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À SPIRIT OF FORGIVENESS IS AN ESSENTIAL INGREDIENT IN THE CHRISTIAN CHARACTER.
A spirit of forgiveness is the direct opposite of an implacable and revengeful spirit. It disposes us to overlook and excuse the wrong that is done us, and to cherish a pacific and benevolent feeling towards the doers of that wrong. It does not, however, make sinful actions that are pointed against ourselves, appear less base and reprehensible than if they were aimed against others. All sin, against whomsoever di. rected, and by whomsoever committed, is hateful ; and therefore if a man is guilty of sinful conduct towards us, we may, with entire consistency, abhor the conduct, while we exercise a forgiving spirit towards the man. Nor does this spirit suppose us to be absolutely unwilling, in every instance, that those whom we forgive should re. ceive the punishment they deserve. David's feelings towards Shimei, when he charged Solomon not to hold him guiltless, were doubtless those of a forgiving spirit. If the public good required that this wicked man should be punished, the very kindest feelings in his injured sove. reign would not lead him to wish, all things considered, that he should be pardoned. The spirit in question, then, does not oppose the inflic. tion of all punishment; but only of that which is the offspring of revenge. Selfish revenge is a disposition to injure those who have injured us, merely for the sake of retaliation, and when the public good is not at all subserved thereby, Its language is, “ I will do so to him, as he hath done to me.” Prov. xxiv. 29. But the spirit of forgiveness renders blessing for cursing. Rom. xii. 14. It neither wishes to avenge its own wrongs, nor have them avenged at all, unless the glory of God and the general good shall render it necessary.
It is essential to a spirit of forgiveness, that we hold ourselves ready to renew friendship with those who have injured us, as soon as they prepare the way for it by a suitable acknowledgment of their faults. In this sense of forgiveness, God waits for our repentance, before he grants us pardon. But the spirit of forgiveness is the same thing before repentance is manifested by the offender, as it is afterward. Thus it is with God, whose character is infinitely perfect. In his very nature he is merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth—forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. Ex. xxxiv. 6,7. It was a forgiving spirit which led him to devise means (and they were means which cost the blood of his well-beloved Son) to reconcile his enemies unto himself, that they might receive the for. giveness of sins. The feelings of God towards sinners before they exercise repentance, are as benevolent as they are afterwards. Though he abhors their character, there is nothing in his heart which is im. placable and unmerciful. In this thing, God's children bear his like. ness. Were we to delay exercising kind and benevolent feelings to
would not harmonize with humility, any more than if it were to bo originated by a regard to the praise of men.
Secondly. This Article of experimental religion is harmonious with our doctrinal Articles.
This is no doubt true, in relation to all those Articles ; but I shall not detain the reader in pointing out that harmony, except in those cases where it is very apparent. This eighth Article in the system of experimental religion, has a manifest agreement with the eighth in Part I. viz. the doctrine of regeneration. If regeneration is a radical change of our depraved nature, (which it was shown to be,) it must produce a change of desires. The desires are according to the nature of the heart whence they proceed. All the desires of a natural heart are of a sinful character. They are hungerings and thirstings, Dot after righteousness, but unrighteousness. But when, by regenerating grace, holiness is introduced into the heart, it will send forth new de. sires, and such as correspond with the nature of the change which has taken place. It is therefore quite certain, that, if there be such a change as regeneration, all who experience it will hunger and thirst after righteousness. The unfeigned prayer of every one of them will be, “ Create in me a clean heart, o God: and renew a right spirit within me. Ps. li. 10.
This Article harmonizes with the twelfth of Part I.—the doctrine of the saints' perseverance. According to that Article, all those who are born of God, will persevere in the way of holiness unto the end, and be saved ; and this, discovers to us one important means by which their perseverance will be effected, namely, their appetite for holiness, and their eager desire after increasing conformity to God. True, there is a divine power that worketh in them mightily ; but it works in them both to will and to do. They are not dragged to heaven against their wills. It is true, they are drawn; but it is in such a way, that the more effectually they are drawn, the more freely they run. Their ap. petite for holiness inclines them to feed ou spiritual food; it also in. clines them to seek for such food on which to feed. They labor for the meat which endureth unto everlasting life. He who has deter. mined that the righteous shall hold on his way, has also determined on the proper means to effect so desirable an object. And what one means could be better adapted to the end, than to give him an insatiable thirst after righteousness ; and from time to time to revive it, when, by means of the lustings of the flesh, it has been abated? Between this, and the appointed means for preserving the life and health of the body, there is a very observable analogy. God has so constituted us, that the life and health of the body are preserved by its receiving nourish. ment from meats and drinks ; and to secure the use of these, he has endued us with animal appetite—with hunger and thirst. In like manner, he has secured the use of that moral nutriment which believe ers need for the preservation of their spiritual life and health, by giving them spiritual appetite, so that they hunger and thirst after righteous
This Article in the experimental department, harmonizes with the third in the doctrinal system ; namely, that which treats of the law of God as a rule that requires perfect holiness of every intelligent creat.
ure. The believer, while on earth, is a strange compound of holiness and sin. He is, however, ready to say, “The law is spiritual, but I am carnal.” He approves of the law, in all its extent and spirituality. As far as the members of the new man are formed within him, he is conformed to the law; and so ardent are the lustings of the spirit against the flesh, that he can never rest, until all the powers of his soul are brought into an entire subjection to this perfect rule. Here we ob. serve a pleasing harmony between the law, in all its extent, and those insatiable desires after a complete conformity to it, which now exist in the heart of the believer. The time is coming, and is not far dis. tant, when these desires will be fully realized, in a world of perfect holiness.
I need not say that this branch of the religion of the heart, is in uni. son with that fundamental doctrine with which we started. God is the standard of moral perfection. His rational creatures were made after his likeness. This likeness was lost by the fall; but is restored to the subjects of grace, in their regeneration. As apostacy led creat. ures to forsake God, so recovering grace leads them back to him. By such as experience this grace, God is again made the standard of character, and they earnestly desire to be conformed to him. Nothing short of a complete restoration of his image and favor, will satisfy the desires of thern whose souls pant after God.
1. Though perfection is never attained to in this life, there is no impropriety in saying that it can be. When we say of a sinner that he is capable of exercising repentance, it is far from asserting that he is a penitent. As there are no obstructions in the way of sinless perfection, but such as are of an inexcusable nature, it is not improper to say that such perfection is attainable. But this amounts to no proof that a single Christian has arrived at such a state. The Lord com. manded the children of Israel utterly to destroy the seven nations of Canaan, leaving alive nothing that breathed. Deut. xx. 16. speak of the command which was given them, we say that it meant a complete extirpation of the devoted nations. And if we speak of what was practicable, we say that the divine requirement did not exceed their ability. See Num. xiii. 30.
But if we speak of what they actually accomplished, we are obliged to say, “they did not destroy the nations, concerning whom the Lord commanded them: but were mingled among the heathen, and learned their works."
Divine commands requiring sinless perfection, are no proof of its actual existence; nor is the possibility of attaining to it any proof. The question now before us is, not what is our duty ; but what is the fact in relation to this matter. When we come to matter of fact, we find that sinless perfection has been unknown on earth, since the fall of man, except in the case of our Redeemer. He was, in a sense pe. culiar to himself, holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners. The word perfect, it is true, has been applied to his followers; but it has been so explained by other things said of them, as to render it cer.
ward our enemies, until we saw them at our feet, we should have no reason to think ourselves possessed of a truly forgiving spirit. This is the divine command, “ If thine enemy” (that is, while he remains hostile)" hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink.” Rom. xii. 20.
That a forgiving spirit does not need evidence of the repentance of an enemy to draw it forth, is made clear by this direction which Christ gave to his disciples : “When ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have aught against any." Mark xi. 25. Here he requires his disciples, even in the act of praying, to forgive all such as they had aught against. He does not allow them to defer this until they could ascertain whe. ther their enemies were penitent or no. Some of these, they might have no opportunity of again seeing on the earth; but they are requi. red immediately to forgive them all. The Savior could not have required them to exercise complacency towards such as exhibited no marks of contrition for their faults; but even towards such, he did require the exercise of kind and benevolent feelings,-feelings which would prompt to the doing them good, and not evil; and which would rejoice in their happiness, and be grieved at their misery. They who have the true spirit of forgiveness, desire that their enemies may repent, not so much in view of the injuries done themselves, as of the sin that has been committed against God. Could they know that these enemies had humbly confessed to God, and made their peace with him, their minds would be greatly relieved.
Having shown what the spirit of forgiveness is, I shall now endeavor to demonstrate, that this spirit is essential to the Christian character.
1. It constitutes the very essence of this character, that we partake of the divine nature, and that we have the spirit of Christ : but this can never be, unless we possess a spirit of forgiveness. God is of a for. giving spirit; and it is the glory of his nature to be so. And surely, Christians can not be doubtful what was the temper of their Redeemer, in relation to this point. They will remember, that at the very moment his enemies were mocking at his dying agonies, he prayed for their forgiveness. Can any man who cherishes revengeful feelings, pretend that he has the spirit of Christ? Such an one may have been baptized with water, in his name, but surely, he has not been baptized with his Spirit.
2. The scriptures represent a forgiving spirit as one of those things which distinguish the children of God from the children of the wicked one. The children of God are called the meek of the earth, and the peace-makers. Zeph. ii. 3. Matt. v. 9. In the long conflict between Saul and David, an implacable spirit was manifested by the former, but not by the latter. The contrast between the first Christian mar. tyr and his enemies, in relation to this point, was very striking. They gnashed on him with their teeth, and stoned him; while he cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. Acts vii. 54—60. Paul was a mark at which the Jews shot their envenomed darts; but this malevolent conduct did not excite in him a spirit of revenge.Notwith standing alltheirill-usage, it w as hisheart's desireandprayer to God for them, that they might be saved.
3. It would be inconsistent to claim a share in that salvation which
is wholly by forgiveness ; where our hopes of deliverance from eternal punishment, have nothing but pardoning mercy on which to rest; while we refuse to be forgiving towards our fellow men. How pertinent and forcible is that exhortation of the apostle to the saints at Ephesus : “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil-speak. ing, be put away from you, with all malice. And be ye kind one to another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you." Eph. iv. 31, 32. There is no salvation by Jesus Christ, in any other way than by forgiveness. No one is able to redeem himself, or pay the least fraction of the debt he owes to divine justice. This debt, according to the Savior's representation, is immense-a debt of ten thousand talents ; while the trespasses which others have committed against us, are represented by a debt of a few pence. Matt, xviii. 23–28. How unreasonable is it for us to expect ihat God will forgive us the whole of this immense debt, namely, our ten thousand aggravated transgressions against him; if we are unwilling to forgive our fellows the few, inconsiderable trespasses which they have committed against us?
4. Without this trait in the Christian character, there could be no peace and unity in God's moral kingdom, either in this world or the next. The church, on earth and in heaven, is made up of creatures who have sinned, not only against God, but against each other. If, therefore, they do not from the heart forgive one another, how can they dwell together in peace and unity ? Failing to forgive, contentions will assuredly break out among them, while they are in the church below; and could they be admitted to the upper world, without having forgiven one another, they would contend even there, and we should again hear of war in heaven. Did not God freely and fully forgive those sinners whom he admits to heaven, how could eternal peace and delightful communion, subsist between him and them?
5. There is nothing which the scriptures more clearly point out, or more peremptorily enjoin, as essential to the Christian character, than a spirit of forgiveness. It is made as much essential as love to God. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother," (which necessarily implies that he does not possess a forgiving spirit towards him,)“ he is a liar : for he that loveth not his brother, whom he hath seen, how can he love God, whom he hath not seen ?" 1 John iv. 20. “ Forgive,” said the divine Teacher, “ and ye shall be forgiven.” He also said, (and we should think no one could mistake his meaning,) • If ye for. give not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” It is a faci worthy of serious consideration, that
, in the form of prayer which our Savior has given us, he has so framed the petition we are to make for the forgiveness of our sins, that we make it wholly void, if we do not ourselves forgive those who have done us wrong. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Here we expressly tell God that we forgive our enemies ; and we seem to suggest it as a reason why he should forgive us. How great, then, must be our impiety, if, with the declaration as we forgive on our lips, it be not true that we forgive! Supplicating God's for. giveness, with a lie in our mouth, do we not virtually imprecate his vengeance ?