Mal_1:6. A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear? saith the Lord of hosts.
THE unfolding and enforcing of relative duties, is a very essential branch of the Christian ministry; and conducive, in a variety of views, to the most important ends. If indeed the whole of religion were made to consist in the performance of those duties, or if men were urged to perform them in their own strength, or with a hope of meriting God’s favour, then the foundations of Christianity would be sapped, and the whole fabric would fall to ruin. But, if they be set forth in order to shew to the ungodly their transgressions, and their consequent need of mercy; or if they be inculcated on the believer in order that he may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour; no subject can be more weighty, or more deserving of our attention. But there is yet another view, in which the consideration of them may subserve the best of purposes. Men, however disposed they may be to limit the extent of their own duties, are easily led to acknowledge the obligations of others towards themselves. Hence, there being always a number of persons interested in discovering their own rights, and disposed to insist upon them; and every person having risen, or hoping to rise, from a subordinate relation to one invested with authority; the duties of every distinct relation are ascertained and approved. This is not the case with respect to the duties of men towards God. The authority there is all on one side, and obedience is wholly on the other. Hence all men feeling the same desire to limit and curtail the rights of their Governor, and to extend the boundaries of their own liberty, the laws of God are almost entirely superseded: disobedience to them is universally connived at, as though it were no evil; and the general welfare of society is made the ground and measure of all morality. Here then the relative duties may be introduced to great advantage; these being already admitted, serve as acknowledged principles, from whence we may argue; and the application of them to the duties of the first table is obvious and irresistible. This use of them God himself has taught us, as in many other passages, so especially in that before us; in illustrating which we shall propose for your consideration the following observations:
There is no duty of earthly dependents towards their superiors, which does not exist in an infinitely higher degree towards the Governor of the universe.
However attentive men are to fill up their duties in domestic life, they are universally prone to neglect their duties towards God.
The performance of duties towards men, instead of extenuating, as many suppose, the guilt of neglecting God, is in reality a great aggravation of it.
There is no duty of earthly dependents towards their superiors, which does not exist in an infinitely higher degree towards the Governor of the universe.
Reason, no less than Revelation, teaches us that a child owes subjection to his parent, and a servant to his master: nor is there any one so depraved as to controvert this general position, however indisposed he may be to act conformably to it in his own particular situation. What the laws of nature inculcate in the one case, is established by a particular compact in the other: and an habitual infringement of it is considered as a subversion of social order, and an inlet to universal anarchy. Still however there are limits, beyond which no human authority extends: and, when these are exceeded, resistance, rather than obedience, is our duty. But God’s claim to honour and obedience knows no bounds. He is, in some sense, the Father of our bodies, which could not exist without his creating hand: but in a more eminent manner is he “the Father of our spirits;” because he forms them without the intervention of human agency, and endues them with powers which matter could not generate. Being the Creator of all, he is also, of necessity, the Lord of all; to whom every faculty and every power should be consecrated. The honour which we pay to parents is but a faint shadow of that reverence with which we are to approach him, and of that profound respect, which we are to entertain for his person and character, his word and will. The obedience which we yield to earthly superiors, relates chiefly to outward acts: but God has a right to controul our inmost thoughts. We are to believe every thing he says, because he says it; to love every thing he does, because he does it; and to execute every thing he enjoins, because he commands it. We not only may, but must, inquire into the injunctions of men, whether they be right in themselves, and whether a compliance with them be agreeable to the mind and will of God? But there is no room for such questions respecting any of the commands of God. If God say, “Abraham, take now thy son, thine only son, Isaac, whom thou lovest, and offer him up; slay him with thine own hand, and consume him to ashes;” there is no room for deliberation: Abraham has no right to gainsay the decree of heaven; he is not at liberty to offer any objections: it is sufficient for him to know what the will of his Maker is; and then he must perform it instantly, without reluctance. Had the command been given by an earthly superior, there had been ample ground for hesitation, for expostulation, for disobedience: no parental, no magisterial authority should be regarded in such a case. But against a Divine command there never can be any ground for the exercise of carnal reason: a prompt, a steady, a determined acquiescence on our part, is our truest wisdom, and our bounden duty. Our obedience however is not to be that of a slave to an imperious and cruel master, but like that of a dutiful child to an affectionate and beloved parent. We ourselves consider the mind and disposition with which we are served, as affecting very materially the acceptableness of the service itself. That which is done for us grudgingly, and through mere constraint, is of very little value in our eyes: it is the willing, cheerful obedience that engages our esteem, and endears to us the persons actuated by such a spirit. Similar to this is the service which God requires. He justly expects that we should be like “the angels, hearkening to the voice of his word,” and waiting for the slightest intimations of his will, in order to execute it with all possible readiness and despatch. We should come into his presence with the confidence of beloved children: we should ask from time to time, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” We should set about the duties of our calling as regularly as the most diligent servant prosecutes his accustomed labours: we should never think any thing done, as long as there remains any thing to be done. If an arduous service occur, we should not draw back from it, like the Rich Youth in the Gospel; but should rather address ourselves to it with increased energy, and regard it as a favourable opportunity of displaying our zeal and love. If we could be freed from his yoke, we should decline the proffered liberty, and, like the servant under the law, request that our ear might be fastened to the door-post, in token that we account his service to be perfect freedom, and that it is our desire to continue in it to the latest hour of our lives. We should find our reward in our work, and our happiness in honouring and enjoying God. We may indeed without impropriety “have respect also to the recompence of the reward,” which we shall receive in another world: but our principal incentives should be of a more disinterested and ingenuous nature: we should perform the will of God, because we love the very things which he prescribes; and because it is our highest ambition to please and glorify him.
But truth compels us to observe,
That however attentive men are to fill up their duties in domestic life, they are universally prone to neglect their duties towards God.
Amidst all the depravity which has deluged the world, there may be found, in many instances, a conscientious regard to relative duties. If some have reason to complain of disobedient children and unfaithful servants, others can testify, that the persons so related to them are deserving of the highest commendations on account of their fidelity and affection. Even where spiritual religion is overlooked and despised, this attention to relative duties frequently obtains. A good natural disposition, united with a sense of honour, and a regard to interest, will often produce habits, which may provoke to emulation those, who profess to be actuated by the sublimer principles of the Gospel.
But where, except among the despised followers of Jesus, shall we find those who fulfil their duties to God? That many are punctual in some outward observances, is readily acknowledged. But we shall do well to remark, that the inquiry in my text does not relate to outward actions so much as to the inward dispositions of the mind; “If I be a father, where is my honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear? saith the Lord of Hosts.” Let our attention then be directed to this point: let us, in our self-examination, keep this in view. Has there been in our hearts an habitual fear of offending God? Has there been a holy reverential awe upon our minds whenever we have entered into his presence? Has there been an unwearied solicitude to please him, and a determination, through grace, to prove ourselves faithful to him in all things? Have we sought carefully to know his will; and then set ourselves diligently to perform it? Have we been afraid of wasting his time in vain unprofitable pursuits, and endeavoured to lay out to advantage the talents he has committed to our care? Have we, together with the fidelity of a servant, combined the love and confidence of a child? Have we entered into his presence with joy, and made known our requests with a humble yet thankful assurance, that he would hear and answer our petitions? Have we cast our care upon him, not doubting but that he would care for us, and order every thing for our good? Have we, at the same time, taken an interest in every thing that relates to him? Have we been filled with grief and indignation, when we have beheld the contempt poured upon him by an ungodly world? And has it been a source of lively joy, if at any time we have heard his name exalted and his glory extolled? If we have felt towards him as duteous children, we must have considered ourselves as having a communion of interests with him; and must have participated in all these emotions, which the advancement or declension of his cause are suited to inspire.
Let us examine in this manner the conduct both of ourselves and others, and then answer, if we can, that pointed interrogation, “Where is mine honour?” Blind and partial as we are, we cannot be so blind or so partial, as not to confess, that, however attentive men may be to their relative duties, they are not mindful of their duty to God. There is doubtless a considerable difference between some and others: some have respect for religion, while others despise it; and some endeavour in a self-righteous way to please God, while others care not how much they provoke him to anger. But, as to the dispositions of a faithful servant and a dutiful child, there is not a person in the universe who feels them, except the few who have “entered in at the strait gate, and are walking in the narrow path” of evangelical obedience. All others prefer their own ease to God’s service, their own will to God’s precepts, their own interests to God’s honour.
And what shall we say to these things? Shall we leave men to imagine that their punctuality in some duties will atone for their remissness in others? No: we must rather say, (what indeed we proposed as the third head of our discourse,)
That the performance of duties towards men, instead of extenuating, as many suppose, the guilt of neglecting God, is in reality a great aggravation of it.
In one view indeed it must certainly be allowed, that the fewer laws any man transgresses, the less guilt he contracts: and that therefore he who obeys, though imperfectly and exclusively, the injunctions of the second table, is better than he who lives in the unrestrained violation of all the commandments. Nevertheless it is certain that obedience in some cases may be a great aggravation of our disobedience in others; inasmuch as it may argue a preference given to the creature above the Creator, and may therefore excite the fiercer indignation of a jealous God. More especially if the duties of the second table be exalted to the neglect of those of the first table, and obedience to the latter be pleaded as excusing our transgressions of the former, then our partiality becomes an awful aggravation of our guilt. For, what is this, but to raise altar against altar, to set God at variance with himself, and to “provoke to jealousy” the Holy One of Israel? We can scarcely conceive any thing worse than such conduct as this. For, shall God be denied the honour which is paid to man? Shall he alone be treated with contemptuous neglect? Shall he be excluded from the minds of those whom he created and upholds? Shall all the wonders of redeeming love be requited in no better way than this? Shall we refuse to him the homage which we exact from our fellow-creatures, and which we even pay to those who are authorized to receive it? Would not God be justly indignant, if he were only placed on a footing of equality with men? How much more then, when he is degraded so far below them! Surely every mercy be has ever vouchsafed to us, but especially the gift of his dear Son, will dreadfully enhance our guilt and condemnation, if our obligations to him do not operate to produce in us a reverential honour of him as our Father, and an unrivalled obedience to him as our Lord and Master.
This mode of arguing is very common in the Scriptures. God is pleased frequently to suggest the relation subsisting between himself and his people with the same view as in the passage before us. Sometimes he does it to raise our expectations from him; and at other times to shew the reasonableness of his expectations from us. In the former view he says, “Which of you, if his child should ask for bread, would give him a stone? How much more then will your heavenly Father give good things to them that ask him!” In the latter view he says, “We have had fathers of our flesh who corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?” Precisely thus does he speak in the text; with this only difference; that the conclusion drawn from his statement is not merely an appeal to our reason, but a reproof for our misconduct. The interrogations are extremely pointed: they intimate a mind justly incensed: they express the highest indignation against us for refusing to our Maker what we concede to our fellow-worms: “A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if I then be a father, where is mine honour? if I be a master, where is my fear? saith the Lord of Hosts.”
We shall more easily enter into this idea, if we suppose a child or servant of our own fulfilling his duties with some considerable care to others, but violating all which he owed to us. If his attention to others were adduced in vindication of his neglect of us, should we not argue in the very same way that Jehovah does in the text? Should we be satisfied with his serving others, when he withheld his services from us? Should we not insist upon our superior title to his regards? Should we not represent the violations of his duty to us as more heinous, in proportion to the right which was vested in us by virtue of our relation to him? When he told us of what he did for others, should we not say, “But where is my honour? where is my fear?” Should we not consider his conduct as in the highest degree insolent and contemptuous, when we ourselves, who had an exclusive, or at least a superior, claim to his affection, were particularly selected as objects of his neglect? There can be no doubt: and therefore we may be well assured, that the very pleas which we are apt to urge in extenuation of our guilt, will one day be adduced as the greatest aggravations of it.
Permit me now to ask a question or two, in reference to the foregoing subject. Supposing that God should now call us to account, as certainly he will ere long, and ask, What proofs we have given of our allegiance to him? What proofs have we to adduce? Can we appeal to the heart-searching God, that we have indeed respected his authority, that we have habitually conducted ourselves towards him as faithful servants and obedient children? Let us examine well our own hearts: let us not be hasty to conclude that all is well: it is easy to deceive ourselves; but we cannot possibly deceive God. Every act of our lives has been registered in the book of his remembrance; and we shall be judged, not by the partial verdict of our own self-love, but by the unerring testimony of truth itself. And if it be proved that our allegiance to God amounted to no more than “saying, Lord! Lord! without doing the things which he commanded,” our Judge will pronounce upon us that awful sentence, “Depart from me; I never knew you, ye workers of iniquity!”
We cannot however conclude this subject, without suggesting some consolatory considerations—
To those who are conscious of having neglected God.
Our God and Father does not instantly disinherit the rebellious child, or exclude for ever the disobedient servant: Onesimus may yet return, through the mediation of his heavenly Sponsor; and the Prodigal may yet be feasted on the fatted calf. Only let us confess our sins, and turn to God with humiliation and contrition; and we shall soon find, that “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness.” Let us, like the penitents under the law, lay our hands upon the head of our Great Sacrifice, and transfer our guilt to Him, who taketh away the sins of the world. Then shall we have no cause to fear the displeasure of an angry God: our iniquities shall be forgiven, and our sins be covered: and though unworthy in ourselves to obtain the smallest mercy, we shall be dealt with, not as servants merely, but as sons, and be made partakers of an everlasting inheritance.