THE EXERCISE OF MERCY OPTIONAL WITH GOD.
William G.T. Shedd
ROMANS ix. 15.—”For He saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
This is a part of the description which God himself gave to Moses, of His own nature and attributes. The Hebrew legislator had said to Jehovah: “I beseech thee show me thy glory.” He desired a clear understanding of the character of that Great Being, under whose guidance he was commissioned to lead the people of Israel into the promised land. God said to him in reply: “I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.”
By this, God revealed to Moses, and through him to all mankind, the fact that He is a merciful being, and directs attention to one particular characteristic of mercy. While informing His servant, that He is gracious and clement towards a penitent transgressor, He at the same time teaches him that He is under no obligation, or necessity, to shew mercy. Grace is not a debt. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
The apostle Paul quotes this declaration, to shut the mouth of him who would set up a claim to salvation; who is too proud to beg for it, and accept it as a free and unmerited favor from God. In so doing, he endorses the sentiment. The inspiration of his Epistle corroborates that of the Pentateuch, so that we have assurance made doubly sure, that this is the correct enunciation of the nature of mercy. Let us look into this hope-inspiring attribute of God, under the guidance of this text.
The great question that presses upon the human mind, from age to age, is the inquiry: Is God a merciful Being, and will He show mercy? Living as we do under the light of Revelation, we know little of the doubts and fears that spontaneously rise in the guilty human soul, when it is left solely to the light of nature to answer it. With the Bible in our hands, and hearing the good news of Redemption from our earliest years, it seems to be a matter of course that the Deity should pardon sin. Nay, a certain class of men in Christendom seem to have come to the opinion that it is more difficult to prove that God is just, than to prove that He is merciful. But this is not the thought and feeling of man when outside of the pale of Revelation. Go into the ancient pagan world, examine the theologizing of the Greek and Roman mind, and you will discover that the fears of the justice far outnumbered the hopes of the mercy; that Plato and Plutarch and Cicero and Tacitus were far more certain that God would punish sin, than that He would, pardon it. This is the reason that there is no light, or joy, in any of the pagan religions. Except when religion was converted into the worship of Beauty, as in the instance of the later Greek, and all the solemn and truthful ideas of law and justice were eliminated from it, every one of the natural religions of the globe is filled with sombre and gloomy hues, and no others. The truest and best religions of the ancient world were always the sternest and saddest, because the unaided human mind is certain that God is just, but is not certain that He is merciful. When man is outside of Revelation, it is by no means a matter of course that God is clement, and that sin shall be forgiven. Great uncertainty overhangs the doctrine of the Divine mercy, from the position of natural religion, and it is only within the province of revealed truth that the uncertainty is removed. Apart from a distinct and direct promise from the lips of God Himself that He will forgive sin, no human creature can be sure that sin will ever be forgiven. Let us, therefore, look into the subject carefully, and see the reason why man, if left to himself and his spontaneous reflections, doubts whether there is mercy in the Holy One for a transgressor, and fears that there is none, and why a special revelation is consequently required, to dispel the doubt and the fear.
The reason lies in the fact, implied in the text, that the exercise of justice is necessary, while that of mercy is optional. “I will have mercy on whom I please to have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I please to have compassion.” It is a principle inlaid in the structure of the human soul, that the transgression of law must be visited with retribution. The pagan conscience, as well as the Christian, testifies that “the Soul that sinneth it shall die.” There is no need of quoting from pagan philosophers to prove this. We should be compelled to cite page after page, should we enter upon the documentary evidence. Take such a tract, for example, as that of Plutarch, upon what he denominates “the slow vengeance of the Deity;” read the reasons which he assigns for the apparent delay, in this world, of the infliction of punishment upon transgressors; and you will perceive that the human mind, when left to its candid and unbiassed convictions, is certain that God is a holy Being and will visit iniquity with penalty. Throughout this entire treatise, composed by a man who probably never saw the Scriptures of either the New or the Old Dispensation, there runs a solemn and deep consciousness that the Deity is necessarily obliged, by the principles of justice, to mete out a retribution to the violator of law. Plutarch is engaged with the very same question that the apostle Peter takes up, in his second Epistle, when he answers the objection of the scoffer who asks: Where is the promise of God’s coming in judgment? The apostle replies to it, by saying that for the Eternal Mind one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, and that therefore “the Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness;” and Plutarch answers it in a different manner, but assumes and affirms with the same positiveness and certainty that the vengeance will ultimately come. No reader of this treatise can doubt for a moment, that its author believed in the future punishment of the wicked,—and in the future endless punishment of the incorrigibly wicked, because there is not the slightest hint or expectation of any exercise of mercy on the part of this Divinity whose vengeance, though slow, is sure and inevitable. Some theorists tell us that the doctrine of endless punishment contradicts the instincts of the natural reason, and that it has no foundation in the constitution of the human soul. We invite them to read and ponder well, the speculations of one of the most thoughtful of pagans upon this subject, and tell us if they see any streaks or rays of light in it; if they see any inkling, any jot or tittle, of the doctrine of the Divine pity there. We challenge them to discover in this tract of Plutarch the slightest token, or sign, of the Divine mercy. The author believes in a hell for the wicked, and an elysium for the good; but those who go to hell go there upon principles of justice, and those who go to elysium go there upon the same principles. It is justice that must place men in Tartarus, and it is justice that must place them in Elysium. In paganism, men must earn their heaven. The idea of mercy,—of clemency towards a transgressor, of pity towards a criminal,—is entirely foreign to the thoughts of Plutarch, so far as they can be gathered from this tract. It is the clear and terrible doctrine of the pagan sage, that unless a man can make good his claim to eternal happiness upon the ground of law and justice,—unless he merits it by good works,—there is no hope for him in the other world.
The idea of a forgiving and tender mercy in the Supreme Being, exercised towards a creature whom justice would send to eternal retribution, nowhere appears in the best pagan ethics. And why should it? What evidence or proof has the human mind, apart from the revelations made to it in the Old and New Testaments, that God will ever forgive sin, or ever show mercy? In thinking upon the subject, our reason perceives, intuitively, that God must of necessity punish transgression; and it perceives with equal intuitiveness that there is no corresponding necessity that He should pardon it. We say with confidence and positiveness: “God must be just;” but we cannot say with any certainty or confidence at all: “God must be merciful.” The Divine mercy is an attribute which is perfectly free and optional, in its exercises, and therefore we cannot tell beforehand whether it will or will not be shown to transgressors. We know nothing at all about it, until we hear some word from the lips of God Himself upon the point. When He opens the heavens, and speaks in a clear tone to the human race, saying, “I will forgive your iniquities,” then, and not till then, do they know the fact. In reference to all those procedures which, like the punishment of transgression, are fixed and necessary, because they are founded in the eternal principles of law and justice, we can tell beforehand what the Divine method will be. We do not need any special revelation, to inform us that God is a just Being, and that His anger is kindled against wickedness, and that He will punish the transgressor. This class of truths, the Apostle informs us, are written in the human constitution, and we have already seen that they were known and dreaded in the pagan world. That which God must do, He certainly will do. He must be just, and therefore He certainly will punish sin, is the reasoning of the human mind, the-world over, and in every age.
But, when we pass from the punishment of sin to the pardon of it, when we go over to the merciful side of the Divine Nature, we can come to no certain conclusions, if we are shut up to the workings of our own minds, or to the teachings of the world of nature about us. Picture to yourself a thoughtful pagan, like Solon the legislator of Athens, living in the heart of heathenism five centuries before Christ, and knowing nothing of the promise of mercy which broke faintly through the heavens immediately after the apostasy of the first human pair, and which found its full and victorious utterance in the streaming, blood of Calvary. Suppose that the accusing and condemning law written, upon his conscience had shown its work, and made him conscious of sin. Suppose that the question had risen within him, whether that Dread Being whom he “ignorantly worshipped,” and against whom he had committed the offence, would forgive it; was there anything in his own soul, was there anything in the world around him or above him, that could give him an affirmative answer? The instant he put the question: Will God punish me for my transgression? the affirming voices were instantaneous and authoritative. “The soul that sinneth it shall die” was the verdict that came forth from the recesses of his moral nature, and was echoed and re-echoed in the suffering, pain, and physical death of a miserable and groaning world all around him. But when he put the other question to himself: Will the Deity pardon me for my transgression? there was no affirmative answer from any source of knowledge accessible to him. If he sought a reply from the depths of his own conscience, all that he could hear was the terrible utterance: “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” The human conscience can no more promise, or certify, the forgiveness of sin, than the ten commandments can do so. When, therefore, this pagan, convicted of sin, seeks a comforting answer to his anxious inquiry respecting the Divine clemency towards a criminal, he is met only with retributive thunders and lightnings; he hears only that accusing and condemning law which is written on the heart, and experiences that fearful looking-for of judgment and fiery indignation which St. Paul describes, in the first chapter of Romans, as working in the mind of the universal pagan world.
But we need not go to Solon, and the pagan world, for evidence upon this subject. Why is it that a convicted man under the full light of the gospel, and with the unambiguous and explicit promise of God to forgive sins ringing in his ears,—why is it, that even under these favorable circumstances a guilt-smitten man finds it so difficult to believe that there is mercy for him, and to trust in it? Nay, why is it that he finds it impossible fully to believe that Jehovah is a sin-pardoning God, unless he is enabled so to do by the Holy Ghost? It is because he knows that God is under a necessity of punishing his sin, but is under no necessity of pardoning it. The very same judicial principles are operating in his mind that operate in that of a pagan Solon, or any other transgressor outside of the revelation of mercy. That which holds back the convicted sinner from casting himself upon the Divine pity is the perception that God must be just. This fact is certain, whether anything else is certain or not. And it is not until he perceives that God can be both just and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus; it is not until he sees that, through the substituted sufferings of Christ, God can punish sin while at the same time He pardons it,—can punish it in the Substitute while He pardons it in the sinner,—it is not until he is enabled to apprehend the doctrine of vicarious atonement, that his doubts and fears respecting the possibility and reality of the Divine mercy are removed. The instant he discovers that the exercise of pardon is rendered entirely consistent with the justice of God, by the substituted death of the Son of God, he sees the Divine mercy, and that too in the high form of self-sacrifice, and trusts in it, and is at peace.
These considerations are sufficient to show, that according to the natural and spontaneous operations of the human intellect, justice stands in the way of the exercise of mercy, and that therefore, if man is not informed by Divine Revelation respecting this latter attribute, he can never acquire the certainty that God will forgive his sin. There are two very important and significant inferences from this truth, to which we now ask serious attention.
1. In the first place, those who deny the credibility, and Divine authority, of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments shut up the whole world to doubt and despair. For, unless God has spoken the word of mercy in this written Revelation, He has not spoken it anywhere; and we have seen, that unless He has spoken such a merciful word somewhere, no human transgressor can be certain of anything but stark unmitigated justice and retribution. Do you tell us that God is too good to punish men, and that therefore it must be that He is merciful? We tell you, in reply, that God is good when He punishes sin, and your own conscience, like that of Plutarch, re-echoes the reply. Sin is a wicked thing, and when the Holy One visits it with retribution, He is manifesting the purest moral excellence and the most immaculate perfection of character that we can conceive of. But if by goodness you mean mercy, then we say that this is the very point in dispute, and you must not beg the point but must prove it. And now, if you deny the authority and credibility of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, we ask you upon what ground you venture to affirm that God will pardon man’s sin. You cannot demonstrate it upon any a prioriand necessary principles. You cannot show that the Deity is obligated to remit the penalty due to transgression. You can prove the necessity of the exercise of justice, but you cannot prove the necessity of the exercise of mercy. It is purely optional with God, whether to pardon or not. If, therefore, you cannot establish the fact of the Divine clemency by a priori reasoning,—if you cannot make out a necessity for the exercise of mercy,—you must betake yourself to the only other method of proof that remains to you, the method of testimony. If you have the declaration and promise of God, that He will forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin, you may be certain of the fact,—as certain as you would be, could you prove the absolute necessity of the exercise of mercy. For God’s promise cannot be broken. God’s testimony is sure. But, by the supposition, you deny that this declaration has been made, and this promise has been uttered, in the written Revelation of the Christian Church. Where then do you send me for the information, and the testimony? Have you a private revelation of your own? Has the Deity spoken to you in particular, and told you that He will forgive your sin, and my sin, and that of all the generations? Unless this declaration has been made either to you or to some other one, we have seen that you cannot establish the certainty that God will forgive sin. It is a purely optional matter with Him, and whether He will or no depends entirely upon His decision, determination, and declaration. If He says that He will pardon sin, it will certainly be done. But until He says it, you and every other man must be remanded to the inexorable decisions of conscience which thunder out: “The soul that sinneth it shall die.” Whoever, therefore, denies that God in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments has broken through the veil that hides eternity from time, and has testified to the human race that He will forgive sin, and has solemnly promised to do so, takes away from the human race the only ground of certainty which they possess, that there is pity in the heavens, and that it will be shown to sinful creatures like themselves. But this is to shut them up again, to the doubt and hopelessness of the pagan world,—a world without Revelation.
2. In the second place, it follows from this subject, that mankind must take the declaration and promise of God, respecting the exercise of mercy, precisely as He has given it. They must follow the recordimplicitly, without any criticisms or alterations. Not only does the exercise of mercy depend entirely upon the will and pleasure of God, but, the mode, the conditions, and the length of time during which the offer shall be made, are all dependent upon the same sovereignty. Let us look at these particulars one by one.
In the first place, the method by which the Divine clemency shall be manifested, and the conditions upon which the offer of forgiveness shall be made, are matters that rest solely with God. If it is entirely optional with Him whether to pardon at all, much more does it depend entirely upon Him to determine the way and means. It is here that we stop the mouth of him who objects to the doctrine of forgiveness through a vicarious atonement. We will by no means concede, that the exhibition of mercy through the vicarious satisfaction of justice is an optional matter, and that God might have dispensed with such satisfaction, had He so willed. We believe that the forgiveness of sin is possible even to the Deity, only through a substituted sacrifice that completely satisfies the demands of law and justice,—that without the shedding of expiating blood there is no remission of sin possible or conceivable, under a government of law. But, without asking the objector to come up to this high ground, we are willing, for the sake of the argument, to go down upon his low one; and we say, that even if the metaphysical necessity of an atonement could not be maintained, and that it is purely optional with God whether to employ this method or not, it would still be the duty and wisdom of man to take the record just as it reads, and to accept the method that has actually been adopted. If the Sovereign has a perfect right to say whether He will or will not pardon the criminal, has He not the same right to say how He will do it? If the transgressor, upon principles of justice, could be sentenced to endless misery, and yet the Sovereign Judge concludes to offer him forgiveness and eternal life, shall the criminal, the culprit who could not stand an instant in the judgment, presume to quarrel with the method, and dictate the terms by which his own pardon shall be secured? Even supposing, then, that there were no intrinsic necessity for the offering of an infinite sacrifice to satisfy infinite justice, the Great God might still take the lofty ground of sovereignty, and say to the criminal: “My will shall stand for my reason; I decide to offer you amnesty and eternal joy, in this mode, and upon these terms. The reasons for my method are known to myself. Take mercy in this method, or take justice. Receive the forgiveness of sin in this mode, or else receive the eternal and just punishment of sin. Can I not do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil because I am good?” God is under no necessity to offer the forgiveness of sin to any criminal upon any terms; still less is He hedged up to a method of forgiveness prescribed by the criminal himself.
Again, the same reasoning will apply to the time during which the offer of mercy shall be extended. If it is purely optional with God, whether He will pardon my sin at all, it is also purely optional with Him to fix the limits within which He will exercise the act of pardon. Should He tell me, that if I would confess and forsake my sins to-day, He would blot them out forever, but that the gracious offer should be withdrawn tomorrow, what conceivable ground of complaint could I discover? He is under no necessity of extending the pardon at this moment, and neither is He at the next, or any future one. Mercy is grace, and not debt. Now it has pleased God, to limit the period during which the work of Redemption shall go on. There is a point of time, for every sinful man, at which “there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin” (Heb. x. 26). The period of Redemption is confined to earth and time; and unless the sinner exercises repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, before his spirit returns to God who gave it, there is no redemption for him through eternal ages. This fact we know by the declaration and testimony of God; in the same manner that we know that God will exercise mercy at all, and upon any conditions whatever. We have seen that we cannot establish the fact that the Deity will forgive sin, by any a priori reasoning, but know it only because He has spoken a word to this effect, and given the world His promise to be gracious and merciful, In like manner, we do not establish the fact that there will be no second offer of forgiveness, in the future world, by any process of reasoning from the nature of the case, or the necessity of things. We are willing to concede to the objector, that for aught that we can see the Holy Ghost is as able to take of the things of Christ, and show them to a guilty soul, in the next world, as He is in this. So far as almighty power is concerned, the Divine Spirit could convince men of sin, and righteousness, and judgment, and incline them to repentance and faith, in eternity as well as in time. And it is equally true, that the Divine Spirit could have prevented the origin of sin itself, and the fall of Adam, with the untold woes that proceed therefrom. But it is not a question of power. It is a question of intention, of determination, and of testimony upon the part of God. And He has distinctly declared in the written Revelation, that it is His intention to limit the converting and saving influences of His Spirit to time and earth. He tells the whole world unequivocally, that His spirit shall not always strive with man, and that the day of judgment which occurs at the end of this Dispensation of grace, is not a day of pardon but of doom. Christ’s description of the scenes that will close up this Redemptive Economy,—the throne, the opened books, the sheep on the right hand and the goats on the left hand, the words of the Judge: “Come ye blessed, depart ye cursed,”—proves beyond controversy that “now is the accepted time, and now is the day of salvation.” The utterance of our Redeeming God, by His servant David, is: “To-day if ye will hear His voice harden not your hearts.” St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, informs the world, that as God sware that those Israelites who did not believe and obey His servant Moses, during their wanderings in the desert, should not enter the earthly Canaan, so those, in any age and generation of men, who do not believe and obey His Son Jesus Christ, during their earthly pilgrimage, shall, by the same Divine oath, be shut out of the eternal rest that remaineth for the people of God (Hebrews iii. 7-19). Unbelieving men, in eternity, will be deprived of the benefits of Christ’s redemption, by the oath, the solemn decision, the judicial determination of God. For, this exercise of mercy, of which we are speaking, is not a matter of course, and of necessity, and which therefore continues forever and forever. It is optional. God is entirely at liberty to pardon, or not to pardon. And He is entirely at liberty to say when, and how, and how long the offer of pardon shall be extended. He had the power to carry the whole body of the people of Israel over Jordan, into the promised land, but He sware that those who proved refractory, and disobedient, during a certain definite period of time, should never enter Canaan. And, by His apostle, He informs all the generations of men, that the same principle will govern Him in respect to the entrance into the heavenly Canaan. The limiting of the offer of salvation to this life is not founded upon any necessity in the Divine Nature, but, like the offer of salvation itself, depends upon the sovereign pleasure and determination of God. That pleasure, and that determination, have been distinctly made known in the Scriptures. We know as clearly as we know anything revealed in the Bible, that God has decided to pardon here in time, and not to pardon in eternity. He has drawn a line between the present period, during which He makes salvation possible to man, and the future period, when He will not make it possible. And He had a right to draw that line, because mercy from first to last is the optional, and not the obligated agency of the Supreme Being.
Therefore, fear lest, a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto you is the gospel preached, as well as unto those Israelites; but the word, did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. Neither will it profit you, unless it is mixed with faith. God limiteth a certain day, saying in David, “To-day, after so long a time,”—after these many years of hearing and neglecting the offer of forgiveness,—”to-day, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” Labor, therefore, now, to enter into that rest, lest any man fall, after the same example of unbelief, with those Israelites whom the oath of God shut out of both the earthly and the heavenly Canaan.