committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

THE SOVEREIGN DECREES OF GOD

SET IN A SCRIPTURAL LIGHT

AND

Vindicated against the Blasphemy contained in a late Paper, entitled,
On Traditionary Zeal.

In a LETTER to a FRIEND.

SHALL HE THAT CONTENDETH WITH THE ALMIGHTY, INSTRUCT HIM?
HE THAT REPROVETH GOD, LET HIM ANSWER IT!
JOB XL.2.

BOSTON:
Printed by J. KNEELAND, in Milk-Street, for PHILIP
FREEMAN, in Union-Street,
MDCCLXXIII

 

Beloved Friend,

Although we should endeavor to avoid all needless contention, yet the faith once delivered to the saints is sometimes treated in such a manner as to make it our incumbent duty earnestly and publicly to contend for it. Such a case I think is presented before us by means of a printed paper lately spread in Providence and towns adjacent which you have requested me to make some remarks upon. It begins in this manner.

On Traditionary Zeal. Some good Christian pastors will not scruple to tell you that they could find no joy in their own state, no strength or comfort in their labors of love towards their flocks, but because they know and are assured from St. Paul that God never had, nor ever will have, mercy upon all men; but that an unknown multitude of them are, through all ages of the world, inevitably decreed to the eternal fire and damnation of Hell; and that an unknown number of others are elected to a certain, irresistible salvation. Wonder not, my friends, if the inquisition has its pious defenders, for inquisition cruelty, and every barbarity that must have an end, is mere mercy if compared with this reprobation doctrine. And to be in love with it, to draw comfort from it, and to wish it Godspeed is a love that absolutely forbids the loving our neighbor as ourselves and makes the Scripture-wish, that all men might be saved, no less than a rebellion against God.

This writer's evident design is against the doctrine of particular election and efficacious grace in our salvation, and against those who preach it. And he takes the same method that the heathen persecutors did with the primitive Christians, viz., to cover them with skins of wild beasts in order that they might be devoured by dogs, or if not, yet that they might be hated and avoided by all men. He asserts that some Christian pastors tell their people such a story as he has here related. If he can find any man upon earth that teaches so, he is welcome to correct him as much as he deserves, but till he exhibits his proof he ought to be accounted a blasphemer of God's sovereignty and a false accuser of Christ's ministers, Yea, out of his own mouth he is condemned, for as short as his paper is he has not been able to keep to one consistent story, but the same preachers that he accuses of rejoicing that God never will have mercy upon all men, when he comes to give us their own language it is, "O, the sweetness of God's election!" And neither the Devil nor any of his children will ever be able to make a rejoicing in God's everlasting love to a chosen number to be the same thing as it would be to rejoice in the destruction of the rest.

            Our Lord says, Every one that doth evil hateth the light, but he that doth truth cometh to the light; and let the reader judge which of these characters suits the conduct of the writer before us. He casts out these horrid accusations against some good Christian pastors without naming any one while his evident aim is against all that profess a sweetness in sovereign election; at the same time (like the savages) he tries to keep himself and his principles hid. Though it fares with him as it did with the old enemies of the sure foundation which God has laid in Zion, whose bed was shorter than that a man could stretch himself upon it, and the covering narrower than that he could wrap himself in it, Isai. xxviii. For though by the title of his piece he would have people esteem him as a bold champion against tradition and a friend to Paul and the sacred writings, yet he does not so much as attempt to prove that sovereign decrees and irresistible grace are not fully taught by them. No, instead of confusing us or defending himself by the sacred oracles, he, like those who prophesied out of the deceit in their own hearts, first makes his address to men's passions and exerts all his art to bring up the horrid ideas of an inevitable decreeing of multitudes to hellfire, of cruelty vastly worse than the inquisition, of God's sacrificing of myriads of his creatures to the Devil, etc., and having done his utmost thus to raise a tempest in the souls of men, he winds up by asserting that "The only possible way of avoiding every prevailing error and of finding every saving truth is to listen, solemnly, attentively to listen, agreeable to the written word, to the still small voice within you."

            This is just like the old serpent who, with malicious reflections upon God's government and lying pretences of friendship to man, drew him into rebellion against God's revealed will and to gratify his own heart's lusts. Yet from that day to this, when the tempter thinks it will serve his turn, he is very ready to catch at some Scripture words, to entice people into violations of the truth which is therein taught.

            Let the pretended advocate for truth now before us mean what he will by the voice within, yet when he or any others are brought solemnly and attentively to listen either to reason, conscience, or the Spirit of God they will teach them that the way to avoid error and to find the truth in any case is not first to inflame our passions before our judgments are well informed. No, for a gift will blind the eyes of the wise and pervert the words of the righteous; therefore we must have our eye single or else our whole body will be full of darkness. Hence appears the necessity of the Holy Spirit to renew us in the spirit of our minds and to guide our souls into all truth.

            The grand contest ever since sin entered into the world has been between the will of the Creator and the will of the creature. But as it is too shocking for human nature to have it openly appear in that light, God's enemies in all ages have made lies their refuge and under falsehood have hid themselves. And in the controversy before us we may take notice of the following refuges of lies which the enemies of sovereign grace try to hide themselves in:

1. As the sacred writers often appealed to men's reason and conscience and exhorted the saints to regard the teachings of the Holy Spirit in their souls above all human authority on earth, deceivers of various denominations have caught at and perverted that sacred custom as a plea for setting up a standard in themselves to decide every case so as not to admit anything for truth that does not agree with their inward test. But it is well known in our nation that in order for us to enjoy our just rights and liberties rulers as well as subjects must be governed by known laws and established rules, and that for judges to assume a discretionary power to dispense with old laws or to make new ones as occasion served would introduce arbitrary government, or rather a cruel tyranny. And were not people deluded with the religious names and great swelling words of deceivers, all their attempts to set up a voice within which speaks in any respects contrary to God's written word would appear as arbitrary and tyrannical as any such proceedings of earthly judges can be. Those holy men whom God employed to write his Word had their authority so to do confirmed by divers miracles and gifts of the Holy Ghost, and woe to that man who presumes either to add to or take from those holy oracles.

2. The advocates for their own free will in opposition to sovereign grace have determined that the doctrine of fixed decrees in the divine mind concerning the future state of men is inconsistent with the liberty of their own wills and with the proper influence of precepts and promises, rewards and punishments. And, having quoted a number of precepts with considerations to enforce them (of which the Bible is full) they boast that they have gained their argument when in truth they have never touched the point in debate. We know and as firmly hold as any free willer on earth that all men are under moral government where precepts and promises, exhortations, warnings, etc. have their proper place and ought to influence us in all our conduct. And I believe from the bottom of my heart that God never did nor ever will punish any but the guilty, and that he will finally reward every man according to his works. But in the present controversy the true state of the question is this, viz., Whether the whole plan of God's government and the final issue of every action through the universe has not been known and fixed in his counsels from the beginning so that nothing can be put to it nor anything taken from it? Eccl. iii, 14. Or whether many events are not held in suspense and uncertainty in his infinite mind till they are decided by the free will power of men? We hold the first, they the last side of this question. But instead of attending to the true state of the controversy and instead of referring the decision of it to the divine oracles, tradition and corruption has carried them into the way which this writer pursues of representing our doctrine to be that God decrees some men to misery in the same manner that he does others to happiness. Yea, this slanderer, in imitation of those who have gone before him, sets reprobation foremost and would have people believe that we hold God's first design to be the damnation of multitudes and then secondly the irresistible salvation of a number! Hoping no doubt by these horrid colorings to guard people sufficiently against all the Gospel weapons which are appointed to pull down the strongholds that are raised against the knomledge of God and to cast down the imaginations which keep men's thoughts too high to yield their all to a meek and lowly Jesus, 2 Cor. x, 4, 5. Many in latter ages have carried their imaginations so high on this subject as,

3. To assume a dignity to themselves that they will not allow to the eternal God, for they claim a self-determining power in their own wills while they deny it to the Most High and insist upon it that his choice of some men to salvation rather than others is from either a foresight or aftersight of good dispositions and good doings in them more than others, so making that to be the cause of his choice which he declares is the effect of it and representing that God is influenced in his work by motives without himself at the same time that they hold to a power to determine all their own actions within themselves. Can any imagination ever be entertained more absurd or more contrary to Holy Writ than these are! See Matt. xi, 25-28; Rom. viii, 29, 30; Eph. i, 4, 5; 1 Pet. i, 2; 1 John iv, 19.

            The people we are now speaking of commonly deny the doctrine of man's universal depravity, but if to claim a sovereignty to their own will while they deny it to God does not prove them to be rebels against Heaven, I know not what can do it.

            Nebuchadnezzar made trial how it would do to ascribe all his achievements to himself, but after he had grazed among the beasts of the field till seven times had passed over him he declares that, "All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing (before the Most High) and he doth according to HIS WILL in the army of Heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay his hand or say unto him, what dost thou?" Dan. iv, 35. Thus it appears that the hearts of kings are in the hand of the Lord so that as rivers of water he turneth them whithersoever he will; i.e., to act voluntarily as he designs to have them. From whence it appears evident that there is no inconsistency in holding God's decrees to be immutable and yet that men act as voluntarily as if it were not so. And the great reasoners on the other side cannot avoid this consequence if they would once own that the will of man is always determined in its choice by motive or by what they at present prefer and think to be best, for that person must be stupid indeed who cannot see that HE in whom we live, move, and have our being can at any time set things in such a view before our minds as to make us think it best to choose one way of acting rather than another. Though Balaam was so madly set after the wages of unrighteousness that he would not be turned even by the reproof of a dumb ass, yet when the Lord opened his eyes to see the angel with a drawn sword before him he at once chose to fall to the earth or to turn back rather than run upon it, Num. xxii, 31, etc. In order therefore to keep up their conceit that fixed decrees interfere with men's liberty some of their great doctors have,

4. Tried to shelter themselves in such a miserable refuge as to pretend that they have a power in their wills to act with motive or against motive just as the will pleases. But I suppose it is as great a piece of nonsense in itself to hold that a rational soul can act voluntarily in any case without or against motive, as it would be to say there can be a rational action without any influence of reason in it! Thus professing themselves to be wise they become fools, for as Mr. Locke truly observes, even delirious persons are influenced by reason only they reason from wrong premises. As when such a man imagines that he is all made of glass he is moved to act with the caution that would be necessary if the case were so. And the like may be said of other imaginations. And persons must be idiots and not reason at all or else reason and motive will always influence their choice and conduct. Evil imaginations and thoughts always move men to act wickedly, Gen. vi, 5 and viii, 21. But when any are brought to know the truth it makes them free, free from sin, so as to become servants of righteousness, John viii, 31; Rom. vi, 18.

            Hence it appears evident that they and not we would exclude the usefulness of means, for if the liberty of man lay in acting against motive or with motive just as they pleased, where could there be any proper use for means? For the very design of Gospel means, is to turn souls from evil, to follow that which is good; and if their liberty consisted in not being moved and governed by means and motives, there would be no sense in using of them; but like smoke and vapor men must be justify to act just that way the wind happens to blow. In short, the main objections I ever heard against sovereign election and certain salvation by free grace alone appear to me to spring from this root, viz., Man who was flattered with the notion of being as gods still conceits that he has a power in himself to do as he pleases let that pleasure be to comply with or to disappoint God's designs; and therefore if they are not disposed at present to engage in his service that he must wait their leisure, and be ready, whenever they set about the work in good earnest to grant them the assistance of his grace and, if they improve it well unto the end, then to receive them to his glory. But for my part I have no more notion of worshipping a deity that can possibly be mistaken or disappointed in any one event than I have of worshipping Baal, who could not defend either his altar or grove when his votaries were asleep, Judges vi, 31.

            Those who are determined to believe nothing but what they can comprehend are determined to be idolators, for 'tis certain that anything which can be comprehended by a finite mind cannot be the infinite Jehovah whose wisdom, knowledge, and judgments are unsearchable and his ways past finding out; of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; to whom be glory forever, amen, Rom. xi, 33-36. Thus to believe, adore, and obey is not, as many would have it a sacrificing of reason to tradition and blind devotion but the contrary. As, for instance, should any man conceit that he could not know whether or not there was light in the sun or warmth in the fire without looking through the one and running into the other and should try the experiment till he became blind and burnt, he could not from thence convince me that I had lost both my sight and feeling because I still professed to enjoy great comfort in the cautious improvement of those blessings. Now the perfections of the deity are compared both to the sun and the fire to teach us the importance of receiving his grace freely, of acting towards him uprightly, and serving of him with reverence and Godly fear, Psal. Ixxxiv, 11; Heb. xii, 28, 29.

            Some serious persons are afraid to give in to the doctrine of immutable decrees lest they should make God the author of sin, but Mr. Norton, one of the fathers of this country, justly replied to this objection that sin is a defect and God is the author of all efficiency but not of any defect at all. An illegitimate child is the creature of God, but its illegitimacy is wholly from its parents, It was their lusts which caused the defect or want of its being lawfully begotten. Yet the child is God's creature, and if he please he makes it a subject of his grace. The heat of the sun that attacks the secret virtues of the earth, is not the cause of the stink of the dunghill. And though carnal reasoners try to persuade people that to hold every event to be certain in the divine councils takes away the guilt of evil actions, and the virtue of good ones, yet the word of truth abundantly shows the contrary. It shows that Joseph's brethren were as verily guilty in their actings against him as if they could have frustrated God's design, and yet that he over-ruled their wrath and cruelty towards their brother, for his own praise, Psal. lxxvi, 10, and to make Joseph much more of a public and extensive blessing than they could have made him in Canaan if they had tried their uttermost for it. At the same time the sacred story clearly shows that they acted quite voluntarily, both in their wretched abuses to their brother, and in humbly prostrating themselves before him afterward. They acted by motive; when they first saw Joseph coming to them, they felt so that they thought they would slay him: But upon another view murder appeared so shocking that they thought it best to gratify themselves another way, which moved them to choose that way. On the other hand, when Joseph was tempted by his wicked mistress, though men were absent, yet God to whom he was under infinite obligation, was present to his thoughts, and that proved a sufficient motive to make him choose any suffering rather than to sin against such a glorious being.

            The inquiry and pursuit of all men is after good, and the believer finds it only in God, who is good and is always doing good, and this causes his soul to be in earnest to learn his statutes, Psal. iv, 6, 7 and cxix, 68. Others do not like to retain the true God in their knowledge; neither his nature nor his government appear good to their carnal minds. Therefore they worship and serve the creature instead of the Creator, setting up gain, honor, or pleasure as their chief good. Yet to appear nakedly irreligious is too shocking to multitudes who at the same time are very far from desiring to set the Lord always before them, so as to be influenced by him in all their conduct. Therefore they choose their idol shepherds that will prophesy smooth things to them rather than faithful watchmen who represent the true character of the Holy One of Israel before them, Isai. xxx, 8-11; Zech. xi, 17.

            A darling topic with the carnal reasoners of our world is this, they say that either men are able to obey and serve God or else, if they cannot do it, they are not to blame for neglecting of it until God is pleased to convert them. But the truth is, the natural man cannot serve God because he does love and serve an idol. And the soul before it is slain by the law, cannot be married to Christ because it is wedded to its own doings, Matt. vi, 24; Rom. vii. Yet this inability is so far from being any just excuse that the more unable they are to love God or to believe in Christ the greater is their condemnation, John iii, 16-19. And it is a most wicked device in the writer of the paper now in hand to use the word inevitable concerning the reprobate and irresistible concerning the elect in such a manner as to exclude the idea of their own choice; whereas the vessels of wrath say, We WILL walk after our own devices, and EVERYONE that doth evil HATETH THE LIGHT, Jer. xviii, 12; John iii, 20. And vessels of mercy pursue the same ways till God works in them to will and to do of his good pleasure, Phil. ii, 13; Tit. iii, 3-5. Therefore though the final event is as certain to the one as the other, yet the manner of its accomplishment is vastly different. The vessels of wrath, after their hard and impenitent heart, treasure up wrath TO THEMSELVES, while God endureth with much long suffering with them. But he makes known the riches of his glory in effectually calling the vessels of mercy which he had afore prepared unto glory, Rom. ii, 5 and ix, 22-24. And renewed souls are so far from assuming to themselves a power to be God's counselors or venturing to act upon secret things which belong to him that where he has told them of his designs concerning any future event they have not made the design of the great Ruler but the laws he has given to his subjects the rule of their conduct; and the difference between subjects and rebels is discovered by this. As, for instance, God let David know that he designed to remove Saul and to make him king in his stead. Yet David refused to smite Saul when he had opportunity but justify it with God to remove him in his own way, 1 Sam. xxiv, 12, l3. Whereas when the Jews heard Caiphas' prophecy concerning the death of Jesus from that day forth, they took counsel together for to put him to death, John xi, 49, 53. And God's accomplishing his infallible decrees in that great event, while the Jews were inexcusably guilty in their actings about it, are strongly asserted by the inspired apostle. Him, being delivered by the DETERMINATE COUNSEL and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken and by WICKED HANDS have crucified and slain, Acts ii, 23.

            They acted most wickedly in conspiring against our Savior who was perfectly holy and harmless, and constantly went about doing good. Yet God's purposes and promises were thereby exactly accomplished in bestowing infinite and eternal mercies upon guilty and miserable men. Pharaoh used great subtlety and cruelty in order to keep Israel in bondage and set up his will at the highest rate against releasing of them. Yet God in his providence caused things to appear so to him and his subjects that they voluntarily furnished Israel with silver and gold, and Egypt was glad when they departed, Psal cv, 37, 38, and that on the selfsame day which God had told Abraham of above four hundred years before, Exod. xii, 41.

            These and many other instances of men's voluntary actions the Lord declared with a perfect exactness before they came to pass, because he knew that with a brazen obstinacy and wilful treachery they would rather give this glory to their idol than to him, Isai. xlviii, 3-8. But the firm faith of the saints in every age in the certain accomplishment of God's promises has made them the more watchful and active in the rational choice and use of the best means that he furnished them with for attaining the desired end. Jacob wrestled and prevailed with God yet that did not make him neglect means but he wisely improved the best that he had in his power to calm his angry brother, and it had the desired effect. Paul believed God that the lives of all those who were with him in ship should be saved, yet when the men who were skilled in managing the ship were about to leave it he said to the centurion and to the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship ye CANNOT be saved, Acts xxvii, 25, 31. Here was a certainty of the event, and yet it is expressed conditionally, while both were true. It was true that all should be saved, and it was as true that the mariners must be instrumental of it.

            Thus my dear friend, I have endeavored in as plain and brief a manner as I could, in the little time I had for it, opened and vindicated the great Scripture doctrine of God's sovereign decrees against a malicious attempt which has been made to villify the same. It may well seem surprising to those who are acquainted with the seventeenth article of the Church of England to hear that a minister who has solemnly engaged to maintain the truth therein expressed, should have a great hand in spreading this blasphemous paper which is diametrically contrary thereto, as has evidently been the case. But I leave him and all others in the hand of a righteous and gracious God, and rest,

Yours, etc.

ISAAC BACKUS

 
 
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