RPM, Volume 12, Number 43, October 24 to October 30, 2010

Not Chargeable on God

Part V

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.

After insisting so much in proposing the evidences of the doctrine, it will be the easier to apply them for answering the objections against it, which are drawn either from God's decrees, or his providence: the reasons that vindicate the latter do at the same time vindicate the former; and therefore the former needs not much be insisted on: it is plain, that if God does not actually tempt men by his providence in time, he never decreed to do it from eternity; the scriptures make, and all sound Christians believe, a difference, betwixt what God decreed to do himself, and what he decreed to permit in others; and though reasons of both may be unknown yet we are obliged in reason to believe they are not unjust; not only the reasons of God's decrees, but his decrees themselves are unknown till the event discover them; and surely it is the wildest absurdity for men to allege that they are tempted by things they know nothing about. God in his decrees laid down measures for hindering innumerable sins, which would otherwise have happened, were it not for the restraints of his providence and his grace: so that if his decrees should be considered on this subject at all, we should consider, that his decrees, as executed by his providence, are not the cause of sin, but the cause why there is not vastly more wickedness in the world than there is, and why the wickedness that is in the world is so much restrained, and kept within such bounds, and over-ruled for such good ends.

As to objections drawn from providence, the most remarkable of them that are found either in the writings of Libertines, or that great source of Libertinism, the suggestions of natural corruption, are perhaps these. First, That it is God himself, who has endowed the creatures with that goodness and pleasure, that inclines us to idolize them; That he has implanted in us desires after them, and yet has made laws contrary to those desires, as if we had laws given us one way, and desires another way; That these tempting objects continue pleasant and delightful, even when abused by wicked men in the pursuit or enjoyment of them; and lastly, that we are placed in such circumstances, that they surround us on all hands, and make continual impression on our senses.

As to the first suggestion, That it is God that has made these objects (and made them so pleasant) which tempt us to sin, or, to express the thing truly, which we pervert into an occasion of sin; this is so far from being a just reflection on God, or an excuse for us, that it is the very reverse. This is the thing that testifies God's goodness to us, that he has given us so many good creatures to enjoy, which are both useful and delightful to us, and therefore should excite us, not to sin against him, but to love and obey him; and this is the very thing that shows our inexcusable folly and ingratitude, that the objects we prefer to God, are his own creatures, and the things, for the sake of which we offend him, his own gift.

It is not the true worth and real goodness that God has put in the creatures that is to be blamed for our preferring them to the Creator, but a false and imaginary worth we feign in them ourselves. It is lawful, yea it is our duty, to have a true esteem and value for God's creatures, as they are manifestations of his glory, or fruits of his bounty; sin does not consist in valuing the creatures, but in overvaluing them. The former shows a man's esteem of the author of them; it is the latter that makes us neglect him. If we loved the creatures only in proportion to their real worth, there would be no irregularity or disorder, consequently no sin in it. It would be the perfection of our nature, if all our desires bore a true proportion to their objects; sin breaks that proportion; it imagines a kind of all-sufficiency or independency in the creatures; this is the most chimerical imagination in the world, and it is the great cause of all our folly: it is plain it is a creature of our own; God's works cannot be blamed for it; their true worth is not the cause of our false esteem, nor can it be made an excuse for it. All the creatures declare their own insufficiency with the clearest evidence; they direct us to their Author, and acknowledge their absolute dependence upon him.

If men therefore are deceived in this matter, it is because they impose upon themselves; their error is wholly inexcusable. Every practical error indeed is so, because it is voluntary. A man may be passive in believing the truth; irresistible evidence may force his assent to it. Falsehood is incapable of such evidence; it is impossible that the devil or any external cause whatsoever, can force an error on a creature endowed with reason; but there is a peculiarity in this error we speaking of, though a man should pretend some small shadow of reason for other mistakes, he can pretend none for this, that God's works should be preferred to himself, the stream to the fountain, the shadow to the substance. Though there might be some colour of excuse for falsely preferring one creature to another, surely there can be none for preferring any creature to God.

If any thing be self-evident that some call in question, or seem by their actions to do so, surely this is self-evident, that God is our chief, yea indeed our only true happiness. Want of consideration cannot be alleged to excuse or extenuate a man's mistake about this. Indeed men cannot consider all things, and therefore may be ignorant or mistaken about some things without danger; but there is on inquiry which no man can excuse himself for neglecting, though he should neglect every thing else, and that is, to inquire wherein his chief happiness lies, and which is the true way to it; and such a neglect is the more inexcusable, because that inquiry scarce requires any pains, nor is there the least occasion for demur about it, the thing being so plain, that He only who gave us being, can give us happiness.

If the objection proposed, be enforced by asking the reasons of that goodness and pleasure that is in the creatures, which though it should not excuse our sin, yet is abused at least into an occasion of sin. Though we are not fit judges of the reasons of God's actions, yet we may know enough about this, not only for vindicating his holiness, but also for extolling his goodness: for what can be more agreeable to that divine perfection, than that he who is perfectly good himself, should have made his works all very good likewise? that the workmanship might be worthy of the workman, and that the effects might not disparage the cause. Nothing can be more absurd, than to pretend, that it would have been agreeable to God's goodness to have made evil works himself, to prevent the evil works of his creatures. The brightest manifestations of God's glory have been made occasions of dishonouring him; but surely none will say, that it had been better these manifestations had not been made, lest they should be abused; that God's glory had not been so displayed, lest some should have made it an occasion of offending him: that is, that we had wanted those things that are really means and motives of adoring God, lest some should abuse them (contrary to their natural tendency) into occasions of despising him. The old heathens took occasion from the visible glory, beauty and usefulness of the sun, moon and stars, to worship them; how absurd would it be to censure the Author of nature, for endowing these creatures, with such beauty and usefulness, because it was abused. Many curious persons have taken occasion from the regularity, order, and deep contrivance that is in God's works, to employ their minds wholly in amusing speculations and inquiries into nature, without regarding its Author: but surely that cannot reflect upon him for forming his works, with such regularity and harmony, that the very contemplation of them gives delight. Let us consider the native consequences of it, if matters had been ordered otherwise, if instead of all that beauty and delight that is in the creatures, they had been made unpleasant, deformed, and useless: let us reflect, that the love and esteem of God, is a principal part of holiness, and then consider whether it would have been a greater mean or motive to love and esteem the Author of these works, that the works themselves were unworthy of love or esteem; or whether there would have been any incitements and materials for praising the cause in the effects not deserving praise.

In considering the actions either of God or good men, we should distinguish between two very different sorts of consequences that may follow upon them.

First, Their true and proper effects for which they are designed, and which they have a native tendency to produce, and secondly those indirect consequences that may follow on them, not through any tendency in the good actions themselves to these evil consequences, but through the perverse dispositions of others: in this last sense, very bad consequences may follow upon the very best actions; but the latter can no wise be blamed as the cause of the former: when a good man is about to do an excellent and useful action, he may foresee that some envious person will take occasion from that, to be guilty of slander, backbiting, and perhaps worse, and that others will be very ungrateful for the good he does; but he can neither be blamed for that, nor ought he to forbear his duty to prevent their sins. No man is obliged to do evil, or to forbear what is absolutely good, in order to prevent the evil of others; that would indeed be doing evil, that good might come of it. A man of a wicked disposition may take occasion from the best action to do things directly contrary to the nature of that action, and to its native tendency, and proper effects.

To apply these things to the present case; the direct tendency of all the goodness and pleasure with which God has endowed the creatures, is to manifest his being and glorious perfections, particularly his goodness and all-sufficiency, and our absolute dependence on him, and to make us long for the enjoyment of himself the fountain, when there is so much goodness even in the streams that flow from him: accordingly God's actions produce these their true and proper good effects in numberless multitudes of holy creatures, angels and saints. These same works of God, from which wicked men take occasion to neglect him, are to all holy creatures means and motives of love, esteem, adoration, praise and thanksgiving, reliance on him, and desire of union to him: light is not more opposite to darkness, than these native effects of God's works are to the unnatural evil uses, that wicked men make of them; they make the effects of his power occasions of despising him; the evidences of his all-sufficiency occasions of alienating their desires from him. And, which is the most monstrous abuse imaginable, as was before observed, they make his benefits occasions of ingratitude.

It was proved already, that the pleasures of sense are evidences of God's goodness, because they are means of preserving mankind; but these is a wise temperament in this, which serves both to illustrate the doctrine, and to refute the objections in view. It is God's goodness, that these objects being so useful, are so pleasant as they are; it is God's goodness likewise that they are not more pleasant; it is dangerous to exceed in them; such excess tends not only to divert the thoughts, but to alienate the mind from the higher objects, to which these inferior things should lead us; for preventing that excess it is wisely ordered, that these pleasures are neither too numerous, nor too violent, nor durable: it is otherwise with spiritual and intellectual enjoyments; these tend directly to the perfection of our souls, whereas the former are but for the subsistence of our bodies. Intellectual enjoyments have something in their nature that is immortal, like the soul; but sensible pleasures are made fleeting and short lived; because, however innocent in themselves, they are dangerous when exceeded in: it is but a small part of life they can fill up, and when idolized, they decay by use, and cloy by repetition. Things are so well adjusted, that there is just so much pleasure in these objects, as may effectually excite men to use them, and so little, as should in all reason hinder them from abusing them.

These same considerations serve also to refute the second objection that was mentioned, viz. That these objects which are the occasions of sin, are not only made pleasant but necessary to us, and that there are desires after them implanted in our nature. This objection carries its answer in its bosom, (though through men's stupidity it does harm). If these objects are necessary to us, that itself shows that the use of them is lawful, and the just and natural desire of them innocent. God has only implanted in men desires towards what is their duty, that is, self-preservation; but if men's wickedness abuseth the means of their preservation into occasions of their ruin, even the heathens could observe that this is living contrary to nature; besides, it is obvious, that God has so ordered matters that it is a very little that satisfies nature, and when that good end is obtained, desire ceases. Thus it is with hunger and thirst for instance, when one has taken what is sufficient for health and nourishment. It is otherwise indeed with men, who have contracted evil habits, by being accustomed to excess; but these habits are not natural, but acquired; and we should distinguish between these inclinations implanted in us by God, and those that are contracted by ourselves.

If it be asked, Why these objects are made necessary to us? This question is as much out of the way, as to ask why the world was made, or men made to inhabit it. The prophet Isaiah seems to intimate, that to have made the earth uninhabited, would have been a making of it in vain, Isa. 45:18. "Thus saith the Lord God himself, that formed the earth , and made it — he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited." It is hard to conceive, how it could properly be reckoned inhabited, if no creatures resided in it but pure spirits; surely it is no reflection on the Creator, that he has made such a world as this lower world is, or that having made it so beautiful and glorious as it is, that he has not left it to be a desolate wilderness; and then it is easy to conceive, that according to the best order of nature, and the best-conceived laws to govern it, such inhabitants consisting of body as well as spirit, could not subsist, without being constantly recruited with the means of life and nourishment. If it were not for that, the visible world would be comparatively useless; if it were no way subservient to the preservation and subsistence of its inhabitants, there would not be that beautiful connection that is now between the visible and invisible world, making things void of life and reason useful to creatures endowed with both.

To this we may add, that our natural necessities, when duly considered, are arguments of God's goodness, because, in their proper tendency, they are antidotes against sin, and helps to duty. Their proper tendency is to give us an impression of our own natural emptiness, God's all-sufficiency, and our dependency upon him, from whom we need so many things, with which he furnisheth us so bountifully; by this means, not leaving himself without witness, as Paul reasoned with the people of Lystra in the forecited place, Acts 14:17. Besides it is useful to reflect here on what was hinted before, that human necessities are an excellent cement of human societies, and the many useful and beautiful relations comprehended in them; they lay also a foundation for the exercise of innumerable virtues and graces, which otherwise could not be exercised in so remarkable a manner, for making men's graces and good works shine before the world, to the glory of God. Matt. 5:16. And since the image of God drawn on the soul of a creature is the noblest workmanship in the creation, it should not be thought improper that it have occasions of shining in all its splendor, for the honour of its Author. Were it not for men's natural necessities, they would not have these excellent opportunities, that now they enjoy of showing either their love to God, by sacrificing interest to duty, when they happen to interfere; or their love to their neighbours, by acts of charity, pity and compassion, bounty, generosity, and the like; or temperance, sobriety, and other duties that relate more immediately to the management of themselves. These necessities are also the foundation of all that beautiful variety of stations and employments, which, together with other excellent uses, serve to keep men from idleness and inactivity, than which, experience shows nothing is more hurtful. Men pretend indeed ofttimes, that their labours are hindrances of their duties; but experience shows that generally these who have most time, are not the persons who make the best use of it. So that man's eating his bread with the sweat of his brow, is such a punishment of sin, as is at the same time an excellent restraint upon it.

From all which it appears, that by the desires, God hath implanted in us, and the objects he has made necessary to us, he does not tempt us to sin, but excites us to duty; and that these things which are made occasions of evil, are really necessary means of good; and that though they are unnaturally perverted by bad men, yet their natural tendency is the exercise and triumph of many graces and virtues. God's goodness in this matter is the more evident, the more it is inquired into; he has implanted in us desires after things useful and necessary, but none after those things that are useless or hurtful, as was hinted before: no superfluous desires are natural, these are acquired by men themselves, and oftentimes improven to the prejudice of these desires that are just and natural: and, upon the whole, the use we should make of these reflections is certainly an humble acknowledgment of our own emptiness, and of God's all-sufficient goodness.

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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