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(Preached in 1816.)
THE WORLD PURIFIED BY THE JUDGMENTS OF GOD.
THE WORLD PURIFIED BY THE JUDGMENTS OF GOD.
COLLECT your thoughts, my brethren, and listen attentively to my words, for I shall solemnly address you to-day on the most solemn subject that the human mind can conceive—the judgments by which the Lord of the universe makes manifest his righteousness. I will direct your view to God, who sits in judgment on our sinful race, that veneration and pious. awe may penetrate your hearts; but that then, when you perceive in the Judge the Father also, and discover in the revelations of his justice, the manifestations also of his love, trust and hope may mix with these feelings, and your meditation end in deep adoration of the highly-exalted Being, who sits eternally enthroned in solemn majesty, and yet is a God of grace and compassion. But that you may rightly interpret my words, and estimate the divine judgments agreeably to the doctrine of Christianity, I shall first of all oppose a double error, which at One time misleads men into 58uncharitable judgments, at another involves them in inextricable difficulties, and has often shaken their faith. This is partly the opinion, according to which the Divine justice is conceived as only occasionally acting, and consequently the Divine judgments are looked upon not as a continuing, but as an interrupted operation of God; and partly the presumption, that the misfortune, which falls upon individuals or on whole nations and ages, is the measure of their guilt. The living, the ever-creating and ruling, the all-pervading and all-animating God, whom Christianity teaches us to know and adore, never turns his eye from human affairs, never lets his arm rest, and does not, like an earthly king, rise but occasionally to chastise the disobedient, and to curb the daring. His justice as well as his goodness continues through all times, and is a progressive uninterrupted operation. Sin is unceasingly punished; retribution begins with the evil deed, yea with the evil intention, although in the external world it is often not visible till after a long time, and often not at all; for the laws of the holy Governor of the world are eternal and immutable, nothing stops his everlasting rule, which penetrates the whole world, “the Lord never suffers his eyes to sleep, nor his eyelids to slumber.” But it is still more important to combat the opinion, that misfortune is the measure of guilt, which is then most clearly discerned to be error, when we contemplate 59the judgment of God gone out against whole countries and generations. For since in fact the generation which sinned, and the people that deserved its misfortunes, remain; but the individuals which compose the people or generation, change; it is possible, that the children on whom the punishment, the consequence of sin, falls, are less guilty than their fathers. Although, therefore, all are guilty, whom punishment, which follows sin, overtakes, (for all partake more or less in the universal guilt) yet we are not to take their misfortune as the measure of their delinquency, and assert that the nations and people whom great distress, occasioned by sin, has befallen, are guiltier than others. Hence it is that not all misfortune can be considered as punishment, and we have no sure marks by which to distinguish deserved from undeserved sufferings. For God sends calamity not merely to punish but to prove, and not only sin but nature also, (which destroys while it builds, and wounds while it delights), and the will of others, prepare sorrow and pain for man. Unmerited sufferings, therefore, often befal the individual, as well as whole people and generations. On this account, fate must not be the measure of guilt and of merit; and whoever attempts to adopt such a measure concerning individuals or nations, soon finds himself entangled in such difficulties, that he despairs of perceiving the hand of God in human affairs. 60For this reason Jesus Christ has expressly declared himself in opposition to the opinion that every unfortunate is a criminal, and that the greatness of his distress testifies of his guilt, especially, when it was related to him, that Pilate had caused several Galilaeans to be killed, while offering sacrifices in the temple. “Suppose ye,” said the Lord to those who announced this event to him, “Suppose ye, that these Galilaeans were sinners above all Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, nay; but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
But although the degree of calamity must not be taken as a criterion of the degree of guilt, we must nevertheless, if we believe in God, own his judicial dispensations in human affairs; and. although his justice, as his goodness, pervades all times, yet it is visibly manifested only on particular occasions. Now the revelations of Divine justice, such events as attract the special notice of men, in which we clearly perceive a connexion of calamity and ruin with sin and guilt, we call the judgments of God, and must call them so, though the amount of merit and demerit may not be estimated by the fate that attends them. We see how a period of disorder and distraction, of bloody conflicts and unutterable misery, comes upon a whole quarter of the globe; and whilst we search for the causes of this ruin, we discover its foundation in the disregard of sacred 61things and of right, and in a licentiousness and selfishness, which daringly breaks through the bounds of civil order, overturns every thing, if it can but raise itself, and allows itself every possible liberty and indulgence. We say with right, that the judgment of God is come upon the generation of such a period; for God has so ordered it, that calamity and ruin follow the moral degeneracy of nations and their rulers, without our being at the same time able to maintain, that the generation experiencing such calamity is more culpable than the preceding ones, which propagated the moral degeneracy in the succeeding age and prepared its ruin. We see how a nation that proudly and overbearingly exalted itself, and subjugated, plundered, and brought low the neighbouring nations, has been conquered and humbled. We say with reason, that the judgment of God has overtaken this people; for God has so ordered it, that oppression gives strength and courage to the aggrieved to turn against the oppressor, and to be victorious in the struggle of desperation: we say with reason, that the judgment of God has overtaken this people, yet without declaring them to be worse than other nations, or finding in the victory of their conquerors a testimony of their moral worthiness. We see the criminal receive the reward of his deeds. We say with reason, the avenging hand of God has seized him; for it is the dispensation of God, that civil 62society expels from its bosom him, who has wickedly violated the rights of men, and thus the crime engenders his eventual downfal; we fairly acknowledge the judgment of God in the punishment of the offender, yet without determining the degree of his guilt, or asserting that he is worse than all the multitude who stand gazing around the scene of his disgrace. This, my friends, is the notion we ought to have of the judgments of God;—Revelations of his righteousness, significant events exciting attention, in which we discern the connexion of misfortune and ruin with sin and guilt, dark clouds which we see collecting from the vapours exhaled from the earth, and which, menacing destruction, hover now over individuals, now over whole nations. If we believe in God, we must seek and find manifestations of his justice in human concerns, and, therefore, consider events occasioned by sin, and productive of ruin, as Divine judgments. And if we only take care not to regard calamity as the measure of the guilt of those on whom it falls, and do not forget that we are all of us sinners, and consequently no one, who is involved in the general distress, is an innocent sufferer; then every difficulty is removed, and the belief in the righteousness of God exhibited in the world, without misleading us into uncharitable opinions, fills us only with reverence, pious awe, and humility. For in the whole circle of imagination there is nothing greater and 63more sublime, more solemn and awe-inspiring, than the thought of God entering into judgment with the sinful race of men. This very solemn thought, however, has its bright and pleasing side, and in this resembles the moon, whose face towards the earth is at one time dark, at another bright and luminous. For even in his judgments God manifests his goodness, even in the solemnity of the Judge the love of the Father is displayed. We shall acknowledge this, if we contemplate the judgments of God as a purification of the sinful world. But let us to-day so contemplate them, that they may appear to us as thunder-clouds, which together with the destroying lightning send down fruitful rain; and that the gentle feeling of confiding love may mix with the solemn awe of our veneration.
But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ sope: and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in former years.
HOWEVER we may expound these words, my friends, the Prophet obviously speaks of a Divine judgment, 64which shall cleanse and purify the Jewish people. The day of the coming of the Lord is the day of judgment, and when the Prophet asks, “Who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth? “he thereby warns his hearers of the awfulness of the Judge. But he teaches them to be mindful, not only of the judgment, but of its salutary consequences. “He, the Judge,” saith the prophet, “shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” He here means to say, that this judgment is not merely a correction, but also the means of improvement, and that the nation purged and purified, freed from sin and reformed by it, 1 will turn again to its Lord and God, and appear before him in righteousness.
What the Prophet says of a single transaction of God having reference to his people, may be said in general of the judgment which pervades all ages, and affects the whole race of men. It is a purification of the sinful world. Dwell awhile with me on this view of the revelations of Divine justice, and hear me with attention, when I discourse to you of the purification of the sinful world by the judgments of God, and shew you, partly, that we must consider the dispensations of Divine righteousness, as a purging of the sinful world, and partly, of what 65advantage it is to take this view of the judgments of God. But the consoling persuasion, that the judgment of God is not only a judgment, but also a purification of the sinful world; that God, whilst he makes calamity and ruin to follow sin and guilt, not merely punishes evil, but also corrects and reforms it; is grounded on the holiness and wisdom, which we must necessarily suppose in the Supreme Being. For justice and goodness are inseparably united in that Holy One, who invariably wills what is well known to be good, so that his justice is manifested in the dispensations of his goodness, and his goodness in the exhibitions of his justice. It is the one sacred will, which we, viewing it in one light, call goodness, and in another, justice. Every revelation of Divine justice must, therefore, be a revelation of Divine goodness also; and however severe the countenance of the Judge, however dark his eye, however threatening his uplifted arm, may appear to us, we must, nevertheless, discern clemency in his se. verity, and love in his wrath. The thought of the Divine wisdom leads us to the same conclusion. For the essence of wisdom consists in this, that its every aim serves as the means for a higher purpose, and all these means and aims closely connected unite in one last object. We must then, since we ascribe the highest wisdom to God, admit that the objects of his justice, the punishments he sends forth over the sinful world, are, at the same time, means 66for the attainment of other ends, means for the cultivation and improvement of our species, and that all his ordinances and dispensations meet in this last and highest object, to guide the human race to moral perfection. Thus the view of his judgments, as a purification of the sinful world, necessarily results from the holiness and wisdom of God. Therefore the Scripture also says of God, “He reproveth, and nurtureth, and teacheth, and bringeth again, as a shepherd his flock88 Eccles. xviii. 13.;” therefore it instructs us to consider the sufferings of life as chastisements, and chastisements as proofs of Divine love; and exhibits to us now the punishing severity of the Judge, now the forgiving love of the Father.
If we believe in God, we must believe in a judgment of God, which is conspicuous in the history of the world, and is shewn in whole nations and generations, as well as in individuals; for the ground of the connexion of distress and ruin with sin and guilt, can only be found in the will of him, who has given to the world its laws, and guides destiny according to his discretion. But we must contemplate this judgment as a cleansing of the sinful world, when we have acknowledged that the righteous Being is also all-gracious, and the Judge, the Father, and Preceptor, of our species. And now, if fate appears to us as God’s judgment, and the 67judgment as a purification of the sinful world, we look up with reverence, indeed, and holy awe, but still with trust and love, to him who “sits as a refiner and purifier of silver;” for the fire that he pours forth over the world? terribly as its flame may blaze, and painful as may be its effects, destroys and consumes not, it but cleanses and purifies; it resembles not the flame, which, raging, ungovernable, and destructive, rushes through the dwellings of men, but the fire which the artist with design and caution kindles in his laboratory, and renews and extinguishes at the proper time.
Thus the belief, that the sinful world is purified by the judgments of God, is founded on the belief in the Divine holiness and wisdom. But experience also corroborates it, (though it may not of itself fully warrant the belief) since it teaches us that such events as appear to us to be God’s judgments, make manifest the difference between the good and the bad, extirpate much evil, and prove that which is good; and thus resemble the refining process, which separates the dross from the silver, consumes the worthless matter mixed with it, and hardens and proves the purified and generous metal, In the days of ease and prosperity the difference between the good and the bad does not, indeed, disappear, but yet it is obscured; the evil clothed in a pleasing exterior seems to approximate to the good, and the good finds less frequent opportunity 68to display itself in its full strength, and to stand forth in its distinguishing features, discernible and visible to all. But times of great distress, times of disorder, contention, and confusion, render this distinction visible and clear; at such a period hatred and love, cowardice and courage, selfishness and devotedness, are seen in strong contrast; and good and evil appear as it were perfectly personified, and visible to all, in the heroes in virtue, and in the great criminals, which such times call forth on the public stage of the world. By this we may perceive that purification is the aim of the judgments of God.
But further, history also teaches us, that at all times much evil perished in the whirlpool of appalling events, and opinions, constitutions, and customs sank in it, which only the force of a devastating torrent could exterminate. Such an effect, for instance, was produced by the irruption of the nations which took place in the fifth century, and which appears to us as a judgment of God, that the Romans brought down upon themselves, first, by an insatiable spirit of conquest and an overbearing oppression of the nations, and then by a deep corruption of morals that made them weak and effeminate. Unspeakable calamity to the south and west of our quarter of the globe was the consequence of this event: many cities were destroyed, and whole countries converted into deserts. 69But much that was evil and pernicious perished at the same time. Rapacious Rome, that had heavily offended against three quarters of the world, was destroyed, and the iron and burdensome yoke of her dominion was taken off the neck of the subject world, and the enervated effeminacy, and languid worn out existence of a degenerate race, gave way to the fresh life of ruder, indeed, but more youthful and vigorous nations. Or would you have an example from modern history? Consider the event, on account of which posterity will call our age the age of revolution. It was the judgment of God, which France called down by her thirst of conquest, which acquired, indeed, some provinces, but had wasted her wealth by her immorality; which dissolved the bands of domestic and social life by her infidelity; which shook the foundations of rectitude and integrity; and by the contentions of her citizens, one part of whom obstinately maintained oppressive privileges, and, by dissolute living, mocked at the general distress, while another would not acknowledge any distinction of ranks, nor comply with any ordinances. Inexpressible calamity was certainly the result not only to France, but to all Europe. But we must look upon this also as a purification of the world; for much that was noxious and pernicious, was swallowed up in the abyss of revolution. It has taken away in many places privileges founded on relations long since changed, which one class 70maintained to the disadvantage and detriment of the other classes of civil society, and removed the restrictions of the exercise of religion, which in most countries the stronger had imposed upon the weaker; equality of civil rights and freedom of divine worship, though some nations may not yet have the full enjoyment of these benefits, will accrue, as a permanent gain, from the ferment and the struggles of recent times, and will descend to future generations.
Thus the Divine judgment extirpates what is evil and corrupt, removes oppressive relations of life, puts an end to decayed forms of government, and changes the opinions and habits of nations. But at the same time it proves that which is good. It is misfortune that exercises moral strength, and tries charity, confidence, and courage. He who preserved his charity amidst the struggles of hostile passions; he who trusted in God, when destiny was enveloped in the gloom of night; he who stood firm and unshaken, even when the ground trembled beneath his feet; him has the cleansing judgment of God proved. That which is true and good must go through the storms of events that agitate countries and change the world, in order that its subsistence under every alteration of opinions, customs, and relations, may demonstrate its Divine origin, and its connexion with the essential wants of human nature; for we 71justly assume, that the ground of such imperishable duration lies not in fortuitous causes, but in the Everlasting himself. Thus has Christianity been proved to be the work of God and eternal truth, since, in the midst of falling kingdoms and adverse schools of human wisdom, it survived and sank not, when a whole nation publicly renounced it, and half the world was unfaithful to it.
In this manner, my friends, our belief, that the judgment of God is a purification of the sinful world, is confirmed by experience. And now we see the judgment of the world in the history of the world, and in the judgment a cleansing of the world,—a cleansing which does not terminate, because sin does not cease,—but which benefits our species; destroying and wounding indeed, but also extirpating evil and proving that which is good. We must preserve this belief, that the world is purified through God’s judgments, in the first place, for this reason; because that alone gives us a grand and solemn, and at the same time a consolatory, view of the history of the world. If you see nothing in the actions and destinies of nations, but a succession of bloody wars and quickly broken treaties of peace, of kingdoms rising and passing away, of countries separating and uniting; a multifarious picture, worthy of contemplation, is certainly exhibited before you, but not a great and imposing spectacle. For then it is nothing more 72than a long line of common appearances, a long- continued play of the passions, incidentally varying, but essentially always the same. The history of the world, then, only becomes grand and sublime, when we perceive the Spirit of God moving over the depths of the stream of time, and behold the reflection of the Divine glory in the mirror of its waves. He only, who finds a manifestation of God in the history of the world, and in declining and rising kingdoms discerns him who “bringeth low and lifteth up,” who “puts down the mighty from their seats, and exalts them of low degree;” he only can look with holy awe and high conceptions at the great spectacle of migrating nations, smoking cities, falling thrones, contending armies, and ruined empires. Solemn, indeed, and more than solemn,—dreadful and terrific is the Lord passing in judgment through the world; who destroys kingdoms that have become great only by conquest and plunder; delivers up enervated and effeminate nations to the disgrace of slavery; sends discord, tumult and rebellion into countries, that turn from him and mock at his holy laws; who punishes the injustice of kings by the rage of their revolted people, and the degeneracy of the people by the scourge of tyrants: and holy awe fills our souls, when we view in the flames consuming Jerusalem, in Rome’s falling ruins, and in the horrible disorders of France, the avenging arm of the Judge.73
To observe the history of the world as a continued judgment of the world, is a serious contemplation: but by means of viewing it in this light it acquires a religious character, so that we see in it not merely a spectacle of changing forms and appearances, but a manifestation of God; and though his finger is not always clearly to be perceived, yet we may every where be sensible of his rule and superintendence. And however grave and serious this consideration may be, yet it is at the same time consolatory, for this judicial visitation is also a purification of the world, so that not only the justice but also the goodness of God is revealed in it. God does not destroy the kingdoms which have been aggrandised by conquest and robbery, with this intent only, that they may crumble into ruins, but that it may be made manifest to the world, that every work of unrighteousness bears the germ of destruction within itself: he does not give up indolent and effeminate nations to the yoke of slavery, that they may wear perpetual chains, but that they should learn under oppression to be conscious of their strength, and raise themselves again with vigour and courage: discord and confusion are not spread through the people, who scorned what was just and sacred, that they may exterminate each other in endless civil wars, but that they may reform and return to God and to a regard for rectitude. The judging is also the cleansing of the world; and now 74a consolatory view of the history of the world is opened to us, for we trace through its dark paths the steps of him, who bears the sword in his right hand, but the palm-branch in his left, who can indeed strike, but also heal, and turn mourning into joy.
To preserve the belief, that the world is purified through God’s judgments, is, further, important on this account, because it exercises, especially in times when the government of Divine justice is more obviously apparent, an awakening and consoling influence on our hearts. Both the solemnity of the Lord in judgment, and the love of the Father cleansing the sinful world, must, when the judgment of God is revealed on us and our contemporaries, lead us to reflection, and from that to repentance, and from repentance to amendment. Every one shares, more or less, in the general guilt; we must, therefore, all bow in humility and contrition before the Mighty One, when he executeth judgment. No one is clean; it is incumbent, therefore, on every one, when he sees the visitation gone forth in the age in which he lives, to rise and meet God who would draw men to him by his visitations, and open his heart, that he also may be cleansed and purified, to that grace, which does not always descend as gentle dew, but sometimes as the fire of lightning.
Forget not then, my friends, the call of Divine, 75grace, recently emitted from tempestuous clouds; and keep the vows you made to God in the days of distress. The Divine judgment is a rousing from the sleep of sin; and happy are all they, who awake and stand up, and turn from levity and folly to serious wisdom, from luxury and licentiousness to pure morals, from selfishness and injustice to strict integrity and sympathizing charity, from a vain love of the world to that faith, which teaches us to overcome the world. And when the judgment of God leads to your sanctification, then, my friends, then you will feel the consoling power of the belief, that it is a purification of the sinful world. For then you will be certain through your own experience, that calamity sent from God has an object; and your conviction, that all the ways of God are wisdom and goodness, will rest on the surest grounds; so that you will be able to contemplate disastrous occurrences, if not without tears, yet without immoderate lamentation, and to support with courage and composure, whatever the time of visitation may compel you to bear.
It is, lastly, of advantage to maintain the belief that the world is purified through God’s judgments, because it leads us to expect the maturing to perfection of our species. However often the goldsmith melts the metal and repeats the refinement; his end is at length attained, the silver lies before him, pure and spotless, clear and bright as crystal 76or the dew-drop sparkling in the morning sun. In like manner must the design of God with respect to our race be finally accomplished. Long as the trial may last, often as the purification may be repeated, the day must come at length, when man unspotted and clean, freed from sin, and glorified, shall stand before his Maker and Fashioner. We are the children of God, but alas! have departed from the Father, and wandered abroad. Yet we are not for ever parted from home; we shall once again return and find our Father’s house. Our souls are shapes of light proceeding from the source of all life and light. But their light is no longer the pure light of heaven; they are obscured by the shadows of earth, clouded by sin and error. Yet the obscurity will not last for ever, the shadows will pass away, the dimness will gradually disappear, and at last they will return to God in the same brightness, in which they at first proceeded from him.
All things are from God, and all went forth from him pure and good, for “God saw every thing that he had made, and behold, it was very good;” all things return to God, for “in him and through him and to him are all things;” every thing, therefore, will be perfected again in its original purity and goodness. The design of cleansing, is purification; the end of enlightening, is admission to glory; home is the ultimate aim of the wanderer. Yes, God conducts our 77species to a final consummation; a time is coming, in which there will be no more error, no hatred, no sin, no pain, and no death; when all will become light and glory, love and life, peace and bliss. This is the time to which the saying of the Apostle refers; “So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Amen.7879
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