LECTURE X. - THE MORAL ATTRIBUTES OF GOD.
I. WHAT IS MORAL CHARACTER, AND WHAT ARE MORAL ATTRIBUTES?
1. The moral character of a being must reside in his voluntary actions. This is the unequivocal testimony of conscience. It is impossible for us to conceive that moral character should reside in involuntary acts, which are unavoidable.
2. Again, I remark, that moral character must reside primarily, not in a refusal to choose, for that is no choice, but in the ultimate choice of a moral agent. By ultimate choice I mean the choice of an object for its own sake. Every moral agent, from the necessity of his nature, chooses either to please God or to please himself, as his ultimate end, that is, for God's sake or for his own sake. Either God's interest must be practically regarded by him as supreme, and he must choose that as the supreme object of choice; or he must be selfish. In other words, he must either be benevolent, love God supremely and his neighbor as himself; or love himself supremely. The good of God and his universal kingdom is of infinite value in itself. Every moral agent is bound to choose this for its own sake; and this is good-willing or benevolence.
Opposed to this is willing self-gratification; a practical treating of self as if the gratification of our own desires, appetites, etc., were of supreme importance. Now in this ultimate choice of the good of universal being, or of self-gratification as an ultimate end, moral character must reside. Primarily, surely, it can reside nowhere else. It is this ultimate choice that gives direction and character to all the subordinate actions of the will; that gives direction to the volitions, the actions, and the omissions of all our voluntary lives. This ultimate choice is the root or fountain from which all volition and all moral action spring.
I say, moral character resides in this ultimate choice, and is as this ultimate choice is. If this choice is that of the highest good of universal being, supreme love to God and to our neighbor equal to our love of self, it is benevolence, and the very essence of virtue or righteousness. If this choice be that of self-gratification, this is selfishness and sin, and the very essence of moral evil. Observe, then, benevolence is willing the natural good of universal being. It is willing that state of mind that constitutes and is implied in the highest blessedness of which any being is capable. This choice is moral good or virtue. Moral good, then, or virtue, consists in the choice of natural good, or the blessedness of being for its own sake; while sin consists in choosing to gratify our own desires to the neglect of other and higher interests that do not belong to self. Benevolence, then, is the impartial choice of the universal good of being; sin is the choice of self-gratification and not good of all in the desire of the intrinsically valuable to being.
3. Again, a moral attribute must be a permanent quality of this ultimate choice. Moral attributes are not like the natural attributes, qualities of the essence or substance of a being; they are the qualities of his ultimate choice or intention. If he is benevolent his moral attributes are moral qualities of his benevolence; if he is selfish, they are the moral qualities of his selfishness.
Benevolence being an ultimate choice, a standing committal of the mind to the good of universal being, certain qualities inhere in it as implied in willing the highest good of God and the universe. So with selfish ultimate choice; it is the committal of the will to one's own personal gratification as its supreme end, and in this certain qualities inhere and are implied. These qualities of benevolence on the one hand or of selfishness on the other, are the moral attributes of the benevolent or the selfish being. These qualities being elements or qualities of benevolence or selfishness, will manifest themselves in volitions and corresponding actions as their occasions arise to call forth the expression of them. Thus they reveal themselves; but this we shall see in its place.
II. GOD IS MORALLY AND INFINITELY GOOD.
1. This no moral agent can doubt. Every moral agent, from the very fact that he is a moral agent, affirms his obligation to love, obey, and trust in God implicitly and universally. Hence, every moral agent by a necessity of his nature does assume that God is infinitely good; and although his dealings may be entirely mysterious, totally inexplicable, and so far as we can see, unreasonable, yet the conscience will affirm his infinite rectitude, and hold us responsible for obedience and submission under all circumstances. This shows that the goodness of God is a first truth of the moral reason. It is a truth that everybody knows; a truth necessarily and universally affirmed by every moral agent. When I say that it is a first truth of the moral reason, I do not mean that God is necessarily good, for a necessary goodness is a contradiction; but I mean that he is infinitely good, and that all moral agents know it and affirm it. Indeed, more than this may be said; moral agents know that he cannot be God if he were not infinitely good; that if he is to be regarded and treated as God, the Moral Governor, exercising rightful authority over the whole universe, he must be infinitely good. And here let me say, that we have no means, properly speaking, of proving the goodness of God, just because it needs no proof.
But, then, there is another reason. God is infinite and we are finite; we can grasp but a very small portion of his ways. Now it is true that we can find in the world around us very many indications - indeed, indications innumerable - of the goodness of God; but then there are so many things inexplicable, that if we were left to judge merely from facts that occur under his providence, we could not arrive at the logical conclusion that he is perfectly and infinitely good. Nor could we arrive at an opposite conclusion. The facts, so far as they can be known to us, would utterly baffle all efforts on our part to arrive at a settled conclusion. For, as we shall see, many of his moral attributes are but very partially revealed as yet in his providence, and we shall also be able to see why this is so.
Again, God is infinite, we are finite. He cannot make to us an infinite revelation, just because we could not understand it. He cannot make us understand his far-reaching plans, and his reasons for what he does. Many of his dealings are therefore to us necessarily mysterious, and not infrequently appear unreasonable and unjust. The goodness, I have said, of a being resides in his ultimate intention. Now while it is manifest in innumerable instances that God is kind and good, yet there is so much in the complications and seeming inconsistencies of the vast machinery of the universe, that we of course are not able to take in this ocean of mystery, and from it logically prove that God is infinitely wise and good. Nevertheless, we have a certainty that this is so, surpassing that of mere logical demonstration. We are so constituted as to irresistibly know that God is infinitely wise and good. We know that he is a moral agent; we know that his moral character must be either infinitely good or infinitely evil. The assertion that God is a wicked being is revolting to the human mind, and we cannot possibly receive it. No moral agent can entertain with any honesty the conception that God is otherwise than infinitely good. I said, the universal and necessary conviction that we ought universally to obey him, implies that he is infinitely wise and good, and that we know it.
2. The goodness of God must consist in unselfish love or benevolence. The universe, so far as we can search it out, is a unit in the sense that all its parts are so adjusted as to be under one universal law; that is, the material universe as we know it is governed by the universal law of gravity, all the parts being bound together in one system.
Again, all moral agents, we know, are under one law; not the law of necessary action, like the material universe, but the moral law, the law of free action; or in other words, they are under the law of liberty in the sense that they are left to choose in accordance with this law or in opposition to it, and abide the consequences. When I say they are left free to choose, I mean that the actions of their will are not necessitated; they are under moral obligations to choose in accordance with this law, but are not necessitated to do it. They have power to choose or refuse; but they must abide the consequences. Now in looking into the material universe, so far as the principles of science can go, we see that the one set of material laws is so adjusted as to promote the well being of all sentient existence in just so far as these laws are obeyed. There seems to be contrivance and design in the whole framework of material nature. Our bodies are "fearfully and wonderfully made;" and a consideration of every part exhibits the most striking evidence of the benevolence of the Creator. Volumes have been written on this subject; and were all written that might be written upon this interesting question, we might say with John, that "the world could not contain the books that should be written."
3. But again, the moral law, or the law for the government of moral agents - not that to which they do universally conform, but that to which they ought universally to conform - requires perfect and universal benevolence. This is a direct revelation of God's will in respect to his creatures.
4. Again, God is a moral agent; and we know also that this must be his rule of action. Being a moral agent he has a conscience; and his conscience must postulate as his rule of action this same law of universal benevolence. Thus he is a law to himself: his virtue consists in obeying this law.
He made us in his own image and wrote this law in our very nature; that is, he has given us a conscience that irresistibly and irreversibly postulates this same law as obligatory upon us. Thus he has revealed his own benevolence in the very construction of our nature. He has so made us that we affirm our universal obligation to be benevolent; and also we affirm universally that he is benevolent. Now, if God is not benevolent he does not deserve the respect of the subjects of his government, and has no right to govern. But we cannot possibly conceive ourselves as not under obligation to obey him upon the assumed knowledge that he is perfectly and universally benevolent and not selfish.
I said, that we could not prove by an examination of facts that God is benevolent. By this of course I intended the outward facts of the universe. But when we consult our irresistible convictions and the law of universal benevolence which he has impressed as our rule of duty upon our very nature, we learn with intuitive certainty that God is benevolent. We do not, therefore, need to go abroad to interpret the whole of his vast creation, we do not need to have a history of all God's doings and an explanation of them all to give us reasonable satisfaction that he is benevolent; we know it a priori; we know it in the irresistible convictions of our own minds, and in the law of benevolence which he has so impressed upon our nature that it is impossible that we should not impose it upon ourselves.
This law of benevolence we know to be subjective in the sense that every subject of it, that is, every moral agent, affirms it to be his own rule of duty. And every moral agent also affirms that this law is objective as well as subjective; that God imposes it on him and requires obedience to it. When moral agents affirm obligation to be benevolent, they affirm this obligation in the name of God. They always and necessarily conceive themselves as amendable to him.
III. TWO OBJECTIONS THAT HAVE BEEN MADE TO THE BENEVOLENCE OF GOD.
1. The existence of so much misery in the world. To this I answer:
(1) That God could not have chosen this misery for its own sake. He is a moral agent; and it is impossible that a moral agent should choose misery for its own sake. For this would imply the choice of it universally, and hence the choice of his own misery for its own sake. But this, as we have said, is abhorrent to the very nature of a moral agent; misery cannot be to a moral agent an object of choice for its own sake.
(2) But again, this misery God could not have chosen as a means of gratifying himself; that is, he cannot be a malevolent being in the sense that he ever desires misery for any delight he can take in it on its own account. Misery considered by itself and in its own nature is abhorrent alike to the will and the sensibility of every moral agent.
(3) Again, this misery that exists in the universe was not the end God had in view in creation, for misery is not a good but an evil; and we have seen that we necessarily conceive of God as benevolent. This necessary conception of the benevolence of God forces us to the conclusion that misery was no part of his end, that it was not chosen for its own sake. Nevertheless it exists: now the existence of this misery is not inconsistent with the benevolence of God; it must, therefore, be incidental to the best possible universe that he could make.
In strictness we are not called upon to reply to this objection, unless he who urges it can show that the fact of the existence of so much misery under the government of God is utterly inconsistent with his benevolence. This he cannot show. He cannot show that this misery is not disciplinary in this world; and he cannot show that any degree of misery that may exist in the future world will not conduce to the highest good of the universe as a whole. We are not bound then to show how the existence of misery can be reconciled with the benevolence of God. The burden of proof is on the objector, to prove that it cannot be consistent with the benevolence of God. We have shown by the most conclusive evidence that God is benevolent; but here he brings up certain inexplicable facts, and would insist that these facts are inconsistent with the positive proof that God is benevolent. But this he must prove, and this he cannot do. Even the misery that is in the universe may all be overruled as a means of the highest ultimate good. The contrary cannot be shown; but until it is shown, the objection is good for nothing in the presence of the positive proof of God's benevolence of which we have spoken.
2. Secondly, the existence of moral evil, or sin, has been urged as a proof that God is not benevolent. But in answer to this objection, I observe:
(1) Sin is voluntary, and consists in selfish acts of free moral agents. God, therefore, cannot be the author of sin; for the sin being a free, voluntary act, can have no author but the sinner himself. The freedom of the will is essential to moral government and moral obligation - God has made men free moral agents, in his own image; and he regards this freedom of will as sacred. Now, it cannot be shown, in the first place, that it was possible under a moral government to exclude all disobedience; but until this is shown, the objection is good for nothing. "But," says the objector, "Christians assert that God is infinitely powerful, and wise, and good. Now if he is infinitely wise he must have known, when he created moral agents, that they would sin if he did not interpose to prevent it; if he is infinitely powerful, he certainly might have prevented it; if he is infinitely good, he certainly would have prevented it."
But how does this follow? To be sure his omniscience does imply that he knew that if he created moral agents, they would sin unless he prevented it. Now it is supposable that in view of this he might have declined creating them; or, after he had created them, that he should have interposed and so ordered the administration of his affairs as either to abridge their liberty of will, or shut them out from temptation, or have annihilated them and thus prevented their sin. But observe, if he had never created moral agents and established moral government, there could have been no virtuous creature in the universe. Again, if he had adopted such measures, and so created men that they had been less free and had less temptation, then their virtue would not have been so valuable as it now is.
Again, it cannot be shown that any possible administration of a strictly moral government could wholly have prevented sin; or, if any possible administration could have prevented sin, that upon the whole such administration would have resulted in greater virtue and happiness than the one now adopted. It may be that the wisest system naturally possible even to omnipotence, has been adopted. It may be that both sin and misery are unavoidably incidental to a perfect moral administration; and therefore, that they could not have been wisely prevented; that to have so changed the whole order of arrangement as to have prevented both sin and misery, would have been, upon the whole, so benevolent and wise an arrangement as the one now existing. I said this may be: it can never be shown that the present system is not the wisest and best possible system. The burden of proof is on the objector. But he cannot prove this; and until he does his objection is invalid.
But we may take stronger ground than this: we may say that by the very laws of our nature we are forced to the assumption that the present system, with its incidental evils, is the best possible. This is implied in God's being infinitely wise and good; and this we know he is. He requires of us by his unalterable law to will and do the most good that we can; he requires of himself the same. He cannot have preferred a less to a greater good, a less perfect to a more perfect system. The system that is must be the best that can be, or God is not infinitely wise and good. It cannot be shown that it is not the best that can be. Our irresistible convictions affirm that with all the mystery involved in it to shortsighted creatures like ourselves, yet the system is as perfect as infinite attributes could make it; and that it will result in the greatest good that infinite power and goodness can secure.
These two great objections, then, the existence of natural and moral evil; amount to nothing in the face of all the positive proof of God's benevolence. It is admitted the they involve a world of mystery to our shortsightedness; nevertheless, we know that God is good, infinitely wise and benevolent; and that all this that is so mysterious to us is clear to him, and that which he can see to be consistent with his infinite perfections. And here it is worthy of remark, that the benevolence of God appears strikingly in this, that he has so created moral agents that they shall necessarily assume his goodness. From the nature of creatures who begin to be they must begin to learn; and much that is mysterious must necessarily be involved in the vast plans and government of God. These things cannot be explained to creatures who are, as we are, in the infancy of our being, because we are in no position to understand the explanation. God sees the end from the beginning. We see not a step before us; all the future is entirely dark, so far as our knowledge goes. But then we are forced to assume and cannot but affirm that "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all;" that although "clouds and darkness are round about him, yet justice and judgment are the habitation of his throne;" that in the midst of all this, so mysterious and trying to us, we can still say with certainty that God is right, that this is all consistent with his infinite benevolence, and will be fully explained when we are able to understand the explanation. In the meantime, we fall back upon our irresistible convictions, that God has never done or suffered anything that was not consistent with infinite benevolence.
IV. WHAT ARE THE MORAL ATTRIBUTES OF GOD?
Having shown sufficiently that God is benevolent, we now proceed to inquire respecting the qualities or attributes of this benevolence. I have said that an attribute of benevolence is a permanent quality of it; by which I mean that such is the nature of benevolence that it is disposed to do, and not to do, certain things.
The attributes of benevolence are of course all voluntary, that is, they are permanent qualities of a voluntary state, or of ultimate choice. Again, many of them are indicated in the works, and providence, and grace of God, as manifested in this world; but they are more specially known as being implied in the nature of benevolence, a goodwill to the universe, and especially goodwill to moral agents. It is especially by inquiring what must be implied in disinterested benevolence, that we learn what are and what must be the moral attributes of God.
Justice must be a permanent quality of God's benevolence. Justice is that quality of benevolence that disposes it never to wrong any being, but to treat all beings according to their intrinsic desert, that is, according to their moral character. This must be a quality of benevolence. The manifestation of it consists in rewarding the righteous and in punishing the wicked. But it is a quality of benevolence, and benevolence is goodwill. Now God will manifest this quality of his benevolence in regarding the righteous universally; but it does not follow that it will be manifested where the general good of the universe can dispense with the infliction; for observe, benevolence seeks the highest good of the universal being. The attribute of justice will never allow of any injustice; no being who deserves reward can fail of reward. But, as I have said, it does not follow that benevolence will always execute penal sanctions and take the forfeiture at the hand of one who deserves punishment, where the general good may be secured and yet the infliction dispensed with. For God is not only just but merciful; and it must be remembered that all his moral attributes are attributes of benevolence, and therefore that they will be so manifested as best to secure the highest good of universal being.
But of this attribute it should be further said, that in this state of being it is not to be expected that it will be universally manifested in treating moral agents just as they deserve. This is certainly a state of probation; it is therefore out of place to administer retribution here. Here we are to expect that the justice of God will wait until probation is finished before it is executed by the infliction of penal sanctions. Indeed, it were impossible that in this state of existence, God should deal with every moral agent as he sees that they deserve. Knowing as little as we do of the motives of men, it would perhaps be impossible for mankind to believe that God was administering impartial justice, should he deal with men precisely according to their character as it appears to him. It is at the close of probation, when a grand assize has been held, and all the facts in the history of every individual made known, that this attribute of justice is to appear in exercise. In the providence of God, there is just enough here and there of an expression of his regard to rectitude to awaken attention and keep the conviction alive that God is just; while there is so much in his providential dealings that came short of justice as to leave the fact on the face of his providence that this is not a state of rewards and punishments.
In conclusion, then, let me say of this attribute, that we do and must irresistibly affirm that benevolence to moral agents implies a disposition to do justly. Especially must this be true in one who sustains the relation of Moral Governor, whose business it is to execute law and treat men according to their deserts. But to avoid all misunderstanding, let me say again, that the attribute of justice must forever prevent God's requiring more than is just, or failing to give to virtue its due; while in the case of forfeiture and crime, benevolence may prefer the exercise of mercy rather than to punish and execute justice, where the public good can be as well secured.
This leads me to say that mercy is another of the moral attributes of God. This attribute consists in that quality of benevolence that disposes it to pardon crime, to dispense with the execution of the penalty of moral law, where the general interests of the government will admit it. It is the opposite of justice, in this: justice is the quality that disposes to execute law; mercy is the quality that disposes to dispense with the execution of penalties where it can be done without injury to the public. Justice is that quality of benevolence that disposes to treat persons as they deserve; mercy is that quality of benevolence that disposes God to deal with sinners better than they deserve, and even the opposite of that which they deserve. Justice disposes to reward with good where good is deserved; mercy disposes to confer good where evil is deserved. These must both be attributes of benevolence; and whether the one or the other shall be manifested in any given case, must depend upon whether the highest good can be secured by the manifestation of one or the other.
That mercy is an attribute of God, we have said, must be from the very nature of benevolence; but the existence of this attribute is plainly indicated in the forbearance exercised towards sinners in this world. Men are in fact sinners. But they are not executed. God is sparing them, and thus expressing his goodwill toward them. Instead of treating them justly, or inflicting upon them unmitigated evil, as they deserve, he is bestowing on them innumerable blessings. This is fact. Now from this it might be reasonably inferred that he is disposed to do them all the good he wisely can, notwithstanding their crimes; and that if it be possibly consistent with the public good he will pardon their crimes, and not take the forfeiture at their hands.
But again, I remark, it is very plain that mercy cannot be exercised under a moral government except upon two conditions: The first is that the sanctity, dignity, and authority of moral law shall be sustained. That is, that the law shall not be dishonored, first, by the sinner himself in disobeying it; and secondly, by God, in lightly setting aside the execution of the penalty without exacting anything that shall assert the authority and sustain the honor of the law. In other words, public justice must be sacred; that must be done which will as thoroughly sustain the authority of the law as the execution of its penalty would do, or the exercise of mercy can never be admitted. The law requires benevolence, that the highest good of being shall always be consulted and secured in the administration of the government of God. This law is to remain the eternal law of God's government. If it be dishonored by sin, the public good manifestly requires that its authority shall be reasserted by requiring a sacrifice of such a character as shall effectually sustain its authority, effectually declare God's indignation against sin, his love of holiness, his determination to sustain his law, and that shall as effectually rebuke sin as the execution of the penalty would do.
The law is public property, it is God's rule of action as well as ours, imposed on him by his own nature as it is imposed on us by our nature. He cannot repeal or alter it. He may do whatever benevolence may do; and this is consistent with his law. If the law be disobeyed, he must execute its penalty, or some substitute must be provided of a nature that will be understood by his creatures to restore the honor of the law. This must be done as a condition of the exercise of mercy. Were this the place, it might be shown that to meet this necessity was the design and end of the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ. But I pass to say, that a second condition upon which this attribute of mercy can be exercised is the entire reformation of the sinner himself. I say, the entire reformation. Sin is voluntary; and while he continues in sin he cannot be forgiven. It is totally inconsistent with the administration of law to pardon the transgressor while he persists in transgression.
Benevolence must delight in the exercise of mercy from its very nature. It is goodwill - delights to do good and to confer good. It delights to bless, and has no pleasure in a curse for its own sake.
(Roman numerals and outline added: I (entirely); II was 4, 1 under it was first sentence, 2 to 4 was 5 to 7; III had no heading reference; likewise IV.)