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No. 1. Vol. XIV.)
[WHOLE No. 157.
BY REV. EBENEZER PORTER, D. D.
PRESIDENT OF THE THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, ANDOVER.
Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to
his flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the spirit, shall of the spirit reap life everlasting. GALATIANS, 6:7, 8.
The figure contained in these words is a perfectly familiar one, derived from the art of husbandry. The apostle refers to that standing law of the vegetable creation by which “like produces like.” “A fig-tree does not bear olive berries, nor a vine figs ;' nor does any tiller of the ground sow tares in his field when he hopes for a harvest of wheat. The same principle is here applied to the moral world, illustrating the connection between human actions and their results. To an important extent we see this connection running through the present life. If we know what are the precepts and examples of a parent, we estimate, with a good degree of exactness, their probable influence on his children. If he sows in the mind of his son the seeds of licentiousness and contempt of religion, we expect that son to become a reprobate in character. If he trains him up in the way in which he should go, we expect him not to depart from that way. On this principle the best maxims of education have always been founded ; and experience has authorized us to tell the young, that the habits they now form will give complexion to their whole character, and that the prospects of manhood can be estimated only by the promise of early life.
But the principle is far more extensive in its application to our eternal interests. The single duty which Paul had in his eye he designedly enforced by an illustration that extends to every other duty, "He that soweth to the flesh,"—that is, governs his conduct solely by his own sinful inclinations, and limits his views only to the VOL. XIV.
present life, “shall reap corruption.” He will find death to be the wages of sin. But "he that soweth to the spirit,"—that devotes his talents, time, property,—all that he has, to God,—in obedience to the dictates of his Spirit,—“shall reap life everlasting.”
The practical truth intended to be taught in the text, is, that the present actions of men bear a relation to their eternal condition, analagous to that which seed sown in a field bears to the harvest that is to spring from it.
I design in this discourse to consider the present life as a slale of PROBATION for eternity.
In doing this I shall inquire what this state of probation implies ; how it is adapted to the condition of man; and when it terminates in respect to individuals.
1. What does this probation imply?
Certainly it is not the same in all respects as that in which Adam was placed. This was a trial under mere law,- limited indeed to one positive prohibition in its language, but including an obligation to universal Obedience. Had that obedience been perfect, Adam would have been justified, as the holy angels were, on the ground of his own personal righteousness. By disobedience he incurred the penalty of death.
To us the standard of duty is the same as to Adam; but our condition as transgressors is different from that of any other moral beings. Holy angels were on trial under law, and were justified on the ground of a perfect obedience. Sinful angels transgressed, and were condemned to chains of darkness. Man transgressed, and was placed in a state of reprieve, betwixt acquittal and condemnation. A plan of mercy was devised to put him on a new state of trial, with all the unchangeable obligations of the law resting on him, and the superadded obligations of the Gospel; and in this state of respite from death the offer of salvation is made to him anew on the terms of repentance and faith. Thus all sinners under the Gospel are placed between acquittal and execution; the sword of justice is lifted over them, but the blow is suspended, while the voice of mercy cries, “Fly to the strongholds, ye prisoners of hope.”
II. Our second inquiry is, how this probation is adapted to the condition of man?
Its great design is to form his character, as a moral and accountable being, for eternity; and it is calculated, in the best manner, to accomplish this design.
Man is placed here under just such a system of instruction and discipline as he needs. To be prepared for eternity he must knoue his present character, his obligations, and the connection between his actions here and his final condition. The book of providence is open, to teach him that he is a sinner. Every thing around him shows that this world is under the curse of its Maker. The ground brings forth “ thorns and thistles," as the fruit of man's apostacy; so that “in the sweat of his face he eats bread, till he returns to the dust," Sickness racks his body; bereavement agonizes his heart; the fairest dawn of his earthly hopes is often overcast with disappointment and sorrow.
The book of conscience unites in the same testimony that he is a sinner; and the book of revelation not only confirms all this instruction, but sheds a light from heaven on many things all-important for man to know, which he could never learn from unassisted reason. It teaches him what the Lord his God requires of him as a moral agent, and what as a sinner ; why he is under condemnation; how he may escape, and on what conditions he may be pardoned and admitted to heaven. This instruction is just what he needs as a candidate for eternity.
The state of probation is adapted to his case, also, as it implies all the powers of moral agency which he needs. A servant on trial for the approbation of his master, would be treated unjustly if required to remove mountains as the proof of his strength. A racer, if his limbs were tied, could have no fair trial for winning the prize. So man, if God required impossibilities of him, and placed the terms of acceptance beyond his reach, could not be considered as in a state of probation.
Moral obligation belongs only to intelligent and voluntary beings with capacities to do their duty. The laws that govern matter are not adapted to minds. Mere force may govern machines : gravitation keeps the planets in their orbits; but moral agents are governed by moral law, and are accountable no farther than they have capacities to understand and do their duty. The winds blow, and the rivers run in their channels, and the planets shine in their stations; but none of these, like man, are on trial for a retribution. placed also in a world of motives ; motives adapted to our state as beings on trial for eternity.
God our Maker requires us to love him supremely. In language of authority he forbids us to sin. In language of warning, he assures us that “he is angry with the wicked every day.” In language of entreaty he pleads with us, “Turn ye, for why will ye die ?" He has hedged up the way of transgression with restraints. We live and act, knowing that he is a witness of all that we do. Every step we take, every word we speak, every thought we cherish, is observed by him with the scrutiny of that eye which is as a flame of fire. In the deepest recesses of secresy, in the darkest shades of night, that eye looks upon us. In the act of yielding to temptation, as we are lifting the hand to commit sin, he whispers in the admonition of conscience, “do not this abominable thing which I hate;" and if we refuse to listen, he peals in our ear a louder note of remonstrance from the wailings of despair.
He appeals to our hearts besides, by a class of motives drawn from all that is persuasive in the tenderness of infinite love. The gift of his Son to be our Redeemer combines all these inotives in one view, and invests them with a moral power which nothing but obduracy itself can resist. Here a bleeding Saviour pleads
with us, by the agonies of his own cross. Angels have lent their aid in proclaiming “glad tidings of great joy” to men. To enforce the motives of the Gospel, prophets and apostles have labored, and martyrs have shed their blood. The Spirit strives ;sickness and attiictions warn-the death-bed and the grave point to a coming judgment, and echo the admonition,-arise and depart, for this is not your rest."
In all these respects, the circumstances of the present life are adapted to the condition of man, as an immortal being, and a sinner, on trial for eternity.
III. This leads me briefly to consider the last inquiry, When this probation terminates, in respect to individuals ?
The Bible, to which alone we must look for light on this subject, assures us that probation ends at death. All the representations of the final judgment imply this. Then "every one shall receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done." Men will enter on eternal enjoyments or sufferings, according to the character formed in this world. The rich man in the parable. was told that in his “life time he had received all his good things," and that a great gulf was fixed between him and happiness; but from the righteous, after death, “God shall wipe away all tears."
All the representations of death as terrible in its consequences to the wicked, imply that it closes the state of trial. “When a wicked man dieth, his expectation shall perish.” But how so, if he is still encouraged to expect and hope for another period of probation? “The wicked is driven away in his wickedness, but the righteous hath hope in his death.” If there were a second state of probation, the wicked would have hope in his death. In that case life would not be the only day of preparatory action, and death “the night in which no man can work;"-nor would it be necessary, on that account, for each to do with his might " whatsoever his hand findeth to do."
I have chosen this subject with a view to the serious, practical reflections which it suggests.
My first reflection is, that they who make this world their supreme object in living, utterly mistake the great purpose of life. For what is this purpose? Nothing less than to secure the happiness of the soul for ever in the favor of God. It is a preparatory state, bearing the same relation to eternity that seed-time bears to harvest. All the satisfaction, all the advantage of the husbandman in casting his seed into the ground, lies in the expectation of what he is to reap. Planting is nothing and sowing is nothing but lost labor, aside from the crop that is to be produced by all this pains. So men judge and act in common concerns; and while they sweat and toil in their daily business, always regard some object beyond the present moment to be gained. So they should judge and act in the concerns of their souls, remembering that there is a harvest at the end of the world, when "he that has sown to the flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption.” So
they should judge and act, as knowing that their everlasting condition hereafter depends on their actions here.
Let me ask now, to what extent men do judge and act in this manner? Just look at the pursuits, the amusements, the plans of education and business, most prevalent among careless men, and you will see in all these, if I'mistake not, very little ultimate regard to God and eternity. Men of this description rise in the inorning without thinking of God. They eat their food without thinking of God. They pass through the day and lie down to rest at night without thinking of God. They look forward and lay their plans of business for years to come,-plans involving the dearest interests of themselves and families,—and yet, perhaps, “God is not in all their thoughts." Thus they live "without God," or as the apostle most emphatically says, atheists in the world. But these principles of action are not limited altogether to such men; to some extent (I do not say how far) they prevail also among those who bear the christian name, and have influence in the christian church. Temporal industry, you say, is an important duty. Children must be trained up to act a part among men, and earn their own living, as it is called. Be it so: all that should by no means be forgotten in this forming age. But then, christian parents, are you not too apt to forget, or at least to act as though you had forgotten, the far more important point, that this life is only preparatory to another? On the Sabbath, and occasionally at other times, the child is told, perhaps, that he is born for eternity; but through the week, how is it? Are not the conversation, the habits, the grand current of moral influence on him such as to make the impression that he is born for time? He is told that he must“ get a living” in much the same manner as though this were the chief end of life. He is educated as an intellectual being, to shine in a profession, to gain property, to acquire an influence, to act a part,-for time. But God sees that all that is wrong.
When that child was born, God said to the parent—“Take this child and nurse it for me.' Let him be trained to act his part in time, but so as not to forget that time is only the threshold of eternity; that he is immortal, and must live when all the nations are dead, the earth is burnt up, and the heavens are no more.
Only let this one principle be settled, that this life is but a season of discipline for eternity, and then see how impious are the maxims of worldly men; and how frivolous the objects from which they hope for happiness to themselves and families ! Look at the round of fashion, and ceremony, and gayety, the wealth, and pleasure, and splendor in which they glory; how utterly worthless are these when viewed in relation to their whole existence! One fact stamps the character of all the objects in which they delight, that not one of these can be carried with them beyond the grave. Death separates them at a stroke from all the pleasures of sense ;—from all their offices and honors, their posses