" -- Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both wilt bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts; and then shall everyman have praise of God."
St. Paul having professed himself a minister of Christ, and steward of the mysteries of God, acknowledged the obligations of fidelity, and disclaimed anxious concern respecting the opinion entertained of him by his fellow men, because the Lord was his judge, here adds a caution, reprehensive of the censorious spirit of the Corinthians, who seem to have listened to his enemies, and given into their suspicions of the apostle. Therefore judge nothing before the time --
In the text we observe a caution against rash judging the characters of men -- a declaration that they will be known when the Lord comes -- and that some things commendable will then be found in all -- then shall every man have praise of God. We observe --
I. A caution against rash judging the characters of men -- judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come.
Civil judges may give judgment according to law and evidence, on those brought before them for trial -- so may the church on those arraigned at her tribunal. These are necessary to the subsistence of civil and ecclesiastical communities; therefore ordered of God. It is another species of judging which is here forbidden; judging the characters of men, especially such as profess Godliness, and appear to act sincerely; pretending to determine their moral state, before the motives which actuate them are disclosed. This is judging before the time, and without evidence on which to ground a judgment; which the wise man observes to be folly and a shame to him who doth it.
This had been done at Corinth, by the enemies of the apostle; and hath been done by others in every age. There have ever been people who have dared to scatter their censorious decisions at random, according to the prevalence of humor, caprice, or prejudice; often to the wounding of the faithful; and rending of the body of Christ.
This occasions temporary mischief; but the day is coming when all those disorders will be rectified. The censurer, and the censured, will stand at the same bar, and be tried by the same Judge. Every wrong judgment will then be reversed, and every injurious suspicion be removed. For,
II. Every man's character will be known when the Lord comes -- who will bring to light the hidden sufferings of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts.
Many things necessary to determine the moral characters of men are hidden from mortal eyes. We are ignorant of the counsels of the hearts -- do not know their purposes and views. Without this knowledge, right judgment cannot be formed.
Our knowledge of ourselves is imperfect. For self knowledge we have advantages which we have not for the knowledge of others. We can turn inward, and contemplate the motives which govern, and the views which actuate us. But pride, passion, prejudice, or the corrupt bias, operating in ways unperceived, often blinds the mental eye, and renders us strangers at home. "Whoso trusteth his own heart is a fool. -- The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?" It requires great attention to form a just judgment of ourselves -- yea, to attain that self knowledge which is necessary for us. With regard to the knowledge of others, the difficulty is still greater. We can neither see the heart, nor know the thoughts and designs.
We are often at a loss for the motives which occasion things which fall under our observation. Other things which might cast light upon them, are hidden from us. But when the Lord cometh, the veil spread over secret matters will be removed. "There is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed, or hid that shall not be known." The Lord will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts.
How hearts will be opened to view, we know not. Perhaps when the veil of flesh is removed, minds may possess an intuitive knowledge of each other -- be able to look into one another, as while in the body, they look into themselves. Here, this is mercifully prevented; but may be no longer necessary in another state of existence. It may be requisite, to that investigation of characters which we are taught to expect at Christ's coming. For it is the language of the text, and other Scriptures, that every impediment to the complete knowledge of each other, will then be done away; that no person's character will longer remain problematical. The hidden works of darkness will be brought to light, and the counsels of the hearts made manifest.
Astonishing scenes of wickedness will then, no doubt, be disclosed. Probably each one will discover things in himself which he had not suspected -- depravity, unfairness, disingenuity, the bare suspicion of which by others, would be resented as affrontive.
When the prophet forewarned Hazael of the cruelties which he would exercise when he should be king of Syria, his nature seemed to revolt -- he could not suspect himself capable of such enormities. "But what! is thy servant a dog?" But all was verified when he had ascended the throne!
But though a world of hidden iniquity will appear when the counsels of the hearts shall be made manifest. Good things will also be opened to view which had till that day been concealed -- yea,
III. Some things commendable will be found in all, Then shall every man have praise of God.
All are sinners. "There is none good but one, that is God." Some "are sinners exceedingly." Some will continue such till they shall have time no longer -- die as they have lived, and be sentenced to "have their part in the lake of fire -- which is the second death."
But though numbers of this description will be found when the Lord comes, it is presumed that there will be none among them in whom there wilt be nothing commendable -- who will never have done a praise worthy action.
When "every work is brought into judgment and every secret thing, whether it be good or evil," every thing commendable which hath been done by the wicked, will come into the reckoning. Nothing will be overlooked, because done by sinners. The prejudices inherent in mankind often render them blind to what is commendable in an enemy, and cause them to magnify his failings; but not so the Deity. God is perfect. "The way of man will he render unto him," whatever may be his general character.
The saints are not equal in virtue and the attainments of grace. Therefore the differences which will be made among them. When they shall stand before the Judge, their whole probation, with all its circumstances, will be reviewed, and every praise worthy purpose, desire and action will be considered and rewarded. On the other hand, every neglect of duty and every deviation from it will come into the account and make deduction from the weight of glory reserved for them.
And among the enemies of God, some will be found greater sinners than others -- to have sinned longer -- against greater lights, and to have been guilty of more and greater crimes. To such will be reserved the greater weight of woe. In order to these discriminations their whole probation will be considered. And in those on whom sentence of condemnation will pass, the righteous judge will take due notice of every pause which they shall have made in the ways of sin -- of every instance in which they may have denied themselves, out of regard to the divine authority, though it may have been out of fear of God's judgments, and of every act of kindness done by them, to a fellow creature. Every thing of this nature, will be considered, and make some deduction from the punishment which would otherwise have been inflicted on them. The judge will pass nothing of this kind unnoticed, condemning the sinner to the same degree of suffering, as though it had not been found upon him. A cup of cold water given to a disciple of Christ, will not lose its reward. *
* Matthew x.42.
"Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him he did many things, and heard him gladly." Herod's punishment will not be, in every respect, the same, as though he had paid no attention to John's teaching. He will not be punished for refusing to hear John, when he did hear him or for refusing to do, what he did do, in compliance with his counsel: Though he will be condemned as, eventually the murderer of that holy man. His partial obedience might be extorted by fear; but this is preferable to disobedience; otherwise fear would not be urged as a motive to obedience. "Fear him who is able to destroy soul and body in hell." If preferable to disobedience, a difference will be made between those who obey from no higher principle, and those who disobey.
Here God certainly makes a difference between them. When Rehoboam humbled himself in the time of his affliction, "the wrath of the Lord turned from him that he would not destroy him: And also in Judah things went well." But his repentance was not unto life. The character given him at his death is that of a wicked man.
When Ahab, affrighted by the preaching of Elijah, as he was going to take possession of the vineyard of murdered Naboth, "humbled himself and walked softly:" God signified his approbation of his legal repentance and partial amendment, in preference to his former course; though he afterwards cut him off in his sins.
These are unequivocal evidences that partial obedience, though dictated by the servile principle of fear, is preferable, in divine estimation, to allowed disobedience. God makes a difference in his treatment of people here, on this account: suspends his judgments, and mitigates somewhat of their severity, where he sees this kind of relenting in sinners. If God doth this here, is there not reason to believe that he will do it hereafter: The rules of divine administration are doubtless uniform in time and eternity. Where he gives a comparative preference here, he will do the same hereafter. So we observe our Savior noting things commendable in some who did not belong to his kingdom. When the young ruler who came to inquire what he should do to inherit eternal life, declared that he had kept the commandments from his youth up, he was viewed with comparative approbation. -- "Then Jesus beholding him, loved him." It is not conceivable that his partial conformity to the divine law had not made him to differ from those who had allowedly disregarded it -- that his character was as bad as theirs -- though he soon made it evident that the one thing needful was not found upon him. *
* Mark x.17, &c.
Some suppose that the unrenewed can do nothing but sin against God with all their might -- that every purpose of their hearts is necessarily enmity against him, and all their volitions and actions determined opposition to his law and government: But we conceive that neither Scripture, nor experience justify the supposition -- that were such their state, they would be in no degree, the subjects of moral government, and would not be addressed of God as moral agents.
Were mankind wholly given up of God, and his Spirit withdrawn from them, such might become their state; but this is not the case. The Holy Spirit strives with them. They are empowered to resist the Spirit, or cherish its influences. This is manifest from the divine exhortations addressed to them, and from their conduct. Sometimes they pause in the way to destruction -- listen to counsels and warnings -- do things which God requires, and deny themselves gratifications which are in their power, because God hath forbidden and threatened to punish them. The person is not to be found who hath not a witness in himself that this is the case.
Should we affirm that none, who are in a state of nature, can be influenced by sense of duty to deny themselves, or attempt obedience to God's law, it might give occasion to false hopes. Those, the general course of whose lives is opposition to God, sure that they sometimes deny themselves, and like Herod, do things enjoined from above, might flatter themselves that they were children of God, while belonging to another family, and that they should have peace, when there was no peace to them. Yet when the Lord cometh, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and make manifest the counsels of the hearts, every man shall have praise of God.
God will overlook nothing commendable which may have been done by the vilest of the human race, while on probation; and some things commendable will be found in the most degenerated; though in many, the good will be found so low as to leave them on the whole, the servants of sin, and consequently to take their portion among the workers of iniquity.
I. The day is coming which will scatter the darkness or the present state. Here many things confound us. "We see but we understand not." We wonder sometimes at what God orders, and oftener at what be permits. The time approaches in which all these mysteries will be cleared up. We shall perceive wisdom and goodness in all the divine administration. Our wonder at providential regulations will terminate.
Now we often wonder at things done by our fellow men -- are unable to discover the motives which actuate them -- perhaps frequently mistake them. But this uncertainty will not be perpetual. The veil spread over these things will be removed when the hidden things of darkness are brought to light and the counsels of the hearts made manifest. Then, every hidden purpose will be laid open, and every secret counsel disclosed.
II. Vain are the attempts of mankind to conceal their crimes, or disguise their characters. For a time they may hide their nefarious views, and pass themselves for other manner of persons than they are; but it is only a temporary matter; all are hastening to an omniscient tribunal which will open every heart and life to general inspection. Every one will then be made to stand out, as he is to public view! "Some men's sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after. Likewise also the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid." Hitherto there are secret sins, and mistaken characters; but ere long there will be neither. "Every man's work shall be made manifest, for the day shall declare it."
What folly then is hypocrisy? Every one would despise the delinquent, who, while passing to trial should impose on his fellows with protestations of innocence, when he knew the judge acquainted with his guilt, and that he would soon disclose it, and open it to public view. Such is the part acted by those who endeavor to hide their true characters while making their way to the bar of God.
III. These considerations, speak comfort to the righteous, and terror to the wicked. The sincerity of the former will ere long be made manifest. All the injurious charges brought against them, will appear to be injurious, and they will he cleared of every aspersion. Their integrity will be displayed, and they will have praise of God. Nothing they shall have done or suffered, out of regard to God will be forgotten or go unrewarded. Yea, their desires and purposes to honor him here, though ability or opportunity to carry them into effect might not be allowed them, will be proclaimed and rewarded. "God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love" -- "David did well that it was in his heart to build an house to God's name" -- therefore the divine promise "to build him an house and establish the throne of his kingdom forever."
But the wicked who may have passed through life under the shades of darkness, been mistaken, perhaps, for the righteous, will rise at the great day, "to shame, and everlasting contempt." Their sins will then find them out. For "God's eyes art on the ways of man, and he seeth all his goings. There is no darkness, nor shadow of death, where the workers of iniquity may hide themselves." And all are written in God's book, and reserved to judgment; when he "will give to every one, according to his works. Woe unto the wicked, it shall be ill with him, for the reward of his hands shall be given him." This will be enough to make miserable. There needs no more than the withdrawing of mercy, and leaving justice to take its course. This will be the portion of those who neglect offered salvation. But,
IV. Sinners who have, at all, denied themselves, out of regard to the divine authority, or done aught which God required, though ever so partially, will not loose the benefit of it. Proportioned to its nature, and the degree of rectitude found in it, it will deduct from the punishment which the want of it would have occasioned. The condemned will stand speechless before the judge -- have no reason to offer why judgment should not be executed upon them. By the clear manifestation of their guilt, and the impartial justice of God, they will be constrained to acknowledge the perfect fairness and equity, yea, the moral necessity of the sentence by which the last gleam of their hope will be extinguished!
Thus will both the mercies and judgments of God be justified of all, when he shall bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts.