Sermon VI



ACTS xvii. 26, 27.—" And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the faco of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him."

This passage teaches the following things: First, that men have a common origin, being made of one blood or family, and having the same Creator ; and, therefore, that notwithstanding their diversity of language, of complexion, and condition, they are essentially equal, and have equal lights. Secondly, that God is a sovereign, and has fixed the various habitations of men according to his own pleasure, and as he saw would be best fitted to subserve the ends which he had in view in the creation of the race. And, thirdly, that the grand design for which they were made, and for which they have been distributed as they have been over the earth, was, that they might seek after the knowledge of their Creator; trace the evidence of his existence, and learn the character of his attributes in his works. He designed that the earth should be occupied by moral and responsible agents; and to the different branches of the one great family he has fixed the bounds of their dwelling; ordained the periods and the circumstances of their changes, and so arranged all things in regard to them as best to determine the question whether they are disposed to seek after him, and to serve him. This is equivalent to saying that they have been placed here on probation with reference to the knowledge, the service, and the favour of God; and that the circumstances of their probation have been intentionally arranged by the Creator with reference to that end. The general sentiment of the text then is, that the earth is fitted to be a place of probation. This sentiment I propose to illustrate.

The conjecture—for it can be little more than conjecture—is not improbable that all the intelligent creatures of God pass through a period of probation. It is in this world, as far as our eye can trace events, a universal law in regard to all advancement to a higher degree of existence; and the analogy would lead us to suppose that it is so in regard to all moral agents. Yet the mode of this may be different in different worlds. It must be adapted to the rank, the intellectual endowments, and the degree of light %f the individual, or of the race that is to be tried. It may have been one thing for the angels; another for the inhabitants of distant worlds; and another still for man. In all, however, the grand purpose is the same—to furnish evidence, by proper trial, of a disposition to obey the will of God. In man at first the trial was made with reference to his willingness, in obedience to the command of his Maker, to abstain from a specified kind of fruit; in. man now the same trial is made with reference to a law, or test, adapted to his fallen condition.

Probation on earth is a common thing. Every child is on probation in respect to what he will be in subsequent life ; every youth in respect to the rewards of health, property, office, or honour, which the world may have to bestow; every student of divinity, law, or medicine; every clerk, or apprentice; every aspirant for office, in regard to the degree of esteem which he may have in the pulpit, of reputation at the bar, or in the practice of medicine, or of glory which may encircle his name when death comes. The world does not bestow its rewards except when there has been a trial. It does not commonly withhold them when the result of the trial has shown that the rewards were deserved. In a college, it is contemplated that he who shall receive the first appointment in his class, shall obtain it as the result of a fair trial or probation; in the learned professions, that he who shall bear the palm shall have shown that he was entitled to it; in respect to subsequent life, that he shall be most honoured who in the trying junctures that test the character shall have shown that he resisted temptation, and adhered to the laws of virtue; in the bestowment of the offices in a commonwealth, that no one shall receive them but he who has shown in appropriate situations that he has an established character for ability, patriotism, and virtue. If there are departures in any case from these principles, they are departures from what is admitted to be the true theoiy of the system.

It is essential to probation, in all cases, that there shall be freedom to act as we please; that the test applied shall be adapted to our capacity; that the conditions on which it depends shall be known, or such as may be easily ascertained; that the inducements to virtue shall be sufficiently strong to excite us to an effort to secure the reward ; and yet that there shall be sufficient exposures to a contrary course to show that we are disposed to resist evil. He who has never resisted the temptations to indolence, vice, ambition, avarice, or sensuality, cannot be said yet to have a tried character for virtue. He who has never been in circumstances where he was called to decide whether he would be temperate or intemperate; in^strious or indolent; pure or impure; a patriot or a traitor; a companion of the good I or the evil—if there could be such a case—could not be said to be tried. He knows not what he is. He knows not what he might be in some new situation. He cannot be said to be in a state where it would be appropriate to reward him.

The question now is, if these are the conditions of probation, what arrangements are there in this world to adapt it to be asuitable place of trial for eternity ? Are there things here which contemplate this, and which can be accounted for on no other supposition ? Are they wisely arranged ? Can we find in them the hand of a Father contemplating our own welfare, and adapting us to the world, and the world to us, in such a way as best to promote the grand object of a probation for a future state ? We repine and murmur much at our lot; we wonder often at the mingling of light and shade, and good and evil, in our condition. Let us inquire whether, with reference to the great purposes of our being, we cannot find matter for hope, contentment, adoration, and praise.

I. The first thing that occurs to us as suggesting the idea of probation is, the unsettled state of things in this world. Nothing seems fixed, determined, ended. Everything looks forward. Light struggles with darkness; truth with error ; good with evil; happiness with misery. There is no place of sunshine which may not be soon overshadowed with a cloud; no smooth sea where there may not be a hidden rock, or a whirlpool near; no highway that man travels where there are not paths branching off that lead astray; no plan in the " full tide of successful experiment" which may not be blighted; no reward that man can gain that seems fixed and abiding.

This is a remarkable world, and is probably unlike all the others that God has made. It is a most beautiful world, which, after all that sin has done, has still many of the features of the Eden where man first dwelt. The sun, for anything that appears to the contrary, shines as bright as it did then; the moon and the stars are as beautiful; the stream purls as gently; the ocean is as grand, and the rose and the magnolia are as fragrant. Man, if he were himself to select a place of probation, could not well imagine a world more full of beauty than this— for most of his ideas of beauty are drawn from this very earth. It is a world replete with proofs of the wisdom and the goodness of God; and whatever there may be in other worlds, here are depths of skill and benevolence which none have been able to fathom, and which seem as inexhaustible now as they did when the first created being bent with admiration over the beauty of a flower, examined the structure of the insect's wing, or looked upon the stars at night.

Yet how is all this intermingled with evil! There is darkness ; there is sin; there is temptation ; there are things that fill the mind with perplexity and doubt; there are evil beings as well as good abroad upon the earth, " both when we wake and when we sleep ;" there are enticements to wrong as well as allurements to right; there are mighty means and influences to draw the mind to virtue, and there are mighty means and influences to draw it to vice.

Everything is unsettled,—just as it must be in a state of probation. There is as yet no certain or fixed reward. There is no crown which is unfading. There are no title-deeds which can make property sure. There is no happiness of whose continuance there can be certainty. Everything seems to partake much of the nature of experiment or trial. The whole subject of medicine, and finance, and agriculture, and mechanics, and even morals, seems to have partaken much of this character. Man is on trial, and he is constantly making trial for the future. Youth is on trial for manhood, and manhood for old age, and one generation for the next; and all for eternity. In all conditions there is a looking out of the human mind for the future. At any one stage of being there is an impatient longing for the next. There is an instinctive feeling that the destiny of the next stage is to be determined by the character of the present. And there is, in all and above all this, an instinctive feeling that all these stages on earth are preliminary to a higher, fixed stage beyond. Man is so made that he must look onward and upward, and must feel that the eternal condition is to be determined by the character formed in this life.

Then there is here a mingling together of influences from other worlds designed for the trial of man. There are seductive influences to evil. There are fallen spirits that have access to man. There are powerful appeals which they are able to make through our senses ; by the objects of light, and taste, and touch ; by suggestions made to our desire of knowledge, our pride, our vanity, our ambition ; by the arts acquired by long experience in temptation, and by the aids which they can derive from the advocates of error, and the panders to guilt which they have already enlisted under their banners. And on the other hand, there are holy influences from above. There is the ministry and f\e solicitude of angels. There is the fact that the Son of God became incarnate and died in our world to win and save us. There is the ministration of the Holy Ghost to encourage those who wish to be confirmed in goodness, and to reach the rewards of heaven. There are the counsels and entreaties of the friends of virtue; the instructions and pleadings of the ministers of a holy religion ; the admonitions of parents ; the lessons of history —all leading the mind to virtue and to God. Such mingled things show that this is a world of probation, or is designed to try men with reference to what is to be their lot in the future stage of their existence; and they at the same time show the wisdom and goodness of God in the arrangement. It is the kind of a world which it should be, if it is designed as a place of trial. For what characteristics could it have as a world of probation, if the sun were withdrawn, and the moon and the stars shone no more, and no flower bloomed, and no Saviour had died, and no sacred Spirit came to aid men, and there were no living friends to help the weak and the ignorant on to God ? What if all the comforts which we have were withdrawn, and the earth were converted into a dark prison, or were made a lurid meteor, bearing its wretched inhabitants through chilly regions of night farther and farther from the sun? It would then answer no purpose as a world of probation. See what the great prisonhouse of the universe, hell, is. Who has been reformed there ? Who has been prepared there for a higher stage of being ? See what a prison is. Man shuts his fellow out from the light of the sun, and the moon, and the stars. He closes dark, massive doors upon him. He takes him away from wife, and children, and friends. He clothes him in coarse raiment; feeds him on coarse fare; spreads for him a couch of straw; forbids him to look upon the face of man; deprives him of the balmy air; guards him with unslumbering vigilance when he wakes, or when he sleeps, perchance, binds his quivering limbs in fetters of iron. Who is made the better by this ? Who is reformed ? Who supposes that that would be an appropriate place of probation for a youth ? None are reformed there—unless you can introduce an independent influence of goodness and mercy—the light of the glorious gospel—the voice of a friend of virtue— the offer of salvation—the hope of heaven. And if God had made this world as man makes his prisons, vain would have been the hope of securing a fair trial of what man is or might be, or of preparing him for a higher stage of existence. But he has not made it so. He has not attempted to drive man to the pursuit of virtue or the performance of duty, by the clanking of fetters, the sound of the lash, or the gloom of a dungeon. He has another method. He places man, though a sinner, in a world apparently as beautiful as it can be made; surrounds him with all that can appeal to his gratitude and his sense of right; tells him of eternal love, and of infinite sacrifices in his behalf; sends divine ministering spirits to aid him in his efforts to secure salvation; gives him a Saviour; comes and dwells with him; raises him up when he is bowed down; and, amidst his sorrows, as he struggles with darkness and sin, points him to a world where these struggles shall cease, and where there shall be no intermingling of light and shade, but where all shall be a sea of glory. How different this from the clanking of fetters, and the chilliness of a dungeon! A prison, as man makes it, is a different thing from this world as God has made, and as he preserves it. The one is designed primarily as a place of punishment, and all the arrangements for reformation are things superinduced ; the other is primarily a place of probation, and all that looks like punishment here is designed to contribute to the great plan of preparing for the retributions of another state.

II. A second feature illustrating the condition of the world as a state of probation is, that the offered reward—the inducement to good—is commensurate with such an object. Here we need not be detained long. The rewards proposed should always be such as to constitute a fair probation. They should be sufficient to a life of virtue. The rewards of industry, soberness, integrity, scholarship, proposed to a youth should be sufficient to be a reasonable stimulus, or to make them worth striving for. They are so in the present life—even if there were no bearing of these things on the life to come. Apart from every consideration drawn from another world—real or imaginary—the rewards which may be secured in this world by early virtue and industry are worth all which they cost. Take one instance as an illustration of the whole. The influence of diligence in the acquisition of knowledge by a student on his future happiness, if his life is spared, is worth all which it will cost him to make the highest attainments possible. The effect in giving him a desirable reputation, to which no virtuous and sensible man will be indifferent; the effect in gratifying his friends; the effect in introducing him into successful and prosperous business; and the effect in opening before him rich sources of enjoyment in the hours of leisure, and in old age—an effect so often and so beautifully described by Cicero when speaking of philosophy—are ample rewards for all the sacrifice which is required in order to be a good scholar. The same remarks may be made of everything good in regard to which a young man may be considered to be on probation.

Is this so in regard to the rewards proposed to man considered as on probation for eternity ? Open your Bibles ; or cast the eye upward and onward, and see whether the rewards proposed are not commensurate with the highest measure of sacrifice, and self-denial, and holiness on earth. What could be beyond these ? What higher offering of reward could stimulate man to pursue that course which will be connected with the eternal crown ? It may be doubted by some, but with those who have made the trial it will not be a matter of doubt, whether virtue and religion do not carry their own rewards with them; and whether if there were no future state whatever, there would not be an ample recompense for all that religion costs a man on earth. This can hardly be questioned in regard to the peace, • and happiness, and joy, of a self-approving conscience when virtue is subjected to no extraordinary trial. Many a man finds within his own bosom an ample recompense for what a deed of charity costs him; and it is not to be doubted that Howard felt himself abundantly repaid for all the property which he expended, and all the time which he devoted, to alleviate the condition of the prisoners; and that Wilberforce and Clarkson, when it could be said that the moment any person trod the soil of England he was free, found an ample recompense for their extraordinary toils, in securing this result. But the assertion, though it may be deemed extravagant by many, may be nevertheless true, that even Paul and Silas in the prison at Philippi, and Bunyan in a British dungeon, and Latimer and Ridley at the stake, May have enjoyed even there a degree of holy joy which they would have regarded as an ample compensation for all that they had been called to endure in the cause of religion.

But not to dwell on this. The question which our subject demands to be answered is this:—Are the rewards proffered to men in heaven such as it is proper should be offered to those in a state of probation to induce them to walk in the ways of religion ? Are they such as fairly to put man on his trial, and to be all the inducement of this kind which can be reasonably asked to lead him to be what he should be ? The only answer that is needful here is, that the rewards offered to man as the result of a successful probation are the highest that man can himself conceive. They are the crown incorruptible; immortality; a resurrection to glory; perfect freedom from sin, pain, and tears ; the highest happiness, and the purest friendship, and the most exalted intelligence and moral worth of which our nature is capable, and all this continued for ever. When you have affixed the idea of immortality or eternity to anything which is regarded as a good, you have gone to the utmost limit which the human mind is capable of conceiving. If man will not be won by that to a life of virtue, what is, there to influence him ? Beyond this, it is not poscible to conceive that even God himself can go. What can even He offer more ?

III. It is equally true that there are sufficient exposures or solicitations to evil to determine what the character is, and in all respects to fit this to be a world of probation. No confidence is to be placed in untried character. We want some evidenco which will enable us to judge how a young man will act before we admit him to form a matrimonial connexion with a daughter ; before we entrust him with our keys; before we make him a cashier in a bank, or a treasurer of the county or the commonwealth. We wish to know how he has acted in circumstances where men are liable to go astray, and where we know that the integrity of many has shown itself too feeble to resist evil. We would not lead him into temptation, nor would we place allurements to evil before him; but we wish him to have had some experience in a world which we know to abound with temptations, and to see in what manner he meets them. We judge of his virtue by the evidence that he has come unscathed from scenes where many have fallen. If never tried, we know not what he would be ; if tried, and if the result has been successful, we take him as a partner in our business, or admit him to our friendship.

It will not be denied that this world has all the characteristics in this respect which can be considered proper in order to a just probation. No one is compelled to do wrong; but there are abundant exposures to evil to show whether man is disposed to do right. It is a world sufficiently full of the allurements of ambition, and gain, and sensuality, and vanity; sufficiently filled with attractive crimes, and false opinions, and " evil men and seducers" that wax worse and worse, to bring out everything that there is in man, and show what his true character is, and what he would be in other worlds. It in fact answers the purpose. The disposition of every man becomes tested before ho reaches the grave, nor does one who acts on ^lis theatre of being enter eternity in such a way that there can be any reasonable doubt about his character. Under the operation of this principle of the Divine administration, Satan fell; Adam fell; and millions have since fallen. Youths, trained to other things, fall to rise no more ; men whose character was supposed to be matured by long and steady virtue, under the influence of some new form of temptation, fall, and reveal what was the secret character of the heart; clergymen supposed to be of tried virtue are suffered to fall, disclosing, perhaps, a long career of secret iniquity. But it is not wrong that the test should be applied. It was not wrong that it should be applied to Adam. It is not wrong that it should be applied to a youth; an officer of a bank ; a candidate for a high office of the state; a minister of the gospel, or man at large—considered as a probationer for eternity. If there is secret iniquity in the heart it is well that it should be developed; and I do not see how we can conceive of a world better fitted to show what man is, and yet furnishing more helps to a virtuous life, than this. If so, it is adapted to be a state of probation.

IV. The conditions of trial are sufficiently plain and easy. The conditions of trial should be adapted to the capacity. You would not apply the same test to man and to angels; nor to a child and to an aged and experienced statesman or financier. To Adam a simple test was applied, perfectly easy to be complied with; adapted to the condition of one who had just opened Tiis eyes upon a world of which as yet he knew nothing. Compare that simple prohibition with the form in which temptation approached the Son of God (Matt, iv.), and the way in which the virtue of the prospective Eedeemer of the world was assailed. The test was adapted to each. The one fell; the other was incorruptible, and there, after success in a greater or less degree everywhere else, Satan was foiled.

It is essential to the trial that the test be adapted to the capacity; that it be practicable to be complied with; that it shall be such as to bring out the character. It would be no proper condition of probation for man to make his salvation depend on his creating a world, or guiding the chariot of the sun in the heavens, or directing the comet's flight, or converting the sea into dry land; for all these are beyond any power with which he is endowed.

What, then, is the point of probation for man now ? The true issue always is obedience to the will of God; the question is, whether man is disposed to obey. This may be modified according to circumstanc^. In Adam it related to the forbidden fruit. Among the angels it may have been quite a different thing. In man now it might have been perfect and uninterrupted compliance with the holy law of God through life; but who then would be saved ? Or it might have been a pilgrimage to a distant tomb; or the maceration of the body by fasts and vigils; or a certain number Of genuflexions; or the wearing of a garment of a peculiar form or colour. Any one of these would have answered some purpose as a test, and however senseless or stupid they might be in other respects, they would have illustrated the question whether man was disposed to obey. But none of these things are chosen ; and it would be easy to show that none of them would be adapted to the condition of man as he is on trial for eternity.

What, then, is man to do in order that his probation may be successful ? He is perpetually doing something, and every man has his own views as to what constitutes the real nature of the trial. One makes it to consist in a form of religion ; another in a pilgrimage ; another in fastings; another in honesty; another in kindness to the poor; another in the upright discharge of his duties as a merchant, a bank officer, a father, or a friend. He stakes his eternal destiny on the manner in which these duties are discharged. What is the truth about it ?

Our text says that the substantial point of trial is, whether men will " feel after God and find him;" that is, whether they will seek to know him, and to become practically acquainted with him ; for " this is life eternal, to know thee the true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent," John xvii. 3. In the Bible, the true issue is always put on such a ground as this. It is to■ know whether man will seek for, and return to his Maker; whether he will embrace the instruction which God gives, and accept that Great Teacher as his guide who alone can lead back to God ; whether man, regarded as an apostate being, will cease from his wanderings, give up his opposition, and return to his Creator; whether he will surrender his heart to the claims of him who made him; lay down the weapons of his rebellion ; accept of the pardon proffered through the merits of the Redeemer, and thenceforward yield obedience to the holy law of lus God. You will perceive, then, that this makes the issue of a peculiar character, and is fitted to be such a trial as is required in probation. It makes the true test of probation, not the acquisition of property, or learning, or accomplishment; not external morality, grace, beauty, or strength; not a pilgrimage, or a sacrifice; but the surrender of the heart to God, a return from sin, a willingness to be saved, an acceptance of the Lord Jesus as a Saviour.

A subject of a government—say a baron under the feudal system—rebels against his sovereign. He is in possession of a strong castle, and has entrenched himself there. Guilty of

treason, he is liable to the penalty of death in its most fearful form. If now that castle is besieged and its outworks are taken ; if he is closely pressed, and a demand is made oa him to return to his allegiance, and if there is a disposition on the part of the sovereign to show him clemency, what would be the terms of the surrender, or what would be the true point of trial in the case ? It would not be any impracticable thing, such as ascending the heights of an inaccessible mountain, or making himself wings to fly. It would not be that he should lacerate his body, or emaciate himself by fasting. It would not be primarily that he should honestly pay off those in his employ, and do justice to those under him whom he might have wronged. All these things might or might not be proper in their place, but they would not be the real point at issue. That would be, whether he would give up that fortress; whether he would lay down his arms and pull down his flag; whether he would return to allegiance to his lawful sovereign; whether he would give hostages as pledges or promises that would be satisfactory for his future good behaviour. So the true matter in issue with man is, whether he will yield the citadel of his heart to his lawful sovereign; whether he will lay down the weapons of his rebellion; whether he will leave the service of the enemy; whether he will accept of pardon for the past on the conditions proposed, and whether by oath and covenant made over the blood of the Great Sacrifice, he will solemnly pledge himself to rebel no more. This issue is to be tried in the present life; and to determine this, man lives in this world of probation, and the terms are constantly submitted to him. These terms are easy. They have been embraced by millions of all classes and ages. They are no more difficult to be complied with than it is for the rebel baron to lay down his arms and open the gates of his castle ; and they are such that God must insist on them in regard to every one found in this position; that is, to every human being. It is a. fair test ; and it must be applied.

V. The time allotted to man is long enough as a season of probation. ,In the case just referred to, the time need not be long for the rebel baron to determine whether he would surrender. His character, his disposition, his views would be fully tested even if the time allowed him were but a single day. If he surrendered, that would settle the matter ; if he refused, that would determine it with equal certainty. The very position in which he was found—in arms, with the flag of rebellion floating on his ramparts, leagued, perhaps, with a more powerful foe, and barring his gates against the approach of his lawful sovereign, would determine what he was then; the terms of surrender now proposed, even if respite were given but a day, would furnish sufficient trial of what he was disposed to be.

Our life is very short. It is a vapour; a breath; a summer cloud; a morning mist. But it is long enough to answer all the purposes of probation for eternity. Let a proposal of surrender be sent to this rebellious baron, and if he pays no attention to it, it shows what he is. If sent again, and he is still sullen and indifferent; or if he coolly and with outward respect sends it back; or if he scourges the messenger and then sends him back ; or if he hurls back defiance; or if he crucifies the messenger, and suspends him on the walls in the sight of him who sent him, can there be any doubt about his character? Would it be wrong to proceed to a sentence on the ground of this ? To man—short-lived, and found in rebellion against God— an offer of mercy is sent. If he is indifferent; if he turns away; if he closes his ear; if he meets it with contempt, mockery, and reproaches; if he seizes the messenger and incarcerates him or crucifies him, is there any doubt about his character ? Is it necessary to a fair and equal probation that our supposed baron sliould have an opportunity of doing this repeatedly ? Would you say that equity required that his sovereign should patiently wait, " rising up early" and sending his messengers to be despised, rejected, or crucified, until the moss of years should overspread the walls of that castle, and the keeper should become grey with age ? I tell you, my friends, as you would say in that case, that this is not necessary; that if God makes you an offer of salvation so that you fairly understand it; if he sets life and death before you, and life be despised, there is a fair trial. Justice and judgment might then proceed apace; and though you be cut down at twenty years of age, the character is determined. Life even in such a case is long enough for this purpose, and the probation is a fair one.

There are several other thoughts which might be suggested in order fully to illustrate my subject; but I may not trespass on your attention by dwelling on them. I have stated some views which seem to me important to give us just conceptions of what life is, and to reconcile us to our condition. There is one other thought, however, which cannot be omitted without leaving the subject incomplete. I can do little more than name it.

VI. It is this:—that there is just uncertainty enough about all the objects of life, and about its close, to make this a proper world of probation. All things are uncertain—life, health, property, friends, office, honour. When these things are gained, they satisfy no one. The mind is uneasy, restless, discontented. The thoughts stretch onward still; nor, in our weary journey, do we all find a resting-place. A palace or a cottage, a city or a village, a feudal castle or an Arab's tent, are alike unfit to be the permanent abode of man. He wants another home— one more fixed, one more adapted to his nature—the " house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."

And amidst this general instability, the close of life itself is just so uncertain as to show that this is a proper world of probation. If human life were fixed uniformly at fifty years without the variation of a day, and if the manner of death were in all circumstances the same, it is not difficult to see what would be the effect in regard to a preparation for eternity. Who can be ignorant of the disposition in man to defer preparation for a future state as long as possible? And who can be ignorant how prone men are, even with all the uncertainty about the manner of death, still to defer preparation to the very hour of departure ? What, then, in reference to a preparation for a future state, would be the condition of things if all men knew the day, the hour, the moment, the circumstances of death? God has ordered this better. You may live on yet many years, or this day's sun may be the last that you will ever behold. What is better fitted to lead man, if he would be wise, to think of another world, and to make a timely preparation for it, than this uncertainty when his probation will close? What could there be that would be more adapted to crown all the other arrangements of probation, and to bring the mind to make preparation for heaven ? Probably in all other worlds there has been no arrangement better fitted to secure the end in view than this ; and the fact—the sad and mournful fact—that a candidate for eternity remains unconcerned in these circumstances, shows the inexpressible wickedness and folly of man.