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CONCERNING THE PERFECTION OF GOD.
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.—Matt. v. 48.
THESE words are the conclusion which our Saviour draws from those precepts which he had given his disciples, of greater perfection, than any laws that were extant in the world before: (ver. 44.) “1 say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for those that despitefully use you and persecute you.” And to persuade them hereto, he propounds to them the pattern of the Divine perfection; telling them, that being thus affected towards their enemies, they should resemble God, (ver. 45.) “That ye may be the children of your heavenly Father; for he maketh the sun to rise on the evil, and on the good; and sendeth rain on the just, and on the unjust.”
And then he tells us, that if we be not thus affected towards our enemies, and those that have been injurious to us, we are so far from being like God, that we are but just level with the worst of men: (ver. 46, 47.) “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have you? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?” And then concludes that if ^e would attain that perfection which the Christian religion 284designs to advance men to, we must endeavour to be like God in these perfections of goodness, and mercy, and patience; “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” In which words we have,
First, The absolute perfection of the Divine nature supposed: “As your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
Secondly, It is propounded as a pattern to our imitation: “Be ye therefore perfect,” &c.
In handling of these words I shall do these four things:
I. Consider how we are to conceive of the Divine perfection.
II. I shall lay down some rules whereby we may govern and rectify our opinions concerning the at tributes and perfections of God.
III. How far we are to imitate the perfections of God, and particularly what those Divine qualities are, which our Saviour doth here more especially propound to our imitation.
IV. I shall endeavour to clear the true meaning of this precept, and to shew that the duty here in tended by our Saviour is not impossible to us; and then conclude this discourse with some useful inferences from the whole.
I. I shall consider how we are to conceive of the Divine perfection, these two ways:
1. By ascribing all imaginable and possible perfection to God.
2. By separating and removing all manner of imperfection from him.
1. By ascribing all imaginable and possible perfection to God; absolute and universal perfection, not limited to a certain kind, or to certain particulars; 285but whatever we can conceive and imagine to be a perfection, is to be ascribed to him; yea, and beyond this, whatever possible perfection there is, or possible degree of any perfection, which our short understandings cannot conceive or comprehend, is to be ascribed to him. For we are not to confine the perfection of God to our imagination, as if we could “find out the Almighty to perfection:” but, on the contrary, to believe the perfection of the Divine nature to be boundless and unlimited, and infinitely to exceed our highest thoughts and apprehensions.
More particularly, all kinds and all degrees of perfection are to be ascribed to God, which either do not imply a plain contradiction, or do not argue some imperfection, or are not evidently inconsistent with some other and greater perfection.
Some things may seem to be perfections, which in truth are not, because they are plainly impossible, and involve a contradiction: as, that what has once been, should by any power be made not to have been; or that any thing, which by its nature is limited and confined to one place, should at the same time be in another. These things in reason are impossible, and therefore not to be supposed to fall under any power, how unlimited soever. For if we once ascribe contradictions to God, we destroy his being; because then to be, and not to be, power, and no power, would be all one.
And then there are some perfections, which do argue and suppose imperfections in them; as motion, the quickness and swiftness whereof in creatures is a perfection, but then it supposeth a finite and limited nature: for a boundless and immense Being, that is every where present at once, hath no need to move from one place to another; and therefore, 286though motion be a perfection in creatures, there is no reason to ascribe it to God, because it supposeth a greater imperfection.
And there are also some imaginable degrees of perfection, which, because they are inconsistent with other perfections, are not to be admitted in the Divine nature. For instance, such degrees of goodness and mercy may be imagined, as would quite exclude and shut out justice; and, on the other hand, such a strictness and a rigour of justice, as would leave no room at all for patience and mercy; and therefore such degrees are not really to be esteemed perfections. For this is a certain truth, that nothing is a Divine perfection, which evidently clasheth with any other necessary and essential perfection of the Divine nature. We must so consider the perfections of God, that they may accord and consist together; and therefore it cannot be a perfection of God to be so good and gracious as to encourage sin, and to overthrow the reverence of his own laws and government. It is not goodness, but easiness and weakness, to be contented to be perpetually injured and affronted. It is not patience to be willing to be everlastingly trampled upon. So likewise, on the other hand, it is not a perfection to be so severe and rigorous, as to smite a sinner in the instant that he offends, not to be able to refrain from punishment, and to give time for repentance.
But whatever perfection is conceivable or possible, and argues no imperfection, nor is repugnant to any other necessary perfection, is to be ascribed to God; for this is the most natural and easy conception that we can have of God, that he is the most perfect being. This natural light doth first suggest and offer to the minds of men, and we cannot conceive of God as 287mere power and will, without wisdom and goodness. Hence it is that the Greeks call God very often τὸ Κρεῖττον, the best of beings: and the Latins, optimus maximus, “the best and the greatest,” beatissima et pcrfectissima natura constans, et perfecta ratio, “the happiest and most perfect nature, immutable and absolute reason;” and many other such expressions which we meet with in the writings of the heathen philosophers. I readily grant, that the first and most obvious thought which men have of God, is that of his greatness and majesty; but this necessarily involves or infers his goodness; as Seneca excellently reasons, Primus deorum cultus est deos credere, dein reddere illis majestatem suam, reddere bonitatem, sine qua nulla majestas; “The first worship of the gods is to believe their being, next to ascribe to them greatness and majesty, to ascribe to them goodness, without which there can be no majesty.”
And we shall find all along in Plato and Tully, and the best and wisest writers among the heathens, that they every where attribute the highest excellences and perfections to the Divine nature, and do steer and govern all their discourses of God by this principle, that perfection is to be ascribed to him: and whenever any thing is said of God, they examine whether it be a perfection or not; if it be, they give it him as his due; if it be not, they lay it aside, as a thing not fit to be spoken of him.
And in the Scripture we do every where find perfection ascribed to the nature, and works, and laws of God, to every thing that belongs to him, or proceeds from him. (Job xxxvii. 16.) “Dost thou know the wondrous works of him that is perfect in knowledge?” And again, “Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty 288to perfection?” (Psal. xviii. 30.) “As for God, his way is perfect.” (Psal. xix. 7.) “The law of the Lord is perfect.”
I shall not need to consider particularly the several perfections of the Divine nature; I shall only give you a brief scheme and draught of them. What ever perfection can be imagined either in the manner of being or acting, is to be ascribed to God; therefore, as to his nature, we say that he is a spirit; that is, that he is not mere body or matter, because that would exclude several other perfections; for mere matter is incapable both of knowledge and liberty, being determined by necessary laws and motions; and yet without knowledge and liberty, there can be no wisdom nor goodness. We say of God, that he is of himself, and without cause, and does not owe his being to any other; and consequently, that he is necessarily, and that he cannot but be, and cannot be otherwise than he is; for that which is of itself did not choose whether it would be or not, nor whether it would be thus or other wise; for to suppose any thing to deliberate or consult about its own being, is to suppose it to be before it is.
We must say of God, likewise, that he is immense, and every where present, because to be limited is an imperfection; and that he is eternal; that is, ever was, and shall be; for to cease to be, is a greater imperfection than sometime not to have been.
And then we are to say of God, that he is the cause of all other beings; that they are made by him, and depend upon him; that he knows all things, and can do all things in the most perfect manner, by a glance of his mind, and by the mere beck and nod of his will, without long study or deliberation, 289without laborious pains and endeavours, and consequently, that nothing is exempted from his knowledge, and power, and providence, and that he administers all things in a way of goodness and wisdom, of justice and truth; and therefore all things are to be referred to him, as their last end. All these perfections, and all other that are possible, we are to look upon the Divine nature as fully and immutably possessed of, and that in a higher and more excellent degree than our finite understandings are able to conceive or comprehend.
2. As we are to ascribe all imaginable and possible perfections to God, so we are to separate and remove all manner of imperfection from him. We must not obscure or blemish the Divine nature with the least shadow or blot of imperfection. If we once admit of this, to ascribe any thing to God which argues imperfection, we strike at the foundation, and destroy one of the clearest and most essential notions which men have of God. And therefore we find the Scripture very careful to remove all kinds of natural or moral imperfection from God. (Gen. xviii. 25.) “That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked; and that the righteous shall be as the wicked, that be far from thee: shall not the Judge of all the world do right?” (Deut. xxxii. 4.) “A God of truth, and without iniquity.” (Rom. ix. 14.) “What shall we say then, is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid,” far be it from him.
Hence it is that Scripture holiness is so frequently ascribed to God, which signifies the purity and freedom of the Divine nature from that which we call sin; and God is very solicitous to give us such a 290notion of himself, as may remove sin and unrighteousness at the greatest distance from him, because that is the greatest of imperfections. Is it an imperfection to countenance sin? the Scripture acquits God of it: (Psal. v. 4, 5.) “Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness, neither shall evil dwell with thee.” Is it an imperfection to go from one’s word, or to change one’s mind? this, likewise, is removed from God: (1 Sam. xv. 29.) “The strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: he is not a man, that he should repent.” Is it an imperfection to want any thing, to be liable to any thing, to depend upon any thing without one’s self for their happiness? this also is to be set far from him. (Job xxii. 2, 3.) “Can a man be profitable to God? or is it a gain to him, that thou makest thy way perfect?” (Job xxxv. 6, 7.) “If thou sinnest, what dost thou against him? or if thy transgressions be multiplied, what dost thou unto him? if thou art righteous, what givest thou him, or what receiveth he of thine hand? Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art, and thy righteousness may profit the son of man.” Is it an imperfection to tempt, or to be tempted to sin? this is to be separated from. God: “He cannot be tempted of evil, neither tempteth he any man,” saith St. James, (chap. i. 17.) And, to mention no more, is it an imperfection to be in any respect mutable? this is denied of God: “With him there is no variableness, or shadow of turning.” Thus you see how we are to conceive of the perfections of God, by ascribing all imaginable and possible perfection to him, and removing all shadow of imperfection from him. I proceed, in the
II. Second place, To lay down some rules by which we may rectify and govern our opinions concerning 291the attributes and perfections of God: the best I can think of are these following:
First, Let us begin with the most natural, and plain, and easy perfections of God, and lay them for a foundation, and rectify all our other apprehensions of God, and reasonings about him, by these; and these are his power, wisdom, and goodness, to which most of the rest may be reduced. Right apprehensions, and a firm belief of these, will make it easily credible to us, that all things were made, and are governed by him; for his goodness will dispose and incline him to communicate being to other things, and to take care of them when they are made. An infinite power and wisdom render him able to do all this without any labour or difficulty, and without any disturbance of his ease or happiness, as Epicurus would seem vainly to fear; who, in truth, did not believe a God, but pretended only to deny his providence, and that he either made or governed the world, because he was loath to lay so much trouble upon him. Vain man! as if those things which are impossible and difficult to our weakness and folly, might not be infinitely easy to infinite power and wisdom.
Particularly the goodness and justice of God are not so difficult to apprehend, as the disputes and: controversies about them have rendered them to many. When we consider infinite knowledge and power, we may easily lose ourselves, and go out of our depth, by wading too far into them: there is something concerning these, that is unimaginable, and unaccountable to our reason; we may not be able to understand how something may be produced from nothing, because it argues such an excess of power, as we cannot comprehend; but yet we are 292forced to acknowledge, that either the world must be produced from nothing, or that matter was eternally of itself, which is every whit as hard to imagine, as that infinite power should be able to produce it from nothing. So likewise we are not able to conceive, how God can certainly know future events, which depend upon voluntary and uncertain causes, because we cannot comprehend infinite knowledge; but this we may easily be satisfied in, that infinite power and knowledge may be able to do and know many things, which we cannot conceive how they can be known or done, no more than a child can imagine how a great mathematician can demonstrate his propositions. Only this we are sure of, as we can be of any thing, that no power can do that which is evidently impossible, and implies a plain contradiction.
We are not able, perhaps, to reconcile the particular providences of God with his universal goodness, justice, and wisdom, because we cannot see to the end of his ways and works at one view, and see every part with relation to the whole; which would appear very wise, if we knew the whole series of things, and saw the entire design together, as God himself does, to whom (as Solomon tells us) “all his ways are know r n from the beginning.”
So that however we may be at a loss in our conceptions of God’s infinite knowledge and power, yet goodness, and justice, and truth, are notions easy and familiar; and, if we could not understand these, the whole Bible would be insignificant to us. For all revelation from God supposeth us to know what is meant by goodness, justice, and. truth; and therefore no man can entertain any notion of God, which plainly contradicts these. And it is foolish for any 293man to pretend, that he cannot know what goodness, and justice, and truth in God are; for if we do not know this, it is all one to us whether God be good or not, nor could we imitate his goodness; for he that imitates endeavours to make himself like some thing that he knows, and must, of necessity, have some idea of that to which he aims to be like: so that if we had no certain and settled notion of the goodness, and justice, and truth of God, he would be altogether an unintelligible being; and religion, which consists in the imitation of him, would be utterly impossible.
Now these being the most easy and intelligible perfections of God, by which he is said in Scripture to declare his name, that is, to make himself known to us, we should govern all our reasonings about God (as, concerning his decrees, and his concurrence with the free actions of men, and his particular providence, which are things more dark and obscure) by what is more clear; and we shall find in Scripture, that in all these points holy men do constantly appeal to these unquestionable and intelligible perfections of God. “Wilt thou destroy the righteous with the wicked? (saith Abraham.) that be far from thee: shall not the Judge of all the world do right?” We may be mistaken, but God certainly knows who are wicked, and who are righteous; and he knows how to punish the wicked, and save the righteous: but we cannot be mistaken in this principle, that the Judge of all the world will do right. Thus Moses satisfies himself, and others, concerning the particular providences of God to wards the people of Israel. (Dent, xxxii. 3, 4.) “I will publish the name of the Lord: all his ways are judgment; a God of truth, and without iniquity, 294just and right is he.” This we certainly know of God. So St. Paul, (Rom. ii. 2.) “Thou art inexcusable, O man!” Whatsoever excuse men may pretend for their faults, he lays down this for a principle, “We are sure the judgment of God i according to truth.”
Secondly, Let us always consider the perfections of God in conjunction, and so as to reconcile them with one another. Do not consider God as mere power and sovereignty, as mere mercy and goodness, as mere justice and severity; but as all these together, and in such a measure and degree, as may make them consistent with one another. The greatest mistakes in religion have certainly sprung from this root, from separating the perfections of God, and considering them singly, and framing such wide and large notions of one, as to exclude another; whereas the perfections of God agree together, and that is not a Divine perfection which contradicts any other perfection. Among men, indeed, an eminent degree of any one excellency does usually shut out some other; and therefore it is observed, that power and moderation, love and discretion, do not often meet together; that a great memory and a small judgment, a good wit and an ill nature, are many times found in conjunction. But in infinite perfection all perfections do eminently meet and consist together; and it is not necessary that one excellency should be raised upon the ruins of an other.
And if this had been well considered, men would not, by being too intent upon God’s sovereignty^ with neglect of his other perfections, have spoken those hard things about predestination; for the sovereignty of God doth by no means set him above the 295eternal Jaws of goodness, and truth, and righteousness. And if this were considered, men would not, by poring upon the justice and severity of God, be so swallowed up in despair; for God is not so severe, but he is merciful to the penitent, and hath left a retreat for the returning sinner. If this were well considered, it would check the presumption of those who encourage themselves in sin, by fancying to themselves a God of all mercy and goodness; and “because sentence against an evil work is not speedily executed, therefore their heart is fully set in them to do evil;” for it is not goodness and mercy finally to bear with and forgive obstinate offenders, but want of prudence and good government.
Thirdly, Among different opinions concerning God (as there always have been and will be in the world) choose those which are farthest from extremity; because truth as well as virtue usually lied between the extremes. And here I will instance in that controversy, which has much disquieted the church almost in all ages, concerning the decrees of God; about which there are two extremes; the one, that God peremptorily decrees the final condition of every particular person, that is, their everlasting happiness or misery, without any regard or consideration of the good or bad actions of men: the other, that God decrees nothing concerning any particular person, but only in general, that men found under such and such qualifications shall be happy or miserable, and puts it into their own power to qualify themselves. Now he that is doubtful in this matter, as every man must be that understands the difficulties on both sides, had best take up in the middle opinion, that God decrees the final condition of particular persons with respect to certain qualifications; 296which, speaking absolutely, are not in every man’s power, but yet, under the influence of God’s grace, which is never wanting to the sincere endeavours of men, may be said to be in our power, in the same sense as St. Paul says, “I am able to do all things through Christ strengthening me:” for besides that this in all probability is the truth, there will be this advantage in it—that he that stands in the middle, is like to be more moderate towards the dissenters on both sides, than either of them will be to one another: because the middle is not so far from either extreme, as the extremes are from one another;. at the worst, he stands fairest for an impartial inquiry after truth, and when he has satisfied himself where the truth lies, he may more silently pass over to it, without any great imputation of in consistency; which cannot but be remarkable in him, who passeth from one extreme to another.
Fourthly, and lastly, Entertain no opinion concerning God, that doth evidently contradict the practice of religion, and a good life, though never so specious and subtle arguments may be used to persuade it. Truth is most easily seen and discerned in those reasonings and opinions which tend to practice; because the absurdity and inconvenience of, them is soonest discovered; whereas we cannot so certainly find out the truth or falsehood of those opinions, which speculative men devise in their studies, with out any consideration whether they serve any real purpose of life or not. Men, indeed, are very apt to form those notions, which are most remote from common sense and use; because more pains and wit are required to make them plausible; but there needs no other argument to make a wise man despise them, than that they are unprofitable, and signify 297nothing to our practice, and to make men truly better.
This is universally true in all kind of knowledge, but most considerable in the knowledge of God and religion; because that knowledge is of the greatest consideration. We need not scruple to admit some things, not so evident to natural reason, if we be satisfied of the truth of them from a higher and more cogent reason: as, that God has revealed it, and said it; this general reason may persuade us of a thing that is above and beyond natural reason: but we may not admit any thing for a Divine revelation, which evidently contradicts and weakens the practice of a holy life; because this is the main end of all Divine revelation; and we know God, only in order to the service and imitation of him.
Let us then look upon all knowledge that contradicts practice, as vain and false, because it destroys its end. There are many things that seem probable enough in speculation, which yet we most pertinaciously deny, because they are not practicable; and there are many things which seem doubtful in speculation, and would admit of great dispute, which yet, because they are found true in practice and experience, are to be taken for certain and unquestionable. The ἀργὸς λόγος, the idle reasoning of the Stoics was a thing contemned by the wiser philosophers, as vain and useless subtlety. Zeno pretends to demonstrate there is no motion; and what is the consequence of this speculation, but that men must stand still? but so long as a man finds he can walk, all the sophistry in the world will not persuade him that motion is impossible. In like manner, they that would persuade us that men can do nothing, nor contribute any more to their own sanctification than 298stocks or stones, and upon scripture-metaphors misunderstood (as our being “dead in trespasses and sins,” and “created to good works,”) graft notions, which are impossible and absurd in practice, do not consider that the natural consequence of this is, that men must do nothing at all in religion, never think of God, nor pray to him, nor read his word, nor go to church, but sit still and be wholly passive to the operations of God’s grace. But however this may seem plausible, and men may think they add much to the glory of God’s grace, while they deny any power in the creature; yet every considerate man will presently apprehend that this is by no means to be admitted, because it contradicts practice, and makes all the commands and exhortations of God’s word vain and to no purpose, because it destroys religion, and discourages the endeavours of men; makes them slothful and careless of working out their own salvation, than which nothing can set a man farther from God’s grace and assistance, and more immediately dispose him for ruin; and upon some such false reasoning as this, the slothful servant in the parable hid his talent in a napkin, and buried it in the earth; but when he was called to account, his excuse was not admitted, but he was cast “into utter darkness.” The two other particulars; namely, how far we are to imitate the Divine perfections, and particularly what those Divine qualities are, which our Saviour doth here more especially propound to our imitation, and likewise to clear the true meaning of this precept, and to shew that the duty here enjoined, “Be ye perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” is not impossible to us: both these I shall refer to another opportunity.299
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