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THE NATURE, EXCELLENCE, AND IMPORTANCE OF MORAL RIGHTEOUSNESS.
He hath shered thee, O man, what is good. And what doth the Lord require' of thee, but to do ,
justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? Micah vi. 8.
I HAVE already shewn the coherence, and distinctly explained the several particulars in the text. It will not be unsuitable to this portion of scripture, if we proceed to consider, in a more general way, the nature, extent, and obligation of virtue. In doing this I shall observe the following method.
I. I will endeavour to shew the nature and extent of virtue, or moral righteousness.
But I do not intend a discourse, or dissertation, upon this subject, containing abstruse and profound noticns, for the entertainment of metaphysical minds, and such as have thought, or read much concerning these matters, and have penetrated far into the speculative points of religion. But my intention is to explain this matter, so far as I am able, in a clear and intelli. gible way, for the sake of meaner capacities, and such as are but little acquainted with these points. · For one main reason of this design is, that I have been apprehensive, that we, in the modern language of our ordinary discourses, frequently using expressions not found in scripture, are not understood by all ; and that, whereas we often lay a much greater stress upon some things than others, when these also are commanded by the Divine Being; the reason of this is not perceived, though such conduct be perfectly agreeable to the scriptures of the Old and New Testament.
My aim therefore is to set this matter in a clear light, in a few words, that we may be the better uöderstood in our ordinary discourses, without repeated explications of the phrases and expressions made use of.
I. I begin with some observations concerning virtue, or moral righteousness.
1. Morality always supposes rational, intelligent, and free beings. In order to any action being morally good or evil, it must be the act of a being capable of distinguishing things, and of choosing or refusing. Such a being, or agent, we suppose man to be. We perceive our. selves to have the powers of thinking, understanding, reasoning, choosing or refusing. And the scripture always supposeth these powers in man. God says to sinful men by his prophets : “ Repent and turn yourselves from all your transgressions : so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed, and make you a new heart, and a new spirit; for why will ye die, O house of Israel ? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God; wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye,” Ezek. xviii. 30-32. And Moses reminded the people, who had been long under his care, and to whom he had with divine authority delivered a system of laws : “ See, I have set before thee life and good, and death and evil I call heaven and earth to witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing : therefore chocse life, that thou mayest live,” Deut. xxx. 15–20. And our Lord said to the Jews, his hearers : “ Ye will not come unto me, that ye might have life," John v. 40..
2. The word, morality, is used in two senses: the one more restrained, the other more comprehensive. In the restrained sense of the word are included sobriety, justice, equity, goodness, and mercy; or the duties more especially respecting ourselves, and other men, our neighbours. In the more enlarged and comprehensive meaning of the word are included not only the duties just mentioned, but likewise the duties owing to God.
This comprehensive sense of these terms and expressions, morality, virtue, moral righteous. ness, as including all the necessary duties of a rational being, I take to be the more proper sense and meaning of the terms, as they are generally used by wise and knowing persons. VOL. V.
I suppose this to be evident from these two considerations : first, that we often speak of the moral perfections of God, as distinguished from natural. And when we do so, by his moral perfections we mean every kind of perfection that is virtuous and righteous, or the whole rectitude of the divine will. Secondly, when we speak of moral righteousness, or obedience to rules of moral virtue, .as distinct from positive appointments, and a ritual, ceremonial righteousness or holiness; we must mean our duty to God, as well as to ourselves and other men: or all virtue, and every duty, which has a foundation in the reason of things.
These two considerations, I think, evidently shew, that this is a common sense of the word. And as the love of God and our neighbour is comprehended in morality, or that which we call moral good, so the contrary is moral evil: living in the neglect of any duty toward God or man, or the transgression of any reasonable law or commandment, regulating and prescribing such duty.
The design of this observation is to shew the sense of some terms and expressions made use of concerning this matter.
We are next to observe the nature of morality: or to shew, wherein moral good, moral righteousness, or virtue consists, and how it may be known and discerned.
3. The things, said to be morally good, are such as are fit and reasonable in themselves, according to the case and circumstances which any being is in, and the relations he bears to others. To mention some instances. It is, and appears to be, fit and reasonable, that a rational and intelligent being should preserve the use and exercise of his rational powers, and not lose the government of himself by excess and intemperance, or by any passions and affections, excited by external things, whether good or evil.
It is also fit and becoming, that rational creatures should, according to their abilities, humbly praise and adore the Author of their being : acknowledging the power, wisdom and goodness, of which they see manifold proofs and traces in themselves, and in all things around them: and that they should be thankful to him for all his benefits, and fear and reverence him, and acquiesce in his disposals.
It is likewise fit and reasonable in itself, that these rational, intelligent beings should bear good will and kind affection to one another : as they all share in the like powers and benefits, and are all exposed to the like casualties, weaknesses, and wants, and are dependent upon each other.
All these things appear on the first view to be fit and reasonable. Moreover moral good and evil are known by their tendencies. All the things just mentioned are beneficial, conducive to the perfection, and the happiness of individuals and societies. And the things contrary to them are, and appear to be evil, inasmuch as they weaken those who allow of them, and are detrimental to others around them."
We may here observe farther, that it is in itself fit and reasonable, that God, the one eternal being, perfect and happy in himself, if he form a world, or worlds of beings, should concern himself for them, provide for them, and overrule and direct all things with wisdom, righteousness and goodness.
Thus then, virtue, or moral righteousness, is, and appears to be, in itself fit and reasonable, and has a tendency to promote the happiness of particular beings, and of societies.
1. This fitness and reasonableness of things is itself an obligation; or lays an obligation upon every rational being by whom it is perceived. For whatever is fit, reasonable, and equitable, must be right, and the contrary wrong. He therefore that does what is fit, reasonable, and equitable, and which he discerns to be right, approves himself, and his conduct, and his satisfaction therein. He that does otherwise, knows he has done wrong: and, if he reflect, will condemn himself.
5. Beside the forementioned obligation, (of intrinsic fitness and reasonableness) there is another, arising from the will of God, the creator and the governor of the universe, and particularly of his rational creatures. These fitnesses of things, before-mentioned, are a rule of action to the Deity himself. And it must be his will, that the fitness, or reason of things should be observed by his rational creatures : or that they should do those things which are conducive to their own, and each other's welfare.
And when it is considered, that moral good is the will of God, and moral evil contrary to his will; even to the will of him who is supreme, and Lord of all; it is reasonable to conclude, that he should bestow rewards or inflict punishments, either now inmediately, or hereafter in some future time, upon those who observe or neglect the reason of things and the welfare of
servants, rich and Doopposing a world, in which thereach other; such and such a
their fellow-creatures : that is, who obèy, or transgress the law of nature : which is also the law of God, the author of nature. . . 6. Virtue, morality, or moral righteousness, is a thing of great extent, comprehending every thing that is in itself fit and reasonable : men's duty to God and to each other: the duties of every relation, and the due regulation of thoughts and affections, as well as outward actions. • For in the more ordinary and just sense of the expression, as before shewn, it takes in every thing that is fit and reasonable: and therefore must include honourable sentiments, as well as outward worship, and reverential expressions concerning the Deity. It requires likewise kind affections, as well as good offices to men. It comprehends not only strict justness, but goodness, and mercy, and equity : yea forgiveness of injuries and offences, when acknowledged. For this also is fit in a world of creatures, that are weak and fallible, and often offend against each other, through mistake, or passion. • This law of nature, or reason, does moreover teach repentance to all those who offend. For, since virtue is right, as before shewn, he who has transgressed, and done what is wrong, must turn from his course, and amend it. It is the only way of becoming good, and of being accepted in the sight of the holy, wise and impartial Sovereign and Judge of all.
7. It is commonly said of the law of nature, that it is of eternal obligation : but yet I would add, that every branch of moral righteousness cannot be practised in every state.
The law of reason, I say, is of eternal obligation : that is, supposing such cases and circumstances, or beings, to bear such and such relations to each other; such and such actions will be always obligatory. Supposing a world, in which there are parents and children, masters and servants, rich and poor, some in prosperous, others in afflictive circumstances, some governors, others governed, and a great variety of other circumstances subsisting: such and such a behaviour toward each other is fit and reasonable. And though there be no such beings, with those several relations; yet it is true, that if there were such beings, such actions would be in themselves fit and reasonable. Nor can any authority dissolve, and set aside their obligation.
Thus these things are of everlasting obligation. But when those relations and circumstances cease, divers branches of duty must cease also. So in a future state of recompense, for such as have been truly and sincerely good in this world, many branches of duty, necessary here, will cease. Where there is perfect holiness, and perfection of happiness, there cannot be the exercise of forgiveness to offenders, nor of mercy to the miserable. Nor will there be room for patience under afflictions, and such like virtues which are necessary in this state of frailty : though still the love of God, and the love of each other, the great and essential virtues with branches suitable to a state of glory and happiness, will be always fit, and reasonable, and incumbent upon every one.
8. The duties of moral obligation are discernible by rational beings with a due exercise of their powers and faculties. For those duties being founded in the powers and circumstances of those very beings themselves, and their relations to each other, and being therefore fit and reasonable in themselves; they may be discerned by such as exercise their reason, and attend to the nature, and circumstances of things.
There may be perplexed cases, when what is duty, what is best and fittest cannot be determined without some difficulty: and the evidence of what is right amounts to no more than probability, or is short of certainty. But the general obligations of virtue, the great branches of duty toward God and men, are discernible by such as think sedately and maturely, as the importance of the thing deserves.
It is reasonable to think it should be so. And the Scriptures teach the same. For St. Paul says: “ Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them: for God has shewed it unto them.” He is speaking of the heathens, who had not the benefit of revelation. « For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and godhead. So that they are without excuse: because that when they knew God, they glorified him not as God; neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened," Rom. i. 19-21. And afterwards : “ For when the gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these having not the law are a law unto themselves : who shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing, or else excusing one another,” ch. ii. 14, 15.
9. We now perceive the difference between moral precepts, and ritual, ceremonial ordinances and appointments. Moral precepts are fit and reasonable in themselves. They are always obligatory, and are discernible by reason. But none of those properties belong to ritual, or cere. monial ordinances, of which there were many in the law of Moses, concerning bodily purifi. cations, certain attendances at Jerusalem, numerous sacrifices, and the like: and under the gospel-dispensation, baptism and the eucharist. To these, I say, do not belong the fore-mentioned properties. They are not fit and reasonable in themselves. They are not always obligatory. They may be set aside, and others appointed in their room. Nor can they be discerned by reason. For their obligation depends upon express or positive appointment. I shall illustrate this by two instances only.
It was fit that the people of Israel should remember, and be thankful for, their deliverance from Egyptian bondage: but the duty to celebrate a memorial of it by eating the paschal lamb, owed all its obligation to divine appointment: and another method of commemorating that deliverance might have been ordained.
So likewise, supposing the coming of Christ, and his teaching in Judea, and dying, as he did, and rising again : this great transaction, and particularly the great event of his death, should be thankfully remembered by his disciples and followers : but the way of commemorating it, by eating bread and drinking wine, is of divine determination, and obligatory only by posi. tive appointment.
10. The duties of morality, or moral righteousness, are taught and learned two ways, by reason and revelation. They are taught by reason, as before shewn, being fit and equitable in themselves, and appearing so to such as exercise their rational faculties. They may be also taught and enforced by revelation : as we know they are in the Old and the New Testament, by Moses and the prophets, by Jesus Christ and his apostles.
11. Though several expressions and phrases, made use of by us in discoursing on these points are different from those which we find in scripture, yet there also the same things are said and taught. . : We do not find in scripture the words morality and immorality, moral good and evil: very seldom that of virtue, never that of vice. These expressions are chiefly taken from Greek and Roman authors: and owe their original and use, in good measure, to the different way of learning these principles, by reason, rather than revelation..
The word virtue is indeed sometimes found in the New Testament; but yet very rarely in the sense we now use it in, for holiness in general, or every branch of good conduct in itself reasonable and excellent. In one place it seems to be so used by St. Paul, in an exhortation to the Philippians: “ If there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things,” Philip. iv. 8. As if he had said : and whatever else is virtuous, really good and excellent, and praise-worthy, think of it, and attend to it.
And St. Peter in his first epistle: “ But ye are a chosen generation, a peculiar people, that you should shew forth the praises,” literally, virtues, “ of him, who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light,” i Pet. ii. 9. But though the original word signifies, literally, virtues; it does not exactly answer to our use of it: and seems to be well enough rendered in our translation, praises. . Again, in the second epistle of the same apostle through the knowledge of him who has called us to glory and virtue," 2 Pet. i. 3.' But this text would be more properly rendered : “ through the knowledge of him who has called us by glory and power, or by his glorious power. Here virtue is equivalent to power. And the meaning is, that God had brought us to partake in the privileges of his church by a glorious display and manifestation of his power in supporting and spreading the gospel.
Once more, in the same context : “ And beside these, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge,” ver. 5. “But here it is evident, that virtue does not signify all virtuous conduct in general, but is put for some one virtue, or good disposition only. It seems to be used in the restrained sense of fortitude, courage, or resolution in the profession of the truth.
There is therefore scarce any text in the New Testament, where the word virtue is used in the general sense, of whatever is virtuous, and excellent, or in itself reasonable ; except that one place of St. Paul, before cited from the epistle to the Philippians..
But though several terms and phrases, now used by us in speaking of these matters, are not found in scripture, the same things are there said, and there are equivalent expressions. Righteousness sometimes includes both justice and goodness, and even piety likewise. And then it is the same as virtue, or morality, or moral righteousness. Says the Psalmist : -- A little that a righteous man has,” that is, a good, or virtuous man, « is better than the riches of many wicked,” Ps. xxxvii. 16. And, “ the righteous Lord loveth righteousness : his countenance does behold the upright," Ps. xi. 7. And in the like manner, very often.
And though we do not find the words virtue and vice, moral good and evil : yet the scripture often speaks of good and evil, such good and evil as are really and intrinsically so: by which the characters of men are distinguished, rather than by the observation of any positive appointments and ritual ordinances. « To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices, saith the Lord- Bring no more vain oblations : incense is an abomination unto me- Wash you, make ye clean. Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do well- Seek judgment, relieve the oppressed.” Is. i. 11, 17. In another place: “ Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter," İs. v. 23. Our text speaks of justice, mercy and piety, as good: that is, intrinsically so; good, in a superior degree to all the sacrifices and oblations before-mentioned
The design of the gospel dispensation is represented after this manner: “ that we being delivered out of the hands of our enemies might serve him without fear, : in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life,” Luke i. 74, 75. In holiness and righteousness, that is, in a righteous holiness : as kingdom and glory is glorious kingdom : life and immortality is immortal life. So here, holiness and righteousness is a righteous holiness or sanctity: or in modern language, the practice of virtue, or moral righteousness. For there is a ritual, ceremonial, legal holiness or sanctity, consisting in a conformity to ritual precepts, the ordinances and appoint. ments of positive law. But the design of the coming of Christ is here, agreeably to innumerable other texts of the New Testament, represented to be, that we might serve God in a righteous sanctity, or the practice of real holiness. There is a like expression in the epistle to the Ephesians : “ That ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness,” Eph. iv. 24.
And by the prophets, men were often called upon in such expressions as these : “ Amend your ways and your doings,” Jer. vii. 3; and, “ Return now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good,” ch. xviii. 11, and, “ Amend now your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God," ch. xxvi. 13. Which is exactly the same as that they should amend their manners, and return to the sincere practice of virtue, or moral righteousness.
Though therefore we do not find in the scripture all the same words and phrases which are now frequently made use of by us in treating on this subject : yet the same things are there said, and there are also equivalent, or like expressions with those made use of in modern language.
THE NATURE, EXCELLENCE, AND IMPORTANCE OF MORAL RIGHTEOUSNESS.
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good. And what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do
justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? Micah vi. 8.
Having explained these words, I endeavoured in a late discourse, to shew in several propositions the nature and extent of virtue, or moral righteousness.
II. I am now to shew the excellence and importance of virtue, or righteousness and true holiness.