THE NECESSITY OF ACCOMMODATING OURSELVES TO THE ARRANGEMENTS OF THE DIVINE GOVERNMENT. ■
Matt. Xxv. 26, 27.—" Thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coining I should have received mine own with usury."
This is a part of a parable; and its design is to illustrate the views which men who neglect religion have of the government and plans of God. The man who had failed to improve his one talent alleged as a reason that he who had committed it to him was unjust and severe in his exactions; and not being satisfied with the arrangements, he had buried it in the earth. The illustration evidently refers to those who fail to improve the talents committed to them; and who, when the Judge shall come to reckon with them, will be found to be unprepared.
The reason why they do this is some secret dissatisfaction with the government of God. They are not pleased with his law, his plan of salvation, or his requirements, and they make no effort to be prepared to meet him, and to give up their account. God's administration they regard as one where he reaps what he has not sown—a government severe, harsh, tyrannical. The answer of the man who had committed the talent to him who made the complaint was, that knowing what were the principles on which his affairs were administered, he Ought TO Have accommodated himself to them, and then he would have been rewarded like the others. We are not to suppose that the Saviour meant to admit that the charge which men bring against God is just, or that God is severe, harsh, or capricious in his requirements ; but the idea is, that since men understand what are the principles of his government, and on what terms he will bestow favours, it is wise to comply with, those terms, and not neglect their salvation:—" Thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not,—thou oughtest Therefore to have put my money to the exchangers!" You know what are the principles of the Divine government; you know on what terms God bestows salvation; you know that he is inflexible in those terms, even so much so as to seem stern and severe; you ought, therefore, with so much more anxiety to endeavour to comply with those terms, and to be prepared for your strict and solemn account. In illustrating this sentiment, I shall,
I. In the first place, show what are the grounds of complain among men about the government and plans of God; and,
II. That it is wise to comply with the actual state of things, and to seek his favour in the way which he has prescribed.
I. What are the grounds of complaint among men about the government and plans of Godf
There are men who think the government of God, as described in the Bible, to be harsh and severe, who yet do not mean to regard God himself as a tyrant. They have no belief of the truth of the Bible, but suppose they have a view of the Divine government much more conformable to truth than that which is there represented. Yet these men do not mean to be regarded as infidels. They are known externally as respecters of religion ; but the religion which they respect is not the religion of the Bible, but the semi-deistical system which they have formed in their minds ;—that sentimental religion which floats before the fancy ; the religion of nature which they think to be the true, the beautiful, and the reasonable, rather than that severe and harsh religion which denounces punishment, and which sternly requires repentance and faith on the penalty of being lost for ever. Yet even such men are not altogether free from regarding the government of God, contemplated under any view, as harsh and severe There are some facts in the world which are about as difficult to manage as any of the doctrines of revelation; and even when man has rejected revelation, he is sometimes as much embarrassed in grappling with those facts as he would be with the doctrines of the Divine administration as developed in the Bible. Men do not get away from difficulty by rejecting Christianity.
The mass of men, whether they are among the speculative believers in the truth of the Bible or not, at heart are complainers in regard to the principles of the Divine administration. They are not satisfied with the government of God. They regard it as harsh and severe. And instead of accommodating themselves to what are undeniable facts, or to what is revealed as certainly true, they suffer the mind to accumulate complaints against God; to be chafed and soured by the operations of his government ; and to cherish such views of him that it is impossible for them to lovo him. Before they can be reconciled to God it is necessary to remove those accumulated complaints and dissatisfactions; to show them that God is worthy of their confidence, and that he is qualified for uersal empire; and this is often a more difficult task than it would be to clear away the rubbish from Babylon or Nineveh to find a place to lay a foundation on which to rear a wall or a dwelling.
Now the views which men actually cherish of the plans and government of God are something like the following:—
(1.) That his law is needlessly severe and stern. " I knew thee that thou art an hard man" was the language of the complainer in the text. A law of some kind they would not object to ; but the law that condemns all sin ; that attempts to control the feelings; that takes cognizance of the motives; that frowns on the most trivial offences; that makes no apology for the infirmities of men, and for the strength of passion, and for an original propensity to a certain course of thought or life, they feel is needlessly severe. That God should hold them answerable for each idle word, and for the roving of a wanton eye, and for the least stain of pollution on the heart, and for the slightest wandering of the fancy from pure objects, they hold to be unreasonably hard and stern.
(2.) That the law of God should have such a penalty as it has. To some penalty they would not object; for they see it appended to all laws. But the penalty which denounces eternal death for every offence; which dooms a sinner to infinite and unending pain without respite and without hope; which never speaks of mitigation or end, seems to them to be horrible, and they do not scruple to cherish the feeling in their hearts, though they for various reasons would not choose to express it openly, that a being who can deliberately affix such a penalty to his law is wholly unworthy of the confidence of the uerse.
(3.) Men suppose that his government is arbitrary. That he governs by will,—not by reason ; that he has formed an eternal plan and ordained an unchangeable decree, and then attempts to treat men and to punish them as though they were free— though he knew that they could not do otherwise if they would.
(4.) That he requires much more of them than they can perform ; that he requires them to love him and serve him with a perfect heart, when he does not give them the grace to enablb them to do it. This, perhaps, is the leading thought in the text: " Thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed." The idea is, that God does not give grace, and yet exacts as pure and perfect love as that of the angels; that " the tale of bricks is not diminished aught though no straw be given," Exod. v. V, 8. Some service they would be willing to render to God; but to demand a service of entire obedience where no grace is given—a service of perfect love, when God confers none of the influences needful for it, which they regard as the nature of his government— they consider as a tyranny.
(5.) That he requires them to forsake pleasures which are harmless, and to practise austerities which are needless; that he demands a separation from the common pursuits in which men are engaged, which is required by no dictates of reason; that he insists on a devotion to religion of time, and property, and influence, and feeling, which interferes with the real happiness of men ; and that he claims from the heart and the life a slavish devotion to his cause which would interfere much with rational enjoyment and solid happiness. To the rendering of an external service they would have little objection; to the bowing of the knee at stated times they would have no reluctance; to a devotion to the interests of religion which would be consistent with the ordinary and accustomed pleasures of life, they would not seriously demur; but when the demand comes for the whole body, soul, and spirit to be employed in his service; for the consecration to God of the " talent," though single, to him only, they object as being needlessly unreasonable and severe, and they say of him that they " know that his government is hard—he reaps where he has not sown, he gathers where he has not strawed."
(6.) The same thing is felt in regard to the terms of salvation. It is a "hard" administration, they feel, that they are not permitted to rely on their own morality, and that even the most amiable and upright life is to go for nothing in the matter of justification before God. To some conditions of salvation they would not object; and any service which an amiable disposition, or an honest life, or a fair character would confer, they would not be unwilling to render. But why should repentance be demanded of him who feels that he has nothing, or almost nothing, of which to repent ? Why make this an indispensable condition to him who has been upright and fair all his life ? And why require faith as the sole condition of salvation of him who feels that he really deserves some other doom than that of inextinguishable fires ? Why must he come and be saved in the same way with the most vile of the species, and confess his dependence on the merits of the Redeemer in a manner as absolute and entire as the most degraded son or daughter of Adam ? That all his morals, his amiableness, his integrity, his self-culture, his self-discipline, his temperance, his purity, his reputation, his character acquired by a life of many years of steady virtue, should go for nothing in the matter of salvation, seems to him " hard," and he is ready to accuse the government of God as being unreasonable and severe.
(7.) He has another difficulty still. The government of God, he feels, is arbitrary in the dispensation of favours. To one he gives five talents, to another two, to another one. On one he bestows great endowments, and from others he withholds them. To one he gives his Holy Spirit, from another he withholds this gift. The mind of one he makes tender, and that of another he leaves as hard as adamant. One is converted by his almighty power, and another is left in his sins. One is chosen to life, and another is passed over and doomed to death. To one he gives grace to become a Christian, and to another not; and yet of all it is said he requires the same service, demands in all the same faith, and condemns to woe in all cases where he affords no help to avoid it. This, says he, is a " hard" government; this is a hard master to serve. It is " reaping where he has not sown, and gathering where he has not strawed," and the talent is hid in the earth. No effort is made to improve it; no desire is felt to comply with the requisition of such a governnlent—and many secretly go back from this view to that to which I have already adverted—to what seems to them a more plausible and rational system — the system of semi-infidelity—a system of religion which every man forms for himself.
At this stage of the argument it is not improper to pause and ask you, my friends, whether I have given an account of any feelings which you will recognise as your own. I have intended not to do injustice to the objection which is felt—,felt rather than avowed. Can you not discover here some of the operations of your own minds, as if some one had been reading what you had supposed to be hidden thoughts in the chambers of your own souls ? That there are such feelings there I have no doubt; that they are feelings which ought not to be cherished you would show by your unwillingness to avow them. But if there, they are standing in the way of your salvation, and you will not become Christians, whatever else you may be, till they are removed. I propose to meet these feelings in what I have yet to say, and I shall do you an essential service if I can contribute anything towards removing them.
There are two questions about the plans and government of, God. The one'is, whether his arrangement is a wise and good one ; the other is, whether, being what it is, it is not wise and best for us to accommodate ourselves to it, and avail ourselves of the
arrangements which actually exist, even though we cannot exactly see that they are the best. The latter is the point now before us.
II. My second proposition is, that it is wise to fall in with the actual state of things, and seek the favour of God in the way which he has prescribed. " Thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not,—thou Oughtest Therefore to have put my money to the exchangers." Let us paraphrase this:— ' Thou knowest that God has given a law which is holy, and strict in its requirements ; thou knowest that he has appointed the penalty of eternal death on its violation; thou knowest that he requires a holy and obedient life; thou knowest that he bestows salvation only on the conditions of repentance and faith ; and thou knowest that he dispenses his favours only according to his sovereign will. Even if this seems severe and stern, yet, knowing that these are the unchangeable laws of the Divine administration, thou oughtest THEREFORE to comply with them, and be prepared to meet him and render up thy account.' This sentiment I shall illustrate by several considerations, which I trust will not only close the mouth of the objector, but carry conviction to the understanding and the heart.
(1.) The first is this:—It is the way in which you act in other things. In those things you act without complaint, and yet complaint would be as reasonable there as here. The whole of life indeed is little else than this:—finding out what are in fact the laws on which the affairs of the uerse are administered, and then complying with them. We find out what will support life, and then we go to work and raise the fruit and the breadstuffs needful for that support. Do men complain that they have to do it even by the sweat of their brow ? We ascertain what are the laws of health, and then we make use of the means to preserve or restore it. Do men prefer to die because they are not satisfied with those laws, or because they do not understand them ? A company of men wish to construct a railway or a canal. What do they do? They estimate the expense, and the difficulties, and the advantage. They take the level and look out for the best route, and accommodate themselves to the condition of the country. If there is a hill, instead of complaining, they level it; if a valley, they fill it up; if a stream, they build a bridge; if a fen or morass, they go across or around it. But why not sit down and complain that God did not make railroads and canals, and that he made hills and vales and rivers and morasses ? A merchant needs the produce of distant lands. What does he do ? He finds out the laws of navigation, and seeks to understand the theory of currents and winds and storms, and accommodates himself to them. He builds a ship fitted to the navigation of distant seas, and seeks to get within the influence of favourable gales, and prepares for the billows and tempests that he has reason to suppose he must tfccounter. But why not complain that God made such wastes of waters, and that he raises up a storm or makes the billows roll ? A man purposes to become a farmer. The piece of land which he buys is covered with the forest, where the sunbeams have never looked down through the thick foliage on the soil. What does he do ? He accommodates himself to the case, shoulders his axe, and tree alter tree is laid low ; and he ploughs and fences his land and gathers out the stones, and ascertains the nature of the soil and adapts the seed to it, and raises cotton on that which will produce cotton, and wheat on that which will produce wheat, and lentiles on that which will produce lentiles. We dread the lightning. What do we do ? We find out what its laws are, and accommodate ourselves to them, and the rod conducts it harmless to the earth. So in lands where earthquakes are feared, what do men do ? They build their houses low, they put them where they will be safe, and they accommodate themselves to the laws of nature. Thus men act in food and raiment, houses, commerce, agriculture, and the arts. The man in Greenland, who builds his house of ice, and he in Kamskatka, who makes his in the earth, and he at the Equator, who seeks a shelter at noonday behind some cool projecting rock, all accommodate themselves to the laws of nature. Our whole life is little else. This is all our philosophy; all our practical wisdom in living; all that distinguishes the refined from the savage portions of the world. It is simply that, knowing what are the laws of nature or of God, we accommodate ourselves to them—and we have learned that it is as well to do it without complaining. All that is asked now is, that the • same thing should be done in religion. Why should it not be ?
(2.) My second observation is this,—that we cannot change the arrangements of Providence, and that, knowing what they are, it is the part of wisdom to accommodate ourselves to them. A wise man will comply with what he cannot help, unless it can be shown to be wrong to do so. To refuse to do this is to make himself miserable to no benefit, and life will be spent in the employment of " gnawing a file." If men by resistance could change the actual order of things; if they could reverse what are now facts, and substitute what would meet their views in place of what actually occurs, the case would be different. But if they can do none of these things, what is the way of wisdom?
A man is dissatisfied that there are tempests and head winds on the ocean. Will his displeasure calm the billows or still the storm ? He is dissatisfied that there are hills, and morasses, and floods, and earthquakes on land. Will his displeasure change any of these things ? What is the path of the wiso in such cases ? Is it not to act as if these things were so, and to accommodate ourselves to them; and since there are tempests and storms on the deep, to act as if it were so, and build our ships so as to be safe in them; and on the land to act as if there were hills and rocks and streams, and when they cannot be removed make the best of actual circumstances ? So a man grows old, and his head becomes white—blossoming for the grave. The course of events is onward, and he cannot make one white hair black again, or roll back the wheels of life a day or an hour. What is the path of wisdom? It is to act as if lie were to be old, and to accommodate himself to this fact ? Will his displeasure at it change the fact ? So in regard to the laws of property. They are settled laws. If a man wishes to be prospered in the world, as a general thing the way is by industry, and temperance, and honesty, and straightforward dealing. This is so well understood that it may be regarded as settled. What is the way of wisdom? Is it to hrave this settled law, and set himself against the course of events, and attempt to be rich and happy, and at the same time idle, and intemperate, and dishonest, and crooked in his dealings ? Men do not act thus; and though it may require much self-denial and many hardships, yet they submit to the settled course of events, and are industrious and sober and upright in order to be rich and happy. If they do not choose to accommodate themselves to the course of events, those events will move on still; man cannot change them. Seed time and harvest, summer and winter, cold and heat succeed each other just as though the complainer had no existence.
So in the case before us, there are settled principles in the Divine administration. There are certain facts. There is a course of events which we cannot change. There is a revealed way of salvation. Arc these things changed if men oppose them, or refuse to act as if they were so? Not one of them. Men are dissatisfied that sin is in the world, and murmur that God permitted it. Is the fact changed at all? Is it not just as mighty and loathsome and ruinous in your soul as if it were admitted that God was right in all that he had done? Men think the law of God harsh and severe. Is the course of events under the administration of that law changed ? You deny that there is a judgment. What effect has this on the fact of the judgment? Is the judgment-seat likely to be swept away because you do not choose to believe what is said of it ? You think it hard that there is a hell. And what then ? Are its fires extinguished because you choose to think so ? You doubt the truth of the Bible. And what then ? Is it any the less true ? And suppose you could prove that it were false, what would follow then ? Would it change the fact that man is a sinner, and that he is miserable, and that he is to die, and that eternity is to be dreaded, and that the apostasy has filled the world with griefs and tears ? Not one of them. The Bible has created none of these woes. They are sad, melancholy facts, whether the Bible be true or false, and your destroying the Bible would make no change in regard to these facts. Now what is wise in such a case ? It is to accommodate ourselves to these facts, and act as if they were so. The course of nature must bend, or we must. But can we stand up against the course of events and act as if they were not so ?
(3.) The third consideration is, that there is no reason to believe man can be saved in any other way than by compliance with the plan which God has prescribed, and it is wise, therefore, to conform to his terms. God has, for illustration, told the farmer how he may have a harvest. It is by a proper cultivation of his soil, by seasonably ploughing, and sowing, and tilling his fields. But if he choose to spend the time of ploughing and sowing in bed, or in the place of dissipation, nothing prevents his doing it; but will God work a miracle to accommodate his love of idleness or dissipation, and give him a harvest? God has told a young man how he may become learned. It is by patient and persevering study. But if he chooses to waste the time of study in sleep, or with the idle, nothing prevents his doing it; but will God work a miracle and make him by inspiration a Parr or a Poison ? He has told us how we may, as a great law, enjoy health. It is by temperance in eating and drinking, by exercise, by a good conscience, by avoiding the excesses of passion, and guarding from needless exposures. But if we choose to neglect these salutary rules, and pursue a life just the opposite, will God work a miracle for our accommodation ? So in all things, God has appointed certain conditions of his favour in health, morals, reputation, property, salvation. Man, a free agent, can neglect them all. But will God bend the laws of the uerse to us ? Will he work a succession of miracles to accommodate our indolence, our selfishness, our sensuality, our pride, our distrust of his wisdom and goodness ? No. The fixed laws of nature and of grace move on, and if, by our conforming ourselves to them, they do not bear us to affluence, and virtue, and reputation, and heaven, they will sweep us on to poverty, and rags, and disgrace, and the drunkard's grave, and to hell. And knowing what they are, we ought Therefore to accommodate ourselves to what we know is to be the result.
Now, in regard to the particular matter before us, many have been dissatisfied with the Bible, and have rejected it. Have they therefore been safe, and have they gone to heaven ? That remains to be proved. Neither the heaven nor the earth ; neither God nor angels; neither their own lives nor their death-beds have given any evidence of it. What is the proof that they were saved ? Is it such that you and I can feel that our immortal interests are safe if we do the same thing ? Many have refused to repent and believe the gospel, and have lived and died thus. What is the evidence that they have not been ' lost,' as the Saviour said they would be ? Is it such that we can feel ourselves safe in doing the same thing ? Many have been living in the neglect of religion, and have died thus. They were opposed in heart to the law of God and to its penalty. They doubted the wisdom of his administration. They hardened themselves when the gospel was preached and when salvation was proclaimed. What is the proof that they were saved ? Where, where shall we look for it ? Is it such that it would be safe to risk the welfare of our souls upon it ? What sign is there in the sky which says that they are there ? Has a new star appeared, as it was said there did when Csesar died, to show that they are gone to heaven ? Has an angel come forth and written their names among the constellations ? Think not this extravagant. If I am to be safe if I am an infidel, an impenitent sinner, a wicked man, a neglecter of prayer, and a despiser of the cross, I wish to have some evidence that they who have done the same thing before me were safe and are now happy. I look about for the proofs. They are not in the sky. I see no sign there; I hear no voice. I go to their graves. I see no reason to credit the flattering epitaph on their gravestones that they went to heaven. I see them not coming back from the world of glory to tell me they are blessed. I ask, where is the evidence, where on a dying bed, at their graves,—in all the uerse, where is the evidence that 2" may live thus and be safe ? I see none; I hear none; I am told of none, even by those who are expecting to be saved in the same way. And then you ask me what evidence I have that the man who repents and believes will be saved. I have evidence. It may not seem strong to you; it is clear to me; and yourself being judge, it is better than none. It is in the promises of the Bible; in the voice of inspiration ; in the resurrection of the Redeemer; in his assurance that his people shall be with him; and nothing yet has occurred in regard to the influence of his gospel, to the living virtues or the dying peace of his friends, to shake my belief that it will be so. I see them die just as if they were going to heaven—so peaceful, so calm, so happy, that I cannot doubt that they are safe. Knowing what are the terms on which God bestows eternal life, they have conformed to those principles, and their lives and death have been all that could be demanded on the supposition that they were going to heaven.
(4.) My fourth consideration is, that the arrangements by which God proposes to save men are not unreasonable, or such as to throw any insuperable barrier in their way, and they should therefore conform to them. It was no impracticable thing that was required of the man with the one talent. Was it beyond his power to put the money to the exchangers ? So we say of the terms of salvation. Are they impossible to be complied with ? Are they so stern, so severe, so much beyond the human powers as to put eternal life beyond our reach ? I could make a long argument on this point, but I shall not enter now upon it. I will settle it by two or three questions :—Who are they that believe and are saved ? Children; the ignorant; slaves, as well as the learned and the great. Is that impossible for you which may be done by your child ?—that, beyond your power, which has been done by many a poor, benighted heathen, by the savage, by the man in bonds ? What does God require of you ? Does he say, Go on a pilgrimage over oceans to visit some far distant shore ? No. He says, " Come unto me!" Does he ask' money ? No. " Come without money and without price." Does he ask painful penance ? Just as much as you do of your child, when he has done wrong, that he will confess and forsake it. Does he demand a hard service ? He asks confidence in the great and glorious Saviour; a pure heart and life ; a meek, gentle, holy walk ; hands free from bribes, and a heart without covetousness and sensuality; a spirit of kindness, and forbearance, and forgiveness ; love, pure, glowing, steady to himself and to all mankind. Is this hard ? Is it stern ? Is it severe ?
We are conducted to these conclusions:—
(1.) Religion requires humility. It demands of us that the intellect should be bowed and the will subdued. We must bend, and not God ; our hearts must yield, and not his principles of government; we must accommodate ourselves to the settled course of events, and not require them to be accommodated to us. As the first thing in religion, therefore, we may say that humility is required, and we might go on to say of it, as Demosthenes said of action, that it is the second thing and the third thing. And yet it is no more than is required anywhere else. It is the condition of our being—the law of our nature. We must yield to the settled course of events on our farms, in commerce, and in our health, and why should we not in religion ? Why pause and hesitate only here?
(2.) Yielding must be wholly on our side. God will not yield, nor should he. His terms are settled and understood, and he ■will not depart from them, nor should he. The uerse would not be safe should he depart from the great principles of his administration, nor is there any reason why he should do it. If we have any safety, it is in the assurance that he does not change, and that the principles of his government are always the same.
(3.) Finally, the sum of the whole matter is this:—We must comply with the terms which he has provided for salvation, or be lost. Those terms must be met exactly, and nothing can be substituted in their place. He demands of us repentance, and faith in the Lord Jesus. He solemnly assures us that " he that believeth not shall be damned," and has said, " Except ye repent ye shall all likewise perish.'' There is, therefore, my friends, a simple question before your minds at this time—a question as I believe of vital interest to your souls. It is, whether, knowing the principles of the Divine government, and the terms on which God will save men, you are willing to accommodate yourselves to those terms and be saved, or whether you will, dissatisfied and murmuring, bury your talent in the earth. That question is now before you for decision. That it is a momentous question I need not say. Believing, as I do, that on it depends the eternal weal or woe of every one who hears me now; that the decision is to enter into all that there is of joy or woe beyond the grave; that we are sinners, lost, ruined, and condemned, and that these are the terms of pardon, and these only, how can I neglect to urge it upon you with affectionate entreaty ? The great, the momentous subject I leave with you. Above us is heaven and immortal glory, to be obtained by us only on certain conditions, which God has made known. Beneath us is the world of despair, to be avoided only on certain terms, which God has prescribed. Just before us is the grave, where there is no work, and in which no offer of life and salvation is made on any terms, and where the everlasting doom is sealed for ever. Dying friends, oh how soon shall we be there!