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Were we to allow the reasoning of these people, we should increase their difficulties by removing them, for the argument would end in downright atheism. Were we to allow the force of their objections, I say, we should increase their difficulties, and, instead of obtaining a solution of the difficulty which attends our notion of a divine attribute, we should obtain a proof that there is no God: for, could we prove that there is a being supremely good, in their abstract sense of goodness, we should thereby prove that there is no being supremely just ; because supreme goodness, considered in their abstract manner, destroys supreme justice. The same may be said of all the other perfections of God, one perfection of the divine nature would destroy another, and to prove that God possessed one would be to prove that of the other his nature was quite destitute.
Now, if there be a subject, my brethren, in which people err by considering the perfections of God in a detached and abstract manner, it is this of which we are speaking; it is when people raise objections against the attributes of God from his forbearance with sinners. God seems to act contrary to some of his perfections in his forbearance. Why? Because the perfection, to which his conduct seems incongruous, is considered as if it were alone, and not as if it were in relation to another perfection: because, as I have already said, the divine attributes are considered abstractly and not in their beautiful assortment and admirable harmony.
I confine myself to this principle to refute the objections which some, who are improperly called philosophers, derive from the delay of the punishment of sinners, to oppose to the perfections of God. I do not, however, confine myself to this
for want of other solid answers: for example, I might prove that the notion, which they form of those perfections to which the delay of divine vengeance seems repugnant, is a false notion.
What are those perfections of God ? They are, you answer, truth, which is interested in executing the threatenings denounced against sinners : wisdom, which is interested in supplying means of reestablishing order: and particularly justice, which is interested in punishing the guilty.
I reply, your idea of truth is opposite to truth: your idea of wisdom is opposite to wisdom: your idea of justice is opposite to justice.
Yes, the notion you entertain of truth is opposite to truth, and you resemble those scoffers, of whom the apostle speaks, who said, Where is the promise of his coming ? 2 Pet. iii. 4. What Jesus Christ hath said of St. John, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? chap. xxi. 22. had occasioned a rumour concerning the near approach of the dissolution of the world: but there was no appearance of the dissolution of the world : thence the scoffers, of whom St. Peter speaks, concluded that God had not fulfilled his promise, and on this false supposition they said, Where is the promise of his coming? Apply this reflection to yourselves. The delay of the punishment of sinners, you say, is opposite to the truth of God: on the contrary, God hath declared he would not punish every sinner as soon as he had committed an act of sin. The sinner doth evil an hundred times, and God prolongeth his days.
The delay of the punishment of sinners, you say, is opposite to the wisdom of God: on the contrary, it is this delay which provides for the execution of that wise plan which God hath made for mankind, of placing them for some time in a state
of probation in this world, and of regulating their future reward or punishment according to their use or abuse of such a dispensation.
The delay of the punishment of sinners, you say, is repugnant to the justice of God. Quite the contrary. What do you call justice in God? What ! Such an impetuous emotion as that which animates you against those who affront you, and whom
you consider as enemies? An implacable madness, which enrageth you to such a degree that a sight of all the miseries into which you are going to involve them is not able to curb ? Is this what you call justice ?
But I suppress all these reflections, and return to my principle, (and this is not the first time we have been obliged to proportion the length of a discourse, not to the nature of the subject, but to the impatience of our hearers.) I return to my principle; the delay of the punishment of sinners will not seem incompatible with the justice of God, unless you consider that perfection detached from another perfection, by which God in a most eminent manner displays his glory, I mean his mercy. An explication of the last clause of our text, the sinner doth evil an hundred times, and God prolongeth his days, will place the matter in a clear light: for the long-suffering of God with sinners flows from his mercy. St. Peter confirms this when he tells us, The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, but is long-suffering to us
ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance, 2 Epist. iii. 9.
It is with the same view that Jesus Christ calls the whole time, during which God delayed the destruction of Jerusalem, the time of the visitation of that miserable city, Luke xix. 44. And for the same reason St. Paul calls the whole time, which God puts between the commission of sin and
the destruction of sinners, riches of forbearance, and long-suffering, that lead to repentance, Rom. ii. 4. And who could flatter himself with the hope of escaping devouring fire, and everlasting burnings, Isa. xxxiii. 14. were God to execute immediately his sentence against evil works, and to make punishment instantly follow the practice of sin ?
What would have become of David, if divine mercy had not prolonged his days after he had fallen into the crimes of adultery and murder; or if justice had called him to give an account of his conduct, while his heart, burning with a criminal passion, was wishing only to gratify it ; while he was sacrificing the honor of a wife, the life of a husband, along with his own body, which should have been a temple of the Holy Ghost, to the criminal passion that inflamed his soul? It was the long-suffering, the patience of God, that gave him time to recover himself, to get rid of his infatuation, to see the horror of his sin, and to say under a sense of it, Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness : according unto the multitude of thy mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions ; and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight : that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest, Psal. li. 1-4.
What would have become of Manasseh, if God had called him to give an account of his administration while he was making the house of God the theatre of his dissoluteness and idolatry; while he was planting groves, rearing up altars for the host of heaven, making his sons pass through the fire,
doing more wickedly than the Amorites, making Judah to sin with his dunghill-gods, as the holy scripture calls them? 2 Kings xxi. 3, 6, 11. It was the long-suffering of God that bore with him, that engaged him to humble himself, to pray fervently to the God of his fathers, and to become an exemplary convert, after he had been an example of infidelity and impurity.
What would have become of St. Peter, if God had called him to give an account of himself, while, frightened and subverted at the sight of the judges and executioners of his Saviour, he was pronouneing those cowardly words, I know not the man? Matt. xxvi. 74. It was the long-suffering and patience of God that gave him an opportunity of seeing the merciful looks of Jesus Christ immediately after his denial of him, of fleeing from a place fatal to his innocence, of going out to weep bitterly, and of saying to Jesus Christ, Lord, thou knowe'st that I love thee : Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee, John xxi. 16, 17.
What would have become of St. Paul, if God had required an account of his administration, while he was breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, Acts ix. 1. while he was ambitious of stifling the new-born church in her cradle, while he was soliciting letters from the high-priest to pervert and to punish the disciples of Christ? It was the long-suffering of God, that gave him an opportunity of saying, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? ver. 6. It was the patience of God, which gave him an opportunity of making that honest confession, I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: But I obtained mercy, 1 Tim. i. 13.
IV. But why should we go out of this assembly, and here we enter into the last article, and shall