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Reserve of Universalists in urging the Denunciations of the Scriptures.
There is an impression, no matter how produced, that Universalists are rather backward to exhibit the threatenings of the Scriptures. They delight, it is said, to dwell on the promises: a charge that we would by no means deny; for most unnatural should we be, did we not feel more pleasure in contemplating the happiness than the sufferings of our race. But then it is urged that we dwell almost exclusively on the bright side of the scene, keeping the dark in the back-ground. They have nothing to say, — such is a common representation, — they have nothing to say, except that we shall all be happy, all be saved! a theme which, even if unequivocally sanctioned by Heaven, ought not to engross all the attention, but should frequently give place to something else of a more practical character. Yet, from week to week, and from year to year, they spend their time, — so it is said, — in ringing the changes on this one topic. They select those passages which speak of God's goodness, of his benevolent designs towards his creatures, of the unspeakable blessedness he has reserved for them, or of the future prevalence of the gospel; and on these they expatiate with all the fervor of their eloquence, till they seem to forget that how plausible so ever their favorite texts may appear, there are others as fearful as these are encouraging. The mass of threatenings with which the gospel is everywhere intermingled in the New Testtment, the terror of the Lord, the sure retributions of his wrath, the alarming woes and judgments denounced by Christ and his apostles, — these they leave out of sight; or, if they sometimes bring them forward, it is only to explain away their dreadful severity, and to prevent all salutary impression. Why do they not speak them out heartily, it is asked, and give them their full, unimpaired effect? Why not press them home as earnestly as they do the promises, if they indeed are, what they claim to be, the followers of Jesus Christ in simplicity!
We must not stop long to correct this misrepresentation, since our readers have already learned its falsity, by their own observation. Nobody, acquainted with our preaching, or with our publications, but knows that we strive to urge, according to the measure of bur ability, the retributions, as well as the gracious promises of God's word. The sure punishment of sin, in all its various kinds and grades, has long been a noted and a leading topic with us. We have felt obliged to bestow on this subject, in particular, a share of our labors, which would seem even disproportioned, were it not for the ignorance that
frevails with regard to the real consequences of transgression. t is with sorrow we have witnessed, amid the chaos of indiscriminate threatening that marks the preaching of our day, a great lack of everything like definite, practical instruction on this important point; and it has seemed to devolve on us to supply, as far as we were able, the deficiency, by illustrating and enforcing, with all the means at our command, the momentous truth that God renders to every man according to his works. The fact is, we have followed the Scriptures so closely here, as to give considerable offence to our religious opponents; and a complaint is now rising on every hand against us, not that we keep the subject of retribution out of sight, but that we insist upon it too strictly, and allow none to escape the full recompense of his deserts, whether saint or sinner, penitent or impenitent. It is to be hoped that when this latter complaint shall have become general, our accusers will withdraw the former; since it would be very inconvenient to defend ourselves at once against the two opposite attacks urged from one and the same quarter. So absurd as well as false is the representation alluded to, — if taken, we mean, in the sense in which it is intended.
Still we cannot but think,, that, after all, there is one sense, little thought of, in which there is more truth in that representation than even its authors are aware; and we hope to be heard patiently while we point out the circumstance. Now, if we take only the most appalling denunciations in the New Testament, it must be confessed that few of our preachers or writers do urge them in all their original pointedness and unflinching severity. We say, the most appalling; for in administering the more common threatenings, they are by no means reserved. But as to the more terrible woes denounced, which may be said to form a distinct class, it appears to us in vain to deny that Universalists seldom launch them forth without some softening in their features, or reserve in their application. We are glad it is so. And if called to an account for our palliating course in this respect, we can say with truth, that we adopt it, not because those denunciations are in the least incompatible with our doctrine, but because we do not feel authorized to use the same stern and unsparing personality which well became him who '' knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man, for he knew what was in man* We may mistake characters and deserts; he could not; nor could those who were guided by inspiration. They could, with safety, say to those concerned, ' Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers how can ye escape the damnation of hell!' 'O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?' 'Ye are of your father the devil; ... ye shall die in your sins.' But we, on the contrary might often misapply such extreme language, in the precipitance of our zeal or prejudice. Nor is this all. Sinners as we ourselves are, it does not become us to inveigh against our fellow men in that imperious tone which he sometimes used, and with all propriety, who was himself without sin, and who spoke under the immediate authority of heaven. God forbid that we should be unfaithful in rebuking sin; but we wish to do it in a way that comports with the consciousness of our own imperfections. And we think that all the religious teachers of our day would do well to bear these considerations in mind: they certainly deserve some respect. Such is the ground on which we justify the course we pursue.
At the same time we are not so ignorant of mankind as to suppose that this ground will be allowed as valid by all. The more bigoted of our opposers, and the more self-confident, will regard it as a mere pretence, a subterfuge to escape the duty of holding forth those denunciations which it is supposed we feel to contravene our favorite tenets. They will exclaim indignantly, Away with your smooth preaching! We need all the thunders of the law, and woe to the unfaithful herald that keeps silence, or tampers with his message. Give us the threatenings — we want no favor on that score — give them to us without mitigation and without sparing!
To such, we have another answer: We dare not! Doubtless, we are not suspected of extraordinary timidity; but we dare not urge those threatenings, we mean those of the more dreadful kind, in all their- original pungency and directness. The church will not bear them. Thoroughly as the great body of religious professors has been trained to stand before the whole battery of endless damnation, and even to sleep under its full discharge, (for the volley passes harmless over their heads',) — one of these denunciations, a single reproach of this kind, if applied as our Saviour applied them, would soon raise a storm of indignation, as they did in his time. For, against whom did he direct them? Net against the careless, the dissolute, the openly profane; no, never; but against the chief religious professors of his day, who sincerely thought themselves righteous, and as heartily despised others, and who monopolized the reputation of all the sanctity there was in the world. And of course, it is against the same class-of men in our day, that the threatenings in question must be denounced, if denounced at all. Let people consider this. To divert these sentences in the least from their original aim, would be, not to apply, but to wrest, the words of our master. The character of the ancient scribes and Pharisees is clearly exhibited in the New Testament, and well known: full of zeal towards God; frequent in prayers and then boasting of them; punctilious in observing all the sacred rites and holy times; stern in* reproving others for any neglect of these consecrated customs; sanctimonious in their deportment, of sad countenances and disfigured faces; thoroughly exclusive in their self-righteousness; arrogating all the favor of God; and taking the lead in the venerated religion of the day. Such were the scribes and Pharisees; and nobody, acquainted with the New Testament, needs be told that it was for these very characters our Saviour reserved all his most terrible denunciations and severest reproaches. People wish us, at this day, to deal out those fearful texts freely — not to explain them, but to urge them home unreservedly! They know not what they ask. They are even clamorous in demanding that we should preach, as Christ did, 'Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers! how can ye escape the damnation of hell!' This is the language, it is said, that we ought to use. Tell the sinner he is but a serpent, a viper, that his heart is full of deadly poison, that he is going to hell; and there let the matter rest!
Very well; when those most concerned, so pertinaciously demand this treatment, it may perhaps be proper to gratify them, at least so far as to give them the advantage of a little experience, which often avails more than anything else to tame our eagerness. Who were these serpents, this generation of vipers ? — that we may know to what characters to apply the language. Look back into the preceding context of the passage,1 and we find, they were the scribes and Pharisees: 'Wo unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,' says Christ; 'Wo unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites ;' and then, changing the appellation, he exclaims, 'Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell!' And if we must now repeat this overwhelming reproof, it is not left to our option to whom we shall apply it; we must address it to similar characters, to the zealous bigots of our time, to the foremost professors of religion, such as say to ethers 'stand by yourselves, come not near unto us; for wc are holier than you.' These it is whom we must call, to thjir faces, serpents, a generation of vipers, who for their peculiar perverseness, cannot escape the damnation of hell! What had they done, that they should be thus harshly condemned by our Saviour? We have the grounds of his sentence against them, all detailed in the preceding part of the chapter; some of which we shall quote, as deeply concerning the people of our own age: Alluding to their exclusive overbearing spirit, and to their rule of excommunicating his disciples, he says, 'Wo unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites ! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering, to go in.' For this they were' serpents, a generation of vipers; for this they could not escape the damnation of hell. 'Wo unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!' adds he, ' for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.' For this, too, they were serpents, a generation of vipers, and could not escape the damnation of hell. 'Wo unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him two-fold more the child of hell than yourselves.' One would hardly suppose, at first, that all this descriptive language, which sounds so apt in our ears, was spoken two thousand years ago!' Wo unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites ! for ye pay tithe of mint, and anise, and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith; these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other un