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OF THE FIRST PERIOD OF CHRISTIANITY.
The Wisdom and Goodness of God conspicuous in the Period assigned for Christ's Appearance; illustrated by a summary View of the State of Mankind before and at the Time of his Birth.
WHEN the first man had fallen from the happiness and perfection of his creation, had rendered himself corrupt and miserable, and was only capable of transmitting depravity and misery to his posterity; the goodness of God immediately revealed a remedy, adequate to his distressed situation. The Lord Jesus was promised under the character of the seed of the woman, as the great deliverer who should repair the breach of sin, and retrieve the ruin of human nature. From that hour, he became the object of faith, and the author of salvation, to every soul that aspired to communion with God, and earnestly sought deliverance from guilt and wrath. This discovery of a Saviour was, in the first ages, veiled under types and shadows; and, like the advancing day, became brighter and brighter, as the time of his manifestation drew near: but it was always sufficient to sustain the hopes, and to purify the hearts, of the true worshippers of God. That the patriarchs and prophets of old were in this
sense Christians, that is to say, that their joy and trust centred in the promised Messiah, and that the faith, whereby they overcame the world, was the same faith in the same Lord with ours, is unanswerably proved by St. Paul in several passages ;* particularly in Heb. xi. where he at large insists on the characters of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, to illustrate this very point.
At length, in the fulness of time † (as the apostle speaks), the time marked out by the ancient prophecies, the time to which all the previous dispensations of Divine Providence had an express reference and subordination, and which was peculiarly suited to place the manifold wisdom of God and the truths of divine revelation in the clearest light; the long-expected Messiah appeared, as the surety and Saviour of sinners, to accomplish the great work of redemption. For these purposes he was born of a virgin, of the family of David, at the town of Bethlehem, as the prophets had foretold. This great event took place in the 27th year of the reign of Augustus Cæsar (computing from the battle of Actium); and, according to the most received authorities, almost 1920 years from the calling of Abraham, and about 4000 from the creation.
The pride and vanity of man, which prompt him to cavil with his Maker, and to dispute when he ought to obey, have often objected to the expedience and propriety of this appointment. It has been asked, if Christ's appearance was so absolutely necessary, why was it so long deferred? or, if mankind could do without him for so many thousand years, why not longer, or for ever? In attempting a solution of this difficulty, some well-meaning per
* Rom. iv.; Gal. iii. 16, 17. + Gal. iv. 4,
sons, from a too earnest desire to render the counsels of God more acceptable to the narrow apprehensions of unsanctified reason, have given up the ground they ought to have maintained, and made such concessions, as (if extended to their just con sequence) would amount to all that the most hardened infidel can desire. The most direct and proper answer is suggested by St. Paul on a similar occasion,* "Who art thou, O man, that repliest against God?" That the will and wisdom of the Creator should direct and limit the inquiries of his rational creatures, is a principle highly consonant to right reason itself. reason itself. And there can hardly be a stronger proof of human depravity, than that this argument is so generally esteemed inconclusive. But waving this, a sufficient answer may be made, from the premises already advanced.
God was not a debtor to sinful men. He might have left them all to perish (as he left the sinning angels), without the least impeachment of his goodness. But his mercy interposed, and he spared not his own Son, that sinners might be saved in a way consistent with his perfections. But though, in compassion to us, he provided the means of salvation; we cannot wonder, that, in justice to himself, he laid the plan in such a manner as might most clearly illustrate the riches of his own grace, and most effectually humble and silence the pardoned offenders; to prevent their boasting and
* Rom. ix. 20. It is observable in this passage, that the apostle foresees and states the great objection which would be made to his doctrine; but does not attempt to answer it any farther, than by referring all to the will of him who formed the whole mass, and has a right to dispose of it. Had succeeding writers and teachers imitated his example, declared the plain truth in plain words, and avoided vain and endless reasonings, how many offences would have been prevented!
trusting in themselves, and to give them the most affecting views of his unmerited goodness. We may, therefore, humbly conceive one reason, why Christ was no sooner manifested in the flesh, to have been, that the nature, effects, and inveteracy of sin might be more evidently known; and the insufficiency of every other means of relief demonstrated, by the universal experience of many ages.
What is the history of mankind, but a diffusive exemplification of the Scripture doctrines, concerning the dreadful nature and effects of sin, and the desperate wickedness of the heart of man! We are accustomed from our infancy to call evil good, and good evil. We acquire an early prejudice in favour of heroes, conquerors, and philosophers. But if we consider the facts recorded in the annals of antiquity, divested of the false glare and studied ornaments with which the vanity of writers has disguised them, they will afford but a dark and melancholy review. The spirit of the first-born Cain appears to have influenced the whole human race: the peace of nations, cities, and families, has been continually disturbed by the bitter effects of ambition, avarice, revenge, cruelty, and lust. The general knowledge of God was soon lost out of the world; and, when his fear was set aside, the restraints, dictated by the interests of civil society, were always too weak to prevent the most horrid evils. In a word, the character of all ages and countries before the coming of Christ (a few excepted, where the light of revelation was afforded) is strongly, though briefly drawn by St. Paul :*"Foolish" and infatuated to the highest degree, "disobedient" to the plainest dictates of nature,
* Titus, iii. 3.
reason, and conscience, "enslaved* to divers" dishonourable "lusts and pleasures, living in malice and "envy, hateful" and abominable in themselves, and incessantly "hating" and worrying "one another."
It would be more easy than pleasant to make out this charge by a long induction of particulars. And, without having recourse to the most savage and uncultivated, the proof might be rested on the character of the two most celebrated and civilized nations, and at the time of their greatest refinement, the Greeks and the Romans. St. Paul has given us the result of their boasted improvements† in arts and sciences, in war and commerce, in philosophy and literature; and he says no more than is abundantly confirmed by their own poets and historians. Notwithstanding the marks and fruits of fine taste and exalted genius which were found amongst them, they were habitually abandoned to the grossest vices. Devoted to the most stupid idolatry," they worshipped the works of their own hands; nay, erected altars to their follies and passions. Their moral characters were answerable to their principles. "Without natural affection," they frequently exposed their helpless infants to perish. They burned with "lusts" not to be named without horror; and this not the meaner sort only, or in secret, but some of their finest spirits and most admired writers were sunk so low
"Enslaved." So the original term may be emphatically rendered; at the control of various and opposite passions, hurried about by them all in their turns, and incapable of resisting or refusing the motions of any.
+ Rom. i. from v. 21. to the end. An affecting comment on this passage might be collected from Horace, Juvenal, Sallust, and Suetonius.
See Virgil. Eclog. ii.