RPM, Volume 12, Number 40, October 3 to October 9, 2010

The Sins of Men
Not Chargeable on God

Part II

By John M'Laurin

M'Laurin (1693-1754) was one of the foremost Scottish doctrinal preachers of the eighteenth century. He took part in the revivals which occurred at Cambuslang about 1742, and in his correspondence with Jonathan Edwards contrived the transatlantic concert of prayer for revival. He was behind the efforts to provide financial relief when Edwards was impoverished after leaving Northampton, and M'Laurin's circle of friends in the Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge appointed David Brainerd their missionary to the American Indians.

M'Laurin was a man of culture, and in many ways a counterpart to Edwards; his brother Colin was professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University, and a friend and interpreter of Isaac Newton. M'Laurin's sermons, and essays on such topics as grace and faith, have been extolled for their evangelical content, profundity of analysis, apologetic skill, and eloquence of composition. John Brown of Edinburgh commented that, "MacLaurin's thoughts have in a remarkable degree the characteristic mark of original genius — they are singularly pregnant thoughts. They germinate in the mind. . . . There is a depth of spiritual feeling corresponding to the extent and clearness of his spiritual discernment." The present sermon, which was preached about 1720 in his first pastoral charge at Luss, Argyleshire, is from his Sermons and Essays, Glasgow 1755.

In discoursing on this doctrine in such a manner as may be a mean, through divine grace, to give us a right impression of the importance and certainty of it, it will be proper to treat of these following things. 1. To consider some observations, from scripture and experience, to show, that the unworthy thoughts of God, which the text rebukes, however unreasonable, are, notwithstanding, very ordinary, and do a great deal of harm to men's souls, as well as dishonour to God. In the next place, we shall collect the evidences we have for the doctrine in the text, from God's works and ways; and shall consider the arguments that are most proper for resisting these injurious thoughts of God, which the apostle warns us against. These will afford us sufficient answers to all the objections and prejudices that natural corruption suggests against the doctrine. After considering which, it will be easy to reflect, what improvement we should make of a truth of so great moment, and in which, the honour of God is so much concerned.

I. First, There are several obvious things, that may easily convince us, that these impious thoughts, which the apostle rebukes, are too common and ordinary.

1. It is not the way of the scriptures, to caution men against imaginary sins, i.e. sins that men are seldom or never guilty of, but sins which natural corruption really inclines them to; especially we cannot suppose that the scriptures would caution men against sins of the heart and thought, which the heart is not really liable to. It can never be the intention of the Holy Ghost to raise evil thoughts in men's hearts that were not there before; but to discover these that are there, to discover them, in order to cure them. An ingenuous Christian will not stand to acknowledge that this text represents to him what has been sometimes the suggestion of his own heart, and has much troubled his repose; (and it is great matter of comfort to him, that he has been troubled for such thoughts, and struggled against them,) he will not stand to acknowledge that this text is a confirmation of that character, which the epistle to the Hebrews gives of the word of God, "That it is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." He was a person of eminent goodness otherwise, as well as ingenuity, who was wont to confess, "That whatever curiosity others had in perusing the writings of Libertines and heretics against divine truths, for his own part, he could find nothing in them that was new to him, nothing but what he had read before in the imaginations of his own corrupt heart; and that the chief prejudices against God's perfections and precepts were enforced there, with as much eloquence and efficacy perhaps, and set in as strong a light as in any heretical book in the world." It is certain, while a man is under the slavery of sin, he carries in his breast a capacious source of heretical thoughts against God's attributes, as well as of Libertine thoughts against his laws; the former of which, have as great influence in hindering due love and esteem of God in his heart, as the latter have in hindering obedience to him in his life: and it is certain, that of all the ungodly thoughts that arise from unrestrained corruption, none flow more naturally from it, than these, by which men justify or excuse themselves, which they cannot do, without blaming God.

2. Men's inclination to blame God for their sins, discovers itself by their forwardness in blaming him for their sufferings: sin is the cause of their trouble; and therefore were men perfectly and sincerely convinced, that God is infinitely free from the blame of the cause, they could not be so prone to blame him for the effect. It requires no great insight into human nature, to observe an unaccountable inconsistency that appears in the way of thinking many men have about God's providence: they ascribe the good, that befalls them, to chance or to themselves, and the evil, that befalls them, to God: they are very ready to acknowledge his providence in their affliction, in order to repine and fret against him; while perhaps they seldom or never seriously acknowledge it in their prosperity, to thank him for it; while they overlook his undeserved goodness in what they enjoy, they pretend it is undeserved displeasure, that makes them suffer.

It is remarkable, the day in which men are to be called to an account for such thoughts, with all their other thoughts and actions, is called the day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God. Rom. 2:5. Men must then answer, not only for their disobedience in committing of sin, but also for their arrogancy in blaming him for it. And as real aggravations of sin are now covered with pretended excuses, so when the books of that awful court shall be opened, it is certain, pretended excuses will appear in their true colours, and, rising to view in their blackest forms, will be found to be real aggravations. Men must then give an account how they came to blame God for what they suffered, without thanking him for what they enjoyed. Happy were it for us, if we had the same view of sin now, that we shall certainly have then: and surely nothing can be more rational; for what will appear true then, must really be so now; and therefore it is certainly an useful preparation for that day, to be active now in acquiring, through God's grace, that view and sense of sin, which will otherwise be forced upon us by his righteous vengeance.

But not to insist further on this: the principal evidence of this branch of the doctrine, that deserves to be carefully considered, is, the ingratitude of men to God for his infinite mercy, in sending his Son to save them from their sins; and the more we consider it, the more we may be convinced, that their cold thoughts about divine mercy in the work of redemption, flow, in a great measure, from their false thoughts of his righteousness in the works of providence; that is, plainly, their hearts do not love him ardently for their deliverance, because they blame him secretly for their danger. This point deserves our particular attention, because gratitude for redeeming mercy being the soul and center of Christianity, to which all religious meditations should be referred, the chief importance of the doctrine in the text, consists in its subserviency to that end. It is plain to any who considers the doctrine of redemption, that it represents to us such infinite love, such incomparable tenderness and condescension, that as God's conduct towards us is an incomprehensible mystery of kindness, so our conduct towards him, is, if we may so speak, an incomprehensible mystery of ingratitude. There are indeed many mysteries in human nature, but they come all far short of this; for if we consider that human nature, corrupt and perverse as it is, is not yet wholly lost to all sense of gratitude in other cases, but that frequently the hearts even of the worst of men are softened with a kindly sense of singular favours; especially that the coldest and hardest hearts are sometimes melted with undeserved favours; if we consider that, in other cases, our acknowledgments rise naturally in proportion to our obligations, and that, after all, the greatest temporal favours, when compared with eternal ones, are but trifles; and yet, as insignificant as they are, they beget sometimes a very high degree of gratitude, and swell men's hearts with such generous sentiments toward their benefactors, that they take pleasure in nothing in the world more, than in serving them. If we consider all this, and compare it with the returns we make to our greatest (yea, in effect, our only) benefactor, for the greatest benefits he could give, or we receive, or imagine; if we compare these things together, it may be a question, whether we have more reason to be astonished at God's love, or at our own unthankfulness; or, which of them is the greatest wonder. To think that we should be so strongly affected with earthly favours; favours, from worms like ourselves; favours, of so little importance, of so short continuance; favours, proceeding from such imperfect love, and oftentimes mixed with many injuries; that we should be so strongly affected with such favours as these, and so little with the love of God in Christ, That love which is so perfectly pure, and disinterested, in the grounds of it, so free as to its motives, that it is exercised towards objects, who had neither merit to deserve it, nor power to requite it, nor used importunity in seeking after it; a love that is so infinitely tender in its nature, so inestimably precious in its effects, so rich and abundant in its fruits, so constant, so lasting, yea everlasting, so glorious in all its manifestations; that this should be the only friendship to which most men make no returns, the only kindness, of which they have no grateful resentment, is such a miracle, or rather monster of stupidity, that it might seem incredible, if there were any arguing against experience.

The cause of it can never perhaps be perfectly known, while we are not perfectly free from that deceitfulness of the heart, which the prophet Jeremiah affirms to be so mysterious, that God only knows it: yet some of the causes of it are unfolded to us in scripture; and the more we consider the text, the more we may be convinced, that it makes a very remarkable discovery this way; for it is plain, men are incapable of due gratitude to God, for sending Christ to redeem them from sin, while they barefacedly blame him for their temptations to sin. Men will not be thankful to a deliverer for rescuing them from danger, if they blame him for their falling into it. All which being duly considered, comparing men's unjust thoughts of providence, and their ingratitude for redemption, the former will be found to be a principal source of the latter; and the latter discovers the former, as the effect shows the cause.

By this means it is, that men forgo that inestimable blessing of love and joy in believing, that joy which is unspeakable, and full of glory. No doubt indeed, with many the cause of ingratitude for redemption, is their disbelief of it; but it is hard to charge all that are guilty of ingratitude, with downright infidelity; rather as the tares in the parable mixed with the wheat, so the belief of the doctrine of redemption is sadly clouded, and its influence marred by a wretched mixture of mean and unworthy thoughts of God, at least suspicions and suggestions, which indeed men are liable to in different degrees, but which all men, less or more, have need to guard, and wrestle against. If it were not for these inward prejudices, the doctrine of redemption, if it appeared in its native beauty, has such light and brightness, such glory in it, that it is hard to conceive how it should not have an irresistible influence, in ravishing every heart, that sincerely believes, with a love stronger than death, and with such transports of joy and admiration, as would make up the happiest state of mind in the world. But while such dismal prejudices are entertained, no wonder though the minds of men are so darkened, and their hearts so disordered and confused, that that amiable doctrine of the crucified Jesus appears mean and low in their eyes; so that many have no relish of it, nothing is almost so distasteful to them: they look on it as a doctrine that importunes them for more gratitude, than they think they see cause for: to them, Jesus Christ has no form, nor comeliness, nor beauty, why they should thank him.

2. These considerations make it too evident, that the unworthy thoughts of God, which the text rebukes, are both very ordinary, and very hurtful. It should not therefore be looked upon merely as an amusement, or matter of curious speculation, but as a meditation of the greatest importance, to take a view of the clearest evidences, that serve to refute these thoughts, and to show, that they are as false and unreasonable in themselves, as they are disparaging to God. But before we proceed to this, it will not be improper to observe, that, when men, instead of rejecting such thoughts, cherish and entertain them, they deal far more unjustly with God, than they do with some men in the like cases. For example, when a good man has once attained an established character of holiness and virtue, if it happens that a known impostor brings a great many plausible accusations against him; they that know that good man, though they should not be able perfectly to answer all the accusations laid against him, yet they will not believe them; especially if the affair be dark and intricate; and if they are certain that the virtuous person could not propose to himself any profit or pleasure by the unbecoming action laid to his charge. To set this matter in a clearer light, we may observe, that appearances and probabilities may be sometimes on the side of error and falsehood, otherwise there would be no difference between probability and certainty; and in some singular cases it has happened, that there has been such a strange complication of presumptions and probabilities of guilt laid against an innocent person, that strangers to his character have indeed believed him guilty, while they that were acquainted with it, found it impossible to doubt of his innocency. Now, to apply all this to the present case with regard to God (and it is a sad thing if God alone should have no friends to vindicate him), had men either due respect to him, or were they heartily inclined to do him justice, all the reasons that restrain them from rash censures of the most virtuous creatures in the world, would have unspeakably more force against rash censures, and mean thoughts of the Creator. Thus we should reflect, in the first place, that the devil, and our own corrupt hearts are such notorious impostors, that the experiences we have of their deceitfulness, are innumerable; and so also are the evidences we have of God's holiness and goodness. If there are some intricacies and difficulties about the divine actions, that have a relation to our actions (from which our hearts would take occasion to blame the former for the latter); yet all the rest of God's innumerable actions, (if we distinguish, as certainly we should, his actions from those of his creatures,) the whole history of his providence, the whole tenor of his works and ways, do so plainly and evidently represent to us an uniform character (so to speak) of the most spotless holiness, the most amiable goodness, the most untainted righteousness, that the imputation which the corrupt hearts of men asperse him with, is as absolutely inconsistent with the rest of his character (which is unquestionable) as night is with day, and darkness with light. To this we should add, that God's providence, especially concerning the actions of rational creatures, is very dark and intricate; nor is this just matter of wonder, if we consider, that all his works and ways are united and linked together by such numberless reciprocal relations and dependencies, that none can perfectly know one part of them, unless he knows the whole: we are but lately sprung from nothing, lately entered into God's world, we see but a very small part of his works, and that part itself very darkly: that we therefore should not know the reasons of all his actions, is so far from being just matter of wonder, that indeed it would be an incomprehensible wonder, if it were otherwise. Lastly, To complete the parallel, we should reflect, that infinite happiness being incapable of addition, it is impossible God could propose any advantage to himself by these unbecoming things, which the corrupt hearts of men lay to his charge; and therefore on all these accounts we should conclude, that whatever difficulties corruption may suggest against God's holiness, they should by no means be put in the balance with that infallible evidence we have for it, and that both from God's word, which cannot deceive us, and from his works, which are so perfectly agreeable to it. Corruption has nothing on its side, but such colours and appearances as may be on the side of error; whereas the apostle's doctrine is in effect supported by demonstration.

We may have a more lively impression of this (through divine grace) by taking a particular view of the principal evidences we have for the apostle's doctrine from God's word and works. To tempt a man to sin, in its most proper sense, is to propose some motive to him, to compel, or allure him to it; to entice him to it, by promises and rewards, or constrain him to it by threatenings and punishments. God is infinitely free from this; because, instead of proposing any motives to sin, he proposes the greatest motives possible against it. This is evident from his promises and threatenings of eternal rewards and punishments; these are plainly the greatest motives possible. And, as it is the distinguishing privilege of human nature above all earthly creatures, to be capable of extending its view to eternity, (since the longest time imaginable, though made up of ever so many myriads of ages, much more this uncertain fleeing moment of life, when compared to eternity, is nothing); it is plain, that eternal motives are properly the only motives that should govern immortal souls: to let temporal motives counterbalance them, is the most outrageous violence to reason, that can be imagined. In effect, when temporal motives interfere with eternal ones, they are no motives at all.

Besides the duration of these motives, it is proper to consider here their extensive influence; none can reasonably pretend to be exeemed from it, not even those who have only the light of nature. The apostle Paul, who was inspired by that Spirit, who searches the hearts of men, assures us, that even the consciences of heathens accused them: it is very reasonable to suppose that the accusations of that witness had some relation to a judge, and might be attended with secret misgivings, and rational forebodings of an after-reckoning (since innumerable sins pass unpunished here); at least, it ought to have been so. Reason might have satisfied them, that the less sin they committed in this world, it would be the better with them in the next.

Nor can these pretend to be exeemed from the influence of eternal motives, who should imagine, that, having incurred the divine threatenings already, they can be no worse than they are. In perfect justice, the punishment deserved bears an exact proportion to the wickedness committed; and surely an eternal addition to misery, is an evil which no temporal motive can weigh with, much less counterbalance.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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