On the Goodness of God
O taste and see that the Lord is good. Ps. xxxiv, 8.
Though divine grace is the certain prelude of eternal felicity, it does not insure our escape from the troubles of the present life. Of this the lives of the most eminent saints have afforded demonstration.
David was unjustly treated by Saul, who owed most of the honours of his reign to this faithful servant. Being daily pursued, he sought refuge in a district of Philistia: and there suspecting a plot was laid against him, he fled; and on that occasion composed the thirty fourth Psalm, remarkable for its holy fervour, overflowing gratitude, and unshaken confidence.
Let us elucidate the Sentiment that The Lord is good. The term goodness is ambiguous, therefore its force cannot be determined by affixing to it an arbitrary meaning, but by examining the relations it bears to various objects and the connections in which it is used. It is employed by Moses to express the perfect fitness of the divine operations to promote their proper end; and God saw every thing that he had made, and behold it was very good. In another place it signifies expedience or convenience; Jethro said to Moses The thing that thou doest is not good. The Psalmist uses it to denote that which is agreeable to the senses, and suited to gratify the appetites; There be many that say who will shew us any good? In another connection it signifies profit; It is good for me to draw near to God. The Evangelist uses it as implying holiness and virtue, when he describes Barnabas as A good man and full of the Holy Ghost. It was used in this sense by the young Ruler when he said, Good Master what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And our Lord’s answer is in the same sense: There is none good but One, i.e. There is none perfectly holy but God. Sometimes it denotes propriety or lawfulness, as in the Apostle’s expression; Every creature of God is good. There is one more sense in which it is used, and that seems to accord exactly with the meaning of the Psalmist, when he asserted The Lord is good. It occurs in Rom. v, 7. Scarcely for a righteous man will one die, yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. The meaning is, that though a man whose actions were all marked with pure justice, might be forsaken in some circumstances of peculiar danger; yet some persons might be found who would hazard their lives for one who had been uniformly benevolent and merciful.
To make this subject still more intelligible. Imagine two persons, who lay an equal claim to the most invariable uprightness of character. The one, perceiving the importance of justice for the maintenance of public order, but destitute of the softer feelings, says within himself, “I am resolved never to impose on the indigent, nor exact that from the feeble and defenceless which does not belong to me. But I will forgive no injury, but punish all offenders to the utmost severity of the laws; the cries of misery shall never turn my heart from its purpose, and the tears of the widow and the orphan shall be alike ineffectual.” The other, on the contrary, says, “I am conscious that I can maintain the uprightness of my character, with all the sternness of inflexible justice; but to be merely just is incompatible with the best dispositions of my nature; therefore, I will never rejoice at the destruction of him that hateth me, nor shall revenge prompt me to punish my most inveterate foe: the stranger shall not lodge in the street, but I will open my door to the traveller: the loins of the poor shall bless me, and the widow’s heart shall sing for joy.” We instantly perceive the difference between these two characters, and we are disposed to regard the former with a mixture of respect and terror, while we contemplate the latter with every sentiment of veneration and love. Now, the disposition which produces a train of actions so kind and beneficent, is what the Scriptures frequently term Goodness, and when they say, God is good, they imply that he possesses, in the greatest degree, a disposition to promote the happiness of his creatures.
Let us illustrate and confirm the proposition that God is good. Benevolence as properly belongs to God as any other of his perfections. He possesses it in the most eminent manner, and to the largest extent. When compared with divine goodness, all the generosity of the most liberal benefactor, and all the ardour of the most persevering philanthropist, fall abashed into shade and silence.
In God, benevolence is not a virtue liable to fluctuation and langour; but is always prompt, steady, and ardent. The most severe test to which we can bring the divine benevolence is the state of the moral world. Sin, from its conception in Eden, diffused itself through every nation, infected every human heart, and armed every feeling against the authority of heaven. In the eye of God’s law, every sinner is a culprit, and liable to infinite woe. But behold the Goodness of God! He continues the mercies which have been despised; he expostulates when he might abandon; he invites when he might thunder; he intreats when he might vindicate the holiness of his government by frowns and anathemas.
The Goodness of God is not an almost imperceptible virtue, which is lost in the magnificence of others, but is (if the expression may be allowed) the most striking feature of the divine mind, diffusing a surpassing glory on all the perfections of Deity. When we contemplate the Grandeur of God, our minds are affected with a degree of awe that borders on despair. The ministering Spirits that veil their faces before him; the absolute perfection of his character; the Justice that inflexibly guards the honour of his throne; and the Power that meted out the heavens with a span–not only convince us of our insignificance, but seem to conspire in suppressing every feeling of confidence, and in accusing every aspiration of hope as a deed of unpardonable arrogance and presumption! But, behold the Goodness of God! It pours rays of grace on every excellence of his nature, and when it places us in the bosom of Jesus, the Holiness that might appal us becomes an object of delight and fervid desire. The Power that might crush is engaged to sustain us amid the sorrows of life and our struggles with the last adversary. The Grandeur that might overwhelm us becomes accessible, and all those attributes which appeared tremendous, afford a refuge for the humble and an asylum for the miserable.
The Goodness of God is not a virtue whose excellences are concealed and whose emanations are of no advantage to inferior beings. But every where it unveils its glory and displays itself as the exalted source of all the tenderness of Deity. It is the source of that long-suffering by which he exercises so much patience towards a world of provoking sinners. It is the source of that compassion which supplies the wants of his indigent creatures, and by which he commiserates the sorrows of the afflicted. It is the source of the Grace displayed in giving from his bosom his only Son, that by a succession of amazing sufferings, he might raise the apostate descendants of Adam to the most consummate felicity.
The Goodness of God is not a virtue whose capabilities may be diminished, or whose vigour may be exhausted: for it is supplied from the fulness of Deity. There is a most entire harmony in the divine perfections, not only as it regards their operation, but as it respects their amplitude and sufficiency. The same character of infinity that applies to one applies to another. All the attributes of an Infinite being must be equal, and we cannot suppose a greater degree of excellence of one of them than in another, without imputing a degree of imperfection to that which we imagine inferior. Therefore the Goodness of God is equal to his Power, his Wisdom, his Justice, and his Holiness. It has the same freedom of exercise and the same illimitable fulness.
We derive our views of the Benevolence of God from his Nature. Let me imagine myself placed alone in the world; and surrounded with all the magnificence of creation. By the most simple reasonings and natural deductions I arrive at the knowledge of the Supreme Being. The more I contemplate his character, the more I am convinced that he is inconceivably great and glorious; and this conviction induces me to conclude that he is benevolent. This great and glorious Being is infinitely happy; but a malignant disposition is incompatible with this happiness; therefore to suppose God defective in Benevolence is to suppose him defective in happiness. This great and glorious Being, who is so perfectly happy, cannot be conceived to derive any interest from the various circumstances of pleasure or pain, or joy or sorrow, experienced by his creatures. From this view of God we derived our dislike of an impious system more calculated to dishonour than to display the amiableness of God; and urge against it that charming declaration, As I live saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of a sinner. This great and glorious Being takes an infinite delight in himself. Not all the adoration of Angels, nor all the beauties of the universe afford him so much pleasure as the contemplation of his own perfection: but a malignant disposition would be incompatible with such pleasure, and could it possibly be associated with immaculate holiness, it would be a source of perpetual disgust and torment. The will and power of this great and glorious Being are always efficient, and we cannot imagine, without blasphemy, that he could willingly cultivate a disposition that would make him unhappy, and that he would deny himself of one that would promote his felicity. But if we could imagine that he possessed a malignant disposition, we must either suppose that he possessed it against his will, and thus affront the majesty of his Omnipotence, or that he possesses it by choice, and thus to impeach the rectitude of his character. God is therefore benevolent because he is infinitely happy, because his own glories are the centre of his pleasure, and because his will and power are always efficient.
We may be convinced of the Goodness of God by the excellence of his works. The creation no less displays his Goodness than his Wisdom and his Power. Contemplate the principles on which his intelligent creatures were formed–not that they might augment his felicity or contribute to his enjoyment, but that they might share his bounty and make an endless progression in knowledge and pleasure. Behold it in the formation of the human frame, the beautiful variety of its members, and the perfect fitness of every organ to the purpose for which it was designed. Behold it in the sun that warms, animates and invigorates all nature–in the seasons that in their revolutions produce their wonted donations–the fields which supply the perpetually returning wants of innumerable creatures, and in the appropriate blessings it scatters throughout every clime. It is exemplified in the usual adaptation of the mind to those situations in which a wise providence places its subjects, and in the large proportion of ease and happiness that is diffused through a world of guilty men.
We may be convinced of the Goodness of God by the adjustments of his Providence. It were impious to suppose that the divine Being, after creating the world, would leave it to chance. There is a glorious relation between God and his intelligent creatures, which cannot be dissolved; and it is perceptible by the divine conduct, that God is invariably and perpetually fulfilling the law of that relation, and by every act in this department, he convinces us of his Goodness. We appeal to that law which was revealed with so many awful sanctions. It was fitted to the nature of the beings it was intended to govern; it was calculated to advance the happiness of every obedient creature, and by the magnificent view it afforded of the moral perfections of Deity, it was adapted to influence every holy being with the most ardent and awful affection. We appeal to that patience every day exercised towards provoking sinners. Why does he not execute his wrath upon the violators of his commands? Because his goodness induces him to forbear. Why does he not display his Justice in punishing the guilty, even before the vindication of his character and the good of his creatures require it? Because his Goodness induces him to forbear. Why does he frequently melt the heart to penitence which had for years been hardened against him, and save the wretch who had forfeited every claim to his mercy? Because he is resolved to convince us of his Goodness. We appeal to the cognizance he exercises over the world–the rules of government he suggests to magistrates for the protection of the innocent, and the maintenance of social order–the arrangement of those circumstances by which notorious criminals are detected–the happy providences that frequently relieve the distresses of widows and orphans–and the Good that is extracted from the anger, the perverseness, and complicated crimes of mankind. We appeal to the effects which afflictions and distresses have produced on the human mind. The Lord doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men. Yet every day we see afflictions raging. Still God is good; for the afflictions of his people are subservient to their happiness. I have refined thee–not with silver. I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction. Even under the continuance of the most painful dispensation, divine Benevolence can assign the most satisfactory reasons. All this is to take away thy sin. We appeal to the improvement which believers have derived from the most gloomy providences. God is good; this is our principle; but has he not appeared in another form in the views of many holy men? Was there any Goodness in that command, Go sacrifice thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest? Was there any Goodness in the affliction of Joseph? Was it displayed in the miseries of Job? Did it make a suitable return for the incessant zeal and intrepid labours of Paul? Can we wonder if such men should sometimes have retired to cry, Has God forgotten to be gracious? Will he be favourable no more? But, behold the Goodness of God! The Patriarch’s faith is honoured in proportion to the tremendous difficulty of its exercise; Jacob and Joseph behold with joy the intricacies of events planned by unerring wisdom; the latter end of Job is not only superior to his beginning, but his firm integrity, patient endurance, and unshaken confidence, set him forth an example to the believing world; the afflictions of Paul draw forth all the graces of his soul into fervid and vigorous exercise, and he is more than a conqueror over sin and death! Well might the Psalmist exclaim, They shall abundantly utter the memory of thy Goodness, and shall sing of thy righteousness, The Lord is good and full of compassion; slow to anger and of great mercy. The Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works.
The last proof of the Goodness of God shall be derived from the Cross of Christ. It is divine Benevolence that supplies an angel’s wants, and affords him enjoyment. To what extent must it expand when it notices the miseries of men; miseries occasioned by their own perverseness? By sin they are bound under the law and condemnation. But behold the Goodness of God! He makes a display of its fulness in the gift of his Son, that he might become a Saviour to millions ready to perish. Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who though he was rich, for our sakes became poor, that we through his poverty might be made rich. When he might have deserted our cause, he said, Lo I come, to do thy will O God. In this Gift he gives us all things. By Him the penitent sinner, laden with his guilt–the distressed believer, contending with various adversaries–and the dying man, trembling on the brink of Eternity–all find access to the mercy seat. Through Jesus our great Parent bestows unfailing supports, faithful promises, everlasting consolations, unutterable joys, and final triumph. Sinners become heirs of God, being joint-heirs with Christ; they are introduced into the society of the blessed and the vision of God.
Let the Goodness of God urge us to repentance. Nothing should so much soften the heart as the Goodness of the character whom we have offended. Let each consider how he bore with me in my perverseness, and followed me with his mercy; how much he did to win my heart. He often passed by me and proclaimed, I am the Lord merciful and gracious, abundant in Goodness and Truth. Our sins become odious in proportion as we see them opposed to the divine Goodness.
Let the Goodness of God be a motive to confidence. His other perfections might appal us so that we could not dare to approach him. But encouraged by his Goodness we may rest in his promise, trust in his power, adore his holiness, and confide in his love.