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The Unitarian Belief
shall undertake to state in this article what I understand to be the
prevailing belief of Unitarian Christians. Our position as a religious
body seems still to require statements of this nature. It is a
position, that is to say, entirely misunderstood. Misconstructions,
once in vogue, seem to have a strange power of perpetuating
themselves; or, at any rate, they are helped on by powers that seem to
us very strange. In the face of a thousand denials, and in spite of
the self-contradicting absurdity of the charge, it is still said, and,
by multitudes, seems to be thought, that our creed consists of
negations; that we believe in almost nothing. It seems to be received
as if it were a matter of common consent, that we do not hold to the
doctrines of the Bible, and that we scarcely pretend to hold to the
Bible itself. It is apparently supposed by many, that we stand upon
peculiar ground in this respect; that we hold some strange position in
the Christian world, different from all other Christian denominations.
We must, therefore, if our patience fail not, explain ourselves again and again. We must, again and again, implore others to make distinctions very obvious indeed, but which they are strangely slow to see; to distinguish, that is to say, or at least to remember that woe distinguish, between the Bible and fallible interpretations, between Scripture doctrines and the explanation of those doctrines. The former we receive; the latter only do we reject.
Our position in the Christian world is not a singular one. We profess to stand upon the same ground as all other Christians, the Bible. Our position, considered as dissent; our position, as assailed on all sides, is by no means a novel one. The Protestants were, and are, charged by the Romish Church with rejecting Christianity. Every sect in succession that has broken off from the body of Christians, the Lutherans and English Episcopalians first, then the Scotch Presbyterians, then the Baptists, the Methodists, the Quakers, the Puritans, the Independents of every name, have been obliged to reply to the same charge of holding no valid nor authorized belief. And what has been the answer of them all'? It has been the answer of Paul before Felix; that they did believe; that they "believed all things that are written" in the holy volume.
This same defence, namely, Paul's defence to the Jews, Luther's and Wickliffe's to the Romish Church; the defence of Knox, of Robinson, of Fox, of Wesley, and Whitfield, and of our own Mayhew and Mathers to the English Church; this same defence, it has fallen to our lot to plead as Unitarian Christians. We bear a new name; but we take an old stand; a stand old as Christianity.
We bear a new name, but we make an old defence; we think as every other class of Christians have thought, that we approach the nearest to the old primitive Christianity. We bear a hard name, the name of heretics; but it is the very name which Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Arminians, Calvinists, have once borne; which all Protestant Orthodoxy has once borne; which Paul himself bore, when he said, "After the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers." We bear a new name; and a new name draws suspicion upon it, as every Christian sect has had occasion full well to know; and we think, therefore, that our position and our plea demand some consideration and sympathy from the body of Christians. We think that they ought to listen to us, when we make the plea, once their own, that we believe, according to our honest understanding of their claim upon our faith, all things that are written in the Holy Scriptures.
There is one circumstance which makes the statement of this defence peculiarly pertinent and proper for us. And that is, the delicacy which has been felt by our writers and preachers about the use of terms. When we found, for instance, that the phrase, "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," and that the words, atonement, regeneration, election, with some others, were appropriated by the popular creeds, and stood in prevailing usage, for orthodox doctrines, we hesitated about the free use of them. It was not because we hesitated about the meaning which Scripture gave to them but about the meaning which common usage had fixed upon them. We believed in the things themselves; we believed in the words as they stood in the Bible; but not as they stood in other books. But finding that, whenever we used these terms, we were charged, as even our great Master himself was, with "deceiving the people," and not anxious to dispute about words, we gave up the familiar use of a portion of the Scriptural phraseology.
Whether we ought, in justice to ourselves, so to have done, is not now the question. We did so; and the consequence has been, that the body of the people, not often hearing from our pulpits the contested words and phrases; not often hearing the words, propitiation, sacrifice, the natural man, the new birth, and the Spirit of God, hold themselves doubly warranted in charging us with a defection from the faith of Scripture. It is this state of things, which makes it especially pertinent and proper for us, as we have said, distinctly to declare not only our belief in the Scriptures generally, but our belief in what the Scriptures teach on the points in controversy; our belief, we repeat, in what the Scriptures mean by the phrase, "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost," and by the words, atonement, conversion, election, and others that stand for disputed doctrines.
To some statements of this nature, then, we now invite attention; only premising further, that it is no part of our purpose, within the brief limits of this exposition, to set forth anything of that abundant argument for our views of Christianity, which so powerfully convinces us that they are true. Our object at present is limited to statement and explanation. We would present the Unitarian creed, according to our own understanding of it. With this object in view, we say, in general, that we believe in the Scriptures.
On a point which is so plain, and ought to be so well understood as this, it is unnecessary to dwell, unless it be for the purpose of discrimination. If any one thinks it necessary to a reception of the Bible as a revelation from God, that the inspired penmen should have written by immediate dictation; if he thinks that the writers were mere amanuenses, and that word after word was put down by instant suggestion from above; that the very style is divine and not human; that the style, we say, and the matters of style, the figures, the metaphors, the illustrations, came from the Divine mind, and not from human minds; we say, at once and plainly, that we do not regard the Scriptures as setting forth any claims to such supernatural perfection or accuracy of style. It is not a kind of distinction, that would add anything to the authority, much less to the dignity, of a communication from heaven. Nay, it would detract from its power, to deprive it, by any hypothesis, of those touches of nature, of that natural pathos, simplicity and imagination, and of that solemn grandeur of thought disregarding style, of which the Bible is full. Enough is it for us, that the matter is divine, the doctrines true, the history authentic, the miracles real, the promises glorious, the threatenings fearful. Enough, that all is gloriously and fearfully true; true to the Divine will, true to human nature, true to its wants, anxieties, sorrows, sins and solemn destinies. Enough, that the seal of a divine and miraculous communication is set upon that Holy Book.
So we receive it. So we believe in it. And there is many a record on those inspired pages, which he who believes therein would not exchange; no, he would not exchange it, a simple sentence though it be, for the wealth of worlds.
That God Almighty, the Infinite Creator and Father, hath spoken to the world; that He who speaks indeed, in all the voices of nature and life, but speaks there generally and leaves all to inference; that he hath spoken to man distinctly, and as it were individually spoken with a voice of interpretation for life's mysteries, and of guidance amidst its errors, and of comfort for its sorrows, and of pardon for its sins, and of hope. undying hope, beyond the grave; this is a fact, compared with which all other facts are not worth believing in; this is an event, so interesting, so transcendent, transporting, sublime, as to leave to all other events the character only of things ordinary and indifferent. But let us pass from the general truth of this record to some of its particular doctrines. Our attention here will be confined to the New Testament.
I. And we say, in the first place, that we believe "in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost." This was the simple primitive creed of the Christians; and it were well if men had been content to receive it in its simplicity. As a creed, it was directed to be introduced into the form of baptism. The rite of baptism was appropriated to the profession of Christianity. The converts were to be baptized into the acknowledgment of the Christian religion; "baptized into the name," that is, into the acknowledgment, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
This creed consists of three parts. It contains no proof, nor hint, of the doctrine of a Trinity. We might as well say, that any other three points of belief are one point. The creed consists of three parts; and these parts embrace the grand peculiarities of the Christian religion; and it is for this reason, as we conceive, and for no other, that they are introduced into the primitive form of a profession of Christianity. The first tenet is, that God is a paternal Being; that he has an interest in his creatures, such as is expressed in the title Father; an interest unknown to all the systems of Paganism, untaught in all the theories of philosophy; an interest not only in the glorious beings of other spheres, the sons of light, the dwellers in heavenly worlds, but in us, poor, ignorant and unworthy as we are; that he has pity for the erring, pardon for the guilty, love for the pure, kindness for the humble and promises of immortal and blessed life for those who trust and obey him. God, yes, the God of boundless worlds and infinite systems, is our Father. How many, in Christian lands, have not yet learned this first truth of the Christian faith! The second article in the Christian's creed is, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, "the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person;" not God himself, but his image, his brightest manifestation; the teacher of his truth, the messenger of his will; the mediator between God and men; the sacrifice for sin, and the Saviour from it; the conqueror of death, the forerunner into eternity, where he evermore liveth to make intercession for us. We are not about to argue; but we cannot help remarking, as we pass, how obvious it is, that in none of these offices can Jesus be regarded as God. If he is God in his nature, yet as Mediator between God and man, we say he cannot be regarded as God.
The third object of our belief, introduced into the primitive creed, is the Holy Ghost; in other words, that power of God, that divine influence, by which Christianity was established through miraculous aids, and by which its spirit is still shed abroad in the hearts of men. This tenet, as we understand it, requires our belief in miracles, and in gracious interpositions of God, for the support and triumph of Christian faith and virtue.
Let us add, that these three, with the addition of the doctrine of a future life, are the grand points of faith which are set forth in the earliest uninspired creed on record; commonly called "The Apostles' Creed." Its language is, "I believe in God the Father Almighty; and in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord; who was born of the Holy Ghost and Virgin Mary; and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was buried; and, the third day, rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, sitteth on the right hand of the Father; whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead; and in the Holy Ghost; the Holy Church; the remission of sins; and the resurrection of the flesh." Not a word is here of "co-equal Son," as in the Nicene Creed; not a word of "Trinity," as in the Athanasian. Things approach nearer, it should seem, to the simplicity of the Gospel, as they approach nearer to its date. To that simplicity of faith, then, we hold fast. On that primitive and beautiful record of doctrine we put our hand and place our reliance. We believe "in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost." May the Father Almighty have mercy upon us! May the Son of God redeem us from guilt, from misery, and from hell! May the Holy Ghost sanctify and save us! From this general creed, let us now proceed to particular doctrines.
II. We believe in the atonement. That is to say, we believe in what that word, and similar words mean, in the New Testament. We take not the responsibility of supporting the popular interpretations. They are various, and are constantly varying, and are without authority, as much as they are without uniformity and consistency. What the divine record says, we believe according to the best understanding we can form of its import. We believe that Jesus Christ "died for our sins;" that he "died, the just for the unjust;" that "he gave his life a ransom for many;" that "he is the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world;" that "we have redemption through his blood;" that we "have access to God. and enter into the holiest, that is, the nearest communion with God, by the blood of Jesus." We have no objection to the phrase "atoning blood," though it is not Scriptural, provided it is taken in a sense which the Scripture authorizes. But what now is the meaning of all this phraseology, and of much more that is like it?
Certainly it is, that there is some connexion between the sufferings of Christ and our forgiveness, our redemption from sin and misery. This we all believe. But what is this connexion? Here is all the difficulty; here is all the difference of opinion. We all believe, all Christians believe, that the death of Christ is a means of our salvation. But how is it a means? Was it, some one will say, perhaps, as if he were putting us to the test; was it an atonement, a sacrifice, a propitiation? We answer, that it was an atonement, a sacrifice, a propitiation. But now the question is, what is an atonement, a sacrifice, a propitiation? And this is the difficult question; a question, to the proper solution of which much thought, much cautious discrimination, much criticism, much knowledge and especially of the ancient Hebrew sacrifices, is necessary. Can we not "receive the atonement," without this knowledge, this criticism, this deep philosophy? What then is to become of the mass of mankind, of the body of Christians? Can we not savingly "receive the atonement," unless we adopt some particular explanation, some peculiar creed, concerning it? Who will dare to answer this question in the negative, when he knows that the Christian world, the Orthodox Christian world, is filled with differences of opinion concerning it? The Presbyterian Church of America is, at this moment, rent asunder on this question. Christians are, everywhere, divided on the questions, whether the redemption is particular or general; whether the sufferings of Christ were a literal endurance of the punishment due to sin, or only a moral equivalent; and whether this equivalency, supposing this to be the true explanation, consists in the endurance of God's displeasure against sin, or only in a simple manifestation of it.
The atonement is one thing; the gracious interposition of Christ in our behalf; the doing of all that was necessary to be done, to provide the means and the way for our salvation-this is one thing; in this we all believe. The philosophy, the theory, the theology of the atonement, is another thing. About this, Orthodox Christians are differing with one another, about as much as they are differing from us. Nay more, they are saying as hard things of one another as they ever said of us. Is it not time to learn wisdom? Is there not good reason for taking the ground we do; the ground, that is to say, of general belief and trust, without insisting upon particular and peculiar explanations? We believe in Christ; and well were it if we all believed in him too fervently and tenderly to be engaged much in theological disputes and denunciations. We believe in Christ. We pray to God through him. We ask God to bless us for his sake; for we feel that Christ makes intercession, and has obtained the privilege to be heard, through his own meritorious sufferings. Christ's sacrifice is the grandest, the most powerful means of salvation. It was a transcendent and most affecting example of meekness, patience and forgiveness of injuries. It was a most striking exhibition of God's gracious interest and concern for us, of his view of the evil and curse of sin, and of his compassion for the guilty, and of his readiness to forgive the penitent. It was an atonement; that is to say, a means of reconciliation -- reconciliation not of God to us, but of us to God. The blood of that sacrifice was atoning blood; that is, it was blood, on which whoever looks rightly, is touched with gratitude and humility and sorrow for his sins, and thus is reconciled to God by the death of his Son.
Now it is possible that we do not understand and receive all that is meant by the Scriptures on this subject. We admit it for the sake of saying, that, so long as we receive all that we can understand from the language in question; so long as we receive and believe every word that is written; no man has a right to say to us, without qualification, "You do not believe in the atonement." He may say, "You do not believe in the atonement according to my explanation, or according to Calvin's explanation; but he has no right to say, without qualification, " You do not believe in the doctrine, you do not believe in the propitiation, in the reconciliation, in the sacrifice of Jesus;" no more right, than we have to address the same language to him.
We believe then in the atonement. We believe in other views of this great subject, than those which are expressed by the word atonement. But this word spreads before our minds a truth of inexpressible interest. We deny the Calvinistic explanation of atonement or substitution. We might reject the author's hypothesis, too, if we knew what it was. But does it follow, that we deny all substitution? On the contrary, we especially hold to such substitution.
If all reputed belief in the atonement is to depend on receiving one particular explanation of it, where is this to end? The party in the Presbyterian Church which strictly adheres to their standards, that is, to the genuine old Calvinistic theology, charges Mr. Barnes and his friends, and the body of New England Divines, with holding "another gospel." These again charge Dr. Taylor and the New Haven School with holding "another gospel." Meanwhile, each of these bodies very stoutly defends its position, insists upon its adherence to Christianity, and protests against the sentence of excision. Has either of these parties obtained a monopoly in protestation and profession? Are liberality and candor to stop with each party, just where its convenience may dictate? Have they needed charity so much, that they have used it all up? Is the last chance of a candid and kind construction gone by? and is nobody ever to be permitted any more to say, "We believe in the Gospel, though not according to your explanation?" There are, perhaps, no more accredited defenders of the popular doctrine of the atonement than Andrew Fuller and Bishop Magee. Fuller, as quoted by Evans in his "Sketch," says, "If we say, a way was opened by the death of Christ, for the free and consistent exercise of mercy in all the methods which sovereign wisdom saw fit to adopt, perhaps we shall include every material idea which the Scriptures give us of that important event." To the question, "In what way can the death of Christ be conceived to operate to the remission of sins?" Magee says, "The answer of the Christian is, I know not, nor does it concern me to know, in what manner the sacrifice of Christ is connected with the forgiveness of sins; it is enough that this is declared by God to be the medium through which my salvation is effected." With these declarations we entirely agree.
To our minds there is no sentence of the holy volume, more interesting, more weighty, more precious, than that passage in the sublime Epistle to the Ephesians, "Ye were strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world; but now in Christ Jesus, ye, who sometime were far off, are brought nigh by the blood of Christ." It is this which the world needed; it is this which every mind now needs, beyond all things; to be brought nigh to God. By error, by superstition and sin, by slavish fears and guilty passions and wicked ways, we were separated from him. By a gracious mission from the Father, by simple and clear instructions, by encouraging representations of God's paternal love and pity, by winning examples of the transcendent beauty of goodness, and, most of all, by that grand consummation, DEATH, by that exhibition of the curse of sin, in which Jesus was made a curse for it, by that compassion of the Holy One, which flowed forth in every bleeding wound, by that voice for ever sounding through the world, "Father! Father! forgive them," Jesus has brought us nigh to God.
Can it be thought enthusiasm to say, that there is no blessing, either in possession or in the range of possibility, to be compared with this? Does not reason itself declare, that all the harmonies of moral existence are broken, if the great, central, all-attracting Power, be not acknowledged and felt? Without God -- to every mind that has awaked to the consciousness of its nature; without God, life is miserable; the world is dark; the universe is disrobed of its splendours; the intellectual tie to nature is broken; the charm of existence is dissolved; the great hope of being is lost; and the mind itself, like a star struck from its sphere, wanders through the infinite region of its conceptions, without attraction, tendency destiny or end. "Without God in the world!" what a comprehensive and desolating sentence of exclusion is written in those few words! "Without God in the world!" It is to be without. the presence of the Creator amidst his works, of the Father amidst his family, of the Being who has spread gladness and beauty all around us. It is to be without spiritual light, without any sure guidance or strong reliance, without any adequate object for our ever expanding love, without any sufficient consoler for our deepest sorrows, without any protector when the world joins against us, without any refuge when persecution pursues to death, without any all-controlling principle, without the chief sanction of duty, without the great bond of existence.
Oh! dark and fearful in spirit must we be, poor tremblers upon a bleak and desolate creation, deserted, despairing, miserable must we be, if the Power that controls the universe is not our friend, if God be nothing to us but a mighty and dread abstraction to which we never come near; if God be not "our God, and our exceeding great reward for ever!" This is the fearful doom that is reserved in the gospel of Christ. This the fearful condition from which it was his great design to deliver us. For this end it was that he died, that he might bring us nigh to God. The blood of martyrdom is precious; but this was the blood of a holier sacrifice, of innocence pleading for guilt, "of a lamb without spot and without blemish, slain from the foundation of the world." But we must pass to other topics, and the space that remains will oblige us to give them severally much less expansion in this brief statement.
III. In the third place, then, we say, that we believe in human depravity; and a very serious and saddening belief it is, too, that we hold on this point. We believe in the very great depravity of mankind, in tile exceeding depravation of human nature. We believe that "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." We believe all that is meant, when it is said of the world in the time of Noah, that "all the imaginations of men, and all the thoughts of their hearts were evil, and only evil continually." We believe all that Paul meant, when he said, speaking of the general character of the heathen world in his time, "There is none that is righteous, no, not one; there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God; they have all gone out of the way, there is none that doeth good, or is a doer of good, no, not one; with their tongues they use deceit, and the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; and the way of peace have they not known, and there is no fear of God before their eyes." We believe that this was not intended to be taken without qualifications, for Paul made qualifications. It was true in the general. But it is not the ancient heathen world alone, that we regard as filled with evil.
We believe that the world now, taken in the mass, is a very, a very bad world; that the sinfulness of the world is dreadful and horrible to consider; that the nations ought to be covered with sackcloth and mourning for it; that they are filled with misery by it. Why, can any man look abroad upon the countless miseries inflicted by selfishness, dishonesty, slander, strife, war; upon the boundless woes of intemperance, libertinism, gambling, crime; can any man look upon all this, with the thousand minor diversities and shadings of guilt and guilty sorrow, and feel that he could write any less dreadful sentence against the world than Paul has written? Not believe in human depravity; great, general, dreadful depravity! Why, a man must be a fool, nay, a stone, not to believe in it! He has no eyes, he has no senses, he has no perceptions, if he refuses to believe in it! But let the reader of this exposition take with him these qualifications; for although it is popular, strangely popular, to speak extravagantly of human wickedness, we shall not endeavour to gain any man's good opinion by that means.
First, it is not the depravity of nature, in which we believe. Human nature, nature as it exists in the bosom of an infant, is nothing else but capability; capability of good as well as evil, though more likely from its exposures, to be evil than good. It is not the depravity, then, but the depravation of nature, in which we believe.
Secondly, it is not in the unlimited application of Paul's language, that we believe. When he said, "No, not one," he did not mean to say, without qualification, that there was not one good man in the world.
He believed that there were good men. He did not mean to say, that there was not one good man in the heathen world; for he speaks in another place, of those, who, "not having the law, were a law to themselves, and by nature did those things which are written in the law." Paul meant, doubtless, to say, that the world is a very bad world, and in this we believe. Neither, thirdly, do we believe in what is technically called "total depravity;" that is to say, a total and absolute destitution of every thing right, even in bad men. No such critical accuracy do we believe that the Apostle ever affected, or ever thought of affecting.
A very bad child may sometimes love his parents, and be melted into great tenderness toward them; and so a mind estranged from God, may sometimes tenderly feel his goodness.
Finally, we would not portray human wickedness without the deepest consideration and pity for it. Alas! how badly is man educated, how sadly is he deluded, how ignorant is he of himself, how little does he perceive the great love of God to him, which, if he were rightly taught to see it, might melt him into tenderness and penitence. Let us have some patience with human nature till it is less cruelly abused! Let us pity the sad and dark struggle that is passing in many hearts, between good and evil; and, though evil so often gains the ascendancy, still let us pity, while we blame it; and while we speak to it in the solemn language of reprobation and warning, let us "tell these things," as Paul did; "even weeping."
IV. From this depraved condition, we believe, in the fourth place, that men are to be recovered, by a process which is termed, in the Scriptures, regeneration.
We believe in regeneration, or the new birth. That is to say, we believe, not in all the ideas which men have annexed to those words, but in what we understand the sacred writers to mean by them. We believe that, "except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God;" that "he must be new created in Christ Jesus;" that "old things must pass away, and all things become new." We certainly think that these phrases applied with peculiar force to the condition of people, who were not only to be converted from their sins, but from the very forms of religion in which they had been brought up; and we know indeed that the phrase "new birth" did: according to the usage of language in those days, apply especially to the bare fact of proselytism. But we believe that men are still to be converted from their sins, and that this is a change of the most urgent necessity and of the most unspeakable importance.
The application of this doctrine, too, is nearly universal. Some, like Samuel of old, may have grown up to piety from their earliest childhood, and it may be hoped that the number of such, through the means of more faithful education, is increasing. But we confess that we understand nothing of that romantic dream of the innocence of childhood. There are few children who do not need to be "converted;" from selfishness to disinterestedness, from the sullenness or violence of crossed passions to meekness and submission, from the dislike to the love of piety and pious exercises; from the habits of a sensual, to the efforts of a rational and spiritual nature. Childhood is, indeed, often pure, compared with what commonly follows, but still it needs a change. And that, which does commonly follow, is a character which needs to be essentially changed, in order to prepare the soul for happiness in heaven.
Now there is usually a time in the life of every devoted Christian when this change commences. We say not, a moment; for it is impossible so to date moral experiences. But there is a time, when the work is resolutely begun. Begun, we say; for it cannot in any brief space be completed. How soon it may be so far completed, as to entitle its subject to hope for future happiness, it is neither easy, nor material, to say. But to aver that it may be done in a moment, is a doctrine of which it is difficult to say whether it is, in our view, more unscriptural, extravagant, or dangerous. With such qualifications and guards, authorized by the laws of sound criticism, we believe in regeneration; and we believe that the spirit of God is offered to aid, in this great work, the weakness of human endeavour.
V. We believe, too, in the fifth place, in the doctrine of election. That is to say, again, we believe in what the Scriptures, as we understand them, mean by that word.
The time has been, when, not the intrinsic importance of this doctrine, but the stress laid upon it, would have required that we should give it considerable space in this summary view. Our good old Arminian fathers fought with it for many a weary day. It was the great stumbling-block in the way of the last generation. And, during our time, it has been held, firmly and by many hands, in its place, as one of the essential foundations of faith. But, within a few years past, it has come to be almost entirely overlooked; many preachers have almost ceased to direct attention to it; and many hearers are left to wonder what has become of it, and why it ever occupied a situation so conspicuous.
Would that the history of it might be a lesson! The truth is, that the doctrine of election is a matter either of scholastic subtlety or of presumptuous curiosity, with which, as we apprehend, we have but a very little to do. Secret things belong to God. We believe in what the Bible teaches of God's infinite and eternal foreknowledge. We believe that, of all the events and actions, which take place in the universe of worlds, and the eternal succession of ages, there is not one, not the minutest, which God did not forever foresee, with all the distinctness of immediate vision. It is a sublime truth. But it is a truth, which the moment we undertake to analyze and apply, we are confounded in ignorance, and lost in wonder. We believe, but we would take care that we do not presumptuously believe. We believe in election, not in selection. We believe in foreknowledge, not in fate. We believe in the boundless wisdom of God, but not less in the weakness of our own comprehension. We believe that his thoughts are not as our thoughts, and that his ways are not as our ways, and his counsels are not as our counsels, and his decrees are not as our decrees. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is he above the reach of our frail and finite understanding.
VI. In the sixth place, we believe in a future state of rewards and punishments. We believe that sin must ever produce misery, and that holiness must ever produce happiness. We believe that there is good for the good, and evil for the evil; and that these are to be dispensed exactly in proportion to the degree in which the good or evil qualities prevail.
The language of Scripture, and all the language of Scripture on this solemn subject, we have no hesitation about using, in the sense in which it was originally meant to be understood. But there has been that attempt to give definiteness to the indefinite language of the Bible on this subject, to measure the precise extent of those words which spread the vastness of the unknown futurity before us; and with this system of artificial criticism, the popular ignorance of Oriental figures and metaphors, has so combined to fix a specific meaning on the phraseology in question, that it is difficult to use it without constant explanation. "Life everlasting," and "everlasting fire;" the mansions of rest, and the worm that never dieth, are phrases fraught with a just and reasonable, but at the same time, vast and indefinite import. They are too obviously figurative to permit us to found definite and literal statements upon them. And it is especially true of those figures and phrases that are used to describe future misery, that there is not one which is not also used in the Bible to describe things earthly, limited, and temporary.
So confident in their opinions are men made by education and the current belief, that they can scarcely think it possible that the words of Scripture should have any other meaning than that which they assign to them. And they are ready, and actually feel as if they had a right, to ask those who differ from them to give up the Bible altogether. Nay, they go so far sometimes, as to aver, in the honesty and blindness of their prejudices, that their opponents have given up the Bible, and have given up all thoughts of trying the questions at issue by that standard. We have an equal right certainly to return the exhortation and to retort the charge. At any rate, we can accept neither. We believe in the Scriptures, as heartily as any others, and, as we think, more justly. We believe in all that they teach on this subject, and in all they teach on any subject.
We believe, then, in a heaven and a hell. We believe that there is more to be feared hereafter than any man ever feared, and more to be hoped than any man ever hoped. We believe that heaven is more glorious, and that hell is more dreadful, than any man ever conceived. We believe that the consequences both in this world and another; that the consequences to every man, of any evil habits he forms, whether of feeling or action, run far beyond his most fearful anticipations.
Are mankind yet so gross in their conceptions, that outward images convey the most transporting ideas they have of happiness, and the most tremendous ideas they have of misery? Is a celestial city all that they understand by heaven? Let them know that there is a heaven of the mind, a heaven of tried and confirmed virtue, a heaven of holy contemplation, so rapturous, that all ideas of place are transcended, are almost forgotten in its ecstacy. Is a world of elemental fires and bodily torments, all that they understand by hell? Let them consider, that a hell of the mind, the hell of an inwardly gnawing and burning conscience, the hell of remorse and mental agony, may be more horrible than fire, and brimstone, and the blackness of darkness for ever! Yes, the crushing mountains, the folding darkness, the consuming fire might be welcomed, if they could bury, or hide, or sear the guilty and agonized passions, which, while they live, must for ever and for ever burn, and blacken, and blast the soul; which, while they live, must for ever and for ever crush it down to untold and unutterable misery.
VII. Once more, and finally; we believe in the supreme and all-absorbing importance of religion.
There is nothing more astonishing to us, than the freedom of language which we sometimes hear used, on this subject; the bold and confident tone with which it is said that there is no religion among us, nothing but flimsy and fine sentiment, passing under the name of religion. We are ready to ask, what is religion in the hearts of men, what are its sources and fountains, when they can so easily deny it to the hearts of others? We are inclined to use no severity of retort, on this affecting theme; else the observation of life might furnish us with some trying questions for the uncharitable to consider. But we will only express the simple astonishment we feel at such treatment. We will only say again, and say it more in wonder than in anger; what must religion be in others, what can be its kindness, and tenderness, and peace, and preciousness, when they are so ready to rise up from its blessed affections, to the denial of its existence in the hearts of their brethren? We repeat, then, that we believe in the supreme and all-absorbing importance of religion. "What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" is to us the most undeniable of all arguments; "what shall I do to be saved?" the most reasonable and momentous of all questions; "God be merciful to me, a sinner!" the most affecting of all prayers. The soul's concern is the great concern.
The interests of experimental, vital, practical religion are the great interests of our being. No language can be too strong,. no language can be strong enough, to give them due expression. No anxiety is too deep, no care too heedful, no effort too earnest, no prayer too importunate, to be bestowed upon this almost infinite concern of the soul's purification, piety, virtue and welfare. No labour of life should be undertaken, no journey pursued, no business transacted, no pleasure enjoyed, no activity employed, no rest indulged in, without ultimate reference to that great end of our being. Without it, life has no sufficient object, and death has no hope, and eternity no promise.
What more shall we say? Look at it; look at this inward being, and say, what is it? Formed by the Almighty hand, and therefore formed for some purpose; built up in its proportions, fashioned in every part, by infinite skill; an emanation, breathed from the spirit of God; say, what is it? Its nature, its necessity, its design, its destiny; what is it? So formed it is, so builded, so fashioned, so exactly balanced, and so exquisitely touched in every part, that sin introduced into it, is the direst misery; that every unholy thought falls upon it as a drop of poison; that every guilty desire, breathing upon any delicate part or fibre of the soul, is the plague spot of evil, the blight of death. Made, then, is it for virtue, not for sin; oh! not for sin, for that is death; but made for virtue, for purity, as its end, its rest, its bliss; made thus by God Almighty.
Thou canst not alter it. Go and bid the mountain walls sink down to the level of the valleys; go and stand upon the seashore and turn back its swelling waves; or stretch forth thy hand, and hold the stars in their courses, but not more vain shall be thy power to change them, than it is to change one of the laws of thy nature. Then thou must be virtuous. As true it is, as if the whole universe spoke in one voice, thou must be virtuous. If thou art a sinner, thou "must be born again." If thou art tempted, thou must resist. If thou hast guilty passions, thou must deny them. If thou art a bad man, thou must be a good man.
There is the law. It is not our law; it is not out voice that speaks. It is the law of God Almighty; it is the voice of God that speaks; speaks through every nerve and fibre, through every power and element of that moral constitution which he has given. It is the voice, not of an arbitrary will, nor of some stern and impracticable law, that is now abrogated. "For the grace of God, that hath appeared to all men, teaches, that, denying all ungodliness and every worldly lust, they must live soberly, and righteously, and godly in this present evil world." So let us live; and then this life, with all its momentous scenes, its moving experiences, and its precious interests, shall be but the beginning of the wonders, and glories, and joys of our existence. So let us live; and let us think this, that to live thus, is the great, urgent, instant, unutterable, all-absorbing concern of our life and of our being.
© 2003 American Unitarian Conference™