiment which his impiety leads him to embrace, that God pays no attention to the disorders of the universe?
The Mercy of God can alone solve the difficulties propounded in these cases; for though it may not eventually screen the offender from the punishment he deserves, it manifests a reluctance to inflict the blow till the universal good and the fitness of things absolutely require it. He endures with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction. The sacred scriptures produce the most striking illustrations of this sentiment. Had the two infamous cities been able to produce but ten devout persons, the judgments that overwhelmed them would have been suspended. A second instance is found in the history of the Israelites, in which the divine Being suffered his omnipotence to be arrested (if the expression may be lawful) by the mediation of Moses. See Exodus xxxii, 9-14.
The instances of divine forbearance we formerly mentioned, are not all that can be produced. These are not all the miracles we draw from the abyss of Mercy; read the apostle Peter, The Lord is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. Read the Apostle Paul, For this cause I obtained mercy, that in me Jesus Christ might shew forth all long-suffering for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. The Mercy of God seems to act on the supposition that the most notorious sinner may abandon his vices and become a trophy of divine Grace.
Let that bloody tyrant be spared, is the language of the Mercy of God; for although he is polluting the land with idolatry, and sacrificing to his malignant passions, the most innocent persons in his empire; though his impieties will draw down the indignation of heaven, that very indignation, instead of destroying, may soften his heart, and lead him with humility and contrition to deplore his crimes before the throne of God.
Let the extravagant voluptuary be spared–When he has felt all that the perishing satisfactions of the world can afford; when he has exhausted all the resources of his guilty enjoyments, and plunged himself into disease and poverty, he may be overwhelmed with shame and compunction; he may arise and go to his father, and say, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am not worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants.
Let that impious woman be spared, says the Mercy of God. For though her licentious habits have been more injurious to the neighbourhood than a pestilence; though her thirst for sin has allured thousands into the paths of vice and ruin; she may be induced to reflect; some impressive discourse may sink down into her heart; some affliction may lead her to pray; and the bosom that has hitherto been the sea of impurities, may have the groan of penitence, and expand with every sentiment of zeal and affection towards the Holy One of Israel.
Let that guilty thief be spared! It is the voice of celestial mercy. Let him be spared; for though his injustice and depredations are injurious to society; though with the utmost audacity he is violating the laws of God and man, and is likely to continue a curse to the community as long as he feels the delusive hope of escaping the resentments of justice; yet when his atrocities have ripened him for execution, his strong heart may feel the arrow of conviction, he may feel the unfeigned agonies of the humble penitent, and implore the pardons of that God whose goodness he has abused and whose government he has resisted.
Let that furious persecutor be spared, is the intercession of divine Mercy. For though he is breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the followers of Jesus; crowds them in loathsome prisons, and delights his savage heart with the miseries they endure; though he opposes the cause of heaven, and pours out his curses on that Name that giveth life unto the world; yet, as nothing is impossible with God, let him be spared. Divine grace may arrest him in the very heat of his crimes, his adherence to the crucified Nazarene may be as firm as his opposition; all that decision and zeal which are now employed by his unrighteous prejudices, may equally prompt him in the diffusion of truth, and from a cruel destroyer he may become the most illustrious herald of salvation.
These are the pleadings of divine Mercy, but on what basis are these presumptions erected? On what authority does she stand in the way and cry, O ye simple ones how long will ye love simplicity? Ho every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters. She grounds her reasons on a former interposition, when she induced the Son of God to yearn over the miseries of sinners, and to leave the bosom of his Father, to bear the imputation of our crimes, and to endure the united wrath of heaven and earth. Reflect on the abuses that were poured on his innocent soul, and the cruelty that held him up as a victim of derision and insult. Behold the instruments that drained off his blood, and the wrath that drank up his life. Hearken to the prayers which he offered for his murderers, and that emphatical cry in the moment of his tremendous dissolution, and you at once discover the reason of divine long-suffering.
3. We remark that God most freely forgives the crimes of men, though they have been attended with nameless aggravations. There is nothing that gives us a finer idea of the greatness of God than the tranquility with which be suffers the crimes of men. But our views of the divine Being become still more interesting, when we see him bestowing his pardons on those very characters on whom his justice denounces the sentence of eternal misery. That great and gracious Being, whom sinners are every day offending with circumstances the most aggravated, has at his command thousands of plagues and torments, which his omnipotence can employ to avenge the affronts offered to his government. Yet to the most atrocious sinners he condescends to exhibit all the tenderness of his mercy, and to them he presents the most affecting invitations.
It is impossible not to observe the superiority of divine Revelation in this respect. The most sagacious heathens, after all their investigations, after all their boasted wisdom, could never arrive at any satisfactory conclusion respecting the forgiveness of sin! They could not tell what sins God would pardon; how great a number he would pardon; and to how many years his pardons would extend. They could not tell what sacrifices he would require, but supposing the most costly to be most acceptable, they presented before the throne of Heaven altars streaming with the blood of their children! The sacred pages which contain the Revelation of God to a guilty world, answer all our enquiries, satisfy all our scruples, and dissipate all our fears. These pages declare that God so loved the world, that he gave his dear Son–that he delivered him for our offences–and that the blood he shed on the cross cleanseth a penitent from every sin. Doth any soul feel the agonies of conscious guilt? Do any tremble with the fear of sinking under the indignation of Heaven? To such we present a sovereign antidote, To our God belongeth mercy and forgiveness. Are any ready to expire beneath a sense of the aggravation that have attended their crimes? Do they lament that to sins of infirmity they have added those of deliberate obstinacy? That with equal firmness and impiety they have resisted the clamours of conscience, the tears of praying parents, and the terrors and invitations of a gospel ministry? Still they may take refuge in the Mercy of God; still we are authorised to assure them that if they hate these sins, abandon them and turn to God, though they were as scarlet, they should be as white as snow; though they be red as crimson, they shall be as wool.
Are any afraid to confide in the Divine Goodness, because to sins of youth they have added those of mature life, and not contented with ruining their own souls, have been ringleaders in iniquity, and have plunged into ignorance and misery the souls of their children and companions? Still they may seek refuge in the Mercy of God. We are authorized to tell them that if they hate their sins, abandon and confess them, Our God will abundantly pardon.
Have any, to obtain the reputation of sagacious enquirers after truth, wandered into the mazes of infidelity; and inspired by contemptible vanity, have they changed doubts for infamous ridicule, and trampled with haughty disdain on those very truths designed to lead men to the enjoyment of God? Still, if they hate these sins, abandon and confess them, the Mercy of God will afford such penitents an asylum. The Lord’s arm is not shortened that it cannot save, neither is his ear heavy that he cannot hear.
Have any trodden the fearful descent of the backslider, and from acts of unwatchfulness and indolence, been precipitated into the most loathsome vices, and fixed a shameful odium on the Christian character? Do their hearts bleed at the recollection? Are they willing to abandon and confess their crimes, but are afraid of the Divine displeasure? We are even authorised to declare unto such the language of Mercy, Return unto me, ye backsliding children, and I will have mercy upon you; I will receive you graciously, and love you freely.
But with what propriety do we encourage such notorious offenders to hope for pardon? Is it not the language of Heaven, The soul that sinneth shall die? Is it not written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the law to do them? If such criminals be pardoned, will not the righteousness of God be impeached? This enquiry can be satisfied only by the incarnation of the Son of God, who declared when on earth, I am come that sinners might have life. To obtain this glorious object, behold I unite myself to a feeble body; I voluntarily expose myself to hunger, grief, and temptation; I take upon my head all the charge of their impieties; and place myself beneath the thunders of the Almighty; I will patiently endure the cruelties and blasphemies of mine enemies; I will present my back to the scourge, my head to the thorns, my hands to the nails, and my side to the spear, and my death, attended with every circumstance of infamy and horror, shall satisfy all the requirements of injured justice, atone for millions of crimes, and raise unhappy sinners to confide in the Mercy of God, for if God spared not his own Son, but freely gave him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things.
4. The Happiness that God intends for sinners comprehends every thing that can answer that end. 1. We refer to the manner in which he receives those who rely on his Mercy. Without upbraiding them, without any price, he receives them in the most affectionate manner, and bids his Angels rejoice at their return. He elevates them to the enjoyment of his friendship. For this purpose they are invited to come out from the world, and be separate to himself. He promised never to forsake them; his friendship knows no variation; it attends the believer in his dying agonies, and will be consummated in heaven, at the marriage supper of the Lamb. What millions of trophies of his grace will be there! What triumph in Christ shall they enjoy when all the Church of God is brought home! What hailing to the Redeemer from martyrs, confessors, tried believers, and the multitudes of all nations who shall there meet to admire the Mercy of God!
What effect ought these things to produce on our hearts? What ardent gratitude? What holy love? What steady obedience? No Christian can take occasion from hence to abuse the divine kindness. The apostle uses this very topic to urge us to diligence and love; I beseech you brethren, by the Mercies of God. Woe to the sinner who attempts to fabricate his crimes over the Mercy of his Maker!