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Let those who hold that right and benevolence may be opposed to each other, and that a moral agent can sin with a benevolent intention, see what their doctrine amounts to, and get out of the absurdity as best they can. The fact is, if willing the highest good of being is always virtuous, it must always be right to will all the necessary occasions, conditions, and means to that end. It is therefore a contradiction to say that sin can be among the necessary and intended occasions, conditions, and means; that is, that any one could sin intending thereby to promote the highest good. But it is not pretended by those who hold this dogma, that sin sustains to the highest good the same relations that holiness does. Holiness has a natural tendency to promote the highest good; but the supposition now under consideration is, that sin is hateful in itself, and that it therefore must dissatisfy and disgust all moral agents, and that its natural tendency is to defeat the end of moral government, and to prevent rather than promote the highest good; but that God foresees that, nevertheless its intrinsically odious and injurious nature, He can so overrule it as to make it the condition, occasion, or instrument of the highest good of Himself and of His universe, and that for this reason He really upon the whole is pleased that it should occur, and prefers its existence in every instance in which it does exist, to holiness in its stead. The supposition is, that sin is in its own nature infinitely odious and abominable to God, and perfectly odious to all holy moral agents, yet it is the occasion of calling into development and exercise such emotions and feelings in God and in holy beings, and such modifications of benevolence, as do really more than compensate for all the disgust and painful emotions that result to holy beings, and for all the remorse, agony, despair, and endless suffering, that result to sinners.
It is not supposed by any one that I know of, that sin naturally tends to promote the highest good at all, but only that God can, and does, so overrule and counteract its natural tendency, as to make it the occasion or condition of a greater good, than holiness would be in its stead. Now in reply to this, I would say, that I pretend not to determine to what extent God can, and will, overrule and counteract the naturally evil and injurious tendency of sin. It surely is enough to say that God prohibits it and that it is impossible for creatures to know that sin is the necessary occasion, or condition, or means of the highest good.
If sin is known by God to be the necessary occasion, condition, or means of the highest good of Himself and of the universe, whatever it may be in itself, yet viewed in its relations, it must be regarded by Him as of infinite value, since it is the indispensable condition of infinite good. According to this theory, sin in every instance in which it exists, is and must be regarded by God as of infinitely greater value than holiness would be in its stead. He must then, upon the whole, have infinite complacency in it. But this leads me to attend to the principal arguments by which it is supposed this theory is maintained. It is said, for example:
(1.) That the highest good of the universe of moral agents is conditionated upon the revelation of the attributes and character of God to them; that but for sin these attributes, at least some of them, could never have been revealed, inasmuch as without sin there would have been no occasion for their display or manifestation; that neither justice nor mercy, nor forbearance, nor self denial, nor meekness, could have found the occasions of their exercise or manifestation, had sin never existed.
To this I reply, that sin has indeed furnished the occasion for a glorious manifestation of the moral perfections of God. From this we see that God's perfections enable Him greatly to overrule sin, and to bring good out of evil: but from this we are not authorized to infer, that God could not have revealed these attributes to His creatures without the existence of sin. Nor can we say, that these revelations would have been necessary to the highest perfection and happiness of the universe, had all moral agents perfectly and uniformly obeyed. When we consider what the moral attributes of God are, it is easy to see that there may be myriads of moral attributes in God of which no creature has, or ever will have, any knowledge; and the knowledge of which is not at all essential to the highest perfection and happiness of the universe of creatures. God's moral attributes are only His benevolence, existing and contemplated in its various relations to the universe of beings. Benevolence in any being must possess as many attributes as there are possible relations under which it can be contemplated, and should their occasions arise, these attributes would stand forth in exercise. It is not at all probable, that all of the attributes of benevolence, either in the Creator or in creatures, have yet found the occasions of their exercise, nor, perhaps, will they ever. As new occasions rise to all eternity, benevolence will develop new and striking attributes, and manifest itself under endless forms and varieties of loveliness. There can be no such thing as exhausting its capabilities of development.
In God benevolence is infinite. Creatures can never know all its attributes, nor approach any nearer to knowing all of them than they now are. There can be no end to its capabilities of developing in exercise new forms of beauty and loveliness. It is true, that God has taken occasion to show forth the glory of His benevolence through the existence of sin. He has seized the occasion, though mournful in itself, to manifest some of the attributes of His benevolence by the exercise of them. It is also true, that we cannot know how or by what means God could have revealed these attributes, if sin had not existed; and it is also true, that we cannot know that such a revelation was impossible without the existence of sin; nor that, but for sin, the revelation would have been necessary to the highest good of the universe.
God forbids sin, and requires universal holiness. He must be sincere in this. But sin exists. Shall we say that He secretly chooses that it should, and really, though secretly, prefers its existence to holiness, the circumstances in which it occurs? Or shall we assume, that it is an evil, that God regards it as such, but that He cannot wisely prevent it; that is, to prevent it would introduce a still greater evil? It is an evil, and a great evil, but still the less of two evils; that is, to suffer it to occur, under the circumstances, is a less evil than such a change of circumstances, as would prevent it, would be. This is all we can justly infer from its existence. This leaves the sincerity of God unimpeached, and sustains His consistency, and the consistency and integrity of His law. The opposite supposition represents God and the law as infinitely deceitful.
(2.) It has been said, that the Bible sustains the supposition, that sin is the necessary means of the highest good. I trust the passages that have been quoted, disprove this saying.
(3.) It is said, that to represent sin as not the means of the highest good, and God as unable to prevent it, is to represent God as unable to accomplish all His will; whereas He says, He will do all His pleasure, and that nothing is too hard for Him.
I answer: God pleases to do only what is naturally possible, and He is well pleased to do that and nothing more. This He is able to do. This He will do. This He does. This is all He claims to be able to do; and this is all that in fact infinite wisdom and power can do.
(4.) But it is said, that if sin is an evil, and God can neither prevent nor overrule it, so as to make it a means of greater good than could be secured without it, He must be unhappy in view of this fact, because He cannot prevent it, and secure a higher good without it.
I answer: God neither desires nor wills to perform natural impossibilities. God is a reasonable being, and does not aim at nor desire impossibilities. He is well content to do as well as, in the nature of the case, is possible, and has no unreasonable regrets because He is not more than infinite, and that He cannot accomplish what is impossible to infinity itself. His good pleasure is, to secure all the good that is possible to infinity: with this He is infinitely well pleased.
Again: does not the objection, that the view of the subject here presented limits the divine power, lie with all its force against those who make this objection? To hold that sin is the necessary means or condition of the highest good, is to hold that God was unable to promote the highest good without resorting to such vile means as sin. Sin is an abomination in itself; and do not they, as really and as much limit the power of God, who maintain His inability to promote the highest good without it, as they do who hold, that He could not wisely so interfere with the free actions of moral agents as to prevent it? Sin exists. God abhors it. How is its existence to be accounted for? I suppose it to be an evil unavoidably incidental to that system of moral government which, nevertheless the evil, was upon the whole the best that could be adopted. Others suppose that sin is the necessary means or condition of the greatest good; and account for its existence in this way: that is, they suppose that God admits or permits its existence as a necessary occasion, condition, or means of the highest good; that He was not able to secure the highest good without it. The two explanations of the admitted fact that sin exists, differ in this:
One method of explanation holds, that sin is the necessary occasion, condition, or means of the highest good; and that God actually, upon the whole, prefers the existence of sin to holiness, in every instance in which it exists; because, in those circumstances, it is a condition or means of greater good than could have been secured by holiness in its stead. This theory represents God as unable to secure His end by other means, or upon other conditions, than sin. The other theory holds, that God really prefers holiness to sin in every instance in which it occurs; that He regards sin as an evil, but that while He regards it as an evil, He suffers its existence as a less evil than such a change in the administration of His government as would prevent it, would be. Both theories must admit, that in some sense God could not wisely prevent it. Explain the fact of its existence as you will, it must be admitted, that in some sense God was not able to prevent it, and secure His end.
If it be said, that God could neither wisely prevent it, nor so overrule it as to make it the means or condition of the highest good, He must be rendered unhappy by its existence; I reply, that this must be equally true upon the other hypothesis. Sin is hateful, and its consequences are a great evil. These consequences will be eternal and indefinitely great. God must disapprove these consequences. If sin is the necessary condition or means of the greatest good, must not God mourn that He cannot secure the good without a resort to such loathsome, and such horrible means? If His inability wisely to prevent it will interfere with and diminish His happiness, must not the same be true of His inability to secure the highest good, without such means as will prove the eternal destruction of millions?
Wisdom and benevolence of the purposes of God.
We have seen that God is both wise and benevolent. This is the doctrine both of reason and of revelation. The reason intuitively affirms that God is, and is perfect. The Bible assumes that He is, and declares that He is perfect. Both wisdom and benevolence must be attributes of the infinite and perfect God. These attributes enter into the reason's idea of God. The reason could not recognize any being as God to whom these attributes did not belong. But if infinite wisdom and benevolence are moral attributes of God, it follows of course that all His designs or purposes are both perfectly wise and benevolent. God has chosen the best possible end, and pursues it in the use of the best practicable means. His purposes embrace the end and the means necessary to secure it, together with the best practicable disposal of the sin, which is the incidental result of His choosing this end and using these means; and they extend no further; they are all therefore perfectly wise and good.
The immutability of the divine purposes.
We have seen that immutability is not only a natural, but also a moral attribute of God. The reason affirms, that the self-existent and infinitely perfect God is unchangeable in all His attributes. The ground of this affirmation it is not my purpose here to inquire into. It is sufficient here to say, what every one knows, that such is the affirmation of the reason. This is also everywhere assumed and taught in the Bible. God's moral attributes are not immutable in the sense of necessity, but only in the sense of certainty. Although God is not necessarily benevolent, yet He is as immutably so, as if He were necessarily so. If His benevolence were necessary, it would not be virtuous, for the simple reason that it would not be free. But being free, its immutability renders it all the more praiseworthy. The purposes of God are a ground of eternal and joyful confidence.
That is, they may reasonably be a source of eternal comfort, joy, and peace. Selfish beings will not of course rejoice in them, but benevolent beings will and must. If they are infinitely wise and good, and sure to be accomplished, they must form a rational ground of unfailing confidence and joy. God says:
"Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure" (Isaiah 46:10).
"The counsel of the Lord standeth for ever, the thoughts of His heart to all generations" (Psalms 33:11).
"There are many devices in a man's heart, nevertheless, the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand" (Prov. 19:21).
These, and many parallel passages are reasonably the source of perpetual confidence and joy to those who love God, and sympathize with Him.
The relation of God's purposes to His prescience or foreknowledge.
We have seen that God is omniscient, that is, that He necessarily and eternally knows whatever is, or can be, an object of knowledge. His purposes must also be eternal and immutable, as we have seen. In the order of time, therefore, His purposes and His foreknowledge must be coeval, that is, they must be co-eternal.
But in the order of nature, God's knowledge of what He could do, and what could be done, must have preceded His purposes: that is, He could not, so to speak, in the order of nature, have formed His purpose and made up His mind what to do, until He had considered what could be done, and what was best to be done. Until all possible ends, and ways, and means, were weighed and understood, it was of course impossible to make a selection, and settle upon the end with all the necessary means; and also settle upon the ways and means of overruling any evil, natural or moral, that might be seen to be unavoidably incidental to any system. Thus it appears, that, in the order of nature, fore-knowledge of what could be done, and what He could do, must have preceded the purpose to do. The purpose resulted from the prescience or foreknowledge. He knew what He could do, before He decided what He would do. But, on the other hand, the purpose to do must, in the order of nature, have preceded the knowledge of what He should do, or of what would be done, or would come to pass as a result of His purpose. Viewed relatively to what He could do, and what could be done, the Divine prescience must in the order of nature have preceded the Divine purposes. But viewed relatively to what He would do, and what would be done, and would come to pass, the Divine purposes must, in the order of nature, have preceded the Divine prescience. But I say again, as fore-knowledge was necessarily eternal with God, His purposes must also have been eternal, and therefore, in the order of time, neither His prescience could have preceded His purposes, nor His purposes have preceded His prescience. They must have been contemporaneous and co-eternal.
God's purposes are not inconsistent with, but demand the use of means both on His part, and on our part, to accomplish them.
The great end upon which He has set His heart necessarily depends upon the use of means, both moral and physical, to accomplish it. The highest well-being of the whole universe is His end. This end can be secured only by securing conformity to the laws of matter and of mind. Mind is influenced by motives, and hence moral and physical government are naturally necessary means of securing the great end proposed by the Divine mind.
Hence also results the necessity of a vast and complicated system of means and influences, such as we see spread around us on every hand. The history of the universe is but the history of creation, and of the means which God is using to secure His end, with their natural and incidental results. It has already been shown, that the Bible teaches that the purposes of God include and respect both means and ends. I will only add, that God's purposes do not render any event, dependent upon the acts of a moral agent, necessarily certain, or certain with a certainty of necessity. Although, as was before said, all events are certain with some kind of certainty, and would be and must be, if they are ever to come to pass, whether God purposes them, or whether He foreknows them or not; yet no event, depending upon the will of a free agent, is, or can be, certain with a certainty of necessity. The agent could by natural possibility do otherwise than he will do, or than God purposes to suffer him to do, or wills that he shall do. God's purposes, let it be understood, are not a system of fatality. They leave every moral agent entirely free to choose and act freely. God knows infallibly how every creature will act, and has made all His arrangements accordingly, to overrule the wicked actions of moral agents on the one hand, and to produce or induce, the holy actions of others on the other hand. But be it remembered, that neither the Divine fore-knowledge nor the Divine purpose, in any instance, sets aside the free agency of the creature. He, in every instance, acts as freely and as responsibly, as if God neither knew nor purposed anything respecting his conduct, or his destiny.
God's purposes extend to all events in some sense, as has been shown. They extend as really to the most common events of life as to the most rare. But in respect to the every day transactions of life, men are not wont to stumble, and cavil, and say, Why, if I am to live, I shall live, whatever I may do to destroy my health and life; and if I am to die, I cannot live, do what I will. No, in these events they will not throw off responsibility, and cast themselves upon the purposes of God; but on the contrary, they are as much engaged to secure the end they have in view, as if God neither knew nor purposed anything about it. Why then should they do as they often do, in regard to the salvation of their souls, cast off responsibility, and settle down in listless inactivity, as if the purposes of God in respect to salvation were but a system of iron fatality, from which there is no escape? Surely "madness is in their hearts while they live" (Eccl. 9:3). But let them understand, that, in thus doing, they sin against the Lord, and be sure their sin will find them out.