THE MERCY OF GOD.
Psalm ciii. 8.—" The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy."
The subject which is brought before us in this text, is the mercy of God; and my object in considering it will be, I. To show what is meant by the mercy of God ; and, II. To prove that God is a merciful Being.
I. My first object is, to explain what is meant by the mercy of God. In order to a correct understanding of this, and to show the exact place which the doctrine of the Divine mercy occupies in a system of revealed religion, there are several preliminary remarks which it is proper to make.
Mercy is favour shown to the undeserving. It is benevolence, tenderness, pity, compassion, clemency, evinced towards offenders. It is an essential idea in mercy that he to whom a favour is shown is guilty, and has no claim to it. If he has any claim that is commensurate with the favour bestowed, the act is one of justice and not of mercy. Grace is a more general term than mercy, as it relates to the bestowment of favours without so special a reference to the idea of criminality. Grace bestows favours in general; mercy pardons and forgives, and it is that of which we particularly think when we speak of mercy.
Mercy has been spoken of as the " darling attribute of God ;" a phrase which has no authority in the Bible, nor in any just views of the Divine character; for that character is to be regarded as a whole, and in every respect worthy of adoration and praise. It has been the theme of eulogium by all classes of men, and there is no attribute of the Almighty on which they speak with more confidence, or to which they refer with more apparent satisfaction. It has usually been regarded as so clear that God is a merciful Being, that it might be taken for granted without formal proof; and so clear, also, that it is supposed to be a ground of confidence for all classes of men. Men of all characters, and in aft conditions of life, profess to rely on that mercy; and even when they profess to have no Christian hope of heaven, they take refuge on a dying bed in what they flatter themselves is the illimitable compassion of God. It is the favourite theme of the moral man, of the infidel, of the universalist—the favourite theme of the man destitute of virtue and religion, as well as of the Christian; and there is no one subject on which men seem more disposed to mingle their congratulations than on the fact that their Maker is a God of mercy. Yet an analysis of their views and hopes would perhaps show that the apprehensions of these different classes of men are often very indefinite, and that in their professions they are not always aware of their own real feelings.
When you ask an infidel what evidence he has that God is merciful, you may wait in vain for a reply. He does not profess to have any revelation to tell him so. He cannot be permitted to use the Christian argument, for that he avowedly rejects. He cannot refer with certainty to the course of events under the Divine administration in this world, for there have been as clear indications that God is just, and that he means to punish the guilty, as there have been that he is merciful, and is disposed to pardon them. He cannot refer to his own feelings on the subject, for how can mere feeling, or opinion, or hope, without a promise, be regarded as an argument to demonstrate what God intends to do? If the real truth were reached in the case, it would probably be found to be that he does not believe that his sins deserve the punishment of hell; and that he would regard it as unjust in God to punish him for ever; that is, that he is to be saved by the justice, and not by the mercy of God; and, after all, he has no idea that there is occasion for the exercise of mercy in his case, or that he is to be indebted to mercy for salvation. When we put the same question to a man who is expecting heaven on the ground of his morality, and ask him definitely what are his conceptions of the mercy of God as bearing on his own case, we shall in the same manner wait in vain for a reply. If we question him about his views of himself and his hopes, the reluctant truth will be at last arrived at, that he does not believe that he deserves eternal death; so that in his apprehension it would be wrong in God to punish him in the future world; he also is depending on the justice of God for salvation, and has no belief that there is in his case occasion for the exercise of mercy. The universalist, too, is loud—more loud than any other man—in his commendations of the mercy of God. And yet he stoutly, and on principle, maintains that it would be wrong for God to cast men into an eternal hell, and exhausts all his powers of argument and eloquence to show how horrible and unjust such a punishment would be: and thus he, also, is depending on the justice of God; and the idea of mercy, after all that is said of it, does not enter into his scheme. Men are saved, according to his view, because it would be a wrong done to them if they should not be saved; because infinite injustice would be done if they should be east off for ever. So that it happens, that although the attribute of mercy is the favourite theme of men, and is often in the mouths of the impenitent and the wicked, they have no real belief in its necessity, if in its existence, after all, and their expectations of heaven would bo the same if God were possessed of no such attribute, but were only severely and sternly just. Real dependence on the mercy of God for salvation, is the characteristic only of the man who feels and confesses that he is a sinner; who acknowledges that no injustice would be done him if he should not bo saved. True dependence on that mercy will, in fact, bo found only among those who look for salvation as revealed through a Redeemer.
In all governments there are great difficulties in the exercise of mercy. Some of those difficulties are the following:—one relates to the effect which would occur if pardon were never exercised, and if no mercy were ever shown. It is easy to conceive that this might be, and that the administration of the law would be pure, and the government just. But it would be stern and unfeeling in its character. It would become the object of mere dread, not of love and confidence. Justice then would drive its decisions over some of the finest feelings of our nature, and over all the sympathies of society, for there are cases in which we all know that it is desirable that pardon should be extended to the guilty, and in which all the benevolent wishes of a community arc gratified by the extending of forgiveness. So clear is this, that in all governments, except those of tyrants, the power of pardon has been lodged in the hands of the executive and the judges. And yet there is another difficulty. Pardon, in any case, does just so much to weaken the strong arm of the law. It is a proclamation that the sentence of the law may be too severe; or that it is not certain that its penalty will be inflicted; or that it would be too stern if the penalty were in all cases executed; and is so far a proclamation, and will be so interpreted, that crime may be committed in some cases with impunity. If in one case, why may it not be in others ? And this difficulty which exists when pardon is extended under the best arranged safeguards, and with the wisest precautions, always becomes greater in proportion as acts of forgiveness are granted freely. If pardon is often exercised, law loses its terror. If it were always extended to the guilty, the law and the penalty would be a nullity. If all prisons were thrown open ; if in every instance in which a jury should find a man guilty, an officer of the executive should be present, entrusted with the pardoning power, and instructed to exercise it, what would be the use of the trial by jury, of the organization of a court, of the effort to convict the offender ? The penalty of the law would be a bugbear, and the process of trial a farce. And why should not the same difficulties exist in the Divine administration ?
When we say, therefore, that God is a merciful Being, we do not mean to affirm that he will in fact bestow indiscriminate mercy on all,—that none in fact will be punished, or that all the guilty will be saved. It is not true that he thus shows mercy without any metes or bounds, or without any rules by which he regulates its dispensation. It is a simple matter of fact that men do suffer punishment in this life—that there are calamities which come upon the violators of the Divine laws which cannot be regarded otherwise than as expressions of the Divine displeasure against sin, and as proofs that God is just, and will inflict punishment on the guilty. No one has been able to explain these facts on any other supposition, or to resolve them all into expressions of mercy. It is no less certainly a fact, according to the Bible,—and no one can show that that contradicts the regular tendency of events,—that many will suffer in the world to come, and that large numbers will be unpardoned for ever. I do not mean to maintain, therefore, that the mercy of God will in fact be bestowed on all men.
Nor do I mean to say, or to admit, that man has any claim on the mercy of God. If he had a claim it would not be mercy, but justice; for it is the nature of mercy that it is not a claim which can be enforced. The moment when it begins to be urged as a matter of claim or right it ceases to be mercy, and supposes that some wrong would be done if it were not granted; in other words, if man were saved in that way, it would be by justice and not by mercy. Guilt has no claim to favour; and if God is merciful, it is only to those who are guilty, not to those who have a claim to favour.
Nor can it be maintained that God will bestow mercy in any other way than that which he has provided and proposed to men. If he has revealed one plan, that method is in fact an exclusion of all other methods; for it cannot be supposed that he would propose a new method, if there were already many ways of obtaining his favour, or that he would, by revelation, designate one when there were others equally good known without a revelation. We reason thus about other things. If ho has laid down rules and laws by which ho dispenses his favours, the business of men is to find out what those rules and laws are, and to act accordingly. It is not our business to make these laws, nor, if we are dissatisfied with them, can we suppose that he will change them to accommodate our feelings, our caprice, or our pride. If he has made wealth dependent on industry, and health on temperance, and reputation on virtue, those are the laws by which we are to obtain these blessings; nor can we suppose that he will change them to accommodate our indolence, our love of strong drink, or our philosophy. If he has appointed, as a great law, that the industrious farmer shall have a harvest, and the farmer chooses to spend the time of sowing or of reaping in idleness or dissipation rather than in his field, God will not accommodate his love of idleness or dissipation by working a miracle, nor will he change the great laws by which he bestows blessings on men. And so in regard to pardon and salvation. If God has said that these may be obtained by repentance and by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the revelation of that method is an exclusion of all methods of man's devising. The hope of man in obtaining salvation in that way is the same, in principle, as the hope of obtaining property, health, and reputation, by industry, temperance, and virtue; and we may expect that the rule will be as certainly adhered to in the one case as in the other. If men dislike this method, and choose to disregard it, it cannot be expected that God will work a miracle to accommodate their self-righteousness, their pride, their love of sin, any more than he will in the case of a man who is seeking property or reputation. It will still be found to be true that he bestows pardon only in the way which he has revealed ,. and whatever may be the consequences to men, his great laws will be observed. And when we maintain that God is a merciful Being, we mean to maintain that his mercy is imparted to men only on the condition of repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus, and that its exercise is limited to those who repent and believe the gospel.
Nor do we hold that God shows mercy any otherwise than as a Sovereign, bestowing it on whom he pleases, according to the good pleasure of his will. We do not mean, indeed, that ho is arbitrary in the sense that he has no reason for what ho does, or that what he does is to be resolved into mere will; but that the reasons which influence him are not always disclosed, and that he must determine on whom, and in what circumstances, and on what conditions, salvation shall be bestowed. In all governments the pardoning power must have some such limitation; for as pardon is not a matter of claim, it must be left to him whose law is violated, or to whom the wrong is done, whether forgiveness shall be granted; and in all cases there are circumstances bearing on the subject whicli can be known only to him who makes and who administers the laws. There are great interests to be looked at, which the guilty are little qualified to understand. Whether any may or may not be pardoned ; whether in particular cases they have such a character that it will be safe and proper to pardon them; whether they have or have not complied with the conditions of pardon, if any are proposed,—are points which must be left to the discretion of the executive. We cannot suppose that God will exercise mercy in any other way than as a Sovereign, dispensing pardon as he judges will be best for the interests of the immense empire over which he presides.
With these necessary metes and limits, we suppose that the character of God is essentially that of a merciful Being. We suppose that he is benevolent not only towards the innocent, but towards the guilty. We suppose that it is his nature to be inclined to show compassion. We suppose that in order to show this compassion he has been willing to stoop to any sacrifice but that of truth and justice. We suppose that he has made ample provision by which he can consistently offer pardon to the guilty children of men; that none of our race, however guilty, are excluded from the offers of salvation, and that he is ready to bestow forgiveness to any extent on the members of the human family, if they return to him by true repentance, and by faith in the blood of his Son. We suppose that none who have applied to him in this way have been rejected and cast off, or ever will be. ,
II. It was my second object to prove that God is such a Being.
I have four classes of arguments to refer to under this head, each one of which would be in itself ample proof. It is not so much for the sake of the proof that I refer to them, however, as it is to bring in varied forms and points of view before our minds one of the most glorious and momentous truths that have ever dawned on our world—a truth of deepest interest to every guilty heart.
(1.) The first argument is derived from the express declarations of the Bible,—God's own testimony about his character and purposes. From a book whose leading design is to reveal the doctrine which we are considering, it will not be possible now to adduce all the passages that might be referred to ; from a book where the declarations are so unambiguous in their meaning, it will not be necessary to adduce many. Let the following suffice. Exod. xxxiv. 6: " And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering■, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin." So in Deut. vii. 9: " Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations." So in the Psalms: " All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth." " The earth is full of the mercy of the Lord." " Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other." " The Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting, and his truth endureth to all generations," Psa. xxv. 10; xxxiii. 5; lxxxv. 10; c. 5. So in Neh. ix. 17 : " Thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness."
Of the same nature, and still more to our purpose, are all those passages scattered over the Bible, so bright and so numerous as to cover all its pages with living light, which offer salvation to men—to all men—with the assurance that all may come and live. Thus Isaiah: " Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." " Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow ; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." " Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts : and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon," Isa. lv. 1 ; i. 18; lv. 7. And so the Saviour: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest to your souls." " If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink," Matt. xi. 28, 29 ; John vii. 37. And so those gracious words with which a volume designed to reveal the mercy of God to man so beautifully and so appropriately closes : " And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come: and whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely," Rev. xxii. 17.
If there were any doubts on this subject, these plain and positive passages of the Bible would put those doubts to rest. No language could be more clear. I need not add that the Bible is full of passages of a similar character. Indeed, as already hinted, the leading design of the Bible is to reveal this great truth, that God is a merciful Being, and to disclose the terms on which he will impart mercy, and the way in which it may be done consistently with the honour of his law and the good of the universe:—,the way in which he may do it so as to avoid the difficulties to which I adverted in the former part of this discourse. If we were to attempt to characterize the Bible as distinguished from all other books, I do not know that we could give a better account of it than this. One other remark, however, should be made here. It is, that the mercy offered in the Bible to men is offered only on definite and carefullyguarded conditions. It is mercy only through a Redeemer; mercy imparted where there is repentance toward God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Every offer of mercy is limited to that method; within that limit, it is freely and fully offered to all mankind.
(2.) My second argument is, that this world is evidently under a dispensation of mercy, or that the facts existing on the earth can be accounted for only on the supposition that God is a merciful Being. The facts to which I refer are these :—that while God is able to detect and punish all the guilty, while he has nothing to fear though all the wicked should be cast into hell; while all sin is the object of his abhorrence; and while he might justly cut men down and consign them to woe, he spares them, gives them opportunity for repentance, and encompasses them with innumerable blessings.
It is clear that this is not a world of perfect and unmixed justice. In such a world, under the government of an Omniscient and Almighty Being, guilt and punishment would never be separated. The moment when crime was committed the hand of justice would be raised to strike, nor would it be possible for the offender to elude the blow. Hand in hand they would travel over the earth ; nor should we ever see them separated by long intervals of time, or by large tracts of land or ocean. Such, we have reason to believe, was the case with the apostate angels, sent at once to hell without interval, without reprieve, and without hope. Such, too, was the letter of the threatening addressed to man: " In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die"—a sentence that would in like manner have been executed at once but for the interposition of mercy. And such would be the infliction of all law, unless justice were delayed by the intermingling of mercy. The convicted murderer or traitor would be executed at once, unless the pleadings of mercy were heard that the offender might have an opportunity to obtain the Divine forgiveness when human law extends no hope.
This world bears all .the marks of delayed justice and suspended wrath, for the purpose of showing the mercy of God, and in order that the guilty man may have the opportunity of obtaining that mercy. Crime and punishment are, by long intervals of time or tracts of land or ocean, separated. The guilt of childhood or of youth is often unpunished even in manhood and old age. Long intervals of country may have intervened between the places where the crime was committed, and where the offender now lives. He may have crossed oceans. He may have committed the crime in one part of the world, and he roaming at large in another; one who has committed an offence in America may be now roaming on the plains of India; an offender in India may be living in affluence and splendour in a gay capital of Europe. He may have been a licentious, a dissipated young man, and in middle life, or in advanced age, all the blessings which every clime can yield may have been poured upon him. Guilt often treads flowery paths, and goes up the heights of honour. It reclines on a couch of ease; rests on a bed of down ; puts on robes of adorning; sits at a table laden with the bounties of all climes; is admired in the gay circle ; is encompassed with children and friends ; is surrounded with the blessings of civilization, liberty, and art; is permitted to live amidst the hallowed institutions of religion. And why is this ? Why does the blasphemer live ? Why courses the vital blood in the veins of the abandoned and the profligate ? Why does the seducer walk the earth, and why does the scoffer riot on the goodness of God ? Why does the sua shine on the dwellings of the ungodly ; and the rains and the dews of heaven descend on the fields of the prayerless; and the winds bear into port the rich cargo of the man that lives regardless of his Maker ? Why is the sinner preserved from the pestilence that walketh in darkness, and the destruction that wasteth at noonday ? Why is the sound of music and joy heard in his dwelling ? Why hears he the sound of the viol rather than the sighings of despair; why the voice of mirth, rather than the groanings of the world of woe ? It is not because he deserves these things. It is not because it would be wrong to cut him off, and remove him from them all. There is another reason why these things are so. It is because " the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy."
And does not this whole world bear marks of being under a dispensation of mercy? The sun is as bright as it was over Eden; the moon and the stars keep their place as they did before man sinned; the music is as sweet in the groves; the air is as pure; the stream purls as gently; the mountain and the ocean are as grand. Nature, in all her main movements, pursues her steady course, as though the race had not sinned; and even those scenes where man suffers are tempered with mercy. Man suffers, indeed, and dies—for God is just, as well as good. But how different the scene of sorrow now from what it would be if there were no mercy; how different from the pains of hell. Around the sick bed, science and skill, and love and tenderness, are doing all they can to alleviate suffering, and to mitigate pain. Man lies indeed—often long after he began to sin, often after an aggravated life of guilt—on a bed of death. But there is the patient mother to wipe away the cold sweat of death; there is the tender wife; there is the soft hand of a much-loved daughter; there is the consoling sympathy of a friend ; there is the mild and sweet voice of religion—religion that tells of a world where there shall be pain and death no more, and where all tears shall be wiped away from every eye.
We often can approximate to just views only by comparing great things with small. Bear in remembrance that this is a world of sin, and that God might have excluded us from hope, and consigned us to woe. Then ask whether this world is such an abode as man himself fits up for his guilty fellow, the offender against his own laws. Go to the dungeon—the dark, damp, cold, sepulchral place, where man confines his guilty fellow-man. He shuts him from the light of the sun ; binds his limbs in chains; secludes him from society; drags him away from wife and children and home; feeds him on coarse fare; lays him on a cold bed of earth or straw; and bids him there prepare to die. I went into one of the best constructed and the best arranged prisons in our land. There were confined within its walls more than six hundred men. Those walls were high and massive, and designed to prevent all return to the world. I went through iron gates bolted and barred with all the skill that man can use. I saw on the walls men stationed to shoot down any who should attempt to escape. I saw the cells of those imprisoned criminals. They were small, and dark, and chilly. I saw those men at work. They were sad and sorrowful men. They had no communication with each other; they had none with any human being, save at distant intervals with their chaplain. I saw the father there removed probably for ever from his children ; the husband from his wife; the brother from his sister; the man from his neighbour; and though surrounded by hundreds, they had become isolated beings, and the last cord which bound them to the living world seemed to have been snapped asunder. They were sullen, and sunken, and sad; for they had no hope of pardon; and there was an eye of vigilance always upon them, and there was the deep consciousness of disgrace among them, and they were held up to the community as unworthy the enjoyments of a home and of domestic comforts and liberty, and the sight of green fields and of the light. Such is the prison that man makes for man. Then I look on the offender against God, and I see him roaming at large in a world beautiful as Eden, breathing a pure air, enjoying the light of the sun, fanned by the breezes; surrounded with wife, and children, and friends; in the midst of luxuries; and crowned with the blessings which every clime can furnish to minister to his wants, gratify his appetites, and cheer him in his days of sickness and despondency.
(3.) My third illustration will be drawn from the fact that God has sent his Son into our world to die. How ample would this be as an argument if we had no other. What father would give his own son to die for the guilty ? What monarch has there been who would give his only son to suffer a shameful death in order to sustain the honour of his own law, and in order to save even a whole province of rebels ? And where is the man on a bench of justice in this land who, to save the guilty, would give up to the same death a much-beloved, an only son ? The man has not yet lived in this land, rich as it has been in examples of virtue and benevolence, who would bo willing to do it. Yet " God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish, but have everlasting life." And this gift was the proof of mercy; the mere expression of mercy; the sacrifice which mercy makes to save the guilty. For, it is not held, it cannot be held, that the sufferings of the Redeemer made any change in God. It is not held, and it is not true, that he was originally stern, and inflexible, and unmerciful; and that he has been made mild and forgiving by the death of his Son. It is not meant, it cannot be true, that those sorrows have made God different from what he was, or made a stern and severe Being mild. He gave his Son to die, not that he might be made merciful, but as the expression of mercy; not that his mercy might be bought, but because he was originally so merciful that he was willing to submit to anything, even the ignominy and death of his own Son, that man might be saved. A father standing on the shoro of a deep and rapid river sees his child suddenly fall into the waters. The child struggles with the current, but is borne farther out into the stream, and is sinking to the bottom. The father will instinctively plunge into that stream, at the peril of his own life, to save that of his drowning child. But neither the danger of the child, nor his piercing cry, makes the father compassionate and kind. No ; he loved his son so much that he is willing to throw himself into the torrent to save his life. A country is invaded. A father lays his hand on the head of his only son, and sends him forth with his Messing to the field of strife and of death. Does that invasion, that peril, make the father love his country—transform an enemy of its institutions to a friend ? No. He so loved his country that to save it he was willing to part with his only son, if need he, that he should pour out his blood like water in its defence. So the Father of mercies looked on men. So he loved the world; so he pitied the race; so he desired its welfare, that, to save us, he was willing to give up his Son to death. And such a death! What are all the stragglings of a drowning child ; what all the privations of a camp, or the perils of the field of battle ; what all the pains of sickness, the tortures of the rack, the severities of flame, compared with the sufferings of Jesus Christ ? They stand alone. Nowhere has there been ignominy so great, torture so keen, and pain so bitter as the Son of God endured. No other spectacle has been witnessed like that when the Son of God was nailed to a cross. And when he had been waylaid and persecuted; when he had been rejected and spurned; and when he had been mocked, and reviled, and nailed to the tree; when he had been crowned with thorns, and a spear had reached his heart, mercy still prevailed, and the murderers of the Son of God—the perpetrators of that great crime which outpeers every other deed of human guilt—were told that even they might be pardoned. And from that cross the proclamation has gone forth that all, no matter what their guilt, may be saved. Here flows blood so rich, so pure, so precious in the sight of the eternal Father, that it is sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world, and all who are now penitent, and who believe on his name, may enter heaven.
(4.) There is one other source of evidence which might be insisted on at much greater length than were now expedient; and that is, the fact that sinners of all classes, and ages, and grades of guilt have found mercy. The proof is this:—They have gone to God confessing their sins ; they have gone borne down with a deep sense of their guilt; they have gone with a troubled conscience; with an agonized spirit; with true repentance, and have in fact found peace. In their lives they have given all the evidence which could be given that their sins have been pardoned by a gracious God; in the peace and the triumph of their dying moments they have furnished all the proof which could be furnished that they have been restored to the Divine favour.
The world has been full of instances of this kind. Your own minds will instantly advert to such cases as the following:— David, after a crime which for ever dimmed the lustre of his name, and stained his memory, sought and obtained forgiveness. Saul of Tarsus, an infuriated persecutor, and regarded by himself as the chief of sinners, received forgiveness. Peter, after a most awful denial of his Lord, was pardoned. The thief on the cross was forgiven in the hour of his death, for he pleaded that he might be remembered by the Lord Jesus when he should come in his kingdom. The poor publican who smote upon his breast and said, " God be merciful to me a sinner," " went down to his house justified." Every class of men finds its representative in these and in other individuals who are described in the Scriptures as having obtained mercy. These cases at once furnish a proof that God is a merciful Being, and a warrant for all of like character with them to go to him and plead for pardon.
To the long list of Scripture characters, how easy would it be to add a catalogue of unlimited extent of others who have obtained mercy. When Augustine, after an early life of wretched dissipation, is reformed ; when the Earl of Rochester, after a life of abandoned and gross sensuality, repents and obtains mercy; when Col. Gardiner in the very act of contemplated wickedness is arrested, warned, and saved; when John Newton, a slavedealer, is changed and becomes a herald of salvation ; when John Bunyan, a very model of profaneness and a proverb for blasphemy, is pardoned and made to instruct almost the whole world by his "Pilgrim," why should any sinners despair of mercy ? If such men obtained pardon, is not the proof clear that God is a Being of compassion, and that he is ready to forgive ?
Yet the proof does not stop here,. Many thousands, nay, many millions, not less guilty, have been pardoned, purified, admitted to the favour of God, translated to heaven. Thousands, and ten times ten thousand, in the dark hour of conscious guilt, when despairing of being able to save themselves, and when an impenetrable gloom has settled on their souls, and when darkness covered the present and the future with a funeral pall, have come to the throne of mercy and found there forgiving love. How many are there at the present moment who could bear witness for God that he is merciful, and slow to anger, and ready to forgive! How many are there in all the churches in this land, and in other lands, now on their way to heaven, who had profaned his name, his sabbaths, and his word; who had been sunk in sensuality, or hardened in infidelity; who had been the companions of the dissipated and the vile; who long resisted the appeals of mercy, and slighted and despised the blood of the Redeemer, but who are now " in their right mind," and prepared to testify that he is merciful, and that his throne is accessible to the broken-hearted, returning prodigal! The earth—blessed be his name !—contains millions of living witnesses that he is merciful, and the heavens are filled with those who have been pardoned by his grace. Is God merciful ? Let the ransomed saints on high speak—that blood-washed throng, now with harps in their hands in heaven. Is God merciful ? Let those now on earth, redeemed by the same blood, speak—, the bands of Christian pilgrims, pardoned sinners on their way to the skies. Is God merciful ? Let the Christian speak from the bed of death—now, with evidence of pardoned sin, and peace in his soul, pluming himself for his eternal flight, and about to join the ransomed hosts beyond the swelling flood. Is God merciful ? The church below, and the church above ; the pardoned penitent, exulting and rejoicing; the dying saint,—all proclaim that he is compassionate and kind, and ready to forgive. Not one has gone to him penitent and been rejected; no sinner, however great his sins, has gone with a broken heart to the throne of mercy and been sent empty away.
Such are some of the reasons why we deem it to be right to come to the throne of our Maker with the feeling that he is a merciful Being, and that, however great and aggravated may have been our sins, it is right to hope for pardon and salvation. In conclusion, let us learn that there is ground, then, for hope. There is all the ground that, as sinners, we need—all that we could ask for. There is all that we could desire in the assurances which God gives respecting his own character; in his dealings with our world; in the sacrifices which he has made in order that he might consistently pardon; in his treatment of those who have gone to him and confessed their sins. No one could desire more plain assurances; more earnest invitations; more encouragement from the success of those who have gone before him and besought his favour. But let us learn, also, that there is no room for presumption. Mercy is indeed bestowed on the guilty, but it is only in an appointed way, and on carefully specified conditions. They who trust in God's mercy are authorized to do it to an unlimited extent in the manner which he has revealed; to no extent in any other way. For he has other attributes than that of mercy. He is true, he is holy, he is just, he is righteous, as well as long-suffering; and our hope of his favour is limited to the way which he has specified and revealed. On his mercy in that way we may rely with the fullest assurance to any extent; apart from that we have no promise, nor has he furnished evidence that he will save.
And let us learn, also, that even in this way his offer of mercy, in regard to us, will soon close. Death is its outer limit. The offer extends not beyond the grave; the evidence that it is granted lies wholly this side the tomb. Who can show us a promise that a sinner will be pardoned in the eternal world ? Who can furnish evidence that one has been there forgiven ? No :—the forbearance of God will soon be ended, and the sinner will soon be in a merciless world. Here the sinner may be forgiven. Here the Father invites, and the Saviour pleads, and the Holy Spirit draws the heart. Soon all this will be ended. To-day mercy may be found; to-morrow it may be too late. To-day heaven and earth, God and angels, pious parents, pastors, and friends entreat; to-morrow you may be in a world where mercy never has been found, and where the assurance that it could bo found, now so much unheeded, will never fall on the ear.