SERMON. I.* Concerning the Perfection of God.
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.
THESE words are the Conclu∣sion which our Saviour draws from those Precepts which he had given his Disciples of greater perfection, than any Laws that were extant in the world before. V. 44. I say unto you, love your Enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for those that despitefully use you, and persecute you. And to perswade them hereto, he propounds to them the Pattern of the Divine Perfection; telling them, that being thus affected towards their Enemies, they should resemble God, v. 45. Page 2That ye may be the Children of your heaven∣ly Father; for he maketh the Sun to rise on the evil, and on the good, and sendeth Rain on the just, and on the unjust.
And then he tells us, that if we be not thus affected towards our Enemies, and those that have been injurious to us, we are so far from being like God, that we are but just level with the worst of Men, v. 46, 47. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have you? do not even the Publicans the same? And if ye salute your Brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Publicans so? And then concludes, that if we would attain that perfection which the Christian Religion designs to advance Men to, we must endeavour to be like God in these perfections of Goodness, and Mercy, and Patience; Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect. In which words we have,
First, The absolute Perfection of the Divine Nature supposed; as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.
Secondly, It is propounded as a Pattern to our imitation. Be ye therefore per∣fect, &c.
In handling of these words, I shall do these four things.
Page 3I. Consider how we are to conceive of the Divine Perfection.
II. I shall lay down some Rules whereby we may govern and rectifie our Opinions concerning the Attributes and Perfections of God.
III. How far we are to imitate the Perfections of God, and particularly what those Divine Qualities are, which our Saviour doth here more especially pro∣pound to our imitation.
IV. I shall endeavour to clear the true meaning of this Precept, and to shew that the Duty here intended by our Savi∣our is not impossible to us; and then conclude this Discourse with some useful Inferences from the whole.
I. I shall consider how we are to con∣ceive of the Divine Perfections. These two ways.
1. By ascribing all imaginable and possible Perfection to God.
2. By separating and removing all manner of Imperfection from him.
1. By ascribing all imaginable, and possible Perfection to God; absolute and universal Perfection, not limited to a cer∣tain kind, or to certain particulars; but whatever we can conceive, and imagin to be a Perfection, is to be ascribed to him; Page 4 yea and beyond this, whatever possible Perfection there is, or possible degree of any Perfection, which our short Under∣standings cannot conceive or compre∣hend, is to be ascribed to him. For we are not to confine the Perfection of God to our imagination, as if we could find out the Almighty to Perfection: But on the contra∣ry, to believe the Perfection of the Divine Nature to be boundless and unlimited, and infinitely to exceed our highest thoughts and apprehensions.
More particularly, all kinds and all degrees of Perfection are to be ascribed to God, which either do not imply a plain Contradiction, or do not argue some Im∣perfection, or are not evidently incon∣sistent with some other and greater Per∣fection.
Some things may seem to be Perfecti∣ons, which in truth are not; because they are plainly impossible, and involve a Contradiction; as that what has once been, should by any Power be made not to have been; or that a thing, which by its Nature is limited and confin'd to one place, should at the same time be in another. These things in Reason are impossible, and therefore not to be sup∣posed to fall under any Power how unli∣mited Page 5 soever. For if we once ascribe Con∣tradictions to God, we destroy his Be∣ing; because then to be, and not to be, Power, and no Power would be all one.
And then there are some Perfections, which do argue and suppose Imper∣fections in them; as Motion, the quick∣ness and swiftness thereof in Creatures is a Perfection, but then it supposeth a finite and limited Nature: For a bound∣less and immense Being, that is every where present at once, hath no need to move from one place to another; and therefore though Motion be a Perfection in Creatures, there is no Reason to a∣scribe it to God, because it supposeth a greater Imperfection.
And there are also some imaginable degrees of Perfection, which because they are inconsistent with other Perfecti∣ons, are not to be admitted in the Divine Nature. For instance, such degrees of Goodness and Mercy may be imagined, as would quite exclude and shut out Justice; and on the other hand such a strictness and a rigour of Justice, as would leave no room at all for Patience and Mercy; and therefore such degrees are not really to be esteem∣ed Perfections. For this is a certain truth, that nothing is a Divine Perfection,Page 6 which evidently clasheth with any o∣ther necessary and essential Perfection of the Divine Nature. We must so consi∣der the Perfections of God, that they may accord and consist together; and therefore it cannot be a Perfection of God to be so good and gracious, as to encou∣rage Sin, and to overthrow the Reve∣rence of his own Laws and Govern∣ment. 'Tis not Goodness, but Easiness and Weakness, to be contented to be per∣petually injur'd and affronted. 'Tis not Patience, to be willing to be everlasting∣ly trampled upon. So likewise on the other hand, 'tis not a Perfection to be so severe and rigorous, as to smite a Sinner in the instant that he offends, not to be able to refrain from Punishment, and to give time for Repentance.
But whatever Perfection is conceivable or possible, and argues no Imperfection, nor is repugnant to any other necessary Per∣fection, is to be ascribed to God; for this is the most natural and easie conception that we can have of God, that he is the most perfect Being. This natural Light doth first suggest and offer to the Minds of Men, and we cannot conceive of God as meer Power and Will without Wis∣dom and Goodness. Hence it is that the Page 7Greeks call God very often, 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, the best of Beings, and the Latin Optimus, Maximus, the best and the Greatest, beatissi∣ma & perfectissima natura, constans & perfecta Ratio, the happiest and most perfect Na∣ture, immutible and absolute Reason; and many other such expressions which we meet with in the Writings of the Heathen Philosophers. I readily grant, that the first and most obvious thought which men have of God, is that of his Greatness and Majesty; but this necessa∣rily involves or infers his Goodness; as Seneca excellently reasons, Primus Deo∣rum cultus est Deos credere, dein reddere illis majestatem suam, reddere bonitatem, sine quâ nulla Majestas,
And we shall find all along in Plato, & Tully, and the best and wisest Writers among the Heathen, that they every where attribute the highest Excellencies and Perfections to the Divine Nature, and do steer and govern all their Dis∣courses of God by this Principle, that Perfection is to be ascrbied to him: And Page 8 whenever any thing is said of God, they examin whether it be a Perfection or not; if it be, they give it him as his due; if it be not, they lay it aside, as a thing not fit to be spoken of him.
And in the Scripture we do every where find Perfection ascribed to the Na∣ture, and Works, and Laws of God, to every thing that belongs to him, or proceeds from him: Job 37.16. Dost thou know the wondrous works of him that is perfect in knowledge? And again, Canst thou by search∣ing find out God? Can'st thou find out the Almighty to perfection? Ps. 18.30 As for God his way is perfect Ps. 19.7. The Law of the Lord is perfect.
I shall not need to consider particular∣ly the several Perfections of the Divine Nature, I shall only give you a brief Scheme and Draught of them. What∣ever Perfection can be imagined either in the manner of Being or Acting is to be ascribed to God; therefore as to his Na∣ture we say that he is a Spirit, that is, that he is not meer Body or Matter, because that would exclude several other Perfections; for meer Matter is incapable both of Knowledge and Liberty, being determined by necessary Laws of Moti∣on; and yet without Knowledge and Page 9 Liberty, there can be no Wisdom nor Goodness. We say of God, that he is of himself, and without Cause, and does not owe his Being to any other; and consequently that he is necessarily, and that he cannot but be, and cannot be otherwise than he is; for that which is of its self did not chuse whether it would be or not, nor whether it would be thus or otherwise; for to suppose any thing to deliberate or consult about it's own Be∣ing, is to suppose it to be before it is.
We must say of God likewise that he is immense, and every where present, because to be limited is an Imperfection; and that he is eternal, that is, ever was, and shall be; for to cease to be, is a greater Imperfection than sometime not to have been.
And then we are to say of God, that he is the Cause of all other Beings, that they are made by him and depend upon him; that he knows all things, and can do all things in the most per∣fect manner, by a glance of his Mind, and by the meer beck and nod of his Will, without long study or deliberati∣on, without laborious pains and endea∣vours, and consequently that nothing is exempted from his Knowledge, and Page 10 Power, and Providence, and that he administers all things in a way of Good∣ness and Wisdom, of Justice and Truth; and therefore all things are to be re∣ferred to him, as their last end. All these Perfections, and all other that are possible, we are to look upon the Di∣vine Nature as fully and immutably pos∣sest of, and that in an higher and more excellent degree, than our finite Under∣standings are able to conceive or com∣prehend.
2. As we are to ascribe all imagina∣ble, possible Perfections to God, so we are to separate and remove all manner of Imperfection from him. We must not obscure or blemish the Divine Na∣ture with the least shadow or blot of Imperfection. If we once admit of this, to ascribe any thing to God which argues Imperfection, we strike at the foundation, and destroy one of the clea∣rest and most essential Notions, which Men have of God. And therefore we find the Scripture very careful to remove all kind of natural or moral Imperfection from God. Gen. 18.25. That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, and that the righteous should be as the wicked, Page 11 that be far from thee; shall not the Judge of all the world do right? Deut. 32.4. A God of truth and without iniquity. Rom. 9.14. What shall we say then, is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid, far be it from him.
Hence it is that in Scripture Holiness is so frequently ascrib'd to God, which signifies the purity and freedom of the Divine Nature from that which we call Sin; and God is very solicitous to give us such a notion of himself, as may remove Sin and unrighteousness at the greatest distance from him, because that is the greatest of Imperfections. Is it an Imperfection to countenance Sin? the Scripture acquits God of it. Psal. 5.4, 5. Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness, neither shall evil dwell with Thee. Is it an Imperfection to go from ones word, or to change ones mind? this likewise is remov'd from God. 1 Sam. 15.29. The strength of Israel will not lie or repent, he is not a man, that he should repent. Is it an Imperfection to want any thing, to be liable to any thing, to depend upon any thing without one's self for their happiness? this also is to be set far from him. Job 22.2, 3. Can a man be profitable to God? or is it a gain Page 12 to him, that thou makest thy way perfect? Job 35.6, 7. If thou sinnest, what dost thou against him? or if thy transgressions be multiplied, what dost thou unto him? If thou art righteous, what givest thou him? or what receiveth he of thine hand? Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art, and thy righteousness may profit the Son of man. Is it an Imperfection to tempt, or to be tempted to Sin? this is to be separated from God, He cannot be tempted of evil, neither tempteth he any man, saith St. James. Chap. 1.17. And to mention no more, is it an Imperfection to be in any respect mutable? This is denyed of God, with him there is no variableness, or shadow of turning. Thus you see how we are to conceive of the Perfections of God, by ascribing all imaginable and possible Perfection to him, and remov∣ing all shadow of Imperfection from him. I proceed in the
II. Place, to lay down some Rules by which we may rectifie and govern our Opinions concerning the Attributes and Perfections of God: The best I can think of, are these following.
First, Let us begin with the most na∣tural, and plain, and easie Perfections of God, and lay them for a foundation, Page 13 and rectifie all our other Apprehensions of God, and Reasonings about him, by these; and these are his Power, Wis∣dom, and Goodness, to which most of the rest may be reduced. Right Apprehensions and a firm Belief of these will make it easily credible to us, that all things were made and are governed, by him; for his Goodness will dispose and incline him to communicate Being to other things, and to take care of them when they are made. An infinite Power and Wisdom render him able to do all this without any labour or difficulty, and without any disturbance of his ease or happiness, as Epicurus would seem vainly to fear; who in truth did not believe a God, but pretended only to deny his Providence, and that he either made or govern'd the world; because he was loth to lay so much trouble upon him. Vain man! as if those things which are impossible and difficult to our Weakness and Folly, might not be infinitely easie to infinite Power and Wisdom.
Particularly the Goodness and Ju∣stice of God are not so difficult to ap∣prehend, as the Disputes and Contro∣versies about them have rendred them Page 14 to many. When we consider infinite Knowledge and Power, we may easily lose our selves, and go out of our depth, by wading too far into them: There is something concerning these, that is un∣imaginable, and unaccountable to our Reason; we may not be able to under∣stand how Something may be produc'd from Nothing; because it argues such an excess of Power, as we cannot compre∣hend; but yet we are forc'd to acknow∣ledge, that either the World must be produc'd from Nothing, or that Mat∣ter was eternally of it self, which is e∣very whit as hard to imagine, as that infinite Power should be able to pro∣duce it from nothing. So likewise we are not able to conceive, how God can certainly know future Events, which depend upon voluntary and un∣certain Causes, because we cannot comprehend infinite Knowledge; but this we may easily be satisfied in, that infinite Power and Knowledge may be able to do, and know many things, which we cannot conceive how they can be known or done, no more than a Child can imagine how a great Mathematician can demonstrate his Propositions. Only this we are sure Page 15 of, as we can be of any thing, that no Power can do that which is evidently impossible, and implies a plain Contradiction.
We are not able perhaps to reconcile the particular Providences of God with his universal Goodness, Justice, and Wis∣dom, because we cannot see to the end of his Ways and Works at one view, and see every part with relation to the whole; which would appear very wise, if we knew the whole series of things, and saw the entire design together, as God himself does, to whom (as Solomon tells us) all his ways are known from the beginning.
So that however we may be at a loss in our Conceptions of God's infi∣nite Knowledge and Power, yet Good∣ness, and Justice, and Truth, are Noti∣ons easie and familiar; and if we could not understand these, the whole Bible would be insignificant to us. For all Revelation from God supposeth us to know what is meant by Goodness, Justice, and Truth: And therefore no man can entertain any Notion of God, which plainly contradicts these. And it is foolish for any man to pretend, that he cannot know what Goodness, and Page 16 Justice, and Truth in God are: for if we do not know this, 'tis all one to us, whether God be good or not, nor could we imitate his Goodness; for he that imitates, endeavours to make himself like something that he knows, and must of necessity have some Idea of that to which he aims to be like: So that if we had no certain and setled Notion of the Goodness, and Justice, and Truth of God, he would be alto∣gether an unintelligible Being; and Religion, which consists in the imitati∣on of him, would be utterly impossi∣ble.
Now these being the most easie, and intelligible Perfections of God, by which he is said in Scripture to declare his Name, that is, to make himself known to us, we should govern all our Reasonings about God (as concern∣ing his Decrees, and his concurrence with the Free Actions of Men, and his particular Providence, which are things more dark and obscure) by what is more clear; and we shall find in Scrip∣ture, that in all these points holy Men do constantly appeal to these unquesti∣onable and intelligible Perfections of God. Wilt thou destroy the righteous Page 17 with the wicked? (saith Abraham) That be far from thee. Shall not the Judge of all the world do right? We may be mis∣taken; but God certainly knows who are wicked, and who are righteous; and he knows how to punish the wicked, and save the righteous: But we can∣not be mistaken in this Principle, that the Judge of all the world will do right. Thus Moses satisfies himself, and others concerning the particular Providences of God towards the People of Israel. Deut. 32.3, 4. I will publish the name of the Lord: All his ways are judgement; a God of truth, and without iniquity, just and right is He. This we certainly know of God. So St. Paul, Rom. 2.2. Thou art inexcusable, O Man! Whatsoever Excuse men may pretend for their faults, he lays down this for a Principle, We are sure the Judgment of God is according to truth.
Secondly, Let us always consider the Per∣fections of God in conjunction, and so as to reconcile them with one another. Do not consider God as meer Power and Soveraignty, as meer Mercy and Good∣ness, as meer Justice and Severity; but as all these together, and in such a mea∣sure and degree as may make them con∣sistent Page 18 with one another. The great∣est mistakes in Religion are certainly sprung from this root, from separating the Perfections of God, and considering them singly, and framing such wide and large notions of one, as to exclude ano∣ther: whereas the Perfections of God agree together, and that is not a Di∣vine Perfection, which contradicts any other Perfection. Among men indeed an eminent degree of any one Excellency does usually shut out some other; and therefore it is observ'd, that Power and Moderation, Love and Discretion, do not often meet together; that a great Me∣mory and a small Judgment, a good Wit and an ill Nature, are many times found in conjunction: But in infinite Perfection all Perfections do eminently meet and consist together; and it is not necessary that one Excellency should be raised upon the ruines of another.
And if this had been well consider'd, Men would not, by being too intent upon God's Soveraignty, with neglect of his other Perfections, have spoken those hard things about Predestination: for the Soveraignty of God doth by no means set him above the Eternal Laws of Goodness, and Truth, and Righte∣ousness. Page 19 And if this were considered, men would not, by poring upon the Justice and Severity of God, be so swallowed up in despair: for God is not so severe, but he is merciful to the penitent, and hath left a retreat for the returning Sinner. If this were well consider'd, it would check the presumption of those, who incourage themselves in sin, by fancying to them∣selves a God all of Mercy and Good∣ness; and because sentence against an e∣vil work is not speedily executed, there∣fore their heart is fully set in them to do evil: For it is not Goodness and Mercy finally to bear with and forgive obsti∣nate Offenders; but want of Prudence and good Government.
Thirdly, Among different Opinions con∣cerning God (as there always have been, and will be in the world) chuse those which are farthest from extremi∣ty; because Truth as well as Virtue usually lyes between the Extreams. And here I will instance in that Con∣troversie, which has much disquieted the Church almost in all Ages, con∣cerning the Decrees of God; about which there are two Extreams, the one that God peremptorily decrees the final Page 20 condition of every particular person, that is, their everlasting happiness or misery, without any regard or consi∣deration of the good or bad Actions of Men. The other, that God decrees nothing concerning any particular person, but only in general that men found under such and such Qualificati∣ons shall be happy or miserable, and puts it into their own power to qua∣lifie themselves. Now he that is doubt∣ful in this matter, as every man must be that understands the difficulties on both sides, had best take up in the middle Opinion, that God decrees the final condition of particular persons with respect to certain Qualifications, which speaking absolutely are not in every Man's power; but yet, under the influence of God's grace, which is never wanting to the sincere endea∣vours of men, may be said to be in our power, in the same sense, as St. Paul says, I am able to do all things through Christ strengthning me: For besides that this in all probability is the Truth, there will be this advantage in it, that he that stands in the middle, is like to be more moderate towards the Dis∣senters on both sides, than either of Page 21 them will be to one onother; because the middle is not so far from either Extream, as the Extreams are from one another. At the worst, he stands fair∣est for an impartial enquiry after Truth, and when he has satisfied himself where the Truth lyes, he may more silently pass over to it, without any great im∣putation of inconstancy; which can∣not but be remarkable in him, who passeth from one Extream to ano∣ther.
Fourthly, and lastly, Entertain no Opi∣nion concerning God, that doth evidently contradict the Practice of Religion, and a good Life, though never so spe∣cious and subtile Arguments may be u∣sed to perswade it. Truth is most easily seen, and discern'd in those Rea∣sonings and Opinions which tend to practice; because the absurdity and in∣convenience of them is soonest disco∣vered: whereas we cannot so certainly find out the truth or falshood of those Opinions, which speculative Men devise in their Studies, without any consideration whether they serve any real purpose of Life, or not. Men in∣deed are very apt to form those notions, which are most remote from common Page 22 sense and use; because more pains and wit are required to make them plau∣sible: but there needs no other Ar∣gument to make a wise man despise them, than that they are unprofitable, and signifie nothing to our practice, and to make men truly better.
This is universally true in all kind of knowledge, but most considerable in the knowledge of God and Religi∣on; because that knowledge is of the greatest consideration. We need not scruple to admit some things, not so evident to Natural Reason, if we be satisfied of the truth of them, from an higher and more cogent Reason: As that God has revealed it, and said it; this general Reason may perswade us of a thing that is above and beyond Natural Reason: But we may not ad∣mit any thing for a Divine Reve∣lation, which evidently contradicts and weakens the practice of an holy Life; because this is the main end of all Di∣vine Revelation; and we know God, only in order to the service and imita∣tion of him.
Let us then look upon all know∣ledge that contradicts practice, as vain and false, because it destroys its end. Page 23 There are many things that seem pro∣bable enough in Speculation, which yet we most pertinaciously deny, because they are not practicable; and there are many things, which seem doubt∣ful in Speculation, and would admit of great dispute, which yet because they are found true in practice and ex∣perience, are to be taken for certain and unquestionable. The 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, the idle Reasoning of the Stoicks, was a thing contemned by the wiser Philo∣sophers, as a vain and useless subtilty. Zeno pretends to demonstrate there is no Motion; and what is the conse∣quence of this Speculation, but that Men must stand still? But so long as a man finds he can walk, all the Sophis∣try in the world will not perswade him, that Motion is impossible. In like man∣ner, they that would perswade us, that men can do nothing, nor contribute any more to their own Sanctification, than Stocks or Stones, and upon Scrip∣ture Metaphors misunderstood, (as our being dead in trespasses and sins, and crea∣ted to good works) graft Notions which are impossible and absurd in practice, do not consider that the natural conse∣quence of this is, that men must do Page 24 nothing at all in Religion, never think of God, nor pray to him, nor read his Word, nor go to Church; but sit still, and be wholly passive to the operati∣ons of God's grace: but however this may seem plausible, and men may think they add much to the glory of God's grace, while they deny any power in the Creature; yet every con∣siderate Man will presently appre∣hend, that this is by no means to be ad∣mitted, because it contradicts Practice, and makes all the Commands and Ex∣hortations of God's Word vain, and to no purpose; because it destroys Reli∣gion, and discourages the endeavours of Men; makes them sloathful and care∣less of working out their own Salvation; than which nothing can set a man far∣ther from God's grace and assistance, and more immediately dispose him for ruine; and upon some such false Reason∣ing as this, the sloathful Servant in the Parable hid his talent in a napkin, and buried it in the earth; but when he was called to account, his excuse was not admitted, but he was cast into utter darkness. The two other Particulars, namely how far we are to imitate the Divine Per∣fections, and particularly what those Page 25 Divine Qualities are, which our Sa∣viour doth here more especially pro∣pound to our imitation, and likewise to clear the true meaning of this Pre∣cept, and to shew that the Duty here injoyned, Be ye perfect, as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect, is not impossible to us. Both these I shall refer to another Opportunity.