« PreviousContinue »
ively to perfect the more lasting beauties of a spiritual world during six of his more ample days; how little reason have we to despise the comprehensive design, especially when we consider that six thousand years are far more inconsiderable in comparison with eternity than six atoms in comparison with this terrestrial globe ?
Now, if such a plan is not only reasonable, but has been evidently adopted by Him who "giveth not account of any of his matters,” Job xxxiii. 13, it is undoubtedly true, that those who have lived in different periods of time have not been permitted to enjoy all the various truths which God has successively revealed to Nevertheless, it is equally certain, that every man, in what period of time, and in what peculiar circumstances soever he found himself placed, has received sufficient light to discover, as well as sufficient power to perform, what God has been pleased to require at his hands.
The day of evangelical truth is graciously allowed to all mankind, that they may thereby be assisted to discover, to love, and to obey their celestial Parent; and, finally, that they may reach the mark of their high destination, which is the enjoyment of those different degrees of blessedness which are reserved for the different classes of the faithful. Let us consider the morning of this sacred day. When the first man had extinguished in his heart the light of truth and the fire of charity; when he became sufficiently stupid to think of concealing himself from his God among the trees of the garden, and sufficiently impious to throw the blame of his offence upon his companion in transgression, instead of confessing his disobedience with all its aggravations; it is evident that man was then without Christ, that is, without a Saviour,“ without hope, and withoạt God in the world.” Eph. ii. 12. In that night of error, of confusion, and probably of despair, the promise of a powerful Redeemer was given to our first parents, whence certain beams of hope were produced, which formed the earliest twilight of the gospel-day.
The tradition of this gracious promise, which was made to Adam and confirmed to Noah; the natural law, which is nothing less than the remains of the Creator's image in the human heart; and the secret grace of the Redeemer, which is more or less operative in every man ; these collectively formed that evangelical dawn wbich was for a long time universally experienced in the world, and which may, with propriety, be termed either “gentilism," "the
“ religion of the first patriarchs,” “ the gospel of the heathen,” or “the dispensation of the Father.” In this low dispensation; and under these faint glimmerings of truth, the generality of mankind are still unhappily observed to live. And though clouds of prejudice, together with vain tradition, deprive many pagan nations, in part, of this inestimable light, yet sufficient remains among them for the direction of those who are seeking after the light of a less obscure dispensation.
When mankind had become almost universally unfaithful to the grace of gentilism, and unmindful of the past vengeance of God, in destroying the world; when they had plunged themselves into the most impious excesses, and were wholly given up to the grossest idolatry ; at that time the Almighty resolved to separate from the corrupted nations a single people, who should preserve among them the divine worship in its purity,--a people among whom the Messiah should be born, and who should spread around them both the expectation and the promise of so wonderful a deliverer. Moses, Aaron, and Joshua were the representatives of this extraordinary person : Moses, as a prophet and legislator ; Aaron, as an high priest appointed of God; and Joshua, as an illustrious conqueror, dividing the kingdoms of Canaan among those who had followed him through the dangers of a tedious warfare. Thus the Jews became a preaching people to the rest of the world, preserving in it the light of the Father's dispensation, and preparing it for the further dispensation of the Son; insomuch that the expectation of a divine Restorer was spread over many parts of the earth, as we learn from two pagan historians,* whose testimony
* Percrebuerat Oriente toto vetus et constans opinio, esse in fatis ut Judea profecti rerum potirentur.-SUETONIUS.
Pluribus persuasio inerat, antiquis sacerdotum libris contineri eo ipso tempore fore, ut valesceret Oriens, profectique Juded rerum potirentur.-Tacitus.
deserves credit. Nay, the sybils, and even Virgil himself, took occasion, from this general expectation, of applying to Augustus the predictions of a sublime conqueror who was to issue from the east, renewing the face of things.
Judaism then seems to have been nothing more than the dispensation of the Father; though undoubtedly more luminous than it had formerly appeared before the calling of Abraham. The moral law given by Moses was but a new edition of the natural law, which had been given long before ; and the ceremonial law was added thereto, as a further confirmation of the original promise. This was, however, a remarkable advance toward the dispensation of the Son and that of the Holy Ghost, since the mysteries of both were shadowed forth by the interior parts of the temple, by sacrifices, by ablutions, by anointings, by perfumes, by burning lamps, and sacred fires.
The universal creed under this ancient dispensation still forms a part of that which is received among Christians ; and there is no true worshipper under this economy, but who can say with sincerity, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator and Preserver of heaven and earth, the avenger of sin, and the rewarder of those who faithfully serve him; and I trust the me is coming, when some divine instructer will enable me more fully to know and obey this incomprehensible Father of the universe.” “May such an instructer soon appear!” was the united prayer
of Socrates and I lato. - Let him hasten his coming,” says the true Jew and the pious theist, “under whatever appellation he may choose to appear. Let him be called the Seed of the woman, the Seed of Abraham, or the Son of David ; let his name be, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Logos, Emmanuel, Joshua, Jesus, Saviour; or only, the Prophet, the Angel of the covenant, or the Messenger of God; it is of little consequence : if he brings but life and immortality to light, I will receive him with gratitude and joy.” Such is the faith by which those Jews, Mahometans, and pagans, whose hearts are principled in humility, candour, and the fear of God, have been, and still continue to be, saved in every part of the world. For the Father of mercies, who knoweth whereof we are made, will no more absolutely condemn such worshippers, on account of the extraordinary respect they discover for Moses, Mahomet, and Confucius, than he will finally reject some pious Christians for the sake of that excessive veneration which they manifest for particular saints and reformers; nor will he punish either, because their guides have • mingled prejudice with truth, and legendary fables with the doctrines of theology.
As a prudent physician proportions his medicines to the different ages and habits of his patients, so the enlightened pastor, who feels himself concerned for the spiritual health of his flock, sees it necessary to act with equal care and discretion. He preaches the dispensation of the Son to those who, like Socrates and Plato, are longing for a divine instructer, as well as to those who, like Simeon, Nicodemus, and Cornelius, are waiting for the consolation of Israel. He leads them, either from the law of Moses, or from the law of nature, to the gospel of Christ; explaining, with precision, those parts of the new testament which exhibit the commencement of the Son's dispensation, together with all he taught, performed, and suffered, while he continued upon
earth. Lastly, to such as have devoutly embraced this part of the gospel, he publishes the glorious economy of the Holy Spirit, which was not fully opened till after the bodily appearance of the Redeemer was withdrawn from the world. Then it was that he descended in the fulness of the Spirit, directing and supporting his disciples, animating and sanctifying his members, and manifesting that kingdom of God, that dispensation of “righteousness, peace, and joy,” which is so largely treated of in the acts and epistles of the apostles.
These three dispensations have one common end. They mutually tend to manifest the different perfections of the supreme Being, to raise man from his present low estate, and to perfect his nature. This threefold design is apparent under the dispensation of the Father; it unfolds itself more clearly under that of the Son; and shines out with increasing lustre under that of the Holy Spirit. As
it is one and the same sun that animates everything in the natural world, so it is one and the same God who operates everything in the kingdom of grace. He whom we address as
our heavenly Father, in that sacred form of prayer which is common among Christians, is the very God in whose name the ancient patriarchs were accustomed to bless their children. The Word through which we address him is no other than that “light of the world" by which the antediluvian fathers were illuminated in their several generations; and the Holy Ghost, by which the souls of the faithful are divinely regenerated, is the same Spirit that primarily “moved upon the face of the waters ;" Gen. i. 2; of which also it was said in the days of Noah, “My Spirit shall not always strive with man." Gen. vi. 3.
There never was a time in which the Son and the Spirit were not occupied in completing the salvation of believers. But there was a time when the Son became manifest upon the earth, making a visible display of his astonishing labours; and then it was, that his particular dispensation had its commencement. So likewise there was a time, when the Holy Ghost, more abundantly shed forth by the Father and the Son, began to work his mysterious operations in a more sensible manner; and at that time commenced the particular dispensation of the Spirit, which serves to perfect the dispensation of the Son, as that of the Son was given to perfect the dispensation of the Father.
These distinctions are founded upon reason, upon revelation, and upon the apostles' creed.
1. Reason suggests, that mankind must for ever remain under the sovereignty of their omnipotent Creator, and accountable to him for the use they make of his innumerable favours. Reason further discovers, that, if man should admit the darkness of error into his understanding, and the fatal influence of sin into his will, he cannot possibly recover his pristine state, except through the manifestation of a new light, and the exertions of a stronger influence. But who shall produce the former, except that Saviour who is the “light of the world ?” John viii. 12. Or, who