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III. We must next consider the conditions upon which we may confidently and securely trust in the mercy of God forever.
1. Public justice must be appeased. Its demands must be satisfied. God is a great public magistrate, sustaining infinitely responsible relations to the moral universe. He must be careful what He does.
Perhaps no measure of government is more delicate and difficult in its bearings than the exercise of mercy. It is a most critical point. There is eminent danger of making the impression that mercy would trample down law. The very thing that mercy does is to set aside the execution of the penalty of law; the danger is lest this should seem to set aside the law itself. The great problem is, How can the law retain its full majesty, the execution of its penalty being entirely withdrawn? This is always a difficult and delicate matter.
In human governments we often see great firmness exercised by the magistrate. During the scenes of the American Revolution, Washington was earnestly importuned to pardon André. The latter was eminently an amiable, lovely man; and his case excited a deep sympathy in the American army. Numerous and urgent petitions were made to Washington in his behalf; but no, Washington could not yield. They besought him to see André, in hope that a personal interview might touch his heart; but he refused even to see him. He dared not trust his own feelings. He felt that this was a great crisis, and that a nation’s welfare was in peril. Hence his stem, unyielding decision. It was not that he lacked compassion of soul. He had a heart to feel. But under the circumstances, he knew too well that no scope must be given to the indulgence of his tender sympathies. He dared not gratify these feelings, lest a nation’s ruin should be the penalty.
Such cases have often occurred in human governments when every feeling of the soul is on the side of mercy and makes its strong demand for indulgence; but justice forbids.
Often in family government the parent has an agonizing trial; he would sooner bear the pain himself thrice told than to inflict it upon his son; but interests of perhaps infinite moment are at stake, and must not be put in peril by the indulgence of his compassions.
Now if the exercise of mercy in such cases is difficult how much more so in the government of God? Hence, the first condition of the exercise of mercy is that something be done to meet the demands of public justice. It is absolutely indispensable that law be sustained. However much disposed God may be to pardon, yet He is too good to exercise mercy on any such conditions or under any such circumstances as will impair the dignity of His law, throw out a license to sin, and open the very flood-gates of iniquity. Jehovah never can do this. He knows He never ought to.
On this point it only need be said at present that this difficulty is wholly removed by the atonement of Christ.
2. A second condition is that we repent, Certainly no sinner has the least ground to hope for mercy until he repents. Will God pardon the sinner while yet in his rebellion? Never. To do so would be most unjust in God—most ruinous to the universe. It would be virtually proclaiming that sin is less than a trifle—that God cares not how set in wickedness the sinner’s heart is; He is ready to take the most rebellious heart, unhumbled, to His own bosom. Before God can do this He must cease to be holy.
3. We must confess our sins. “He that confesseth,” and he only, “shall find mercy.” Jehovah sustains such relations to the moral universe that He cannot forgive without the sinner’s confession. He must have the sinner’s testimony against himself and in favor of law and obedience.
Suppose a man convicted and sentenced to be hung. He petitions the governor for pardon, but is too proud to confess, at least in public. “May it please your Honor,” he says, “between you and me, I am willing to say that I committed that crime alleged against me, but you must not ask me to make this confession before the world. You will have some regard to my feelings and to the feelings of my numerous and very respectable friends. Before the world there. fore I shall persist in denying the crime. I trust, however, that you will duly consider all the circumstances and grant me a pardon.” Pardon you, miscreant, the governor would say—pardon you when you are condemning the whole court and jury of injustice, and the witnesses of falsehood; pardon you while you set yourself against the whole administration of justice in the State? Never! never! You are too proud to take your own place and appear in your own character; how can I rely on you to be a good citizen—how can I expect you to be anything better than an arch villain?
Let it be understood, then, that before we can trust in the mercy of God, we must really repent and make our confession as public as we have made our crime.
Suppose again that a man is convicted and sues for pardon, but will not confess at all. O, he says, I have no crimes to confess; I have done nothing particularly wrong; the reason of my acting as I have is that I have a desperately wicked heart. I cannot repent and never could. I don’t know how it happens that I commit murder so easily; it seems to be a second nature to me to kill my neighbor; I can’t help it. I am told that you are very good, very merciful, he says to the governor; they even say that you are love itself, and I believe it; you surely will grant me a pardon then, it will be so easy for you—and it is so horrible for me to be hung. You know I have done only a little wrong, and that little only because I could not help it; you certainly cannot insist upon my making any confession. What! have me bung because I don’t repent? You certainly are too kind to do any such thing.
I don’t thank you for your good opinion of me, must be the indignant reply; the law shall take its course; your path is to the gallows.
See that sinner; hear him mock God in his prayer: “trust in the mercy of God, for God is love.” Do you repent?
“I don’t know about repentance—that is not the question God is love—God is too good to send men to hell; they are Partialists and slander God who think that He ever sends anybody to hell.” Too good! you say; too good! so good that He will forgive whether the sinner repents or not; too good to hold the reins of His government firmly; too good to secure the best interests of His vast kingdom! Sinner, the God you think of is a being of your own crazy imagination— not the God who built the prison of despair for hardened sinners—not the God who rules the universe by righteous law and our race also on a Gospel system which magnifies that law and makes it honorable.
4. We must really make restitution so far as lies in our power. You may see the bearing of this in the case of a highway robber. He has robbed a traveller of ten thousand dollars, and is sentenced to State’s prison for life. He petitions for pardon. Very sorry he is for his crime; will make any confession that can be asked, ever so public; but will he make restitution? Not he; no—he needs that money himself. He will give up half of it, perhaps, to the government; vastly patriotic is he all at once, and liberal withal; ready to make a donation of five thousand dollars for the public good! ready to consecrate to most benevolent uses a splendid sum of money; but whose money? Where is his justice to the man he has robbed? Wretch! consecrate to the public what you have torn from your neighbor and put it into the treasury of the government! No; such a gift would burn right through the chest! What would you think if the government should connive at such an abomination? You would abhor their execrable corruption.
See that man of the world, His whole business career is a course of over-reaching. He slyly thrusts his hands into his neighbor’s pockets and thus fills up his own. His rule is uniformly to sell for more than a thing is worth and buy for less. He knows how to monopolize and make high prices, and then sell out his accumulated stocks. His mind is forever on the stretch to manage and make good bargains. But this man at last must prepare to meet God. So he turns to his money to make it answer all things. He has a large gift for God. Perhaps he will build a church or send a missionary—something pretty handsome at least to buy a pardon for a life about which his conscience is not very easy. Yes, he has a splendid bribe for God. Ah, but will God take it? Never! God burns with indignation at the thought. Does God want your price of blood—those gains of oppression? Go and give them back to the suffering poor whose cries have gone up to God against you. O shame to think to filch from thy brother and give to God! Not merely rob Peter to pay Paul, but rob man to pay God! The pardon of your soul is not bought so!
5. Another condition is that you really reform.
Suppose there is a villain in our neighborhood who has become the terror of all the region round about. He has already murdered a score of defenseless women and children; burns down our houses by night; plunders and robs daily; and every day brings tidings of his crimes at which every ear tingles. None feel safe a moment. He is an arch and bloody villain. At last he is arrested, and we all breathe more easily. Peace is restored. But this miscreant having received sentence of death, petitions for pardon. He professes no penitence whatever, and makes not even a promise of amendment; yet the governor is about to give him a free pardon. If be does it, who will not say, He ought to be hung up himself by the neck till he is dead, dead! But what does that sinner say? “I trust,” says he, “in the great mercy of God. I have nothing to fear.” But does he reform? No. What good can the mercy of God do him if he does not reform?
6. You must go the whole length in justifying the law and its penalty.
Mark that convicted criminal, He doesn’t believe that government has any right to take life for any crime; he demurs utterly to the justice of such a proceeding, and on this ground insists that he must have a pardon. Will he get it? Will the governor take a position which is flatly opposed to the very law and constitution which he is sworn to sustain? Will he crush the law to save one criminal, or even a thousand criminals? Not if he has the spirit of a ruler in his bosom. That guilty man if he would have mercy from the Executive must admit the right of the law and of the penalty Else he arrays himself against the law and cannot be trusted in the community.
Now hear that sinner. How much he has to say against his ill desert and against the justice of eternal punishment. He denounces the laws of God as cruelly and unrighteously severe. Sinner, do you suppose God can forgive you while you pursue such a course? He would as soon repeal His law and vacate His throne. You make it impossible for God to forgive you.
7. No sinner can be a proper object of mercy who is not entirely submissive to all those measures of the government that have brought him to conviction,
Suppose a criminal should plead that there had been a conspiracy to waylay and arrest him; that witnesses had been bribed to give false testimony; that the judge had charged the jury falsely, or that the jury had given an unrighteous verdict; could he hope by such false allegations to get a pardon? Nay, verily. Such a man cannot be trusted to sustain law and order in a community, under any government, human or divine.
But hear that sinner complain and cavil. Why, he says, did God suffer sin and temptation to enter this world at all? Why does God let the sinner live at all to incur a doom so dreadful? And why does God block up the sinner’s path by His providence, and cut him down in his sins? Yet this very sinner talks about trusting in God’s mercy! Indeed; while all the time he is accusing God of being an infinite tyrant, and of seeking to crush the helpless, unfortunate sinner! What do these cavils mean? What are they but the uplifted voice of a guilty rebel arraigning his Maker for doing good and showing mercy to His own rebellious creatures? For it needs but a moment’s thought to see that the temptation complained of is only a good placed before a moral agent to melt his heart by love. Yet against this the sinner murmurs, and pours out his complaints against God, Be assured that unless you are willing to go the full length of justifying all God does, He never can give you pardon. God has no option to pardon a self-justifying rebel. The interests of myraids of moral beings forbid His doing it. When you will take the ground most fully of justifying God and condemning yourself, you place yourself where mercy can reach you, and then it surely will. Not before.
8. You must close in most cordially with the plan of salvation. This plan is based on the assumption that we deserve everlasting death and must be saved, if ever, by sovereign grace and mercy. Nothing can save but mercy—mercy which meets the sinner in the dust, prostrate, without an excuse or an apology, giving to God all the glory and taking to himself all the guilt and shame. There is hope for thee, sinner, in embracing this plan with all the heart.
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