Sermon 8. Human Responsibility, as Independent of Circumstances

"The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat." Gen. iii. 13.

{136} THE original temptation set before our first parents, was that of proving their freedom, by using it without regard to the will of Him who gave it. The original excuse offered by them after sinning was, that they were not really free, that they had acted under a constraining influence, the subtilty of the tempter. They committed sin that they might be independent of their Maker; they defended it on the ground that they were dependent upon Him. And this has been the course of lawless pride and lust ever since; to lead us, first, to exult in our uncontrollable liberty of will and conduct; then, when we have ruined ourselves, to plead that we are the slaves of necessity.

2. Accordingly, it has been always the office of Religion to protest against the sophistry of Satan, and to preserve the memory of those truths which the unbelieving heart corrupts, both the freedom and the responsibility {137} of man;—the sovereignty of the Creator, the supremacy of the law of conscience as His representative within us, and the irrelevancy of external circumstances in the judgment which is ultimately to be made upon our conduct and character.

3. That we are accountable for what we do and what we are,—that, in spite of all aids or hindrances from without, each soul is the cause of its own happiness or misery,—is a truth certified to us both by Nature and Revelation. Nature conveys it to us in the feeling of guilt and remorse, which implies self-condemnation. In the Scriptures, on the other hand, it is the great prevailing principle throughout, in every age of the world, and through every Dispensation. The change of times, the varieties of religious knowledge, the gifts of grace, interfere not with the integrity of this momentous truth. Praise to the obedient, punishment on the transgressor, is the revealed rule of God's government from the beginning to the consummation of all things. The fall of Adam did not abolish, nor do the provisions of Gospel-mercy supersede it.

4. At the creation it was declared, "In the day that thou eatest ... thou shalt surely die." On the calling of the Israelites, the Lord God was proclaimed in sight of their lawgiver as "merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty." And when Moses interceded for the people, with an earnestness which tended to the infringement of the Divine Rule, he was reminded that {138} he could not himself be really responsible for others. "Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book." The prophetical Dispensation enforced the same truth still more clearly. "With the pure Thou wilt show Thyself pure, and with the froward Thou wilt show Thyself froward." "The soul that sinneth, it shall die; make you a new heart and a new spirit, for why will ye die?" And after Christ had come, the most explicit of the inspired expounders of the New Covenant is as explicit in his recognition of the original rule. "Every man shall bear his own burden ... Be not deceived: God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Even in his Epistle to the Romans, where he is directly engaged in declaring another, and at first sight opposite doctrine, he finds opportunity for confessing the principle of accountableness. Though exalting the sovereign power and inscrutable purposes of God, and apparently referring man's agency altogether to Him as the vessel of His good pleasure, still he forgets not, in the very opening of his exposition, to declare the real independence and responsibility of the human will. "He will render to every man according to his deeds; … tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil ... but glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good; ... for there is no respect of persons with God;"—declarations, which I will not say are utterly irreconcilable in their very structure with (what is called) the Calvinistic creed, but which it is certain would never have been written by an assertor of it in a formal exposition of his views for the benefit of {139} his fellow-believers. Lastly, we have the testimony of the book which completes and seals up for ever the divine communications. "My reward is with Me; to give every man according as his work shall be. Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life." [Gen. ii. 17. Exod. xxxiv. 7; xxxii. 33. Ps. xviii. 26. Ez. xviii. 4, 31. Gal. vi. 5-7. Rom. ii. 6-11. Rev. xxii. 12, 13.]

5. Moreover, we have the limits of external aids and hindrances distinctly stated to us, so as to guarantee to us, in spite of existing influences of whatever kind, even of our original corrupt nature, the essential freedom and accountableness of our will. As regards external circumstances: "God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it." As regards the corrupt nature in which we are born: "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God; but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed; then, when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death." And as regards divine assistances: "It is impossible for those who were once enlightened ... if they fall away, to renew them again unto repentance." [1 Cor. x. 13. James i. 13-15. Heb. vi. 4-6.]

6. Far be it from any one to rehearse triumphantly, and in the way of controversy, these declarations of our privilege as moral agents; rather, so fearful and burdensome is this almost divine attribute of our {140} nature, that, when we consider it attentively, it requires a strong faith in the wisdom and love of our Maker, not to start sinfully from His gift; and at the mere prospect, not the memory of our weakness, to attempt to transfer it from ourselves to the agents, animate and inanimate, by which we are surrounded, and to lose our immortality under the shadows of the visible world. And much more, when the sense of guilt comes upon us, do we feel the temptation of ridding ourselves of our conviction of our own responsibility; and, instead of betaking ourselves to Him who can reverse what we cannot disclaim, to shelter ourselves under the original unbelief of our first parents, as if the serpent gave it to us and we did eat.

7. It is my wish now to give some illustrations of the operation of this sophistry in the affairs of life; not that it is a subject which admits of novelty in the discussion, but with the hope of directing attention to a mode of deceiving our consciences, common in all ages since the original transgression, and not least successful in our own.

8. To find fault with the circumstances in which we find ourselves, is our ready and familiar excuse when our conduct is arraigned in any particular. Yet even the heathen moralist saw that all those actions are voluntary, in which we ourselves are in any way ultimately the principle of action; and that praise and blame are awarded, not according to the mode in which we should have behaved, had circumstances been different, but according as we actually conduct {141} ourselves, things being as they are. Commenting on goods thrown overboard in a storm, he remarks "that such acts must be considered voluntary, as being the objects of our choice at the time when they are done, for our conduct is determined according to the emergency." [Note 1] In truth, nothing is more easy to the imagination than duty in the abstract, that is, duty in name and not in reality. It is when it assumes a definite and actual shape, when it comes upon us under circumstances (and it is obvious it can come in no other way), then it is difficult and troublesome. Circumstances are the very trial of obedience. Yet, plain as this is, it is very common to fancy our particular condition peculiarly hard, and that we should be better and happier men in any other.

9. Thus, for instance, opportunity, which is the means of temptation in the case of various sins, is converted into an excuse for them. Perhaps it is very plain that, except for some unusual combination of circumstances, we could never have been tempted at all; yet, when we fall on such an occasion, we are ready to excuse our weakness, as if our trial were extraordinary.

10. Again, the want of education is an excuse common with the lower classes for a careless and irreligious life.

11. Again, it is scarcely possible to resist the imagination, that we should have been altogether other men than we are, had we lived in an age of miracles, or in the visible presence of our Lord; that is, we cannot {142} persuade ourselves that, whatever be the force of things external to us in modifying our condition, it is we, and not our circumstances, that are, after all, the main causes of what we do and what we are.

12. Or, again, to take a particular instance, which will perhaps come home to some who hear me, when a young man is in prospect of ordination, he has a conceit that his mind will be more fully his own, when he is actually engaged in the sacred duties of his new calling, than at present; and, in the event he is perhaps amazed and frightened, to find how little influence the change of circumstances has had in sobering and regulating his thoughts, whatever greater decency his outward conduct may exhibit.

13. Further, it is the common excuse of wilful sinners, that there are peculiarities in their present engagements, connexions, plans, or professions, incompatible with immediate repentance; according to the memorable words of Felix, "When I have a convenient season, I will send for thee."

14. The operation of the same deceit discovers itself in our mode of judging the conduct of others; whether, in the boldness with which we blame in them what, under other circumstances, we allow in ourselves; or, again, in the false charity which we exercise towards them. For instance, the vices of the young are often regarded by beholders with an irrational indulgence, on the ground (as it is said) that youth ever will be wanton and impetuous; which is only saying, if put into plain language, that there are temptations which are not intended as trials of our obedience. Or when, {143} as lately, the lower orders rise up against the powers that be, in direct opposition to the word of Scripture, they are excused on the ground of their rulers being bigoted and themselves enlightened; or because they feel themselves capable of exercising more power; or because they have the example of other nations to incite them to do so; or simply (the more common excuse) because they have the means of doing so: as if loyalty could be called a virtue when men cannot be disloyal, or obedience had any praise when it became a constraint. In like manner, there is a false charity, which, on principle, takes the cause of heresy under its protection; and, instead of condemning it, as such, busies itself in fancying the possible circumstances which may, in this or that particular instance, excuse it; as if outward fortunes could change the nature of truth or of moral excellence, or as if, admitting the existence of unavoidable misbelief to be conceivable, yet it were not the duty of the Christian to take things as they are given us in Scripture, as they are in themselves, and as they are on the whole, instead of fastening upon exceptions to the rule, or attempting to ascertain that combination and balance of circumstances, in favour of individuals, which is only known to the Omniscient Judge.

15. The following apology for the early profligacy of the notorious French infidel of the last century is found in even the respectable literature of the present day, and is an illustration of the kind of fatalism now under consideration. "It is certain," the apologist says, "that a brilliant, highly-gifted, and more than {144} commonly vivacious young man, like Voltaire, who moved in the high tide of Parisian society, must necessarily be imbued with the levity and laxity that on every side surrounded him, and which has rendered the period in question proverbial for profligacy and debauchery … This is not observed in defence of his moral defects, or of any one else, but in answer to those who expect the virtues of a sage from the education of an Alcibiades. His youthful career seems to have been precisely that of other young men of his age and station, neither better nor worse. It is scarcely necessary to prove the tinge which such a state of society must bestow upon every character, however intellectually gifted, which is formed in the midst of it." No one can say that the doctrine contained in this extract is extravagant, as opinions go, and unfair as a specimen of what is commonly received in the world, however boldly it is expressed. Yet it will be observed, that vice is here pronounced to be the necessary effect of a certain state of society, and, as being such, not extenuated merely, as regards the individual (as it may well be), but exculpated; so that, while the actions resulting from it are allowed to be intrinsically bad, yet the agent himself is acquitted of the responsibility of committing them.

16. The sophistry in question sometimes has assumed a bolder form, and has displayed itself in the shape of system. Let us, then, now direct our attention to it in some of those fortified positions, which at various times it has taken up against the plain declarations of Scripture and Conscience. {145}

17. (1.) Fatalism is the refuge of a conscience-stricken mind, maddened at the sight of evils which it has brought upon itself, and cannot remove. To believe and tremble is the most miserable of dooms for an immortal spirit; and bad men, whose reason has been awakened by education, resolved not to be "tormented before their time," seek in its intoxication a present oblivion of their woe. It is wretched enough to suffer, but self-reproach is the worm which destroys the inward power of resistance. Submission alone makes pain tolerable in any case; and they who refuse the Divine yoke are driven to seek a sedative in the notion of an eternal necessity. They deny that they ever could have been other than they are. "What heaven has made me, I must be," is the sentiment which hardens them into hopeless pride and rebellion.

18. And it must be confessed, so great is the force of passion and of habit, when once allowed to take possession of the heart, that these men seem to have in their actual state, nay in their past experience, long before the time of their present obduracy, an infallible witness in behalf of their doctrine. In subduing our evil nature, the first steps alone are in our own power; a few combats seem to decide the solemn question, to decide whether the sovereignty is with the spirit or the flesh; nisi paret, imperat, is become a proverb. When once the enemy of our souls "comes in like a flood," what hope is there that he ever will be expelled? And what servitude can be compared to the bondage which follows, when we wish to do right, yet are utterly powerless to do it? whether we be slaves to some imperious {146} passion, hushed indeed in its victim's ordinary mood, and allowing the recurrence of better thoughts and purposes, but rising suddenly and sternly, in his evil hour, to its easy and insulting triumph; or, on the other hand, to some cold sin which overhangs and deadens the mind, sloth, for instance, or cowardice, binding it down with ten thousand subtle fastenings to the earth, nor suffering it such motion as might suffice it for a renewal of the contest. Such, in its worst forms, is the condition of the obdurate sinner; who, feeling his weakness, but forgetting that he ever had strength, and the promise of aid from above, at length learns to acquiesce in his misery as if the lot of his nature, and resolves neither to regret nor to hope. Next he amuses his reason with the melancholy employment of reducing his impressions into system; and proves, as he thinks, from the confessed influence of external events, and the analogy of the physical world, that all moral phenomena proceed according to a fixed law, and that we are not more to blame when we sin than when we die.

19. (2.) The Calvinistic doctrine, if not the result, is at least the forerunner of a similar neglect of the doctrine of human responsibility. Whatever be the fallacies of its argumentative basis, viewed as a character of mind, it miscalculates the power of the affections, as fatalism does that of the passions. Its practical error is that of supposing that certain motives and views, presented to the heart and conscience, produce certain effects as their necessary consequence, no room being left for the resistance of the will, or for self-discipline, as the medium by which faith and holiness are connected {147} together. It is the opinion of a large class of religious people, that faith being granted, works follow as a matter of course, without our own trouble; and they are confirmed in their opinion by a misconception of our Church's 12th Article, as if to assert that works "spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith" could only mean that they follow by a kind of physical law. When this notion is once entertained, it follows that nothing remains to be done but to bring these sovereign principles before the mind, as a medicine which must work a cure, or as sights which suddenly enlighten and win the imagination. To care for little duties, to set men right in the details of life, to instruct and refine their conscience, to tutor them in self-denial,—the Scripture methods of working onwards towards higher knowledge and obedience,—become superfluous, nay, despicable, while these master visions are withheld. A system such as this will of course bring with it full evidence of its truth to such debilitated minds as have already so given way to the imagination, that they find themselves unable to resist its impressions as they recur. Nor is there among the theories of the world any more congenial to the sated and remorseful sensualist, who, having lost the command of his will, feels that if he is to be converted, it must be by some sudden and violent excitement. On the other hand, it will always have its advocates among the young and earnest-minded, who, not having that insight into their hearts which experience gives, think that to know is to obey, and that their habitual love of the Truth may be measured by their momentary admiration of it. And {148} it is welcomed by the indolent, who care not for the Scripture warnings of the narrowness of the way of life, provided they can but assure themselves that it is easy to those who are in it; and who readily ascribe the fewness of those who find it, not to the difficulty of connecting faith and works, but to a Divine frugality in the dispensation of the gifts of grace.

20. Such are some of the elements of that state of mind which, when scientifically developed, assumes the shape of Calvinism; the characteristic error, both of the system and of the state of mind, consisting in the assumption that there are things external to the mind, whether doctrines or influences, such, that when once presented to it, they suspend its independence and involve certain results, as if by way of physical consequence; whereas, on studying the New Testament, we shall find, that amid all that is said concerning the inscrutable decrees of God, and His mysterious interposition in the workings of the human mind, still every where the practical truths with which Revelation started are assumed and recognized; that we shall be judged by our good or evil doings, and that a principle within us is ultimately the cause of the one and the other. So that it is preposterous in us to attempt to direct our course by the distant landmarks of the Divine counsels, which are but dimly revealed to us, overlooking the clear track close before our eyes provided for our need. This perverse substitution in matters of conduct of a subtle argumentative rule for one that is plain and practical, is set before us, by way of warning, in the parable of the talents. "Lord, I knew Thee that {149} Thou art a hard man ... and I was afraid, and went and hid Thy talent in the earth."

21. (3.) Another illustration may be given of the systematic disparagement of human responsibility, and the consequent substitution of outward events for the inward rule of conscience in judging of conduct.

The influence of the world, viewed as the enemy of our souls, consists in its hold upon our imagination. It seems to us incredible that any thing that is said every where and always can be false. And our faith is shown in preferring the testimony of our hearts and of Scripture to the world's declarations, and our obedience in acting against them. It is the very function of the Christian to be moving against the world, and to be protesting against the majority of voices. And though a doctrine such as this may be perverted into a contempt of authority, a neglect of the Church, and an arrogant reliance on self, yet there is a sense in which it is true, as every part of Scripture teaches. "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil," is its uniform injunction. Yet so irksome is this duty, that it is not wonderful that the wayward mind seeks a release from it; and, looking off from what is within to what is without, it gradually becomes perplexed and unsettled. And, should it so happen that the face of society assumes a consistent appearance, and urges the claims of the world upon the Conscience as if on the ground of principle and system, then still greater is the difficulty in which it has entangled itself. Then it is that acts which, exhibited in individual instances, would have been condemned as crimes, acquire a dignity from the number {150} of the delinquents, or their assumption of authority, and venture to claim our acquiescence as a matter of right. What would be insubordination, or robbery, or murder, when done by one man, is hallowed by the combination of the great or the many.

22. Thus, for instance, what is more common at the present day than for philosophers to represent society as moving by a certain law through different stages, and its various elements as coming into operation at different periods; and then, not content with stating the fact (which is undeniable), to go on to speak as if what has been, and is, ought to be; and as if because at certain eras this or that class of society gains the ascendancy, therefore it lawfully gains it? whereas in truth the usurpation of an invader, and the development (as it is called) of the popular power, are alike facts, and alike sins, in the sight of Him who forbids us to oppose constituted authority. And yet the credulous mind hangs upon the words of the world, and falls a victim to its sophistry; as if, forsooth, Satan could not work his work upon a law, and oppose God's will upon system. But the Christian, rejecting this pretentious guide of conduct, acts on Faith, and far from being perplexed to find the world consistent in its disobedience, recollects the declarations of Scripture which foretell it.

23. Yet so contrary to common sense is it thus to assert that our conduct ought to be determined merely by what is done by a mixed multitude, that it was to be expected that the ingenious and eager minds who practically acknowledge the principle, should wish to place it on some more argumentative basis. Accordingly, {151} attempts have been made by foreign writers to show that society moves on a law which is independent of the conduct of its individual members, who cannot materially retard its progress, nor are answerable for it,—a law which in consequence is referable only to the will of the Creator. "Historical causes and their effects being viewed, at one glance, through a long course of years, seem," it has been said, "from their steady progression, to be above any human control; an impulse is given, which beats down resistance, and sweeps away all means of opposition; century succeeds to century, and the philosopher sees the same influence still potent, still undeviating and regular; to him, considering these ages at once, following with rapid thought the slow pace of time, a century appears to dwindle to a point; and the individual obstructions and accelerations, which within that period have occurred to impede or advance the march of events, are eliminated and forgotten."

24. This is the theory; and hence it is argued that it is our wisdom to submit to a power which is greater than ourselves, and which can neither be circumvented nor persuaded; as if the Christian dare take any guide of conscience except the rule of duty, or might prefer expediency (if it be such) to principle. Nothing, for instance, is more common than to hear men speak of the growing intelligence of the present age, and to insist upon the Church's supplying its wants; the previous question being entirely left out of view, whether those wants are healthy and legitimate, or unreasonable,—whether real or imaginary,—whether they ought to be gratified or repressed; and it is urged upon us, that {152} unless we take the lead in the advance of mind ourselves, we must be content to fall behind. But, surely our first duty is, not to resolve on satisfying a demand at any price, but to determine whether it be innocent. If so, well; but if not, let what will happen. Even though the march of society be conducted on a superhuman law, yet, while it moves against Scripture Truth, it is not God's ordinance,—it is but the creature of Satan; and, though it shiver all earthly obstacles to its progress, the gods of Sepharvaim and Arphad, fall it must, and perish it must, before the glorious fifth kingdom of the Most High, when He visits the earth, who is called Faithful and True, whose eyes are as a flame of fire, and on His head many crowns, who smites the nations with a rod of iron, and treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.

My object in the foregoing remarks has been to illustrate, in various ways, the operation of an all-important truth; that circumstances are but the subject-matter, and not the rule of our conduct, nor in any true sense the cause of it. Let me conclude with one more exemplification of it, which I address to the junior part of my audience.

25. (4.) In this place, where the stated devotional services of the Church are required of all of us, it is very common with our younger members to slight them, while they attend on them, on the ground of their being forced upon them. A like excuse is sometimes urged in behalf of an unworthy participation of the Lord's Supper, as if that communion could not reasonably be {153} considered real, or dangerous to the impenitent, which was performed under constraint [Note 2].

26. Now, let such an apologist be taken on his own ground. Let it be granted to him, for argument's sake, though in no other way, that this general exaction of religious duties is unwise; let him be allowed the full force of his objections to a system, which he has not yet experience to understand. Yet do these outward circumstances change the nature of the case in any practical respect, or relieve him of his responsibility? Rather, is it not his plain duty to take things as he finds them, since he has not the power of changing them; and, leaving to his superiors what pertains to them, the task of deciding on the system to be pursued, to inquire how he ought to act under it, and to reflect what his guilt will be in the day of account, if week after week he has come into the presence of God with a deliberate profanation in his right hand, or at least with irreverence of manner, and an idle mind?

27. And, again, as regards the Holy Communion, how do the outward circumstances which bring us thither affect the real purpose of God respecting it? Can we in earthly matters remove what we dislike, by wishing it away?—and shall we hope, by mere unbelief, to remove the Presence of God from His ordinance? As well may we think of removing thereby the visible emblems of bread and wine, or of withdrawing ourselves {154} altogether from the Omnipresent Eye of God itself. Though Christ is savingly revealed in the Sacrament only to those who receive Him in faith, yet we have the express word of Scripture for saying, that the thoughtless communicant, far from remaining as if he did not receive it, is guilty of the actual Body and Blood of Christ,—guilty of the crime of crucifying Him anew, as not discerning that which lies hid in the rite. This does not apply, of course, to any one who communicates with a doubt merely about his own state—far from it!—nor to those who resolve heartily, yet in the event fail to perform, as is the case with the young; nor to those even who may happen to sin both before and after the reception of the Sacrament. Where there is earnestness, there is no condemnation; but it applies fearfully to such as view the Blessed Ordinance as a thing of course, from a notion that they are passive subjects of a regulation which others enforce; and, perhaps, the number of these is not small. Let such persons seriously consider that, were their argument correct, they need not be considered in a state of trial at all, and might escape the future judgment altogether. They would have only to protest (as we may speak) against their creation, and they would no longer have any duties to bind them. But what says the word of God? "That which cometh into your mind, shall not be at all, that ye say, We will be as the heathen, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone." And then follows the threat, addressed to those who rebel:—"As I live, saith the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with {155} fury poured out, will I rule over you … And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant."

28. And these words apply to the whole subject which has engaged us. We may amuse ourselves, for a time, with such excuses for sin as a perverted ingenuity furnishes; but there is One who is justified in His sayings, and clear when He judgeth. Our worldly philosophy and our well-devised pleadings will profit nothing at a day when the heaven shall depart as a scroll is rolled together, and all who are not clad in the wedding-garment of faith and love will be speechless. Surely it is high time for us to wake out of sleep, to chase from us the shadows of the night, and to realize our individuality, and the coming of our Judge. "The night is far spent, the day is at hand,"—"let us be sober, and watch unto prayer."

(Preached on Sunday afternoon, November 4, 1832, in his turn as Select Preacher.)

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Notes

1. Arist. Eth. Nicom. iii. 17.
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2. [Here I ought to remark that, from the time I became public Tutor, I was always opposed to the compulsory communion of Undergraduates, and testified my opposition to it whenever I had the opportunity.]
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