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ON THE DIVINE GOODNESS.
1 JOHN IV. 8.
He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love.
WHAT is God? is the first question in
religion, natural and revealed. Until this is rightly answered and understood, nothing can be known, as it ought to be, respecting the duty or happiness of man. We can neither know when we please God, nor why we are under obligation to fear and serve him, nor the ground we have to hope and trust in him, unless we first know what we are to believe concerning him. And yet this is a question on which, more than almost any other, men have always been bewildered in ignorance and error.
The heathen nations of old, who groped in the dim light of nature, even the most learned of them, had gods many; and strange gods. They worshipped stocks and stones, birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping thing. And to their celestial divinitiesthe greatest and best of them, they ascribed weaknesses and vices, animosities and contentions, similar to those among miserable and depraved mortals. After a fair and full trial of human reason, in matters of religion, "The world by wisdom knew not God."
And among those favored with the light of Revelation, there have ever been, and still are, extremely different opinions, concerning the nature and attributes of the Supreme Being: Some seem to think that God is so all-mercy, as to have no justice for men to fear while others are thought to hold, that, toward multitudes of the noblest orders of his creatures, he is altogether unmerciful.
Now, amidst such diversity of sentiments, on this fundamental article of our theological creed, it surely concerns us to improve with carefulness, the means of information afforded us upon-it, lest we should be "ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
That God is a being of infinite justice, faithfulness, and mercy; as well as an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and immutable Being, we are abundantly taught in the holy scriptures. But the most concise, the most comprehensive, and, I apprehend, the most determinate idea of the divine nature, any where given us, is this in our text: God is love.
I shall inquire how this is to be understood; and the grounds we have to believe that it is true: after which, some attention will be paid to the former part of the verse.
I. How we are to understand this, That God is love, I shall inquire, and endeavor briefly to explain.
By love, must here be meant benevolence; as no one will be at any loss, who attends to the connection. This is the kind of love, no doubt, to which christians are exhorted in the verse before; "Beloved, let us love one another." And this, certainly, is the kind of love which God manifested towards us, in sending his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him, spoken of in the verse after our text. More particularly, then,
1. By its being said, God is love, unquestionably, we are to understand, that he is a being of most perfect universal benevolence. This is a doctrine plainly taught in other places of scripture. That the benevolence of God extends to every living creature, see Psal. cxlv. 9, "The Lord is good to all; and his tender mercies are over all his works." That he is kind to the unthankful, and the evil, is observed by our Saviour, Luke vi. 35. See also the words of the apostle, Rom. v. 8, "But God commendeth his love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." And ver. 10," When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son." That the divine goodness takes care of the most inconsiderable creatures, see Luke xii. 6, "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings? and not one of them is forgotten before God."
Perfect benevolence of nature, is a disposition to promote every real good, of every one, in proportion to its importance, as far as will consist with the rights of others, and with the greatest general good. And that such is the benevolence of God, the scriptures plainly teach us to believe. But,
2. By its being said, "God is love," seems to be meant, that all his moral perfections are comprehended in benevolence. The manner of expression is singular. It is not asserted merely that God is loving, kind, or good; as elsewhere he is said to be just, true and merciful; but that he is love itself-love in the abstract. The most obvious meaning of which appears to be, that his nature is all benevolence. That every feeling of his heart arises from this; and that all his works and ways are resolvable into this, as their source and centre; their first cause, and last end.
II. We will now consider, the ground there is to believe, that God is thus love. And,
1. From the works of creation and Providence, which come within our own view and observation, there is great reason to conclude, that the Author and Governor of the world, is a most benevolent being.
This, at least, appears to have been the opinion of holy men of old, who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. Paul and Barnabas, exhorting the men of Lystra to turn from pagan idols, to serve the living God, that made heaven and earth; who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways, tell them, Acts xiv. 17, "Nevertheless, he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons.". Left not himself without witness of what? Of his goodness, as well as of his existence, is most evidently meant. So in the first chapter of Romans, speaking of heathen nations, which had only the light of nature, the apostle says, "That which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath shewed it unto them. 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 God-head: so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful.". It is here plainly supposed, that these Gentiles had sufficient evidence set before them in the works of creation, had they duly attended to it, to have covinced them, not only of the being and power of God, but also of his goodness. For, otherwise, how could they have been without excuse, in not glorifying him as God, or in not being thankful to him? One entitled to our gratitude, or worthy to be glorified, must be good, and not merely great.
David, likewise, long before, appears to have been of opinion that God's moral perfections, and particularly his goodness, might be learnt from his works, were men disposed to pay a proper attention to them,
and willing to believe the truth. He says, Psal. xix. 1-4, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handy work: Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world."
But can the glory of God be thus declared, when no convincing evidence is given of his goodness? Can one who is not good, however infinite his understanding and power, be a glorious being? But in another Psalm, it is said expressly, "The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord." And in another, "O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom thou hast made them all: the earth is full of thy riches. So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great.These all wait upon thee, that thou mayest give them their meat in due season. That thou givest them they gather thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.'
And if we attentively consider the various capacities of animals, and more especially of mankind, for usefulness and enjoyment; and what suitable provision is every where made for their support and comfort, must we not be forcibly struck with the evidence thence arising, that the Creator and Preserver of all is a benevolent being?
It is true, we observe and experience a great deal of evil. But then, in many instances, we easily see that evil is the occasion of good; and good which we know not how it could have been brought about so well, if at all, in any other way. Generally, benevolent design is apparent through the works of creation and Providence. And though there be some creatures and events which have a contrary appearance, or which seem designed for doing hurt rather than good; yet this may well be imputed to our