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MATTHEW IV. 6.--"Thus have ye made the commandment of God, of none effect by your tradition."
The government which God exercises over the universe of mind is a moral government, it is not, of course, administered by direct physical agency; compelling mind to act, in the same manner, in which the physical laws of the material universe operate in the world of matter. Motives are the grand instruments of moving mind.
God's moral government is made up of considerations, and inducements designed and calculated to influence the minds of in- telligent creatures, to pursue that course of conduct, which will in the highest manner, promote the glory of God, their own interest, and the happiness of the universe. It lays down a definite and perfect rule of feeling and of action. Its precept marks with the clear light of sun-beams, the exact course of duty. Its sanctions hold out on the one hand, all the blessedness of everlasting life; and on the other denounces against offenders, all the pains of everlasting death. Thus holding before the sinner's feet, the clear lamp of truth, and in its awful penalty, gathering around him on every hand, over his head, and beneath his feet, all the moving considerations that heaven, and earth, and hell can present, to hold his mind in an exact course of obedience. The law of God was clearly revealed to the Jews, but its power was often broken, its influence over mind paralyzed and destroyed, by a variety of oral traditions, which were handed down from one generation to another; which were held as of equal authority with the written law. They were often the corrupt glosses of the Jewish doctors, and not unfrequently mere-evasions of the spirit, and meaning of the written law. We have an instance of this, in the verses connected with the text.
The Jewish doctors had a tradition, that it was unlawful to eat without first washing their hands. To this tradition, Christ's disciples paid no regard. But as these traditions were held in great veneration by the multitude, the Scribes and Pharisees, made the disciples' misregard of them the occasion of reproaching Christ, and demanded of him "why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the Elders?" Christ rebuked them by answering, "why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? for God commanded, saying, honor thy father and mother, and he that curseth father or mother, let him die the death; but ye say, whosoever shall say to his father or mother, it is a gift, by whatever thou mightest be profited by me, and honoreth not his father and mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition." The commandment to honor the father and mother, included the duty of providing for them, in case they were in necessitous circumstances; but the tradition of the elders evaded this requirement, and taught, that if the child would give his property to God, or dedicated it to religious purposes, and made no provision for his aged parents he was blameless. Thus, by this evasion, nullifying the requirement, and absolutely setting aside the commandment of God.
The influence of motive over mind, is in some respects analogous to the law of gravitation in the material universe. It does not indeed operate by physical force, as does the law of gravitation; but still, motive is designed to hold the same place in the world of mind, that gravitation holds in the world of matter. And as in the material universe, universal desolation would be the consequence of breaking the power of gravitation; so in the world of mind. Destroy the power of motive and universal anarchy, and misrule, will fill the universe. Every thing therefore which tends to hide the truth, to becloud the minds of men in ignorance, to give them erroneous notions of duty, and of the requirements of God; all evasions and misrepresentations of the true nature and tendency of his commands, are calculated to make them void, to subvert their tendency, and to defeat the very object for which they were enacted. Thus the corrupt glosses, and traditional evasions of the Jews had entirely blinded the Jewish nation. Their carnal interpretation of the law, their traditional explanations of the prophets, and of the commandments of God, had so shaped and modified the views, and doctrinal sentiments of the nation, that they had entirely misapprehended the nature and design of the Messiah's kingdom which they had so long expected. Nevertheless the typical sacrifices of the ceremonial law, and all the institutions that were designed to point out the nature, and design of the advent of Christ; still these traditional delusions had been so great, and their expectations and views of what the Messiah would be, were so entirely erroneous, that when he came, they did not know him; his doctrine they considered as heresy, his claims to the Messiahship, as blasphemous. Hence the nation rose up, and rejected, and persecuted, and murdered him. But after his resurrection, and the pouring out of his Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the traditions of the Jewish doctors were discarded by the Christian Church. For a short time, the clear, unadulterated truth of God shone upon the world. Its power was instantly manifested. When separated from error, it poured its steady lustre in upon the darkness of the moral world, like the mid-day sun. Converts to Christianity were multiplied, as drops of the morning dew. Judaism gave way before it; the multiform systems of pagan idolatry shrunk away before its glories; and earth caught and echoed back the hallelujahs of heaven. But in the midst of this bright day, and while some of the inspired penmen were yet alive, the corrupt philosophy of men, began to introduce new traditions to break the power of truth. Men began to interpret the Scriptures by the corrupt standards of the erroneous philosophy. The truth became obscured, its power was broken, its influence over mind less and less manifest; until a day of darkness came, which spread the pall of midnight over ages of the world's history, and peopled hell with millions of our race.
When it was seen that the gospel had lost its power, instead of ascribing it to the fact that it was corrupted, that human glosses, and the traditions of men, had broken its influence over mind; instead of understanding that the various manifest inconsistencies with which their traditions had encumbered it, had palsied the arm of its power, and blighted the prospects of the church, they went on with their speculations, sat quietly down and very learnedly endeavored to account for the fact that its glory was departed, by ascribing it to the mysterious sovereignty of God.
These traditions became multiplied to an enormous extent in the popish church, until such a thing as true conversion to God was hardly known among them. Many of these traditions were rejected by the reformers, and light enough broke in upon the world, once more to break its slumbers, and there is reason to believe, to bring many souls to Christ. But still the effects were limited. The reformation was but partial. The gospel had not yet its primitive effect. Something was manifestly wanting, to unbecloud the glorious sun of righteousness, that through the gospel, he might shine in his full strength.
The systems of mental philosophy that still prevailed, and by which standards, men were continually interpreting the word of God; introduced embarrassments and contradiction, mystery, and absurdity into the gospel; perplexed and confounded the human mind, and has to the present day clogged the chariot wheels of his mercy, and in a great measure, set aside, and destroyed the power of the commandment of God.
I will now mention a few of the most apparent designs of the moral law, together with some of the traditions and dogmas of men that have broken its power. The following are among the manifest designs of this law.
1. To exhibit the benevolence of God. A law is the expressed will of the lawgiver. It is a declaration of his disposition towards his subjects, embodying, and holding forth his real sentiments and feelings concerning them. It is the exact portraiture of his heart. We have only to look into the two great precepts that comprise the whole law and the prophets to learn that God is love. These two precepts enjoin pure and perfect love; supreme love to God, and the same love to our fellows as we bear to ourselves; this is a universal rule of right, for the government of his kingdom. Universal obedience to this law would of course result in universal happiness. Mind is so constituted, that benevolent affections are the sources of happiness. If the benevolence, therefore, which the law requires were universally exercised, and in the degree which the law prescribes, universal good-will, and peace, and joy would fill the earth.
The justice of God is also strongly exhibited in this law. It requires of man, just that love towards himself which is reasonable and right; and just that perfect regard in heart and life to the welfare of our fellow-men, and nothing more nor less than is perfectly right.
Another design of the moral law is to convince men of sin. This it does by putting in their hand a perfect rule of action; by holding strongly before their eyes, a pure moral mirror that reflects the exact moral character of every thought, word and deed. It is the rule by which every action must be measured;--the delicate scale of the sanctuary, in which every thought and affection must be weighed.
Its design is also to promote humility. By comparing the life, thought and affections with this holy law, the sinner finds that all is wrong. On being weighed in this balance he finds himself wanting. His self-complacency is destroyed, and his pride is humbled.
A further design is to promote holiness and happiness among men. To show them the impossibility of being happy without being holy; and that without perfect holiness no man shall see the Lord. To press every where upon the hearts and consciences of men their obligation to universal and perfect benevolence; and to convict them of sin in every instance in which they come short of it.
In short, it is manifestly designed and calculated to declare the perfection of God, and the total depravity of man. For as it is a faithful portrait of the perfection of God's moral character on the one hand; so it is a faithful witness of the entire depravity of man on the other.
But all these designs have been defeated in multitudes of instances by the traditions of men. Pharisees, both of the ancient and modern stamp, have defeated these designs, by virtually altering the precept. Some of them have made obedience to consist in mere outward conformity to the law of God, regardless of the state of the heart but the law principally regards the heart. It is the heart, or the design with which an action is performed, of which the law takes cognizance. It gives no credit for the outward action unless it proceed from a right design. It must be the promptings of love, that gives existence to the action. It must be at the bidding of holy principle that the action is performed to be recognized as virtue by the law of God. Does the man pray, or preach, or give alms to the poor, or read his bible, or go to church? unless these or any other actions are prompted by the love of God in the heart, they are not obedience, they are not virtue, for still the law thunders forth its claims, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength, and thy neighbor as thyself. No outward conduct then however sanctimonious or precise, is to be regarded as obedience to the law of God, unless it flow from love. It must be manifest, therefore, that to make outward morality constitute obedience to this law, is to defeat one of its principal designs. Instead of convicting of sin, it is calculated to foster pride. Instead of exhibiting the true character of God, it holds him forth merely as the promoter of cold, dry morality. Instead of making men humble, showing them their need of a Savior, it leads to self- complacency; to stumble at the doctrine of atonement; to misunderstand, and reject the gospel.
It was this view of the moral law, so extensively embraced and published by the Pharisees, that led the Jewish nation to reject and crucify the Savior. They rejected the righteousness of God, and went about to establish their own righteousness, by an outward conformity to the law; and thus supposing themselves to yield obedience to the law, how should they understand the necessity of an atonement, the righteousness of Christ, and justification by faith alone. So it is with the Pharisees of the present day; overlooking the spirituality of God's law, and supposing their cold dry, outward morality to be good in the sight of God, and what the law requires; they wrap the filthy garments of their own righteousness about them, walk in the light of their own fire, warm themselves with sparks of their own kindling, and must lie down in sorrow.
Again there are others, who make the law of God of no effect, by regarding it simply as of a negative character, as designed to prohibit the outbreakings of positive selfishness, rather than as requiring the existence and practice of all positive benevolence and virtue. These, content themselves with declaiming against out-breaking sins, regarding the law, simply, as prohibitory, they employ themselves in resisting the tide of corruption as it flows from the deep fountain of the heart, without enjoining and insisting upon the positive character of the law, as requiring every creature of God to devote all his powers to his service and giving himself up to doing good and promoting the interest of Christ's kingdom.
The religion of these individuals, of course, corresponds with their view of the law. It is of a merely negative character; inasmuch as they do nothing very bad, as they abstain from those outbreaking sins that would disgrace them in the eyes of men; they imagine themselves to be Christians. They are aware that they do not give themselves up to acts of benevolence, that they do not deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow Christ; that they do not hold all their possessions as stewards, account their time and talents and all they have and are as belonging to Christ, and to be used only for his glory. They know that they effect little or no good in the world, but that they content themselves with doing nothing very bad. Now this imagination that this is true religion, and that they are Christians, is founded upon their sad and fundamental mistake of the nature of the law of God. Right views of the law, would annihilate these false hopes, would at once sweep away their refuge of lies, and bring them to a better acquaintance with God and with themselves. But it is manifest that much of what is called religion in the present age, is this spurious negative kind of piety, that contents itself with doing nothing openly wrong, without doing what is right. Ask such a professor whether he is doing any good, he will tell you no, not that he knows of--but that he is doing nothing very bad. Thus the high claims of the law are set aside, its design is perverted and the hypocrite rests quietly in his sins.