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The Incomprehensibility of the Mercy of God.
Isaiah lv. 8, 9.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
O, these are parts of his ways, but how little a portion is heard of him! Job xxvi. 14. This is one of the most sententious sayings of Job, and it expresseth, in a very lively and emphatical manner, the works of God. Such language would produce but very little effect indeed in the mouth of a careless unthinking man: but Job, who uttered it, had a mind filled with the noblest ideas of the perfections of God. He had studied them in his prosperity, in order to enable him to render homage to God, from whom alone his prosperity came. His heart was conversant with them under his distressing adversities, and of them he had learnt to bow to the hand of him, who was no less the author of adversity than of prosperity, of darkness than of day. All this appears by the fine description, which the holy man gives immediately before: God, saith he, stretched out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing. He bindeth up the waters in his thick clouds; and the cloud is not rent under them. He hath compassed the waters with bounds. The pillars of heaven tremble, and are astonished at his reproof. He divideth the sea with his power, and by his
understanding he smiteth through the proud. By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens. But are these the only productions of the Creator? Have these emanations wholly exhausted his power? No, replieth Job, These are only parts of his ways, and how little a portion is heard of him! My brethren, what this holy man said of the wonders of nature, we, with much more reason, say to you of the wonders of grace. Collect all that pagan philosophers have taught you of the goodness of the Supreme Being. To the opinions of philosophers join the declarations of the prophets. To the declarations of the prophets, and to the opinions of philosophers, add the discoveries of the evangelists and apostles. Compose one body of doctrine of all that various authors have written on this comfortable subject. To the whole join your own experience; your ideas to their ideas, your meditations to their meditations, and then believe that you are only floating on the surface of the goodness of God, that his love hath dimensions, a breadth, and length, and depth, and height, which the human mind can never attain, Ephes. iii. 18. and, upon the brink of this ocean, say, Lo, these are only parts of his ways, and how little a portion is heard of him!
This incomprehensibility of the goodness of God, (and what attention, what sensibility, what gratitude have we not a right to expect of you?) this inconceivableness of the goodness of God we intend to discuss to-day. The prophet, or rather God himself, saith to us by the prophet, My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways: For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Three things are necessary to explain the text. I. The meaning must be restrained.
II. The object must be determined.
III. The proofs must be produced. And this is the whole plan of my discourse.
I. The words of my text must be restrained. Strictly speaking, it cannot be said, that God's thoughts are not our thoughts, and that his ways are not our ways; on the contrary, it is certain, that, in many respects, God's ways are our ways, and his thoughts our thoughts. I mean, that there are many cases, in which we may assure ourselves God thinks so and so, and will observe such or such a conduct. The doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God is one of those doctrines, which we ought to defend with the greatest zeal, because it hath a mighty influence in religion and morality: but it would become a subversion of both, were it to be carried beyond its just bounds. Libertines have made fewer proselytes by denying the existence of God than by abusing the doctrine of his inconceivableness. It makes but little impression on a rational man, to be told, that matter is eternal; that it arranged itself in its present order; that chance spread the firmament, formed the heavenly orbs, fixed the earth on its basis, and wrought all the wonders in the material world. It makes but little impression on a rational man, to be informed, that the intelligent world is to be attributed to the same cause to which libertines attribute the material world; that chance formed spirit as well as matter, gave it the power, not only of reflecting on its own essence, but also of going out of itself, of transporting itself into the past ages of eternity, of rising into the heavens by its meditation, of pervading the earth, and investigating its darkest recesses. All these extravagant propo
sitions refute themselves, and hardly find one partisan in such an enlightened age as this, in which we have the happiness to live.
There are other means more likely to subvert the faith. To give grand ideas of the Supreme Being; to plunge, if I may be allowed to say so, the little mind of man into the ocean of the divine perfections; to contrast the supreme grandeur of the Creator with the insignificance of the creature; to persuade mankind that the great Supreme is too lofty to concern himself with us, that our conduct is entirely indifferent to him; that it signifies nothing to him whether we be just or unjust, humane or cruel, happy or miserable: To say in these senses, that God's ways are not our ways, that his thoughts are not our thoughts, these are the arms that infidelity hath sometimes employed with success, and against the attacks of which we would guard you. For these reasons, I said, that the meaning of the text must be restrained, or that it would totally subvert religion and morality.
We have seldom met with a proposition more extravagant than that of a certain bishop*, who, having spent his life in defending the gospel, endeavored at his death to subvert it. This man, in a book intituled The imperfection of the human mind, and which is itself an example of the utmost degree of the extravagance of the human mind, maintains this proposition, and makes it the ground of all his scepticism: that before we affirm any thing of a subject we must perfectly understand it. From hence he concludes, that we can affirm nothing of any subject, because we do not perfectly
*Peter Daniel Huet, bishop of Avranches, a countryman of our author's. He was a man of uncommon learning, and in justice to christianity, as well as to his lordship, it ought to be remembered, that he wrote his demonstratio evangelica in the vigor of his life: but his traite philosophique de la foiblesse de l' esprit humaine, of which Mons. Saurin complains, was written more than forty years after, when he was ninety years of age, and was superanuated. Father Castell, the Jesuit, denies that it was written by Huet at all.