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1. TO EXPLAIN THE NATURE AND ILLUSTRATE THE IMPORTANCE OF CORRECT APPREHENSIONS OF THE CHARACTER OF GOD; AND,
II. ADVERT TO SOME EXISTING SOURCES OF ERROR, MISTAKE, AND IMPERFECTION ON THIS SUBJECT.
Correct views of the divine character, are such as imply a harmóny or agreement between those representations of what Jehovah is, and what he is not, which his revealed word contains, and which his works of creation, providence, and grace, serve to illustrate, and those ideas of him which exist in the mind. This harmony necessarily implies, (as truth when rightly apprehended and believed is in its own nature operative,) that, in point of fact, just impressions of God's character, are such, and such only, as do produce in the mind, in comparison to all other and less correct ones, the strongest convictions of the power, wisdom, purity, goodness, and justice of God; of the essential and incomprehensible excellence, and rectitude of his nature; such as produce the strongest emotions of admiration, gratitude, and love, in the heart; and, as an established consequence, such as are connected with the actual production of the highest degrees of inherent purity, practical holiness, and active benevolence. Without stopping to inquire how far just ideas of any of the divine perfections can exist as mere matters of theological science in unrenewed minds; or to inquire into the nature of that direct operation of the Holy Spirit on the powers of the soul, in consequence of which it possesses those right desires and affections that fit it to receive from the Word of Life just, and pure, and delightful apprehensions of the divine character, it is sufficient to say, that to the instrumentality of the word, and the efficiency of the Spirit, operating upon perceptive and rational beings, we refer the actual existence among men of all true and sanctified knowledge of God. When a heart before totally depraved, is prepared by the Spirit for the reception of spiritual and holy impressions, and is supernaturally illuminated to perceive the real glories of the divine character, as presented in his word and in his works, the invariable consequence of such perception will be, to make the mind itself most active in entertaining these bright and cheering manifestations of God, in being humbled in the comparison of its own darkness and impurity and nothingness with Him, and in yielding itself up to those varied impressions, by which the Holy Spirit thus sanctifies the “inner man,” and forms and moulds it into the divine likeness.
In thus making every act and instance of misbelief in respect to the divine character to be a crime, because it weakens the strength of grace, or augments the power of sin, and in tracing the existence in the mind of such apprehensions of God as are really though imperfectly just and true, to the sovereign act of the Spirit, and their gradual improvement to the concurrence of human with divine agency, we but give a rational and scriptural extent to man's moral responsibility, and but a natural and necessary view of human dependence. That in every act of reasoning and judging of the character and will of God, a right state of the temper and affections of the heart should be imperiously demanded, and that the use of the sacred writings, and all the means of grace, should be attended with a felt conviction that God alone can make them quick and powerful, seem to be just that aspect of the subject which is fitted to put sinful men into the true paths of sacred knowledge, and to urge them forward in it with the most wakeful interest. In his “ lively Oracles,” Jehovah speaks in the language of mortals; and, that the essential elements of instruction contained in this unerring and venerated book may be easily apprehended, the unlearned inquirer is assured that the obvious meaning of the text, in every duly accredited version of the Holy Scriptures, is, for the most part, the real and true and only one: and therefore the most material thing to him is, that an honest and conscientious application of his mind should be joined with earnest prayer for the aids of the Holy Spirit. And how necessary to humble the pride of genius and of learning is it to assure the profoundest theological and biblical scholars, and the ablest minds, that to see and know the true character of God as unfolded in the scriptures, though it be one of the first and simplest of duties, is a thing which depends infinitely more upon an unbiassed and spiritual mind, and a felt dependence on the Spirit, than the best researches of learning or the most ingenious forms of philosophical reasoning? How otherwise can a conscientious feeling of responsibility for the due exercise of human reason, in searching the sacred scriptures after a just knowledge of the divine character, be secured? Its vast necessity may be shown by the mention of a few particulars. To the natural feelings of mankind, some of the attributes of God are more agreeable than others, and the natural less oppressive to human guilt and corruption than the moral. But how can man obtain a just idea of the character of God, if he does not give in his own mind just that degree of importance to each perfection which it receives in the bible, and if his mind does not recognize the fact that the divine word makes the glory of God pre-eminently to consist in the lustre and plenitude of his moral attributes; and in those very manifestations of holiness, which produce the greatest aversion to Him in sinful beings?
Human pride and carnal wisdom, are especially opposed to the acknowledgment of principles which are incomprehensible to reason; and yet to know the divine character at all, man must perceive in this book that the adorable mystery of a Trinity in unity, and now the further mystery of the hypostatical union of Deity and humanity in the person of Jehovah-Jesus, constitute prominent and indispensable facts in the mode of divine existence, not so much perhaps from the frequency with which these facts are directly recognized, as the dependence of almost every part of the bible upon them, and their inseparable connection with all the glories of grace and redemption, and all those operations of a quickening Spirit without which the bio ble is a dead letter, and the gospel powerless. He must also learn from the varied representations of this unerring volume, that there is such a union and oneness in the attributes of this most pure, indivisible, and almighty Being, that those which to an unenlightened mind would seem most opposite and contrary, are each necessary to the highest perfection of the other.
As the divine word makes known to us the Father of lights chiefly by facts actually developing his perfections, should he not thence learn that as the religion of men must be an active principle, the internal experience of its transforming power and the outward display of its controlling influence and its heavenly temper, claim a pre-eminence above a verbal acknowledgment of its principles, or an attention to its visible ordinances. And yet unless he feels that while he reads or listens, the eye of that Spirit is upon him, who is likely to use the word as the instrument of setting the true character of God before him, just in proportion as he is sincere and humble and prayerful, how can he be expected to look after the spirituality of truth, and honestly separate in his ideas of God whatever of human mutability, weakness, and imperfection, seem to be appropriated to him in those cases in which the bible, in adapting its language to human infirmity, applies to him those feelings of sorrow, of anger, &c., which in the same circumstances exist in the minds of men. The peculiar impor. tance of right views of the character of God appears not only from the necessity, in all the pursuits of religion, of such a state of mind as it thus produces, but from every view of its connection with other things.
The spirituality and efficacy of men's attention to the public and private duties and devotions of religion, materially depend upon their ideas of the divine character. The solemnity and earnestness with which they read their bibles, hear the preached word, and examine their own hearts; and the measure of the disentanglement of their affections from the world; the extent of their active benevolence; their self-denial; and the degree of penitence, humility and fervor with which they draw near to God, will all have a direct relation to their views of Him.
The sovereign power of conscience, in enforcing the moral and relative duties of life, in sustaining inviolable truth, integrity, and justice between man and man, and subjecting the appetites and passions to the control of reason, depends upon this.
The law of God is but a verbal system of very practicable duties, a code entirely nugatory and powerless, as it respects the heart, until its meaning and its glory are unfolded to the eye of the astonished and despairing sinner, through the exhibition of the true character of Him who made it; and then the language of Job, and David, and Isaiah, of the prodigal and the publican, become the dispassionate words of truth and soberness.
Never do just impressions of the glory of the gospel; of the infinite love of God to man, in the gift of his Son; the incomprehensible love of the eternal Son, in undertaking the work of redemption and appcaring in this sinful, ruined, benighted world as a man of sorrows, and a victim of persecution, obloquy, and death; the long-suffering patience of that injured Father and insulted Sovereign, to sinful worms; or his untiring and unwearied goodness, as the bountiful
Preserver of his creatures, exist in the minds of men, till a correct É idea of Jehovah, his independence, his utter contrariety to all sin, and
the nothingness of mortals to Him, arises to their view; and then the wonders of redeeming love, and the glory of the cross, seem but feebly foreshown in the fervent expressions of the evangelic prophet, and imperfectly apprehended by the ardent apostle. How can the soul be struck with a sense of the sinfulness of sin, and of its own wickedness, but as it rightly apprehends the true character of God; and what will determine the measure of the love and gratitude and trust of the saints, but their knowledge of what he really is? How is the mind of the Christian brought, amidst the chafing of disappointment and the sadness and gloom of deep affliction, to yield up all its choice sweetly to the will of God, and become calm and resigned and happy in him, but as, like Job, its “ eye seeth hint" as the steady friend of the soul, who in the act of thus refining in the fire those whom he loves, gives the sincerest token of his affection? Now just in proportion as men's ideas of God's character are wrong or defective, will the effect in all these and various other respects appear in a criminal deficiency, or in an utter and fatal delinquency, A presumptuous levity and irreverence will attend their devotions; a light and vain and self-conceited spirit will be brought to the act of communing with the word; a bold, and unsober and unawed use of the sacred writings; and a flippant and noisy and incautious development of new views and fanciful interpretations, will occur; or a cold, philosophical meaning be fastened upon the sacred page. A vain, ostentatious display of zeal, of impulses, and a morbid sensibility; or a cold, heartless, and superficial observance of the customary forms of religion, will proclaim the prevailing misapprehension of the character of the ever-blessed God. Morals will decline; professing Christians will come to their duties with reluctance; they will oppose sin with hesitation and irresolution; they will give with a reluctant, scanty hand, and pray with a cold, divided heart, making all their service a forced work, a matter of cold calculation; Or, under disproportionate and fallacious impressions respecting the divine character and will, they will unfold such inequalities and obliquities, such palpable neglects and such unequal impulses, as make the practical manifestations of Christianity no better than in the former case.
Under these fatal misapprehensions of God, the world of unconverted men, go on in error and transgression, ever sinking deeper in guilt and ruin. As they know not Him, his law and his gospel are alike misunderstood. One, as a victim of superstition, sufiers deep remorse and mental anguish, for an imaginary sin, while no compunction is felt for a real one. Another hopes to compensate the justice of heaven for one class of delinquencies, by the superabundance of a corresponding list of virtues. One, indulges in self-complacency and self-approbation, where there is no show of virtue or of goodness; and another, experiences no remorse amidst the darkest shades of moral delinquency.
Who can cast his eye over the very purest and loveliest portions of Messiah's empire on earth, and not recognize in a thousand forms of personal and social and relative duty; in the current maxims, and standards of society, and in men's practical expositions of what they conceive to be the mind of God, the mournful proofs of the tendency of the understanding and the heart of man to misapprehend the divine character?
With this solemn exhibition of the importance of the duty, and the difficulties and dangers with which it is connected, having the word of God and its appointed ordinances; and the assurance that if you lay your help on the arm of the Lord, the Spirit will descend and overshadow you, you are each placed, my hearers, under the injunction of becoming truly and savingly acquainted with the true character of the God of heaven. As the prospect of your conversion as sinners, and the measure of your growth in holiness as Christians, depend pre-eminently upon yielding up your souls to the pure and powerful manifestations of his character which shine around you; so in a matter of this eternal moment, the utmost sincerity and earnestness are immediately and at all times imperiously demanded. But can we possess no internal evidence that certain impressions, certain views of the divine character, are more just, more accordant with the bible than others? Doubtless we may; and, I observe,
1. That correct ideas of God are such as exist in the mind in its best and most spiritual frames, such as seem most repugnant to sinful, carnal nature, such as give the deepest permanent convictions of the worth and immensity of his love, and the fearfulness of his anger.
2. Correct ideas of God's character are such as impress the mind with the deepest humility and sense of entire dependence upon him; and therefore those views of human ability which seem to put the grace and salvation of God into the hands of men, instead of leaving guilty man in the hands of God, though they may appear to be more productive of effort in the sinner, are to be avoided as calculated to foster a spirit of pride and self-sufficiency.
3. Just views of the divine character are such as auaken in the mind of man the most anzious solicitude and concern, to do immediately whatever He requires, and to become what he demands; and therefore the accuracy of those views of the nature of the coincidence of human with divine agency, are to be suspected, which do not practically illustrate the results of truth; and the genuineness of that repentance and love to God, and joy in the Holy Ghost is to be doubted, which is not actually followed by a corresponding sanctification of the heart and life.