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Where there has been nothing of this knowledge, mankind have almost lost their superior rank among the creatures, and degenerated into a brutal nature.
3. This natural knowledge of God and his goodness, "Gives some encouragement to guilty creatures to repent of their sins, and to return to God by a general hope of acceptance, though they had no promise of pardoning grace. And this was the very principle upon which some of the better sort of the gentiles set themselves to practise virtue, and to worship God and endeavour to become like him*.
4. This natural knowledge of God which is attainable by the light of nature, serves to vindicate the conduct of God, as a righteous governor in his severe dealings with obstinate and wilful sinners both here and hereafter. This will leave them without excuse in the great day, when God shall judge the secrets of all hearts. Their own consciences will accuse them, and bear witness against them. Rom. i. 20, 21. and ii. 15. Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance on such sinners? God forbid, for how then
I do not say that natural religion can give sinful men a full and satisfying assurance of pardon upon their repentance; for the deepest degrees of penitence cannot oblige a prince to forgive the criminal; but still the overflowing goodness of God, his patience and long-suffering, notwithstanding their sins, may evidently and justly excite in their bearts some hope of forgiving grace: and I think the words of my text cannot intend less than this, that God has not left them without witness, when he gave them rain from heaven, when he satisfied their appetites with food, and filled their hearts with gladness. What was it that these benefits of their Creator bore witness to? Was it not that there was goodness and mercy to be found with him, if they would return to their duty, and abandon their own ways of idolatry and vice. Surely, it can never be supposed, that the apostle here means no more than to say, that the daily instances of divine bounty in the common comforts of life assured them, that God had some goodness in him, and blessings to bestow on their bodies, but gave them no hope of his acceptance of their souls, if they should return and repent never so sincerely. The Ninevites themselves, when threatened with destruction repented in suckcloth and ashes; for, said they, who can tell but God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? Nor were they mistaken in their hope; for God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way, and he repented of the evil that he had threatened; Jonah ii. 5-10. And there is yet a more express text to this purpose; Rom. ii. 4. Despisest thou the riches of his goodness, and forbearance, and long suffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? And if God leads us to repentance, by a sense of his goodness, surely he gives hope that our repentance shall not be in vain and though, perhaps, I could not affirm it with boldness, and certainty by mere light of reason, yet I may venture to declare, upon the encouragement of these scriptures, that if there should be found any sinner in the heathen world, who shall be thus far wrought upon by a sense of the goodness of God, as to be led sincerely to repent of sin, and seek after mercy, God would find a way to make a discovery of so much of the gospel, as was necessary for him to know, rather than such a penitent sinner should be left under condemnation, or that a guilty creature should go on to eternal death in the way of repentance. Cornelius, the centurion, who feared God, who prayed to him daily, and wrought righteousness, according to the light of his conscience, had both an augel and an apostle sent to him that he might receive more complete instruction in the matters of his salvation, Acts x. 1-6. and from 30-35.
shall he judge the world; Rom. iii. 5, 6. As there have been many instances of a righteous providence in the present life whereby the great God has already revealed his wrath from heaven against the unrighteousness and ungodliness of the heathen world; Rom. i. 18. So in the world to come not one condemned sinner shall be able to say God is unjust: Every mouth shall be stopped, and the heavens and the earth proclaim his righteousness, when he shall appear in his Son Jesus at the last day, as the judge of all mankind.
5. This knowledge of God by natural light prepares the way for preaching and receiving the gospel of his grace: and that he doth many ways, viz. Unless men are first acquainted that there is a God who can make known his mind and will to men, what ground is there for preaching any discoveries of his mind and will amongst them? Unless the heathens are taught that he is a God of all knowledge and cannot be deceived himself; and that he is kind and good, true and faithful, and will not deceive his creatures, how can they be persuaded to believe what he reveals? Unless they are instructed by the light of reason that he is an Almighty God and the Lord of Nature, how can any miracle give testimony to the truth of what he reveals? For it is as the Sovereign Lord of nature that he sets the seal of a miracle to his divine truths; a miracle which is above the power of nature to work.
Again, when sinners, by the light and law of nature in their own consciences are laid under conviction of sin and guilt, and they are in fear of the wrath of God, they become more ready to receive the gospel of pardon and salvation as glad tidings from heaven.
We see the great apostle St. Paul wisely managing his ministry to the Athenians, of which we have but short hints in Acts xvii. 22-30. By discoursing first on natural religion, he comes at last to awaken men to repentance, and preaches Jesus with the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment; verse 31. And agreeably to this method of propagating the gospel among the heathen nations, we find, in fact, that where there was any thing of the knowledge of the true God, either by the light of nature, or by tradition, there the gospel was soonest received; the minds of men were better fitted and prepared for faith in Christ, the Son of God, by this degree of knowledge of God the Father. Those who in the book of the Acts are styled the devout persons, are such as feared God, they acknowledged the one living and true God, and worshipped him; and they much more readily complied with the gospel of grace, and the tidings of a Saviour, than the idolaters who had these other lessons to learn first. Thus having shewn the various uses
of this knowledge of God by the light of nature, I proceed in the third place to consider, what are the defects or imperfections of it.
1. "It is but a small portion of the things of God, which the bulk of mankind can generally be supposed to learn merely by their own reasonings." This is sufficiently evident by the history of past times and ancient nations, as well as by present observation of the heathen world. Though some of the philosophers, particularly the followers of Plato and Pythagoras, attained some considerable knowledge of the nature of God, and clearly saw his eternal power and godhead, as it is expressed Rom. i. 20. yet these were but very few in comparison of the rest of men; the bulk of mankind, even in the learned nations, as well as the rude and barbarous countries, did actually know but little of the true God, or of their duty towards him, or the way of obtaining future happiness.
2. The light of nature even in those things which it did teach the heathen world, is but dim and feeble, and leaves mankind under many doubts and uncertainties in matters of considerable importance. A short lesson of knowledge in the heathen schools was obtained with long toil and difficulty; their philosophy was rather a feeling after God in the dark, than a sight of him in day light: so the apostle expresses himself, when he is talking to the Athenians, who were the most learned of mankind; Acts xvii. 27. That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him and find him. What feeble words are these? How doubtful a knowledge is represented by them? How wretchedly did their wise men wander astray and bewilder themselves in their dark and blundering searches after the true God: What endless contests are found amongst them, whether there was a God, and what was his nature, and what was his will, and what was their duty? Into what gross mistakes and shameful falsehoods did they plunge themselves, for want of a better guide than their own reasonings? and how generally, and almost without exception, did their philosophers comply with the idolatry of their country, and worshipped God in the form of beasts and birds, and creeping things and changed the truth of God into a lie: or the true God into false and shameful images; Rom. i. 23—25.
Sometimes appetite and passion, pride and humour spread a mist over the understanding of the heathen; sometimes the customs and traditions of their nation, the authority of their ances tors, or their philosophers, or their own vile prejudices, of various kinds, gave them a false clue, and set them a running upon a wrong scent: In other places, the tyranny of their princes, and the folly and superstitious madness of their priests, either led, or
drove them far away from the truth. What shameful vices were authorised by some of their great men? Theft, in some places was commended as a feat of dexterity, and revenge as a point of honour; while public robberies of nations were the glory of their heroes. The murder and ravage of whole countries, were allowed for the enlargement of their dominions, and the blood of kingdoms was made an offering to the ambition of neighbouring kings. In some countries, the youth and flower of conquering nations were doomed a sacrifice to their idols; and sometimes filthy and abominable lewdness were the ceremonies of their worship. How blind was the eye of their reason, not to see this madness? And how feeble its power, that it made no remonstrances against these lewd and bloody scenes of tended piety?
All these instances indeed do not effectually prove, that reason could not possibly teach them better; but the experience of long ages, and of whole nations, sufficiently shew us, that their reason neither did inform them better, nor was ever likely to do it. Even the best of the philosophers could give us but a sorry system of religion compared with our bible; so that St. Paul roundly expresses it; 1 Cor. i. 21. The world by wisdom
knew not God.
3. "All the knowledge of God which they arrived at, by the light of nature, had actually but little influence to reform the hearts, or the lives of mankind." I say, it had but little influence in comparison of what it might, or should have had; for this knowledge of God, which was attained by their own reason, suffered the Gentile nations to walk in their own ways, as my text expresseth it; Acts xiv. 16. Wretched and perverse ways of idolatry and mad superstition, with regard to God, and falsehood, treachery, hatred, malice, and envy, towards their fellow-creatures. See the iniquities numbered up in a large and detestable catalogue; Rom. i. 23-32. The histories of the heathen world confirm these dismal accounts given us by the sacred writers, and enforce the charge upon them with abundant proof. And it is no wonder at all, that this knowledge had so little influence on the generality of mankind, when so few of them ever attained it, when it was so imperfect as to the discoveries of it, and so dim and feeble in its evidences. It came into their heads a little, but it reached not to their hearts or if it did touch them, it was but feebly, and with very small authority, and was not enforced upon the conscience with, Thus saith the Lord. A single sentence, with this preface, has vastly greater power on the hearts and consciences of men, than whole volumes of their dark uncertain reasonings.
4. This knowledge of God by the light nature, “doth
father serve to shew men their sin and misery, than discover any effectual relief;" and in this respect, it comes infinitely short of what the revelation of the gospel of Christ has done. It lays them under guilt and a sentence of death in their own consciences; but it discovers not the plain and certain way of salvation and life: The hope that it gives is but feeble, and there are but few who could spell it out*.
Thus I have finished the three general heads of my discourse. I have shewn you as fully as such a narrow space of time would permit, that there is some knowledge of God to be attained by the light of nature, that this knowledge is made subservient to some valuable purposes in the providence and government of God; but that it hath such a variety of imperfections and defects, that considered in itself, it gives but feeble influences to repen tance and holiness, and very doubtful and uncomfortable ground
* This might be exemplified in several particulars. The light of nature of itself gives no assurance of forgiveness to the repenting sinner; for the repentance of men is no compensation to a holy God, to God as a Governor of the world for their perpetual rebellions against his laws, and the daily dishonour done to bis authority. Such knowledge as the Ninevites had. Jonah ii. 9. when they said, "Who can tell but the Lord may turn away from his fierce anger ?" is but a feeble motive to repentance and new obedience in comparison of such a word from God himself; as Ex. xxxiv. 6. 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,-forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin. Prov. xxviii. 13. He that confesseth and forsaketh his sins shall find mercy.
The light of nature discovers no effectual atonement for sin, nor relief to a guilty conscience by all the costly sacrifices and blood of animals; but the gospel points us to the "Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world," and assures us that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son, cleanseth us from all unrighteousness; John i. 22. and I John i. 7-9. The light of nature points us to no effectual Mediator, or Advocate in heaven; but the Gospel leads us to Jesus the righteous, as our Advocate with the Father, and by pardoning grace encourages us to love and obey a reconciled God; 1 John ii. 1, 2, The light of nature and our daily experience discover to us our weakness to subdue sin within us, to restrain our unruly appetites, to mortify our corrupt affections, to resist the daily temptations that surround us; but it points as not to the Fountain of Strength, even the promised aids of the Holy Spririt; these are the peculiar glories and blessings of the gospel of Christ which the light of nature could never reveal.
The light of nature and continual observation shew us that we must dié, bat give us no clear and certain evidence of happiness after death, for such sinful creatures as we are, even in the midst of our repentances: for since our daily sins and offences are so numerous, and the best of our righteousnesses and duties are so very defective, the man of virtue and penitence might hope indeed to escape punishment; but he might well doubt of any future happiness, notwithstanding all the comfort the light of nature could give him, or all the discoveries it could make. But the gospel sets these future glories in a divine and certain light before every man who reads or hears it. It encourages us to repentance of sin, to diligence, patience and perseverance in the ways of faith and holiness, by the joys unspeakable, which are set before us, and builds our hope of eternal life on the well-attested promises of a God who cannot lie, and the Son of God who has power given him to perform them all,