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and the wicked are often exempted even from private judgment, that the righteous may not suffer in their ruin: for almost every wicked man has innocent relations and friends, whose happiness depends on his prosperity: this point enlarged on. Nor will the justice of God hereby suffer for the day is coming which will dissolve all the present relations between men, when every one will stand singly by himself to account for the good or evil he has done.
On the whole then, this method of God's dealing with mankind is in all respects without reproach: and the complaints commonly made with respect to his forbearance in punishing iniquity, show the lenity of his administration, and the little reason we have to complain when we have to seek how we may account for his want of justice rather than of mercy: this subject enlarged on.
It has been observed that the argument in the text extends to one case only; to the justifying God's wisdom and goodness, in delaying to punish incorrigible sinners: but if this case can be defended, all others may; yet as these have their particular reasons, a summary view of the argument is given.
Such is the state and condition of human nature, that no care or diligence can prevent the growth of vice: every one sees this; and it is confessed by those who require God's constant interposition to prevent it: but what is it which they demand, who require that God should by his irresistible power prevent all evil? nothing less than that he should destroy all law and religion, and divest men of their distinguishing characters, reason and understanding: for if every thing is to be done by a superior force, this must be the case. Since then offences must needs come, the question is, properly asked, why are not men as certainly distinguished by rewards and punishments as they are by virtue or vice? for this would be a great encouragement to virtue, and ought to be expected from God's justice. The first return to these questioners is to let them
know that they inquire into a matter too high for them: the deserts of men must necessarily be estimated by a rule of which they are not masters, that is, by the sincerity of the heart; and therefore they can never judge when rewards and punishments are duly administered: they may possibly be mistaken in those very cases which they suppose to call for the most signal examples. The next return to them is, that what they require is inconsistent with the present condition of men, and the goodness of God. Men are in a state of trial and probation, and it is fit they should have time to show themselves: and it would ill become the goodness of God to destroy men, as long as there are hopes of their amendment: to bear therefore with their sins, in prospect of their repentance, is both just and merciful: and with respect to incorrigible sinners, this world is not the proper place for their punishment, because it would involve the righteous in calamity. There is no reason therefore for a man to complain, whether he be himself a sinner or a righteous person.
The text considered as furnishing us with a principle of reason and equity applicable to many cases.
This inquiry necessary, because the rule is liable to be misapplied, unless we attend to the reasons on which it is founded. The mercy of God is the best pattern for us, and is recommended to us by our Saviour. Since therefore God spares the wicked for the sake of the righteous, is it reasonable for men to do the same? Should magistrates release the guilty on account of the innocent, who must share in the shame or loss of the punishment? At first sight we might imagine there was a parity of reason in these cases; but on farther consideration we shall find that the same reason which justifies God, would condemn the magistrate.
To see this clearly, we must attend to the difference between the reason of justice and the rules of justice. By the latter is to be understood the general principles and maxims of justice by which the laws of all countries are directed: by the former, the fountain from which all maxims and laws are derived, i. e. right reason for laws are not just, as partaking of the lawgiver's authority, but as partaking of his reason. Hence the distinction between good and bad laws, though both are derived from the same authority.
Now between the reason of justice and the rules of justice, there is this great difference: the former takes in all the circumstances of every case, and therefore cannot be wrong; but the latter have no relation to the particular circumstances of any case, being formed on general abstract ideas; and consequently they may, and often do, fail when applied to single instances: hence the reason and the maxims of justice frequently stand directly opposed to each other; and hence the proverb summum jus, summa injuria. Hence it will plainly appear how liable we are to mistake, as long as we form our judgments by applying general rules of law or equity to particular cases. This point farther explained.
Now there is the same difference between the judgments of God and those of men, as there is between the reason of law and the rules of law: for men are tied down to judge by the rules which the law prescribes; but the judgment of God arises not from any maxim or rule of law, but in every instance follows the reason of the thing; otherwise his judgments would not in every case be reasonable. It is mere weakness that makes men go by rules: but it would be absurd to imagine God as acting by any such for the direction of his judgment.
Farther; these considerations will help us to form distinct notions of justice and mercy, and discover to us, if not what they always are, at least what they should be. Justice is thought to be a thing fixed and certain, and confined to limits
which it cannot transgress without losing its name: but mercy is taken to be of a more variable nature, to go by no fixed rule, and to arise from the will of the governor : consequently we speak of mercy and justice as opposites to each other.
But mercy and justice would not be distinguished, were it not for the intervention of general and particular laws, which often fall very heavily on particular persons; whence it is that we complain of the rigor of the law: but were men perfect both in their reason and in their wills, so that they could neither judge nor act amiss, they would then do what is exactly right and reasonable in every case, and there would be no room to correct the severity of justice by the interposition of mercy; for there is no rigor in that which is perfectly right and reasonable: this point enlarged on; by which it is shown that it is the proper business of mercy to correct the rules of justice by the reason of justice; and consequently, if all judgments were founded on true reason, justice and mercy would be one and the same thing. Hence perhaps a difficulty may be accounted for, which is apt to disturb men greatly when they ponder the judgments of God. They consider him as essentially just, and essentially merciful; whence they rightly conclude that he can never be otherwise than merciful, never otherwise than just; and yet how to reconcile these attributes in every case they see not. In human judgments it is plain, where mercy prevails, justice sleeps; where justice acts, mercy is silent but this cannot be the case in divine judgments. But if we consider that the acts of mercy and justice, as distinguished from each other, are relative to stated rules and laws, and that they are both the same with respect to the reason of justice, we shall easily discern how God, who always acts by the purest reason, may be said in every case to do justly and mercifully: this point enlarged on.
The parable in the text is evidently intended as an answer to the common objections against Providence, drawn from
the prosperity of sinners, or rather, in the present instance, the impunity of offenders. If the principles on which both the objection and the answer stands be examined, it will be seen that the objection is founded on one of the common and general maxims of justice which often misguide our judgment in particular cases; and that our Saviour's answer is drawn from the reason of all law and equity, which can never fail. All the objector can say amounts to this, that it is an undoubted maxim of justice, that every sinner deserves punishment he cannot enter into particular cases, unless he knew more of men than he does or ever will know. In answer to this, our Saviour owns the truth of the general maxim, and therefore teaches us that God has appointed a day in which he will judge the world: but then he shows, from superior reasons of justice, that the application of the principle in the present case is wrong; for though it would be just to punish all sinners, yet to punish them immediately would destroy the very reason which makes it just to punish them, viz. to make a difference between the good and the bad.
This then is a full justification of God in his dealings with men, and shows his justice, as well as his mercy, in delaying vengeance.
But if this be the height of justice in God, how is it not the height of injustice in men to act quite otherwise? Temporal punishments, even capital ones, are executed immediately, notwithstanding the number of innocent persons that may be involved in their consequences. Nay, farther, this very method of justice is ordained by God. How comes it then that God pursues one method for himself and another for magistrates, who are, as it were, his vicegerents? The plain answer is, because the reason of these two cases is very different. The punishments of this world are not the final punishments of iniquity, but are means ordained to secure virtue and morality, and to protect the innocent from immediate violence: offences