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The influence of revealed religion in ameliorating the condition of man,
ISAIAH liv. 13. 14.
And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children.
In righteousness shalt thou be established. Thou shalt be far from oppression; for thou shalt not fear; and from terror, for thou shalt not be afraid.
THIS section of prophecy relates to the future condition of the church, and the accessions, which it should receive from the Gentiles. The two things foretold are these; namely, their obedience to the revealed will of God, and their consequent external prosperity. "All thy children shall be taught of the Lord." The result of this will be, that they shall enjoy a well established government, political freedom, and lasting peace. "Great shall be the peace of thy children;" or, as Bishop Lowth renders it, the "prosperity of thy children. In righteousness shalt thou be established. Thou shalt be far from oppression."
My present object is, to consider what natural connexion there may be between the character foretold and the blessings promised; or, in other words, the influence, which revealed religion is likely to have in meliorating the present condition of man. This, it is hoped, will not be unsuitable on the anniversary of a society, whose object is to diffuse
the blessings of revelation, by imparting to the destitute that sacred volume, in which it is contained. Nor will it be thought inadmissible, that our attention should, on the present occasion, be chiefly directed to those effects, which the scriptures have a tendency to produce on the present condition of man, as the more important bearing, which they have on his future state is so usually the subject of our pulpit exercises. It may be important, that those, who contribute either property, or efforts, to increase or extend the knowledge of these sacred writings, should perceive, not only, that they are increasing the means of salvation, but are granting the most effectual aid to the interests of order and virtue, of private and social happiness.
That we may rightly estimate the tendency of revealed religion to improve the condition of human society, it shall be considered briefly in regard to its facts, discoveries, and precepts.
Suppose a nation existing without any other light, than that of their intellectual nature. Whether such a nation would believe in the existence of a supreme and divine power, I know not. That there are communities of human beings, who neither worship God, nor believe in his existence, seems to be a truth well supported. And, although an eternal Deity may be discovered from the order, beauty, and design, which are apparent in the structure of the world, it is not certain, that the discovery has ever been made by any but those, whose intellectual vision has been aided by some scattered rays from the luminous pages of inspiration. It may, with less hesitancy, be affirmed, that no nation, without such aid, has ever entertained any correct or consistent views on that momentous subject. This will create the less surprise, if we consider what gross, incoherent, and monstrous conceptions were entertained, as to the Sovereign of the universe, by some, whose superior talents and application led their contemporaries, and have induced all succeeding ages to denominate them the friends of wisdom.
A nation, therefore, destitute of light supernaturally com
municated, would neither have no ideas of God, or those which were absurd, impious, or contradictory. Let it be supposed, that such a nation becomes universally acquainted with so much of the scriptures, as teaches not only the existence of God, but his unity, his natural perfections, and his agency in creating the world. Let them at once be informed, so as to produce conviction, that this world, which we inhabit is God's world; that He created it by his omnipotent power; that He spake and it was done;-that He said, "Let there be light, and there was light." Were the information to stop here, I ask, whether even this would not produce, on the national feelings and character, consequences of real importance, and great extent? For, although nothing were mentioned as to the moral character of him, who created the world, nor of his present agency in human affairs, there would, I presume, be a sensible apprehension of both. It would be suspected, at least, that He, who created the world, had not abandoned it; and that He, who must necessarily have some moral character, was more likely to have that of uprightness, than any other. Is there a person present, who would not think, that a residence in such a community would be somewhat more tolerable, after so much light was conveyed, than previously? Let this community next be expressly taught, that the Author of the universe is not only intelligent, but of a character perfectly benevolent, and perfectly pure; so that no instance of moral disorder among his creatures can either escape his notice, or fail to excite his displeasure; and that his providence extending to the farthest limits of creation is exerted not less in the falling of a sparrow, than in the regular motion of the heavenly bodies;—let all this be fairly and forcibly exhibited to the view of all the individuals of the nation, and a change will be affected in their political condition, more universal and salutary, than any, which could result from the wisest laws, or the best form of civil polity. The characters, inscribed by the hand of God on the human mind; that law, which the apostle tells us, is writ
ten on the heart, would thenceforth become distinct and legible. This law too has many advantages, superior to those of any other. It is perfectly commensurate with moral agency. It reaches to all the modification of volition and feeling. In view of this law, there can be no distinction between duties of perfect and imperfect obligation. There is no virtue, nor virtuous disposition, which is not included in its commands; there is no vice, nor vicious propensity, not embraced among its prohibitions. And, whereas ten thou sand culprits elude the vigilance of earthly sovereigns, no offence can be committed against the Governor of the universe, when he is not present. The delinquent, therefore, knows at the very moment, that his crime is not concealed.
Another most interesting fact, which revelation brings to our knowledge, is the incarnation and sufferings of Jesus Christ.
With whatever soundness of argument, the doctrine of divine moral government might have been established, there would be danger of its being called in question; or, at least, that its influence would be diminished, if, during a long succession of ages, no discrimination were apparent between the friends and enemies of virtue. Many would be likely to say, that the course of events, falling within our observation, does not seem well to correspond with the doctrine of divine moral perfections. If the Author of the Universe has a moral character, and has ordained for his creatures a moral law, it is obvious, that He cannot look on such a world, as ours, without indignation,-the tranquility of Heaven itself must be disturbed by the crimes committed on earth. The Deity would not, it should seem, have permitted several thousand years to pass, without rendering conspicuous the light, in which he viewed the transgressions of men.
Now, by the intervention of our Saviour, every shadow of difficulty, hence arising, is made to disappear; all ground of scepticism is perfectly removed. The disobe dience of man has disturbed the tranquility of heaven. A messenger has been thence commissioned; even He, in
whom dwelt the fulness of Godhead bodily, "to reprove the world of sin, of righteousness and judgment." An exhibition of the interest, which God takes in human affairs,of the sensibility, so to speak, with which he contemplates all violations of a moral law, more striking, than that which is implied in this event, cannot be imagined. Whatever contempt may be thrown on the doctrine of our Saviour's atonement, either by those who reject christianity, or by those who profess it, I must be permitted to think, that the line of distinction between virtue and vice, never appears so broad and well defined ;-that the law of God never appears so sacred, or clothed with such celestial glory, as when it is viewed through the medium of our Saviour's death; and when it is considered, that the object of this wonderful event was, "that God might be just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus."
I now ask, whether this small number of facts, were they so clearly revealed to a community of atheists, as to gain general belief, would not produce an extensive change of habits and character: whether the morals, and consequently the political condition of such a community would not be essentially improved? and whether the most powerful individual on earth, could, by any other means, render them a service, so important to their present happiness and tranquility, as by convincing them of these facts?
We next proceed to consider what motives to a virtuous life are furnished by those discoveries which are contained in the sacred scriptures. These writings render it certain, not merely, that death is not the end of man, but that man as a living agent, will have no end:-that all human actions, desires and emotions are reserved for future examination:that this examination will be public, attended with circumstances of the most awful solemnity;-and that consequent to the decision, then to be made, will be rewards and punishment, great in degree and endless in duration.
No person, without calling in question the first principles of human action, can doubt, that these discoveries impose on the