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FUTURE PUNISHMENT REGULATED BY PRESENT OPPORTUNITIES OF IMPROVEMENT.
REV. J. PARSONS,
SURREY CHAPEL, JANUARY 24, 1836.
"And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and die commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more."-LUKE, Xii. 47, 48.
THESE words, my hearers, were uttered by Him who spake as never man spake they came from the lips of Him who, although he was in the form of God, and thought it no robbery to be equal with God, made himself of no reputation, and took on him the form of a servant, and was found in fashion as a man; who, while dwelling among the race whose nature he had assumed, became their instructor in all spiritual truth, expounding to them the extent of their obligation, and the grandeur of their destinies; and who, after having offered in their behalf an all-sufficient sacrifice, for ever ascended to the right hand of the Majesty on high, that, amidst the splendours of the mediatorial government, he might conduct the plans of divine love to a glorious and triumphant accomplishment. That all the announcements of such a Being merit reverential and devout attention, surely will not be disputed. An announcement is now before you, the claim of which is obvious and pre-eminent—a claim which rests not merely on the dignity of the speaker, but on the fact that what is spoken is identified with the highest interests of the human soul.
As to the precise connexion in which the words of the text occur, you will observe they are a part of one of those fictions or parables in which the Lord Jesus, under allusion to domestic customs, several times states important truths, as to the spiritual obligations and responsibilities of mankind. In the present instance, the parable is one of a master, or lord, absent for a season from his dwelling, who has committed to his various servants certain duties to be performed on his behalf; and who, at an appointed period, mysterious and unknown to them, will return for the purpose of distributing retribution, reward or punishment, according to the actions by which they have been distinguished. The words which we have now read constitute the close of the parable, and they are indeed solemn and impressive: "That servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more."
It is my intention, my brethren—and I would state it at the outset―gradually, in the process of the observations now to be made, to shew you certain momentous conclusions with regard to your own final responsibilities, and your everlasting welfare and I must crave your attention to-night, with the utmost simplicity on your part, as with the utmost prayerfulness and earnestness on my own, whilst I endeavour, with all brevity, and yet with all distinctness, to illustrate the three following observations, which may be deduced from the Redeemer's language. First, that all men exist in a state of obligation to God. Secondly, that the responsibilities of men, connected with their state of retribution, vary in proportion to their opportunities of knowledge and improvement. Thirdly, that the punishment of men for the violation of their responsibilities, is regulated by the value of the opportunities which they have possessed, and which they have abused.
First, it is observed, THAT ALL MEN EXIST IN A STATE OF OBLIGATION TO GOD. This general fact it is clearly the object of the parable before us to illustrate-men being presented in the character of servants, and God being presented in the character of a master, or lord. The spiritual application of the relative terms before us, as we have ventured to state it, will be found confirmed by the whole tenor of inspiration. Let us briefly notice the reasons on which the relationship of man to God is founded. It will be understood that this position originates from the fact, that they are indebted to God for their creation; and that they are indebted to him also for all the means by which their being, once given, is continued, is supplied, and is blessed. "The Lord is the great God; he is the great King." "The strength of the hills is his also." « The sea is his, and the dry land.” "The Lord he is God: it is he who hath made us, and not we ourselves: we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture."
Moreover, men, invested as they are by the law of their existence, with intelligence, with rational and thinking souls, are brought within the range of the grand scheme of moral government of which God is the supreme and sovereign head, which is based on the eternal and unchangeable perfections of his own nature, and which he wills to conduct through successive ages to his own praise and glory. All who constitute the human race, as well as all angelic beings, are unavoidably the subjects of his government; they are all comprehended in its purposes; they are all subservient to its laws; they are all amenable to its sanctions: and so they must continue as long as men are men and as long as God is God.
There is no occasion for us now to enter into further illustration as to the reason of man's state, as suggested to us in the text: what we have remarked is now sufficient; and all that remains is to admit and to apply the truth for ourselves.
Now we have on this part of the subject to notice, the general nature of the obligation which this relationship imposes. In the phraseology of the text that obligation is, that the servant should do according to his lord's will. Now to this state of obligation, more expressly and in ordinary terms, you remark, it is demanded of men that they render to their God the habitual and the earnest homage of their intellect, and the supreme affections of the heart: that they obey with uniformity all the precepts which, as a Lawgiver, he has been pleased to promulge: and that they render all the faculties and opportunities with which they are endowed, for the advancement of his praise and honour. If, my brethren, we looked merely at the essential principles of moral govern.
ment, we should find the requirement now alleged to be but reasonable and just: and when we advert more distinctly to that record of revelation in which the great and the eternal Giver has been pleased to issue forth and propound his commands, we should find that requirement to be urged on us with irresistible power. Men are, for example, told to "love the Lord their God with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their mind, and with all their strength." They are told that they are to fear him, that they are to serve him, that they are to honour him, and that they are to cleave unto him. They are told that they are to give themselves to him, and that they are to glorify themselves in their bodies and in their souls, which are his. Such are some of the expressions contained in Holy Writ-expressions which the whole of the Sacred Volume is made to illustrate in those various means which are adapted to impress, to convince, and to overawe. And if, my hearers, they were now rightly estimated, how far different would be the spectacle of the moral universe from that which it now presents. Then ignorance, and darkness, and danger would be purged away from its sphere. Then would it present one scene of order, of holiness, of harmony, of beauty, and of joy: and then would it exhibit but one universal paradise, brightened by the unclouded favour of its Lord, and unfolding, through every region and every being, the very element of immortality and of heaven.
Let us then, my brethren, thus be considered as having established this most comprehensive, general principle, that all men are existing in a state of obligation to God. We now proceed to observe,
Secondly, THAT THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF MEN, CONNECTED WITH THEIR STATE OF OBLIGATION, VARY IN PROPORTION TO THEIR OPPORTUNITIES OF KNOWLEDGE AND OF IMPROVEMENT. It is very clear, as you will observe, from the terms and structure of the text, that a difference is made between the case of that servant who knew his lord's will, and that servant who knew it not: and, arising from the fact before us, there are three remarks here, ascending step by step, to which your attention must be directed.
First, we may assert, that there exists in the world very different degrees of opportunity for knowledge and improvement. This fact is beautifully exemplified by the Lord Jesus himself in the memorable parable of the Talents. We are informed in the chapter in which that parable is contained, the twentyfifth chapter of Matthew, the fourteenth and fifteenth verses, that "the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey." We cannot, my hearers, exercise our own powers of memory or of observation, without perceiving that there is on earth a very varied distribution of means for estimating and fulfilling the purposes of the grand scheme of moral government, under which, nevertheless, all men are placed. There is, for example, a difference occasioned by the vigour or feebleness of the intellectual faculties which are awarded to individual men: there is a difference occasioned by the refinement or rudeness, the civilization or barbarism, of social habits and national institutions: there is a difference occasioned by the presence or absence of that revelation in which God has been pleased to embody the system of saving truth : there is a difference occasioned by the comparative clearness or obscurity of
that economy under which revelation exists, and from the manner in which it is impressed and brought home to the conscience, the understanding, and the heart. It is not needful that we refer to specific examples for the purpose of illustrating the fact, which is now brought before you. Look around, and you will perceive that the world has long presented, and does now present, many varieties and inequalities arising from the causes we have enumerated. It is thus that God, the supreme Governor and Judge, has been pleased to award to one man five talents, to another man two talents, and to another one talent: "Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight."
The second remark, necessarily and directly following from the former, is, that we are placed in circumstances which afford to us the highest degrees of opportunity for knowledge and for improvement. At the time when the Saviour spake the solemn words before us, the Jews were invested with the highest degree of privilege among the nations of the earth; and their case was the one which he had pre-eminently and solemnly in view. There cannot be, my brethren, any impropriety-far otherwise indeed-in applying the language of the Saviour to the condition and the circumstances of the country in which it is our own privilege to live. In justifying the estimate we have formed, we do not now refer to intellectual faculties; we do not refer to social customs and habits; we do not refer to the advantages arising from the form of liberal government, and from the various means of improvement, intellectual and moral, which have been so thickly strewed around us, so much as we do to what we term religious privileges. With respect to these the heathen nations of the earth are to be regarded as constituting the lowest class and order. They do, indeed, possess the manifestation of God in the works of nature; for "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handy work. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard." "The invisible things of God, from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead." They do, indeed, possess the manifestation of God in the law which is written in their hearts, "their consciences also bearing them witness, and their thoughts, the meantime, either excusing or accusing one another." But how feeble is the law, and how tremulous is the voice of reason and of conscience, constituted as man now is, except he be influenced by the power of that revelation in which God has embodied the principles of eternal rectitude, and which is intended to make men wise unto salvation. Now, my brethren, that revelation, you are aware, has been imparted to us; and it has been imparted to us, not in any imperfect form, and shadowy mode, as in patriarchal and Levitical times, but under the very best form in which God has been pleased to grant it to the children of men—even the glorious Gospel of his Son. "God, who at sundry times, and in divers manners, spake in times past to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken to us by his Son." We have not the word which was spoken to angels, and which was steadfast, but we have the "great salvation which at first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will." Take, my brethren, a survey of the privileges connected with the system of revelation by which you are now surrounded. Think of your Bibles-books which contain not merely portions and frag
ments of truth, but which comprehend the whole counsel of God; with regard to which, on pain of eternal wrath, he has forbidden that any thing should be added or taken away. Think of your Sabbath days, on which you may frequently and periodically retire from the ordinary engagements of the world, and engage in the most delightful retrospect of events that are past, and the most delightful anticipation of events to transpire in ages yet to come. Think of your ordinances, which, under various forms of meditation, and praise, and prayer, are intended to refine and draw out the soul into the closest and most intimate communion with God. Think, again, of your ministers-men who are appointed and set forth by the Spirit of Jehovah for the purpose of proclaiming, with that energy which the living voice can alone command, the oracles of eternal truth, beseeching you, in Christ's stead, to be reconciled unto Godwarning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus the Lord. Truly, my brethren, you will at once be brought to the confession, that the lines have fallen unto you in pleasant places, and that you have a goodly heritage. He hath not dealt with any nation as he has dealt with you. It is now the very noontide, the very meridian, the very zenith of privilege, to which no augmentation or addition can be made, but which must remain in unparalleled and unsurpassing splendour, the very brightest of the bestowments of heaven.
Another remark must also here follow before this part of the subject can be left, namely, that possessing as we do, such opportunities as those which have been stated, we are under a special call to eminent devotedness to the service of that God who gave them. It is clearly a doctrine arising from the text, that men are called upon to make an improvement of their privileges precisely adapted and proportioned to their number and their value. "Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more." If two talents have been accorded to a man, he must aspire to gain other two; if five talents have been accorded, the man must aspire to gain other five. Now, my brethren, let it be admitted, that we are, in our own country, gifted with privileges which are so precious; let it be admitted that God has been pleased to surround us with those modes of demonstration around which so much of brilliancy and so much of glory have gathered; and then it also must be admitted, and ought to be deeply felt, that in place of that vain and empty boast in which many have been so apt to indulge, we should regard ourselves as placed under a solemn and special obligation to cultivate the very highest elevation of moral and spiritual character which the whole range of the divine government among men can afford.
We ought to cherish and exhibit that elevation in the affairs of our own salvation. Our repentance ought to be the most contrite; our faith ought to be the most firm; our love ought to be the most ardent; our zeal ought to be the most burning; our holiness ought to be the most pure; our devotedness and dedication ought to be the most entire. We should aim to be filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are in Jesus Christ, to the praise and the glory of God. We should strive to cleanse ourselves from all the corruptions of the flesh and of the spirit, and to perfect holiness in the fear of God.
We ought also to exhibit that elevation in promoting the salvation of other men. It is a solemn duty imposed on those to whom the privileges of religion have been given, that they should attempt the communication of it to those