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“It is impossible but that offences come; but woe unto him through whom they come!”-Luke xvii. 1.

AN “offence” as used in this passage, is an occasion of falling into sin. It is anything which causes another to sin and fall.

It is plain that the author of the offence is in this passage conceived of as voluntary and as sinful in his act; else the woe of God would not be denounced upon him.

Consequently the passage assumes that this sin is in some sense necessary and unavoidable. What is true of this sin in this respect is true of all other sin. Indeed any sin may become an offence in the sense of a temptation to others to sin, and therefore its necessity and unavoidableness would then be affirmed by this text.

The doctrine of this text, therefore, is that sin, under the government of God, can not be prevented. I purpose to examine this doctrine; to show that, nevertheless, sin is utterly inexcusable as to the sinner; then answer some objections, and conclude with remarks.

1. When we say it is impossible to prevent sin under the government of God, the statement still calls for another inquiry, viz.: Where does this impossibility lie? Is it on the part of the sinner, or on the part of God? Which is true; that the sinner can not possibly forbear to sin, or that God can not prevent his sinning?

The first supposition answers itself, for it could not be sin if it were utterly unavoidable. It might be his misfortune; but nothing could be more unjust than to impute it to him as his crime.

But we shall better understand where this impossibility does and must lie, if we first recall to mind some of the elementary principles of God’s government.

Let us, then, consider that God’s government over men is moral, and known to be such by every intelligent being. By the term moral, I mean that it governs by motives, and does not move by physical force. It adapts itself to mind, not to matter. It contemplates mind as having intellect to understand truth, sensibility to appreciate its bearing upon happiness, conscience to judge of the right, and a will to determine a course of voluntary action in view of God’s claims, So God governs mind. Not so does He govern matter. The planetary worlds are controlled by quite a different sort of agency. God does not move them in their orbits by motives, but by a physical agency.

I said, all men know this government to be moral by their own consciousness. When its precepts and its penalties come before their minds, they are conscious that an appeal is made to their voluntary powers. They are never conscious of any physical agency coercing obedience.

God’s government implies in man the power to will, or not to will; to will right, or to will wrong: to choose or to refuse the great good which Jehovah promises. It also implies intelligence. The beings to whom law is addressed are capable of understanding it. They have also, as I have said, a conscience, by which they can appreciate and must affirm its obligations.

You need to distinguish broadly between the influence of motive on mind and of mechanical force upon matter. The former implies voluntariness; the latter does not. The former is adapted to mind and has no adaptation to matter the latter equally is adapted to matter, but has no possible application to mind. In God’s government over the human mind, all is voluntary; nothing is coerced as by physical force. Indeed, it is impossible that physical force should directly influence mind. Compulsion is precluded by the very nature of moral agency. Where compulsion begins, moral agency ends. If it were possible for God to force the will as He forces the moon along in her orbit, to do so would subvert the very idea of a moral government. Neither praise nor blame could attach to any actions of beings, so moved. Persuasion, brought to bear upon mind, is always such in its nature that it can be resisted. By the very nature of the case, God’s creatures must have power to resist any amount of even His persuasion. There can be no power in heaven or earth to coerce the will, as matter is coerced. The nature of mind forbids its possibility. And if it were possible, it would still be true that in just so far as God should coerce the human will, He would cease to govern morally.

God is infinitely wise. Men can no more doubt this than they can doubt their own existence. He has infinite knowledge. He knows everything i.e., all objects of knowledge; and knows them all perfectly. He is also infinitely good, If is will being always conformed to His perfect knowledge and always controlled by infinite benevolence.

His infinite goodness implies that He does the best He can, always, and everywhere. In no instance does He ever fail to do the very best He can do, so that He can appeal to every creature and say—What more can I do to prevent sin than I am doing! Indeed, He does so appeal to every intelligent mind. He made this appeal through Isaiah to the ancient Jews, “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?”

Every moral agent in the universe knows that God has done the best He could do in regard to sin. Do not you know this, each one of you? Certainly you do. He Himself, in all His infinite wisdom, could not suggest a better course than that which He has taken. Men know this truth so well, they never can know it better. You may at some future day realize it more fully when you shall come to see its millions of illustrations drawn out before your eyes; but no demonstration can make its proof more perfect than it is to your own minds today.

Now sin does, in fact, exist under God’s government. For this sin, God either is or is not to blame. Every man knows that God is not to blame for this sin, for man’s own nature affirms that He would prevent it if He wisely could. Certainly if He was able wisely to prevent sin in any case where it actually occurs, then not to do so nullifies all our conceptions of His goodness and wisdom. He would be the greatest sinner in the universe if, with power and wisdom adequate to the prevention of sin, He had failed to prevent it.

Let me here note, also, that what God can not do wisely, He can not (speaking morally) do at all. For He can not act unwisely. He can not do things which wisdom forbids. To do so would be to undeify Himself. The supposition would make Him cease to be perfect, and this were equivalent to ceasing to be God.

Or thus: If He were to interpose unwisely to prevent a sinner from sinning, He would sin Himself. I speak now of each instance in which God does not, in fact, interpose to prevent sin. In any of these cases, if He were to interpose unwisely to prevent sin, He would prevent a man from sinning at the expense of sinning Himself. Here, then, is the case. A sinner is about to fall before temptation, or in more correct language, is about to rush into some new sin. God cannot wisely prevent his doing so. Now what shall be done? Shall He let that sinner rush on to his chosen sin and self-wrought ruin; or shall He step forward, unwisely, sin Himself, and incur all the frightful consequences of such a step? He lets the sinner bear his own responsibility. Why should not He? Who would wish to have God sin?

This is a full explanation of every case in which man does in fact sin and God does not prevent it.

And this is not conjecture, but is logical certainly. No truth can be more irresistibly and necessarily certain than this. I once heard a minister say in a sermon, “It is not irrational to suppose that in each case of sin, it occurs as it does because God can not prevent it.” After he retired from the pulpit, I said to him—Why did you leave the matter so? You left your hearers to infer that perhaps it might be in some other way; that this was only a possible theory, yet that some other theory was perhaps even more probable. Why did you not say, This theory is certain and must necessarily be true?

Thus the impossibility of preventing sin lies not in the sinner, but wholly with God. Sin, it should be remembered, is nothing else than an act of free will, always committed against one’s conviction of right. Indeed, if a man did not know that selfishness is sin, it would not be sin in his case.

Once more, sin is always committed against and in despite of motives of infinitely greater weight than those which induce to sin. The very fact that his conscience condemns the sin is his own judgment on the question, proving that in his own view the motives to sin are infinitely contemptible when put in the scale to measure those against the sin in question. Every sinner knows that sin is a willful abuse of his own powers as a moral agent-of those noblest powers of his being in view of which he is especially said to be made in the image of God. Made like God with these exalted attributes, capable of determining his own voluntary activities intelligently if he will; in accordance with his reason and his conscience if he will; he yet in every act of sin abuses and degrades these powers, tramples down in the very dust the image of God enstamped on his being, and with the capacities of becoming an angel, makes himself a fool. Clothed with a dignity of nature akin to that of his Maker, he chooses to debase himself to the level of brutes and of devils. With a face naturally looking upwards; with an intelligence that grasps the great truths of God; with a reason that postulates and affirms the great necessary principles involved in his moral duties and relations; with capacities which fit him to sit on a nation’s throne; he yet says—Let me take this glorious image of God and debase it in the dust! Let me cast myself down, till there shall be no lower depth of degradation to which I can sink!

Sin is in every instance a dishonoring of God. This every sinner must know. It casts off His authority, spurns His advice, maltreats His love. Truly does God Himself say, “A son honoreth his father and a servant his master; if then I be a father, where is mine honor? and if I be a master, where is my fear?”

What sinner ever supposed that God neglects to do anything He wisely can do to prevent sin? If this be not true, what is conscience but a lie and a delusion? Conscience always affirms that God is clear of all guilt in reference to sin, In every instance in which conscience condemns the sinner, it necessarily must, and actually does, fully acquit God.

These remarks will suffice to show that sin in every instance of its commission is utterly inexcusable.

We are next to notice some objections.

1. “If God is infinitely wise and good, why need we pray at all? If He will surely do the best possible thing always and all the good He can do, why need we pray?”

I answer. Because His infinite goodness and wisdom enjoin it upon us. Who could ask a better reason than this? If you believe in His infinite wisdom and goodness, and make this belief the basis of your objection, you will certainly, if honest, be satisfied with this answer.

But again I answer. It might be wise and good for Him to do many things if sought unto in prayer, which He could not wisely do, unasked. You can not, therefore, infer that prayer never changes the course which God voluntarily pursues.

2. Objecting again, you ask why we should pray to God to prevent sin, if He can not prevent it? If under the circumstances in which sin exists, God can not, as you hold, prevent sin, why go to Him and pray Him to prevent it?

I answer. We pray for the very purpose of changing the circumstances. This is our object. And prayer does change the circumstances. If we step forward and offer fervent, effectual prayer, this quite changes the state of the case. Look at Moses pleading with God to spare the nation after their great sin in the matter of the golden calf. God said to him, “Let me alone that I may destroy them, and I will make of thee a great nation.” Nay, said Moses, for what will the Egyptians say? And what will all the nations say? They have long time said, The God of that people will not be able to get them through that vast wilderness; now therefore, what will thou do for Thy great name? “Yet now, if Thou wilt, forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written.”

This prayer, coming up before God, greatly changed the circumstances of the case. For this prayer, God could honorably spare the nation—it was so honorable for Him to answer this prayer.

3. Yet further objecting, you ask, “Why did God create moral agents at all if He foresaw that He could not prevent their sinning?”

I answer. Because He saw that on the whole it was better to do so. He could prevent some sin in this race of moral agents; could overrule what He could not wisely prevent, to as to bring out from it a great deal of good, and so that in the long run, He saw it better, with all the results before Him, to create than to forbear; therefore, wisdom and love made it necessary that He should create. Having the power to create a race of moral beings—having also power to convert and save a vast multitude of them, and power also to overrule the sin He should not prevent so that it should evolve immense good, how could He forbear to create as He did?

4. But if God can not prevent sin, will He not be unhappy?

No; He is entirely satisfied to do the best He can, and accept the results.

5. But some will say—Is not this “limiting the Holy One of Israel?” No. It is no proper limitation of God’s power to say that He can not do anything that is unwise. Nor do we limit His power when we say—He can not move mind just as He moves a planet. That is no proper subject of power which is in its own nature absurd and impossible.

Yet these are the only directions in which we have spoken of any limitations to His power.

But you say, Could not God prevent sin by annihilating each moral agent the instant before he would sin? Doubtless He could; but we say if this were wise He would have done it. He has not done it, certainly not in all cases, and therefore it is not always wise.

But you say, Let Him give more of His Holy Spirit. I answer, He does give all He can wisely, under existing circumstances. To suppose He might give more than He does, circumstances being the same, is to impeach His wisdom or His goodness.

Some people seem greatly horrified at the idea of setting limits to God’s power. Yet they make assumptions which inevitably impeach His wisdom and His goodness. Such persons need to consider that if we must choose between limiting His power on the one hand, or His wisdom and His love on the other, it is infinitely more honorable to Him to adopt the former alternative than the latter. To strike a blow at His moral attributes, is to annihilate His throne. And further, let it be also considered, as we have already suggested, that you do not in any offensive sense limit His power when you assume that He can not do things naturally impossible, and can not act unwisely.

Let these remarks suffice in the line of answer to objections I know that you who are students will say that this must be true. You are accustomed to notice the action of your own moral powers. You have a moral sense, and it has been in some good degree developed. You know it is utterly impossible that God should act unwisely. You know He must act benevolently, always doing the best thing He can do. He has given you a nature which affirms, postulates, intuits these truths. Else there could be no conscience. The presence and action of a conscience implies that these great truths respecting the moral nature of God are indisputably affirmed in your soul by your own moral nature.

I address you, therefore, as those who have a conscience. Suppose it were otherwise. Suppose all that we call conscience—the entire moral side of your nature—should suddenly drop out, and I should find myself speaking to a shoal of moral idiots—beings utterly void of a conscience! How desolate the scene! But I am not speaking to such an audience. Therefore I am sure that you will understand and appreciate what I say.

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