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God, through the mediation of his Son, doth not mark iniquity in those that wait on him, yet he might do so consistently with justice; and that his not doing so is of mere grace. I hope these sentiments do not tend to "relax the obligations of virtue.” Let us inquire whether the same may be said of the scheme of our opponents.
It may be thought, that, in these matters, in some of them at least, we are agreed. And, indeed, I suppose few will care to deny, in express terms, that the moral law, consisting of a requisition to love God with all the heart, and our neighbour as ourselves, is an eternal standard of right and wrong. But let it be considered, whether the Socinians, in their descriptions of virtue and vice, do not greatly overlook the former branch of it, and almost confine themselves to those duties which belong to the latter. It has been long observed of writers of that stamp, that they exalt what are called the social virtues, or those virtues which respect society, to the neglect, and often at the expense of others which more immediately respect the God that made us. It is a very common thing for Socinians to make light of religious principle, and to represent it as of little importance to our future well-being. Under the specious name of liberality of sentiment, they dispense with that part of the will of God which requires every thought to be in subjection to the obedience of Christ; and, under the disguise of candour and charity, excuse those who fall under the divine censure. The Scripture speaks of those who deny the Lord that bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction-and of those who receive not the love of the truth, being given up to believe a lie. But the minds of Socinian writers appear to revolt at ideas of this kind: the tenor of their writings is to persuade mankind, that sentiments may be accepted, or rejected, without endangering their salvation. Infidels have sometimes complained of Christianity, as a kind of insult to their dignity, on account of its dealing in threatenings: but Dr. Priestley, in his Letters to the Philosophers and Politicians of France, has quite removed this stumbling block out of their way. He accounts for their infidelity in such a way as to acquit them of blame, and enforces Christianity upon them by the most inoffensive motives. Not one word is intimated as if there was any dan
ger as to futurity, though they should continue Infidels, or even Atheists, till death. The only string upon which he harps, as 1 remember, is, that could they but embrace Christianity, they would be much happier than they are!
If I entertain degrading notions of the person of Christ, and if1 err from the truth in so doing, my error, according to Mr. Lindsey, is innocent,* and no one ought to think the worse of me on that account. But if I happen to be of opinion, that he who rejects the deity and atonement of Christ is not a Christian, I give great offence. But wherefore? Suppose it an error, why should it not be as innocent as the former ? and why ought I to be reproached as an illiberal, uncharitable bigot for this, while no one ought to think the worse of me for the other? Can this be any otherwise accounted for, than by supposing that those who reason in this manner, are more concerned for their own honour, than for that of Christ?
Dr. Priestley, it may be noted, makes much lighter of error when speaking on the supposition of its being found in himself, than when he supposes it to be found in his opponents. He charges Mr. Venn, and others, with "striving to render those who differ from them in some speculative points odious to their fellow christians;" and elsewhere suggests, that, "we shall not be judged at the last day according to our opinions, but our works; not according to what we have thought of Christ, but as we have obeyed his commands:"† as if it were no distinguishing property of a good work, that it originate in a good principle; and, as if the meanest opinion, and the most degrading thoughts of Jesus Christ, were consistent with obedience to him. But when he himself becomes the accuser, the case is altered, and instead of reckoning the supposed errors of the Trinitarians to be merely speculative points, and harmless opinions, they are said to be "idolatrous, and blasphemous." but idolatry and blasphemy will not only be
* Apology, 4th edition, p. 48.
† Consideration on Differences of Opinion, III. Defence of Unitarianism for 1786, p. 59 Ditto for 1787, p. 68.
Discourses on Various Subjects, p. 96.
brought into account at the day of judgment, but be very offensive in the eyes of God.* For my part, I am not offended with Dr. Priestley, or any other Socinian, for calling the worship that I pay to Christ, idolatry and blasphemy; because, if he be only a man, what they say is just. If they can acquit themselves of sin in thinking meanly of Christ, they certainly can do the same in speaking meanly of him; and words ought to correspond with thoughts. I only think they should not trifle in such a manner as they do with error, when it is supposed to have place in themselves, any more than when they charge it upon their opponents.
If Dr. Priestley had formed his estimate of human virtue by that great standard which requires love to God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to our neighbour as ourselves; instead of representing men by nature as having "more virtue than vice,"t he must have acknowledged, with the scriptures, that the whole world lieth in wickedness-that every thought and imagination of their heart is only evil continually— and that there is none of them that doeth good, no not one.
If Mr. Belsham, in the midst of that "marvellous light" which he professes lately to have received, had only seen the extent and goodness of that law which requires us to love God with all our hearts, and our neighbour as ourselves, in the light in which revelation places it; he could not have trifled, in the manner he has, with the nature of sin, calling it "human frailty," and the subjects of it "the frail and erring children of men;" nor could he have represented God, in, "marking and punishing every instance of it, as acting the part of a merciless tyrant." Mr. Belsham talks of "Unitarians being led to form just sentiments of the reasonableness of the divine law, and the equity of the divine government;" but of what divine law does he speak? Not of that, surely, which requires love to God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves; nor of that government which
* 1 Cor. vi. 9, 10.
Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, Part I. p. 80.
Sermon, pp. 33-35.
threatens the curse of God on every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them; for this allows not of a single transgression, and punishes every instance of human folly, which Mr. Belsham considers as "merciless tyranny." He means to insinuate, I suppose, that for the law to take cognizance of the very thoughts and intents of the heart, at least of every instance that occurs, is unreasonable; and that to inflict punishment accordingly is inequitable. He conceives, therefore, of a law, it seems, that is more accommodated to the propensities, or, as he would call them, frailties of the erring children of men; a law that may not cut off all hopes of a sinner's acceptance with God by the deeds of it, so as to render an atoning mediator absolutely necessary, and this he calls reasonable; and of a government that will not bring every secret thing into judgment, nor make men accountable for every idle word, and this he calls equitable. And this is the "marvellous light" of Socinianism; this is the doctrine that is to promote a holy life; this is the scheme of those who are continually branding the Calvinistic system with Antinomianism.
If the moral law require love to God with all the heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and to our neighbour as ourselves; it cannot allow the least degree of alienation of the heart from God, or of the smallest instance of malevolence to man. And, if it be what the scripture says it is, holy, just, and good; then, though it require all the heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, it cannot be too strict; and if it be not too strict, it cannot be unworthy of God, nor can it be " merciless tyranny" to abide by it. On the contrary, it must be worthy of God to say of a just law, Not a jot or tittle of it shall fail.
Dr. M'Gill, in his Practical Essay on the death of Jesus Christ, maintains, that "the Supreme Lawgiver determined from the beginning to mitigate the rigour of the law, to make allowances for human error and imperfection, and to accept of repentance and sincere obedience, instead of sinless perfection." But, if this were the determination of the lawgiver, it was either considered as a matter of right, or of undeserved favour. If the former, why was not the law so framed as to correspond with the determination of the lawgiver? How was it, especially, that a new edition of it
should be published from Mount Sinai, and that without any such allowances? Or, if this could be accounted for, how was it that Jesus Christ should declare, that not a jot or tittle of it should fail, and make it his business to condemn the conduct of the scribes and pharisees, who had lowered its demands, and softened its penalties, with a view to "make allowance for human error and imperfection?" It could answer no good end, one should think, to load the divine precepts with threatnings of cruelty. A law so loaded would not bear to be put in execution: and we have been taught by Dr. Priestley, in what he has written on the TestAct, to consider "the continuance of a law which will not bear to be put in execution, as needless and oppressive, and as what ought to be abrogated."* If repentance and sincere obedience be all that ought to be required of men in their present state, then the law ought to be so framed, and allowance to be made by it for error and imperfection. But then it would follow, that where men do repent, and are sincere, there are no errors and imperfections to be allowed for. Errors and imperfections imply a law from which they are deviations; but if we be under no law, except one that allows for deviations, then we are as holy as we ought to be, and need no forgiveness.
If, on the other hand, it be allowed that the relaxation of the law of innocence is not what we have any right to expect, but that God has granted us this indulgence out of pure grace; I would then ask the reason, why these gentlemen are continually exclaiming against our principles as making the Almighty a tyrant, and his law unreasonble, and cruel? Is it tyrannical, unreasonable, or cruel, for God to withhold what we have no right to expect?t
*Familiar Letters, Letter VI.
+ The Intelligent reader, who is acquainted with the different sentiments that are embraced in the religious world, will easily perceive the agreement between the Socinian and Armenian systems on this subject. By their exclamations on the injustice of God as represented by the Calvinistic system, they both render that a debt, which God in the whole tenor of his word declares to be of grace. Neither of them will admit the equity of the divine law, and that man is thereby righteously condemned to eternal punishment, antecedently to the grace of the gospel; or, if they admit it in words, they will be ever contradicting it by the tenor of their reasoning.