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The Law of God
possession-since his power and authority over us are unlimited and supreme—and, since he is himself a perfect as well as an infinite Being--we cannot for a moment hesitate to acknowledge, that he has a right to dispose of us as he pleases, and to regulate all our conduct according to his will; and our conformity to that will, although it may involve the surrender of ourselves, and of all our degenerate inclinations, is plainly nothing more than our "reasonable service."
This doctrine lies at the foundation of true morality, which does not consist in our adherence to any system of human invention, however plausible or excellent it may be, but solely in obedience to the revealed willor, in other words, to the law-of the moral Governor of the universe. Such, under a variety of forms, is the clear and frequent declaration of the book of God. In the Bible, and primarily in the Bible only, we are explicitly taught, that all our virtue and happiness depends upon our being conformed to the will of him who is the Creator and Lord of all things, and who is holy, just, and true. While the Stoics lay the stress of their moral philosophy on the "eternal fitness of things," the Academics, on that which may be supposed to resemble "the highest good," and the Epicureans, on the pursuit of happiness-the sacred writers have superseded all speculation on the subject, by declaring, that the law of God is the only true rule of life-that obedience to his law is righteousness, and the transgression of it sin.
In the beginning God imparted his commandments to our first parents; and, while they continued in all things to obey their divine Master, they preserved his image in themselves-they maintained their original character of perfect righteousness. But they were made liable to temptation, and the transgression of his laws-their first act of disobedience-was the sin
our Rule of Action;
[Ess. XII. which caused their own degradation, and the fall of their whole specics. But, degraded as man is under the baneful influence of this mournful event, God has been pleased to bestow upon him, in all ages, those "reproofs of instruction," which "are the way of life:" Prov. vi, 23. He has graciously communicated to us a law, by which we may so regulate our conduct in the world, as to obtain happiness, both here and hereafter.
It will, I presume, be without difficulty allowed, that these observations are in a general, yet very important, sense, applicable to all men, whether they are partakers in the benefit of an outward revelation, or are left to that which is usually described as the light of nature. If we admit that mankind, without an outward revelation, are nevertheless sinners, we must also admit that mankind, without such a revelation, are nevertheless in possession of the law of God; for we are expressly told by one apostle, that "where no law is, there is no transgression," Rom. iv, 15; and by another, that "sin is the transgression of the law," 1 John iii, 4;-declarations which obviously correspond with the dictates of sound reason.
The law to which I now allude, and which is universally bestowed upon men, is that light in the soul respecting right and wrong, by which the natural conscience is directed and illuminated, and to which, unless perverted by prejudice, or seared by the fatal operation of vice, it never fails to "bear witness." The apostle Paul has adverted, in a clear and forcible manner, to the law which is thus written by the finger of the Deity on the heart of man; he has also described its operation, and has declared, that those persons who obey it "shall be justified." For not the hearers of the law," he says, "are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For, when the Gentiles, which have not the law, (i. e. have not the
both under the Light of Nature,
Ess. XII.] written law,) do by nature the things contained in the law; these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves; which shew the work of the law written in their hearts; their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another," Rom. ii, 13-15; and, again, in addressing the Jews, he soon afterwards says, "shall not uncircumcision, which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law?" ver. 27.6
Thus it appears, that there were individuals, in ancient times, destitute of an outward revelation, who nevertheless obeyed the will of our Heavenly Father, as it is made manifest in the heart-persons who were taught of God, to fear him and to "work righteousness;" and, on the other hand, the multitude of the Gentiles, who gave themselves up to idolatrous and other vicious practices, were condemned for this very reason, that they sinned against the light of nature; and both practised and promoted iniquity, although they knew “the judgment (or the righteous decision?)
6 When we remember the comprehensive account almost immediately afterwards given, by the apostle Paul, of the utter corruption of unregenerate man, Rom. iii, 9—19, and call to mind his subsequent declara. tion respecting himself—" I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing," vii, 18—we cannot consistently attribute to him the doctrine, that the Gentiles were enabled, by any of their merely natural faculties, to fulfil the law of God. No man surely, since the fall, can possibly have fulfilled that law, except through the influence of the Holy Spirit. It is obvious, that, in Rom. ii, 13-15, 27, a condition of nature is advanced in antithesis not to one of grace but to one in which men enjoyed the benefit of an external revelation. For my own part I beg it may be understood, that by "the light of nature," I mean, simply, the light which God has communicated to the souls of men independently of an outwardly revealed religion.
7 τὸ δικαίωμα του Θεοῦ.--These words are well translated in the Horæ Romanæ of R. Cox, M.A., (a valuable little work lately published,) "the rule of right (ordained) by God.”
and under the Light of Revelation. [Ess. XII.
of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death :" Rom. i, 32.8
But the declarations of Scripture respecting obedience, like those concerning faith, relate, for the most part, to those persons only who enjoy the benefit of an outward revelation. It would be difficult now to determine, in what degree the general mass of mankind are still benefited by the traditional influence of such a revelation; but it will not be disputed by any persons who bow to the authority of Scripture history, that during all ages, from the beginning of the world to the present day, God has preserved for himself, from among men, a visible church-consisting of persons, on whom he has bestowed, by means of extraordinary communications, a far clearer and more definite knowledge of his will, than can be obtained through the medium of merely natural religion. That a part, if not the whole, of mankind, before the flood, were favoured with successive declarations of the law of God, may be safely concluded from the assertion of the apostle Peter, that Christ "went and preached” unto them "by the Spirit”—that is, doubtless, through the appointed instrumentality of an inspired ministry, 1 Pet. iii, 18, 19; and Noah is, by the same apostle, expressly described as a "preacher of righteousness:" 2 Pet. ii, 15. Nor can it be reasonably questioned, that the same character attached to many of his descendants-such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joband that the moral law of God, in connexion with some obscure, yet animating, indications of his Gospel, continued to be promulgated on divine authority, within the limits of the Lord's visible church, from the
8 For a further elucidation of this branch of the subject, the reader may peruse Bishop Butler's dissertation on the Nature of Virtue, printed as an appendix to his admirable work "on the Analogy of Religion, natural and revealed, to the constitution and course of Nature."
days of the flood to those of the Mosaic institution. It is probable, that under that institution the moral law was more fully developed, than it had ever before been, since the fall of our species. It was also placed upon record, for the perpetual instruction of the Israelitish nation: and what was the substance of this law? It was, that they should love the Lord their God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their mind; and their neighbour as themselves. "On these two commandments," said the Saviour of men, hang all the law and the prophets:" Matt. xxii, 37-40. And the moral code, thus graciously imparted to the Israelites, was never to be out of sight or hearing-it was to accompany them whithersoever they went-it was to be kept in never-failing recollection. "These words which I command thee this day," said Jehovah to his people, "shall be in thine heart, and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes; and thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates:" Deut. vi, 6–9.
But it was not only the unchangeable law of morality which God revealed to his children, under the patriarchal and Mosaic dispensations. That great scheme of special providence, which was preparatory to the coming of the Son of God in the flesh, and to the general diffusion among mankind of his glorious Gospel, was conducted through the instrumentality of the Lord's servants; and thus it became their duty to render a ready obedience to a vast variety of positive precepts, arising out of an equal variety of occasions; and yet, all tending directly or indirectly to the same