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MATTHEW V. 48. “ Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven
It has been sometimes thought, that the Scriptures contain a system of morals and religion, too perfect for our nature. Thence an argument has been deduced, that they could not have been derived from Heaven; as it is said, that it would be, in a proper sense, unreasonable for us, to be expected and commanded, to do that which is impracticable. Our Lord, in his Sermon on the Mount, certainly lays down a very strict standard of duty to his disciples. And he not unfrequently refers in one way or another to the perfection of God himself, for illustration of the sense in which he would be understood, and to enforce the authority and responsibility under which we lie for its fulfilment. It is the opinion of Bishop Sherlock, that the words of
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect,” are to be limited in their application to the particular virtue which our Lord had just explained and inculcated. “ Ye have heard that it “chath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate “thine enemy. But I say unto you, love your enemies; “bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate “you; and pray for them who despitefully use you and per. "secute you.” And after some further illustration and motive, he says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your “ Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” That is, let your love be comprehensive of all, as that of God is; and let it not be confined to a few only.
It is probable that the text may have been intended to have a particular bearing upon the charity which he had just explained. It is remarkable, however, that Christ, through the whole of this discourse, which will be said to be far above what man ever taught, or would have considered himself safe in teaching, exhibits to us a perfection truly divine. This is seen in the beatitudes first pronounced; in such a practice and profession of the Gospel, as should be a light to the world ; in the fulness and completion of the law; in the spirituality and extent of it, against murder, adultery, false witness, and revenge. The same wonderful perfection, which strikes us as soon as uttered by him, but which none else would have ventured to enforce, appears also in the precepts respecting alms, prayer, forgiveness of trespasses, fasting, and in his remarks respecting the treasures of this earth, the pervert. ing influence of these, and of a corrupt nature upon our judgments, set forth by the sound and disordered eye ; in the supreme love of God, in resignation to his will, in trusting to his goodness, and in that cheerful spirit which denies itself to anxious and disqualifying cares about future evils. Lastly, the same perfection also runs through his other directions respecting our judgments upon others and ourselves, prudence in avoiding offences, importunity and filial trust in making known our requests to God, an unyielding purpose to shun the road of death though strowed with pleasures; and to chuse truth and life though it should place us alone, or among a number that should seem as nothing in comparison with a count. less throng; in the knowledge of the tree by its fruits and finally in the principles upon which men shall sink
under condemnation, or rise to eternal life in the day of judgment. If any one will attentively read over any of these rules of righteousness, purity and love, enjoined upon those who would be his followers and subjects, he will scarcely fail to say, as Jesus himself signified on another occasion—“ Truly these are the laws of a kingdom which is not of this world.” The language of them all, and not that only which explains the nature and extent of charity, seems to be, “ Be ye perfect, even as your Father who is in Heaven is perfect.” It is true, some of these laws relate to properties in our nature, and to objects, in respect to which we cannot be supposed to have any resemblance to the attributes or dispositions of the divine nature. But it will, probably, nay, assuredly be found upon thorough examination, with experience and undiverted reason for our guides, that there is not a precept given by Christ, which is not indispensable to the perfection and maintenance of those virtues in us, which correspond to the divine attributes. This might be shown in regard to all the particulars; but it will be sufficient to remark, with respect to the law of chastity, which may seem least of all to have a reference to any perfection in God, that the observance of it, is most intimately united with the purity, and with the worth and enjoyment of every virtue in the mind and in the heart. .
Though it were supposed, then, that the text was enjoined by Christ, with immediate and primary application to our charity, to illustrate its comprehensiveness; yet, by the unqualified terms in which every command is delivered, showing us the most consummate perfection in all things, were it construed with a reference to all the other principles and doctrines he inculcates, we should only apply to them in a single expression, that which is
As conspicuously intended in the exposition of each, to any argument respecting a supposed unreasonableness
in the Gospel, in demanding absolute perfection of such beings as we are, an extension of the construction to the whole of christian virtue has the same effect, as if it be confined to a single one ; since it would be as unreason. able to require of us, a divine perfectness in one, as in all, upon the principle on :vhich such an objection proceeds.
It shall be my object in this discourse to show, that the law of our duty given us in the Scriptures, is perfect without abatement or qualification. In doing this, I shall first take notice of some apparent difficulties, which may furnish objections to the doctrine; and then show the method of the Scriptures in removing these difficulties.
First-I am to take notice of some difficulties apparently furnishing objections to our being placed under a perfect law of righteousness.
It is objected, that if we be subject to much infirmity, and corrupt by nature, as the Scriptures declare, and as we shall acknowledge, it is implied, that we cannot fulfil a perfect law of charity, of justice, of self control, of purity from all mixture of sin, in thought, word, and action. And it cannot be rationally supposed, that God will command us to do that, which, in a strict sense, is to us impracticable. This, I believe, is the difficulty in its full force. From this, different persons would draw different conclusions. Some would say, that we are not to consider Christ, as actually intending to be understood, in the full sense of his expressions; but only so far as our infirmity, and inevitable sinfulness, will permit us to go, in our obedience ; while others, declining this construction, would at once conclude, that the Scriptures, being thus obviously unreasonable, are not to be received as the word of God. The former of these opinions may be resorted to, by such as would still claim to be christians ; the latter is that of unbelief. Let us see whether the difficulty be really as great, as it purports to be; and whether the conclusions to which it is supposed to lead, can be properly sustained.
That a law, or system of laws, may properly be entitled to the name, it must be explicit, and apply itself alike to all. It must give a full description of the duty to be performed, or of the action or sentiment which it forbids ; for otherwise a misapprehension of it, and consequent trangression, might be chargeable to the vague sense in which the precept was delivered, and not to the intention or fault of the transgressor. But what definiteness could be given to the expression or the construction of a law, which should accommodate itself to human ability, or hu. man weakness? If the degree of moral strength, for the fulfilment of the law, were precisely the same in all men, it might be supposed possible to frame the rules for the direction of our conduct, according to this degree. But is it not probable, may we not consider it as certain, that, diversified as the human race is, so that we might as easily find two, that were perfectly alike in their faces and their persons, as in the qualities and faculties of their minds, no law which should be fitted to one, would be proper for any other, that ever did or ever shall exist upon the earth? They, therefore, who complain of the perfection of the laws dictated to us as divine in the sa. cred Scriptures, and who insist that they must be accommodated to our weakness or depravity, before they can be considered as rational, ought first to show the possibility of what they approve and ask. Is it not evident, that a law must be prescribed for every individual, that it may be exactly suited to his peculiar dispositions and capacities, and become a rational law for his government and proper responsibility ? Nay, must it not change continually even for each individual, since in no two successive years, might we not say months, or days, does the