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The moral government of the world perfectly compatible with the freedom
of human actions.
One very peculiar feature of the Divine government, in relation to the present world, is that by which the wicked actions of men are sometimes rendered subservient to the righteous purposes of God. This is particularly evident, not only in making the wicked actions of men the occasions and the means of their own punishment, and in making them to operate as a punishment on other wicked men, but more particularly when they serve as occasions for special interpositions of Providence in behalf of the righteous, and when they are employed in calling forth the exercise of piety and benevolence in religious people, as well for their own improvement, as for the general benefit of mankind; and still more especially, when they are rendered subservient, not only to the religious benefit of the righteous, in the present world, but to their eternal advantage in the world to come.
And hence the Psalmist has said, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee; and the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain." Psalm lxxvi. 10.
But it would by no means follow, from the restraints which are sometimes imposed upon the consequences of vicious actions, in making them ultimately subservient to some good and righteous purpose, that the evil nature of such wicked actions is thereby changed, or that any part of the malignity or demerit thereof is taken away from the offenders ; neither would it follow, that all evil actions are rendered subservient to some good and righteous purpose, or that in any case the good which is thereby educed from an evil action may be larger in magnitude and amount than the evil which it contained, or the bad consequence which it actually involved. Bringing good out of evil, however it
may accord with the prejudices of some persons, is a phrase, which in its popular acceptation, is exceedingly equivocal and objectionable; being such as could never be reconciled with the honour of the Divine government. It is not within the reach of Omnipotence to convert the nature of a bad action, so as to render it substantially and really good; and although the evil consequences of such an action may be employed as moral discipline, even upon the offender himself, or upon other persons; yet it must operate in such cases, by demonstrating its own evil nature and consequences, and by giving occasion to good feelings and good actions; which is, indeed, the great object of all punish: ment in this probationary state ; but it is not possible to regenerate the evil nature of a wicked action, or to reduce the real amount of its demerit in the sight of God.
If it were possible that a real good might arise out of every action which in itself is wicked, and a real good which would be larger in its magnitude and its consequences, than all the evil which it would ever occasion; then it would appear that wicked actions do not, in reality, contain all that malignity, and all that demerit, which are commonly imputed to them; that eventually they may occasion more good than evil; in short, that the evil which they are presumed to contain, is not real, but is only imaginary. But the distinction between good and evil actions, cannot be an arbitrary distinction, which is not founded in a real difference between the one and the other; for if the difference between good and evil actions be not real and eternal, and if that difference does not consist in the necessary tendency of the one to produce happiness, and in the other to produce misery, then we have no adequate test of the real character of things, nor any conceivable rule of distinguishing good from evil. If consequences may result from actions reputed wicked, that will contain a larger quantity of happiness than all the misery which they have occasioned, it must of necessity follow, that those actions, although reputed evil, are substantially, and in reality, good actions ; neither would it be possible to reconcile the punishment of such actions, and much less the eternal punishment of such actions, with either the wisdom or the justice of God.
Bringing good out of evil, therefore, can only imply the partial defect of the natural consequences of sinful actions,
either by bringing the authors of such wicked actions to repentance, or by employing their consequences as moral discipline upon other persons, or else by making them serve as occasions to the providential and gracious interpositions of Divine power. The wickedness of the Jews, in rejecting the Gospel, induced the apostles to preach unto the Gentiles, who received, in consequence, the glad tidings of salvation. The wickedness of the Jews became an occasion, but not the cause of their salvation. And the apostle Paul is so far from considering those happy consequences as being any justification of their conduct, that he says of the persons who would do evil that good might come,
6 Whose damnation is just.” Rom. iii. 8. And he is so far from considering the rejection of the Gospel by the Jews, as being a greater blessing to the world than their acceptance of the Gospel would have been, that he says,
“ If the casting away of the Jews, be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be but life from the dead ?” Rom. xi, 15.
Many persons do not distinguish between governing the world, and judging of the world; not perceiving the very great difference between the administration of justice to creatures under the discipline of moral probation, and the final awards of justice in its eternal retributions. The final judgment of the world will require the retribution of unmitigated justice on the finally impenitent, and the everlast. ing security of the righteous from the future molestations of the wicked. “ There the wicked cease from troubling ; there the weary are at rest." But the government of the world, while in a state of probation, requires no such retributions of either justice or mercy,
The righteous government of the world does not require the forcible and irresistible prevention of sin ; and even if such an interposition of Divine power were practicable, it would be entirely useless, because it would be destitute of all moral and rectoral virtue ; but the righteous government of the world does require the supply of adequate inducements to resist all temptation to criminal indulgences, and it requires such a co-operation on the part of the Almighty, as will be an adequate support to the voluntary integrity of the human heart. If the righteous government of the world required the forcible and infallible prevention
of any one criminal action, it might require the forcible and infallible prevention of every crime; and by consequence, it must have required the prevention of the original and great offence. But the government of the world requires no such interposition of the agency of God. If the Almighty does actually supply mankind with adequate inducements to resist all temptation to criminal indulgences, and if he does actually afford to every human being an adequate co-operation for the support of human integrity, then it must be evident to every man, that the Deity does every thing that is requisite for the moral government of the world.
But although the moral government of the world does not require the forcible and infallible prevention of sinful actions, yet it does evidently require that no evil should be permitted in the conduct of any creature which God is not able to punish; that the excess of wickedness should never outstep the bounds of his control; and that God should always be able to bring any man and any number of men to account, whenever he may think proper : and in those cases where the actual commission of a criminal purpose might be incompatible with the purposes of his providence, and the general interests of mankind, as in the case of Pharaoh, the purposed murder of Joseph by his brethren, and that of Paul by the Jews, it requires such an interposition of the Divine agency as will prevent the execution of the deed, while it leaves the will of the offender free; and it also requires that no evils should be suffered to befall the righteous that would be incompatible with their religious improvement in this world, and their eternal welfare in the world to come. Under such a wise and efficient administration of the Divine economy, neither the unprevented sufferings of the righteous, nor the unrestrained crimes of the wicked, dan reflect any real discredit on the almighty Governor of the world.
The unhappy consequences which mankind daily endure from the wicked actions of ungodly men, is one of the most powerful restraints which has ever been laid upon the criminal indulgence of human appetite and passion, because such fearful consequences are adapted to bring the real evil of sin before the very senses of mankind, and to oppose a powerful barrier to the progress and repetition of vicious actions. Wicked men are slow to discover the malignity
and demerit of their own crimes, but they are more easily convinced of the wickedness of other men's actions, especie ally when they themselves are the immediate sufferers. In such cases a miser will hate covetousness, a drunkard will abhor drunkenness, an adulterer will abominate fornication, a spendthrift will detest prodigality, and a tyrant himself will shudder at cruelty and blood.
Even those evil consequences, which good men sometimes endure from the conduct of the wicked, are so far from implying any just reflection on the righteousness of God in suffering such things, that the atrocity of sin is thereby more effectually exposed than even by those bad actions, where the wicked themselves are the sufferers. The mur. der of righteous Abel by his envious and cruel brother, is better adapted to inspire mankind with an abhorrence of that species of crime, than the slaughter of a thousand wicked men by
other's hand in the field of battle. The righteous may indeed be the objects of a cruel and persecuting malevolence from the ungodly world, from whom they may have to endure contempt and reproach, and persecutions and death; but all these sufferings to the righteous are light afflictions which endure for a moment, and yet by a moment's inconvenience they give occasion to a far more exceeding eternal weight of glory.
In relation to the murder of good men by the hands of the wicked, their murderers undoubtedly intended thereby to do them the greatest evil in their power ; but God overruled the deed of murder to their eternal advantage. And surely God may righteously suffer the death of good men by the hands of the wicked, if by such means he only takes those righteous persons to the regions of eternal felicity.
And on the very same ground the spirit of such a righteous jrsufferer must be disarmed of every feeling of injury, and
every desire of retaliation. It was not an affected liberality of spirit, it was not a voluntary blindness to real injury, it was not a mean and pusillanimous prostration of mind, neither was it a stoical insensibility of personal suffering, that drew from the lips and the heart of the dying protomartyr, “ Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Acts vii. 60. “ He saw the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” Jesus was waiting to receive his happy spirit! His murderers were but re