"But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are."
In the preceding discourse we took a summary view of the means used of God to propagate the gospel, and of the opposition made to its propagation.
We are now to consider the wisdom of God in the choice of means to this end; which will bring up to our view some of the objections which have been made against the truth of the gospel.
That the gospel is from God, and the means used to propagate it of his appointment, are from sundry considerations, apparent -- particularly from the miracles wrought by Christ and by his disciples, who went forth in his name. Conclusive was the reasoning of Nicodemus -- "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him." God, who is perfect in wisdom, would choose no improper or unsuitable means. Their wisdom might not at first appear to men. It did not at first appear. The world cried folly and weakness. But "The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men."
In God's hand any means are sufficient to effect his designs. The rod of Moses, when stretched out by divine order, availed to bring all those plaques on Egypt, by which God made himself known and feared. When Israel left that land, it availed to open them a passage through the sea; and afterwards to bring back its waters to the destruction of their enemies.
Could we see no fitness in divine appointments, we should remember that "we are of yesterday and know nothing," and not dare to arraign divine wisdom, or charge folly on God. But in the case before us, his wisdom is in many respects discernable, as will appear from a consideration of some of the objections which are made against the gospel, and against the means appointed of God to propagate it.
One of the objections is taken from the supposed unsuitableness of the means. Considered in itself this made an objection. It is said the all-wise God would not have appointed them -- that to appoint a company of poor, despised, ignorant fishermen, as prime ministers of a religion, is sufficient to prove that it is not from God, who always useth the best means and most suitable instruments.
It is not strange that this should have been objected at the beginning of the gospel story, before any effects of the apostles labors appeared. It is a natural objection for the, proud, who thought themselves the best judges of wisdom and propriety, to have made at that day. But it comes with an ill grace from modern infidels, who cannot deny that Christianity triumphed over the power and learning of the world combined against it, though such means only were used to propagate it -- such weak instruments employed in it. Naaman, the Syrian, reasoned at first like one of these objectors, but the success which attended the prophets directions convinced him of his error. Why has not the same the like effect on these? Surely, "had this counsel been of men, it would have come to nought." Under the circumstances in which Christianity made its appearance, it would have been easily overthrown; but the power of the world could not overthrow it, or prevent it from spreading far and wide. It continued -- it prospered -- and every opposing system fell before it. Means and instruments which human wisdom would have judged most suitable, could have done no more. The success of measures in a contest like this, proves their fitness.
Under this head it is further objected that the first ministers of the gospel were ignorant of the arts and sciences cultivated by the polished nations of the age -- that therefore, they were despised, especially by the Greeks. Despised they might be by those who "professed themselves wise had become fools." Yet they had all the knowledge which their work required imparted to them from above. The language of the schools would have been ill adapted to the simplicity of the gospel. It would have been unintelligible to many of those to whom the gospel was sent. The gospel offers salvation to the unlearned, equally as to the learned -- should be expressed, therefore, in language easy to be understood. Had the apostles and evangelists used the abstruse language of the schoolmen, to many they would have spoken in an unknown tongue. Had the scriptures been written in such language, they would have been much more obscure than they now are.
Though the gospel is plainly written, it may be rendered dark and mysterious, by a metaphysic dress, It is a peculiar excellency of the scriptures that they are mostly written in the plain language of common sense -- so plainly, that "he may run who readeth them."
Two of the New Testament writers were men of letters, Paul and Luke; and we find more obscurity in their writings, especially those of the former occasioned by allusions to the sciences and usages of the age, than in the other writers of that holy book. The Apocalypse is indeed abstruse, but this is not occasioned by the language, which is plain, but by the subject. That book is chiefly prophetic; and therefore expressed in the metaphors of prophetic style. Prophecy is not generally designed to be fully understood, till explained by the accomplishment.
To take occasion from those who might object to the illiterate character of primitive gospel ministers, a Paul, and a Luke were found among them; but neither of them was among those first called to the Christian ministry. Those first sent forth to preach the gospel were unlearned men. The great truths of the gospel had been taught, and many had received them before these (especially St. Paul) had become believers -- that the faith of the first followers of Christ, might appear, "not to stand in the wisdom of men, but in power of God."
Had the primitive ministry been learned philosophers, or renowned rhetoricians, suspicions might have arisen that mankind had been deceived, that they had been bewildered by the subtlety of science, or charmed by the fascinating power of eloquence, into the belief of a scheme which they did not understand. This cannot be suspected when the character of the first Christian ministers is considered, and the progress which Had been made in propagating the gospel, before any of the learned were joined as their assistants in the work.
The propriety of the gospel method, may be farther argued from the nature of the gospel. Wisdom of words is not necessary to communicate gospel truths, or deep penetration, sufficiently to understand them. It was a remark of the apostle "that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, were called." The same observation may yet be made. People of plain common sense more often receive the gospel, and favor the things of true religion, than those who affect superior powers, and to understand all mysteries. Those who are wise in their own imaginations, often reject the counsel of God against themselves, and put from them offered salvation. The manner in which the apostles and their fellow laborers preached the gospel, hath also been objected to as unwise. Their preaching was chiefly a plain unaffected exhibition of truth, laid before those who heard them, and left with them. To produce faith in Christ, they declared the time, place and circumstances of his birth, referring to the prophecies which foretold them -- declared the concurring testimonies of angels and inspired persons, who gave witness for him -- exhibited sketches of his life -- his teaching -- his miracles -- declared his prediction of his own death, with the manner, time, and place -- also of his resurrection on the third day, and the fulfillment of those predictions. They referred to his foretelling Peter's fall and recovery; Judas' treachery and end, with the events which followed -- they referred also to Christ's teaching and miracles -- to those which attended his sufferings and resurrection -- they adduced the evidence which they had of his death and resurrection -- declared the opportunities which they had with him after his passion -- the instructions they received from him -- the orders which he gave them, and his ascension from the mount of Olives, of which they were witnesses, "confirming their words with signs following."
To persuade men to receive and obey the gospel, they declared the consequences to those who received, and to those who rejected it -- that the same Jesus who had died on the cross, was appointed by the Father, "to be the Judge of quick and dead -- that he would come again in like manner as he had gone away -- that all mankind must appear before his judgment seat to give an account of themselves, and receive the deeds done in the body," that those who flee for refuge to the hope of the gospel, will find mercy, and be made forever happy with God, but those who neglect the gospel will be sent away into everlasting punishment.
Such interesting truths, those ministers of Christ laid before mankind, and left with them for their consideration. But they used no rhetoric to impress them. Neither did they appeal to the passions of their hearers; in which they followed the pattern set them by their Lord, who "did not strive, nor cry, nor cause any man to hear his voice in the streets." With only a fair statement of those truths, accompanied with the offer of "mercy and grace to help in time of need," they left mankind to choose for themselves and abide the consequences.
This some have thought an improper manner of calling men into the kingdom of Christ; that had been more pathetic in their addresses, and more argumentative in their applications, they would have labored with more effect; that this plain and simple method is unworthy of God, and, not likely to be from him.
If we consider the nature and design of Christianity, such objections will have little weight. It is not the design of heaven to compel men to obey the gospel, or to drive them to an unwilling submission to Christ. If an exhibition of gospel truth and beauty, and the consequences of receiving or rejecting its overtures, are discarded; if men refuse, by these means to be persuaded, they are left, and the consequences follow. To People of sober sense, this method appears rational. It is not probable that those who are not thus prevailed with to embrace the gospel, would in any other way be made Christians indeed. People who are frightened into religion seldom persevere. Neither do those whose passions are so inflamed that they appear, for a time, in ecstasies. When their passions subside, they grow cool, and their religion dies. If the great truths of religion, laid before men, as was done by Christ and his apostles, do not avail to render them rationally and sincerely religious, little value is to be put on those heats of imagination, which produce temporary raptures, and set some on fire in religion. Such ardent love doth not abide; it soon cools, and commonly leaves those who had been the subjects of it no better than it found them, and but too often much worse.
But while some object to the simplicity of the gospel, and to the plain language and address of the primitive ministry, others are offended at the mysteries in the Christian system. Who can understand some things contained in what is called a revelation? And what valuable ends can be answered by a revelation which is unintelligible? say these objectors.
But, those points in the Christian scheme which are too deep for human comprehension, do not relate to practice. All required, in relation to them, is an assent to their truth, on the credit of God's word. This is neither difficult nor unreasonable.
Perhaps with only human powers, it may be impossible to comprehend those subjects which are left mysterious in divine revelation; but are they incredible if God hath declared them? Few would be the articles of our creed, did we admit the belief of nothing which we do not understand. We carry mysteries in ourselves. We are compounded of soul and body, but who explain the connexion; tell us the essence of either the one or the other, or define the principles on which the soul commands the body? We are lost in ourselves, and in all the objects which surround us.
Whatever God hath declared, we are bound to believe because he hath declared it; and whatever he hath enjoined, we are bound to do because he hath enjoined it, though the reasons of his injunctions may not be revealed. God is under no obligations to explain matters to us. "God is greater than man. Why dost thou strive with him? He giveth not account of his matters."
Others object because the Gospel is not sent to all nations. That God should be supposed to communicate to some, and not to others they allege to be unreasonable and sufficient to destroy its credit; especially, as the book which claims to be a revelation teacheth that "there it no respect of persons with God."
That God makes his creatures to differ respecting talents and advantages, is a truth not to be denied. Those who on this account, object to the truth of the gospel, will not deny it. If God makes differences respecting every thing else, why not respecting religion? Where is the injustice or impropriety of trying some with gospel advantages; others only with the light of nature? If requirements vary with betrustments, none have reason to complain; and that this is the case is plainly the language of revelation.*
With equal reason might the hand of God in creation be denied, because different grades are found among creatures, and some have greatly the advantage over others; and in providence because its distributions are unequal. That these inequalities are observable, and that they are the work of God, will be acknowledged by all who believe the being of a God, and his providential government. If any are disposed to call these in question, we turn from them. To reason with them would be in vain. "That which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse."
* Vid. Discourse on Romans, ii.11.
A scoffing age may cry out against Christianity. To some it may be a "stumbling block; to others foolishness." Men may exclaim against the gospel, and against the doctrines and duties of it, and the means which have been used of God to propagate it. Still "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." So it hath been in times past; so it will be in times to come. The foolish, the weak and base things of the world, have confounded and brought to nought, all the world termed wise, and great, and mighty.
Imperial Rome at the summit of her greatness, could not crush the cause of him who died on Calvary! "Had this counsel or work been of men, it would have come to nought." Probably the name of Jesus, would long ere now have perished from the earth. But all his enemies could do nothing effectually against him. They could only do what God's counsel had determined to be done.
Christianity hath still its enemies; of the same character with those of old. They have overthrown the faith of some. Others they may seduce. That "scoffers should arise, in the last days walking after their own lusts; that some should deny the Lord that bought them, and that many should follow their pernicious ways," were foretold by an inspired apostle, and "they turned to us for a testimony."
We are called a Christian people. "If we believe the gospel, happy are we if we obey it." The generality profess to believe it. But how is it received? Do not many neglect it? Do not some who assent to its truth, "go their way to their farms, or their merchandize," regardless of it, neither confessing Christ before men, nor seeking an interest in him?
If the gospel is from God, to such neglecters Of the grace it offers, it must be "a favor of death unto death!" And is not their number great? Doth it not increase from year to year, from age to age? To these who are taken up with sensual pleasures, and with minding only earthly things, St. Paul would say "even weeping you are enemies to the cross of Christ, and your end will be destruction."
Let us be persuaded to bring home these considerations to ourselves. We are deeply interested in them. "The secrets of our hearts will ere long be judged by the gospel of Christ." To those who will not receive and obey the gospel, we have only to say, "Notwithstanding, be ye sure of this, that the Kingdom of God is come nigh unto you."