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the nature and operations of religion, we proceed to those considerations, which may lead to an answer of the important question, What is Religion?
In the first, bare, generic signification of religion, it means the mutual and known relations between God and man. There may be relations between us which neither God has revealed, nor we have discovered. Religion does not include these, from the obvious reason that we cannot at present have any concern with the design or the consequences of that, about which we have no knowledge. Our mutual relations therefore must be known. We are creatures; God is our creator. We are governed; God is our King. We hold nothing by our own power; we are dependent upon some one for life, breath, and support; God is our preserver. We do right and wrong, and are accountable for our actions; God is our Judge. God is almighty, and infinite in wisdom, justice and goodness; we owe him the highest fear, reverence, love, gratitude and obedience. The inductions of our unassisted reason are alone insufficient to direct and guide us in our knowledge of God and of our duty toward him; and God has, at sundry times and in divers manners, revealed to us bis character, his will, our prospects, and our duty. Now if religion does not mean these relations, these duties and these communications, what does it mean?
The nature of these relations, these duties and communications, must be determined from the design of God in creating us, and from our capacity and ability of answering that design. This leads us to the proposition, that God created us to be happy. The Deity had certainly some design in giving us life and placing us in this world. Was that design good or evil? Did God create us to be happy or miserable? If he did not create us to be happy, what did he create us for? These questions come home to the good feelings and the common sense of every individual, and return us the answer. He created us to be happy. It follows that all his dealings, all his communications, all his relations with us, must be productive, either immediately or ultimately, of our happiness.
The next question is, in what does our happiness consist? We mean permanent happiness, happiness as a character of being, that happiness which such a Being as God would choose. I know, and I rejoice, it is ordered by our beneficent Creator, that sources of happiness should spring up without number in the regions of every sense, throughout the wide empire of mind, and in all the stages of our existence. But what constitutes the grand, the pervading, the fundamental pleasure of
life, what is that without which there can be no true enjoyment, no genuine happiness? Ask it of any one. neighbours, of yourselves, of your own observation, of your Ask it of your own convictions and your own consciences. Ask it of the good, and they will tell you that it is virtue; ask it of the bad, and they will tell you that it is virtue. Virtue, virtue it is, which constitutes the peace of individuals, the safety of states, the order of society, the happiness of mankind. Now if God created us to be happy, if all his dealings and communications with us have a regard to our happiness, and if our happiness is identified with our virtue, it follows that the object of all his dealings and communications with us, is the assistance, the increase, the confirmation of our virtue. Every thing that God has declared to man at sundry times and in divers manners, by the fathers, the prophets, and his Son, concerning his nature, his character, his purposes, his will, our situation, our pros pects, and our duty, or upon any other subject whatever, if there be any other subject of revelation not embraced under these heads, every thing which God has made known to us at any time, in any manner, and by any instrument or means, points to our moral condition and improvement as to its great and eternal end. In short, virtue is the object of all revelation; the only object which we can admit, for it is the only object of which we can conceive.
Let it be observed, however, that by virtue, as we use the word, we do not mean those qualities to which that term is often confined by the world; that honesty, decency, and well seeming, which are imposed by the constitution of society, and which are just sufficient to keep a man within the pale of decorum, and out of the reach of human laws. But we mean by the word virtue, what the sacred writers mean by the word holiness or righteousness; we mean the exercise of that love to man, of which love to God is the basis; that performance of duty, of which habitual principle and pious feelings are the source; that steady course of well-doing which begins in a deep and grateful sense of obligation to the Almighty, and never turns aside from any meaner consideration; extending the word to the state of the HEART, as well as the manner of the life. This is the virtue, righteousness, holiness, which we say is the object of revelation; and we desire that this explanation should be kept in mind during the whole train of our remarks.
The manner in which revelation effects this object, becomes the next step in our inquiry. And here the answer appears to be as plain, direct, and natural, as any which has been given. If before any revelation, mankind had discovered by
the light of their reason the whole nature of this virtue, and knew exactly what it was to be virtuous, but still were so limited in foresight and so assailed by temptation, that their conduct was not only often wrong, but that their principles became corrupt and their characters depraved, then the manner of effecting the object of revelation would be, to offer such powerful reasons and inducements to the constant pursuit of a right course, that the evil tendencies of the above mentioned influences would be counteracted, if not entirely and universally, yet generally and in a great degree. But if they were destitute, both of an accurate knowledge of right and wrong, and of motives to induce them to adopt the one and avoid the other, then the manner of effecting the object of revelation would certainly be, to furnish them with both, to enlighten their ignorance and to assist their weakness. In such a condition as this last, the world had long remained before the revelation of Christianity, and to such a condition was that revelation adapted. We speak of the revelation of Christianity alone, both because it contains all that was of universal importance in the Jewish dispensation, and because it is the only one which has been made to all mankind. Before it was made
them, they were exceedingly corrupt; they were deeply sunk in ignorance and sin. What was to be the remedy? Why, no other certainly than the proposition of a plain and perfect system of duty, which if pursued would make them virtuous and happy, accompanied by certain assistances, motives, and sanctions, sufficiently powerful to lead them to pursue it. Now if we open the New Testament, which is the only source from which we can derive our knowledge of the revelation of God through Jesus Christ, what do we find contained and revealed there? If we leave out the history, the great body of the remainder consists of moral precepts, which inculcate the most uniform and unbending virtue. To these are added certain doctrines, which are always connected with the precepts in their design, and which serve them either separately as assistances, motives, and sanctions, or in all these capacities together. It will be allowed by all, that if the moral precepts of the gospel be obeyed, such an obedience will make us virtuous and happy, that is to say, accomplish the design of the Almighty in creating us; and to our view nothing can be more clear, than that the purpose of every single doctrine of the same revelation is to enable us to render that obedience and fulfil that design. Aquaint us with a higher, nobler, and more rational purpose, and we will embrace it with joy; prove to us that another purpose is expressly declared in
the scriptures, and at the instant we will resign this with readiness and with pleasure.
We are aware, that a doctrine is advocated by many, which militates with the temper of these remarks, and opposes us at the entrance of our way. We allude to the doctrine of the utter inability of man, in his natural state, to obey the will of God. It would be incompatible with our present design to enter into a thorough examination of the objections which might be brought against our views; but upon this one we think proper just to make the two following observations. First, that in a limited sense of this doctrine we believe it ourselves; we believe that mankind, before they were assisted by the grace or favour of God with the motives and means of the Christian revelation, were unable to perform their duty or obey his will, from the very circumstance of their being thus unassisted. In this sense, indeed, it constitutes one of our former propositions. Our second observation with regard to the doctrine in its full extent and unexplained signification, is this, that it appears strange and inconsistent, to us it appears contradictory, that man should have the power completely to counteract the benevolent design of God in creating him, which was, to make him virtuous and happy, and yet be entirely destitute of the power to answer that design.
Let us now proceed to inquire into the tendencies and uses of the principal and undisputed doctrines of that revelation, which was made to all men by Jesus Christ. We will commence with the attributes of the Deity. What is that power with which we are insensibly, though necessarily, intimately, and eternally connected? And what is the purpose for which a knowledge of this power was revealed?
We are told, that the high power above us is single, unparticipated and unimparted; that there is but one God. The use of this doctrine is to preserve men from idolatry and its consequent immoralities. Men are prevented from deifying their monarchs, their heroes, their passions, their fancies and their fears, from cringing to ideal existences, whom they make almost as weak and quite as wicked as themselves, and from bowing with abject and ignorant reverence before "stocks and stones." The moral uses of this doctrine will be easily discerned without our entering into a more particular explanation of them.
God is holy. We cannot shelter our sins under the plea of example. His holiness is an inducement to purity in ourselves, for "what fellowship hath light with darkness?"
God is just. He is influenced by no partial considerations. His favour is to be obtained only by our individual efforts in the practice of virtue. No incense from the shrine of superstition, no bribe from guilty fear, will alter his least purpose, or purchase a single smile. This attribute gives assurance also to upright intentions and honest endeavours. It will not suffer us to faint at the thought, that though we exert ourselves to the best of our ability, we still fall far short of our duty; for it is a characteristic of justice to make allowances for difference of advantages, opportunities and situation, for necessary igno. rance, temptation and frailty.
God is good. Every cause and every principle of gratitude calls upon us to render to him the only return which we can make and which he requires, our best obedience-our own happiness.
God is merciful. Into the character of the Deity there enters not the least portion of revenge. Sincere contrition never need despair, sincere repentance never need to be repented of; entire reformation of heart and life ensures the forgiveness and favour of God, and leaves past sin, not to his persecuting vengeance, but to the remorse and other bitter consequences, which by the constitution of nature are bound to pursue and to punish it. Much has been said concerning the accommodation of the justice with the mercy of God. To us, they seem perfectly to coincide. Others may believe, that there are two warring principles, two attributes which are at variance with each other in the perfect character of God. We cannot. The ideas of others concerning divine justice, may be, that it writes its laws in characters of blood; that it pays no regard to any circumstances, and that it requires absolute perfection of beings, who were created frail; they are not
God is omnipresent and omniscient. He is in all our paths, and we cannot escape from him; he is in the recesses of our hearts, and we cannot deceive him. To know that the eye of God is at all times full upon us, and that he is perfectly acquainted with our inmost thoughts, is certainly a motive to restrain us from doing or conceiving wrong. It creates a happy confidence and trust likewise, to be assured that there is a Being who is every where present to protect and defend us, and that He, who knows all things, will never err in his conduct toward man, or in his government of the universe.
God is Almighty. He is therefore perfectly able to punish and to reward. Every other being is entirely subordinate to bis control, and we need not therefore fear the malicious or the