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morals! Virtue implies obligation, or in other words virtue is something which we are obliged to do. Dr. Paley tells us that to be obliged to do a thing is to be urged by a powerful motive; and this he considers as so clear an account of the matter, as to remove some of the mystery which hung over it in his own mind. But what confusion! Obligation, moral obligation, nothing but being urged by a powerful motive!! Does the assassin, who holds a dagger at my breast, to compel me to sign a surreptitious deed, do any thing to lay me under a moral obligation to obey him? Surely this is pouring confusion, instead of light, on the whole system of morals. On our system, the nature of obligation is perfectly plain; even a child can understand it. It is part and parcel of the complex notion of law. If one being has a right to make laws, i. e. to command, other beings must be obliged to obey them. Obligation is the antithesis of law; they are things which nature has joined together, and no man, no, not even in thought, can put them asunder.
Faith is one of the cardinal Christian graces; and great wonder has been expressed by some infidels, why so capricious and involuntary a principle (as they would call it) should be made the condition of salvation. But the law is invisible; it has no place among all the tangibles of sensual life. He that cometh to God, says a sacred writer, must believe that he is, and is the rewarder of such as diligently seek him.
What is this but saying that faith is to law, what the optic organ is to light. If so, then to say that a man must have faith to please God, is no more than saying that he must have eyes in order to enjoy the sun.
But the grand advantage of this view, is the light which it throws on that central truth, perplexing to reason, but necessary to religion, the salvation of mankind by an expiatory sacrifice in the death of a Redeemer.
Some of our religionists tell us, and with great apparent sincerity, that it seems to confound their ideas, and disturb their moral apprehensions, to say, that man, though a sinner, should not be forgiven on sincere penitence. Why should he not? This seems to be the most simple arrangement of cause and effect. "We can understand," they say, "that sin should be demeritorious* in the sight of God; we can understand his displeasure and its punishment; but how salvation should ever be procured by the pangs of another, we cannot understand. It seems to us, no man would have thought so, if his natural ideas had not been disturbed by the figments of theology." These objections doubtless are honest and should be soberly answered.
Meditate then, my friend, on the fact, that all virtue, goodness, holiness, or whatever you call it, must be
* As I am a Puritan and a Yankee, I shall coin words just when I please.
conformity to a law; without this, virtue has no place; and, in a religious sense, virtue must be conformity to the law of God. Now consider deeply the nature of law. Its force is its justice, its power is in its punishments. If every act of disobedience is pardoned on the plea of penitence, (and the law knows none but general principles,) all guilt is free, (for all will hope to be penitent,) and all government is lost. Nature shows that something more is necessary than repentance; what that something is, is discovered by revelation.
And certainly discipline is not only the removal of disorder, but, if any visible shape can be given to divine things, the very visible shape and image of virtue, whereby she is not only seen in the regular gestures and motions of her hourly paces as she walks, but also makes the harmony of her voice audible to mortal ears.
Milton against Prelaty. Book I. ch. 1.
No idea can be more important than that God governs the world by a law; and from this position, as from a radiant point, emanate all, or nearly all the other truths of religion. He, who has clearly fixed in his mind the idea of God, and his law, the nature and bearing of each on the conscience and conduct of man, has made no small proficiency to the comprehension of the whole subject of revealed religion; and confusion here, spreads confusion over all our subsequent religious inquiries.
It has often been remarked, that all spiritual things are to be understood by comparisons taken from
temporal objects. As we see the sun through his reflected image in the water, so we must discern spiritual things through their faint similitudes found on earth. Hence we speak of God's mode of government, by calling it a law; the expression, however, is liable to mislead us.
We receive our earliest conceptions of law, from civil transactions. All human laws must necessarily be imperfect; and hence we are apt to attach a notion of imperfection to the laws of God. Mankind are so immersed in matter, they are so carnal in their conceptions, so little refined and spiritual in their expectations and desires, that their views are fixed on the implements of happiness, rather than happiness itself. Laws are chiefly employed in regulating property; and it is remarkable that no complex system of legislation was ever invented, until they first began to sow and reap, to measure and till the ground, in other words, to establish a private right in real estate. Hence the poets tell us that Ceres, the goddess of corn, who first taught men to plough the field, and gave them better food, was the first also who gave them laws; the meaning of which fable is, that the same wisdom, which teaches men to sow the ground, teaches the necessity of protection from law; because
* Prima Ceres unco glebam dimovit aratro :
Ovid, Meta. Lib. V. line 340.