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FOUNDATION OF MORAL OBLIGATION.
PRACTICAL BEARINGS OF THE DIFFERENT THEORIES.
It has already been observed that this is a highly practical question, and one of surpassing interest and importance, and I have gone through the discussion and examination of the several principal theories for the purpose of preparing the way to expose the practical results of those various theories, and show that they legitimately result in some of the most soul-destroying errors that cripple the church and curse the world. I have slightly touched already upon this subject, but so slightly, however, as to forbid its being left until we have looked more steadfastly, and thoroughly into it.
I. Iwill begin with the theory that regards the sovereign will of God as the foundation of moral obligation.
One legitimate and necessary result of this theory, is a totally erroneous conception both of the character of God and of the nature and design of His government. If God's will is the foundation of moral obligation, it follows that He is an arbitrary sovereign. He is not under law himself, and He has no rule by which to regulate His conduct, nor by which either himself or any other being can judge of his moral character. Indeed unless He is under law, or is a subject of moral obligation, he has and can have no moral character; for moral character always and necessarily implies moral law and moral obligation. If God's will is not itself under the law of His infinite reason, or in other words, if it is not conformed to the law imposed upon it by His intelligence, then His will is and must be arbitrary in the worst sense, that is, in the sense of having no regard to reason, or to the nature and relations of moral agents. But if His will is under the law of His reason, if he acts from principle, or has good and benevolent reasons for his conduct, then His will is not the foundation of moral obligation, but those reasons that lie revealed in the Divine intelligence, in view of which it affirms moral obligation, or that He ought to will in conformity with those reasons. In other words, if the intrinsic value of His own well-being and that of the universe be the foundation of moral obligation; if His reason affirms his obligation to choose this as an ultimate end, and to consecrate His infinite
energies to the realization of it; and if His will is conformed to this law, it follows,
(1.) That His will is not the foundation of moral obligation. (2.) That He has infinitely good and wise reasons for what He wills, says, and does.
(3.) That He is not arbitrary, but always acts in conformity with principles and for reasons that will, when universally known, compel the respect and even admiration of every intelligent being in the universe.
(4.) That He has a moral character, and is infinitely virtuous. (5.) That he must respect himself.
(6.) That he must possess a happiness intelligent in kind, and infinite in degree.
(7.) That creation, providential, and moral government, are the necessary means of an infinitely wise and good end, and that the evils that exist are only unavoidably incidental to this infinitely wise and benevolent arrangement, and although great, are indefinitely the less of two evils. That is, they are an evil indefinitely less than no creation and no government would have been, or than a different arrangement and government would have been. It is conceivable that a plan of administration might have been adopted that would have prevented the present evils, but if we admit that God has been governed by reason in the selection of the end he has in view, and in the use of means to accomplish it, it will follow that the evils are less than would have existed under any other plan of administration, or at least, that the present system, with all its evils, is the best that infinite wisdom and love could adopt.
(8.) These incidental evils, therefore, do not at all detract from the evidence of the wisdom and goodness of God, for in all these things He is not acting from caprice, or malice, or an arbitrary sovereignty, but is acting in conformity with the law of his infinite intelligence, and of course has infinitely good and weighty reasons for what He does and suffers to be done so good and so weighty reasons that he could not do otherwise without violating the law of his own intelligence and therefore committing infinite sin.
(9.) It follows also that there is ground for perfect confidence, love, and submission to His Divine will in all things. That is: If His will is not arbitrary, but conformed to the law of His infinite intelligence, then it is obligatory as our rule of action, because it reveals infallibly what is in accordance with infinite intelligence. We may be entirely safe always in obeying all the Divine requirements, and in
submitting to all his dispensations, however mysterious, being assured that they are perfectly wise and good. Not only are we safe in doing so, but we are under infinite obligation to do so, not because His arbitrary will imposes obligation, but because it reveals to us infallibly the end we ought to choose and the indispensable means of securing it. His will is law, not in the sense of its originating and imposing obligation of its own arbitrary sovereignty, but in the sense of its being a revelation of both the end we ought to seek and the means by which the end can be secured. Indeed this is the only proper idea of law. It does not in any case of itself impose obligation, but is only a revelation of obligation. Law is a condition, but not the foundation of obligation. The will of God is a condition of obligation only so far forth as it is indispensable to our knowledge of the end we ought to seek, and the means by which this end is to be secured. Where these are known, there is obligation whether God has revealed his will or not.
The foregoing and many other important truths, little less important than those already mentioned, and too numerous to be now distinctly noticed, follow from the fact that the good of being and not the arbitrary will of God, is the foundation of moral obligation. But no one of them is or can be true if His will is the foundation of obligation. Nor can any one who consistently holds or believes that His will is the foundation of obligation, hold or believe any of the foregoing truths, nor indeed hold and believe any truth of the law or gospel. Nay, he cannot, if he be at all consistent, have even a correct conception of one truth of God's moral governNow let us see if he can.
(1.) Can he believe that God's will is wise and good unless he admits and believes that it is subject to the law of His intelligence. Certainly he can not, and to affirm that he can is a palpable contradiction. But if he admits that the Divine will is governed by the law of the Divine intelligence this is denying that His will is the foundation of moral obligation. If he consistently holds that the Divine will is the foundation of moral obligation, he must either deny that His will is any evidence of what is wise and good, or maintain the absurdity that whatever God wills is wise and good, simply for the reason that God wills it, that if he willed the directly opposite of what he does, it would be equally wise and good. But this is an absurdity the swallowing of which would choke a moral agent to death.
(2.) If he consistently holds and believes that God's sovereign will is the foundation of moral obligation, he can not regard Him as having any moral character, for the reason that there is no standard by which to judge of His willing and acting; for, by the supposition, he has no intelligent rule of action, and therefore can have no moral character as he is not a moral agent, and can himself have no idea of the moral character of his own actions, for in fact, upon the supposition in question, they have none. Any one, therefore, who holds that God is not a subject of moral law, imposed on Him by His own reason, but on the contrary that His sovereign will is the foundation of moral obligation, must, if consistent, deny that He has moral character; and he must deny that God is an intelligent being, or admit that He is infinitely wicked for not conforming His will to the law of His intelligence, and for not being guided by his infinite reason instead of setting up an arbitrary sovereignty of will.
(3.) He who holds that God's sovereign will is the foundation of moral obligation instead of a revelation of obligation, if he be at all consistent, can neither assign nor have any good reason either for confidence in Him or submission to Him. If He has no good and wise reasons for what He commands, why should we obey Him? If He has no good and wise reasons for what he does, why should we submit to Him?
Will it be answered that if we refuse, we do it at our peril, and therefore it is wise to do so even if He have no good reasons for what he does and requires? To this I answer that it is impossible upon the supposition in question either to obey or submit to God with the heart. If we can see no good reasons, but on the other hand, are assured there are no good and wise reasons for the Divine commands and conduct, it is forever naturally impossible from the laws of our nature to render any thing more than feigned obedience and submission. Whenever we do not understand the reason for a Divine requirement, or of a dispensation of Divine providence, the condition of heart obedience to the one and submission to the other, is the assumption that He has good and wise reasons for both. But assume the contrary, to wit, that He has no good and wise reasons for either, and you render heart obedience, confidence, and submission impossible. It is perfectly plain, therefore, that he who consistently holds the theory in question, can neither conceive rightly of God nor of any thing respecting His law, gospel, or government, moral or providential. It is impossible for Him to have an
intelligent piety. His religion, if he have any, must be sheer superstition, in as much as he neither knows the true God, nor the true reason why he should love Him, believe, obey, or submit to Him. In short, he neither knows, nor, if consistent, can know any thing of the nature of true religion, and has not so much as a right conception of what constitutes virtue.
But do not understand me as affirming that none who profess to hold the theory in question have any true knowledge of God or any true religion. No, they are happily so purely theor.sts on this subject, and so happily inconsistent with themselves, as to have, after all, a practical judgment in favor of the truth. They do not see the logical consequences of their theory and of course do not embrace them, and this happy. inconsistency is an indispensable condition of their salvation. There is no end to the absurdities to which this theory legitimately conducts us, as might be abundantly shown. But enough has been said, I trust, to put you on your guard that you do not entertain fundamentally false notions of God and of his government, and consequently of what constitutes. true love, faith, obedience, and submission to Him.
(4.) Another pernicious consequence of this theory is, that those who hold it will of course give false directions to inquiring sinners. Indeed, if ministers, the whole strain of their instructions must be false. They must, if consistent, not only represent God to their hearers as an absolute and arbitrary sovereign, but they must represent religion as consisting in submission to this arbitrary sovereignty. If sinners inquire what they must do to be saved, they must answer in substance that they must cast themselves on the sovereignty of a God whose law is solely an expression of his arbitrary will, and whose every requirement and purpose is founded in his arbitrary sovereignty. This is the God whom they must love, in whom they must believe, and whom they must serve with a willing mind. How infinitely different such instructions are from those that would be given by one who knew the truth. Such an one would represent God to an inquirer as infinitely reasonable in all his requirements, in all his ways. He would represent the sovereignty of God as consisting, not in arbitrary will, but in benevolence or love directed by infinite knowledge in the promotion of the highest good of being. He would represent his law, not as the expression of his arbitrary will, but as having its foundation in the self-existent nature of God and in the nature of moral agents, as being the very rule which is agreeable to the nature and rela