EXPLAINED AND DEFENDED,
SERIES OF SERMONS;
TIMOTHY DWIGHT, S. T. D. LL. D.
LATE PRESIDENT OF YALE COLLEGE.
THE LIFE OF THE AUTHOR.
IN FOUR VOLUMES.
HARPER AND BROTHERS, PUBLISHERS.
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DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT, ss.
BE it remembered, that on the fifth day of January, in the forty second year of the Independence of the United States of America, Timothy Dwight, and William T. Dwight, both of said District; Administrators of the Rev. Timothy Dwight, now deceased, and late of the said District, have deposited in this office the title of a book, the right whereof they claim as Administrators as aforesaid, and Proprietors, in the words following, to wit:
Theology; explained and defended, in a Series of Sermons; by Timothy Dwight, T. D., LL. D. late President of Yale college. With a Memoir of the Life the Author,. in five Volumes. Vol 4.’’
In conformity to the Act of the Congress of the United States, entitled, " An Act for the encouragement of learning, by securing the copies of Maps, Charts, and Books, to the authors arid proprietors of such copies, during the times therein mentioned."
R. I. INGERSOLL,
Clerk of the District of Connecticut.
A true copy of Record, examined and sealed by me.
Clerk of the District of Connecticut.
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THE ORDINARY MEANS OF GRACE.—THE OBJECTIONS TO PRAYER
Job xxi. 15.—What is the Almighty, that we should serve him; and what profit shall we have, if we pray unto him?
THE five first subjects, originally proposed as themes of discourse concerning the duty of prayer, have been examined at length in the four preceding Sermons. The sixth, viz. Objections against this duty, will now occupy our attention.
In the Text, a general objection is made against all obedience to God; and is professedly founded on his character. What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? There is nothing in the character of God, nor in our relation to him, which requires our obedience to his will. We are neither obliged by any duty, nor drawn by any interest, to his service. This impious sentiment is exhibited in the context as the sentiment of abandoned men only; and is plainly of a nature too impious to be uttered by any other. The following one, proceeding from the same mouth also, is with perfect propriety exhibited to us as resulting from the same spirit. Yet there are multitudes, who are far from deserving the character of profligacy, who yet say concerning God, What profit shall we have, if see pray to him? This objection, it will be observed, is an universal one. What profit shall see have? that is, we shall not be profited at all, either in our minds, or in our circumstances. We shall not be profited by the proper influence of prayer on ourselves, nor by its efficacy in procuring blessings from God. All objections against prayer may be justly regarded as being summed up in this single question.
It cannot, however, be expected, that on this occasion every objection, which an irreligious mind can devise against this duty, will be taken up, and refuted. Several such objections have been anticipated in the preceding discourses. Of such as remain, I shall examine those only, which may be supposed to have some real weight in the mind of a sober man. These, so far as I recollect them, respect the
Wisdom, of God; and
The supposed Vanity, and Presumption, of prayer
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I shall consider them in their order.
The two first of these subjects are commonly united in the scheme of the objector: and may, therefore, with propriety, be here considered together. If God be a changeable being; although he may have predetermined all things, yet he may be supposed to alter his plans in consequence of requests, presented to him by his Intelligent creatures; and may, therefore, be addressed as a changeable being. On the other hand, if God be immutable, and yet have formed no system of things in his own mind; he way, perhaps, constitute his designs, from time to time, with some degree of conformity to their supplications.
The first objection, which I shall mention, and which is derived from these sources, is usually stated in terms like the following.
"Prayer is fruitless, or in the language of the Text, unprofitable, because all things are determined from everlasting by an immutable God, and will, therefore, take place according to his determination. Hence our prayers, making no alteration in any thing, must be an idle, perhaps an impious, service: idle, because they can effect nothing; impious, because they are expressions of our desires for blessings, which God has not chosen to give. If God has determined to give us these blessings; we shall receive them without prayer. If he has determined not to give them, we shall not receive them, however fervently we may pray. So far then, as we pray for things, which God has determined to give, our prayers are useless. So far as we pray for those, which he has determined not to give, our prayers are directly opposed to his pleasure."
I have endeavoured to state this objection at full length, because I wish to present it with all the force, which it has, or can have, in the mind of the objector. To the several things, contained in it, I answer,
1. There cannot possibly be any impiety in prayer, offered up in the manner stated in these discourses.
The original definition, which I gave of prayer, and with which all the subsequent accounts of it have accorded, is that of the Westminster Assembly of Divines: That prayer is an offering up of our desires to God for things agreeable to his will. To desire that, and that only, which is agreeable to the will of God, cannot be impious. Evangelical prayer supposes in its very nature, that we ask either for those things for which the Scriptures have expressly permitted us to pray; or for those which we professedly submit to his will in our petitions. In this conduct, impiety cannot exist. On the contrary, no human being was ever the subject of piety, who did not pursue this conduct.
The objection is now reduced to a single article; vii. The fruitlessness of prayer; or its inefficacy to change the purposes of God, and therefore to procure blessings. To this I answer,
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2. This objection lies, with exactly the same force, against every other human effort, as against prayer.
If the predetermination and immutability of God render it improper for men to pray, because their prayers cannot change his purposes; then the same things must render it equally improper for men to plough, sow, reap, or make any other effort for any end whatever. All these, without the divine blessing, will be in vain; and can no more change the purpose of God, than prayer. With just the same propriety and force, may the farmer say, "It is in vain for me to plough, or sow, or reap: since, if God has determined to give me a crop, I shall have it without either of these efforts. On the contrary, if he has determined not to give me a crop ; I shall not have it, however faithfully I may labour, my ploughing, sowing, and reaping, therefore, must be all idle, because they will all be fruitless."
In the same manner may the Student say, "If God has determined that I should possess learning, I shall possess it without study: but if he has determined that I shall not possess learning, I shall not acquire it, although I study with ever so much dillgence."
In the same manner, may every man say concerning his exertions.
This reasoning, were we governed by it, would plainly put an end to all human exertions at once; and we should neither plough, nor build, nor collect food, or fuel; nor teach, nor study, nor make any other attempt to promote the good, either of ourselves or others. Conclusions, so evidently false as these, and so fraught with necessary mischief, cannot flow from sound principles. Safely, therefore, may we pronounce the proofs, by which they are professedly established, to be hollow and deceitful.
3. There is a radical, and gross, error in this objection; viz. that God has predetermined the end, and not the means.
This opinion is equally contradictory to the Scriptures, and to common sense. St. Paul, a little before his shipwreck, was informed by an Angel, that God had given him all them, that sailed with him. Yet afterwards, when the shipmen were about to flee out of the ship; when they had let down the boat into the sea; Paul said to the centurion, and the soldiers, except these abide in the ship ye cannot be saved. Acts xxvii. 22, 30, 31. The end here determined, was the preservation of the ship's company. The means, indispensable to this end, were the continuance of the seamen in the ship, and their exertions to bring it to land. These were predetermined equally with the end ; and were absolutely necessary to its existence. Equally necessary are ploughing and sowing, rain and sunshine, to the existence of a crop; studying, to the acquisition of knowledge ; and all other efforts of men, to the purposes, which they actually accomplish. All these are equally
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predetermined with the ends accomplished; and equally parts of the divine system.
Another error is involved, also, in the same objection; viz. that God bestows blessings upon mankind, which are not given in answer to prayer. Of such a determination there is not, and there cannot, be any evidence. The Scriptures decisively teach us, that the only condition of receiving is asking. Prayer, therefore, as means to the end, that is, the reception of blessings, is itself a part, and an inseparable part, of the predetermined plan of God. When any man considers how useful prayer is to form us into a fitness for the reception of blessings; he will easily discern one great and solid reason of this divine constitution of things.
There is no moral subject, concerning which mankind appear to have fallen into more, and greater, errors, than concerning this. The character of God, with respect to both these subjects, is undoubtedly far removed, in many particulars, above our Comprehension. In several others, it seems to be capable of a satisfactory illustration to a sober mind, not unwilling to be satisfied. Nothing is more certain, than that, if God ever was, is, or will be, the subject of any determinations, he must have formed them from eternity. In him there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of course, he can never be the subject of any new determinations. He can have no new ideas, thoughts, or views. All his works were known to him from the beginning. This is certain even to Reason; for all his works were contrived by him, and therefore were unquestionably known. Hence, no being, and no event, can be any thing, but what he contrived, and knew. As he is perfectly the same; as the being, and the event, in each case is, also, invariably the same, as when originally contemplated by him; whatever choice, or preference, he originally experienced, must for ever be his invariable choice, or preference. If, therefore, he did not originally determine, choose, or prefer, he certainly never will.
Further; The existence of God is one unvarying present existence; and his duration an eternal Now, without past, or future nearer in its nature to one indivisible moment of our existence, than to any thing else, which we experience, or know. He literally inhabits eternity, or fills it all at once ; just as he fills immensity at once, and not, successively, its several parts. When, therefore, we say, that God predetermined all things, it is as true, in the metaphysical sense, that he determines them after, as before, their existence. In strict truth, there is no proper comparison between our successive being, and the unchanging existence of God. One thing only is present to us at any present time. Every thing, and every time, is absolutely present to God. His creation and providence, together with all their beings and events, are always before his view, as a picture containing many images is present before ours. [ Bold face added for emphasis. Willison Ed. ]
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Every part of God's predetermination is founded on exactly the same reason with those, on which the same determination would be founded, if all beings and events had already existed; and God, in the possession of the same omniscience, should then survey them with a perfect discernment of their natures and relations, form his own determinations concerning them, and pronounce, with respect to every one, his unerring judgment. Of course, his predeterminations are exactly the same with such determinations, as would exist in his mind, after every thing had taken place; and are all exactly just, and right; such as perfect wisdom and goodness, understanding them entirely, would dictate, and approve.
Nor is the immutability of God at all more liable to objections. God from everlasting was exactly what all beings ought to wish him to be; possessed of every excellence in an infinite degree, and the subject of no imperfection either natural or moral. He knows, and ever knew, all things, both actual and possible. He can do all things; and is infinitely disposed to do every thing, and that only, which is absolutely right and good. Consequently there is nothing, there never has been, there never will be, anything, which, considered merely as a work of God, is not exactly right. In that vast kingdom, which fills immensity and eternity, there will never exist a single being, or event, which perfect wisdom and goodness could wish not to have existed. [ Bold face added for emphasis. Willison Ed. ]
Who can rationally desire a change in such a character as this? What would the change be? A change from perfection to imperfection; from knowledge to ignorance; from truth to falsehood; from justice to injustice; from kindness to cruelty; from universal excellence to universal turpitude. Perfection can be changed into nothing but imperfection. The immutability of God is indispensable to the glory of his character; and is itself a part of his perfection: for no mutable being can be perfect in the same sense with one who is immutable. Equally is it the corner-stone, on which the universe rests. Were this support taken away, the immense fabric would tumble into ruin. To his creatures there would be neither safety, nor hope: but immensity, and eternity would be filled with suspense, terror, and anguish.
Particularly, there would not, in this case, be the least foundation for encouragement in prayer. If all the determinations of God were not settled in heaven; who could divine what new decisions would exist? what new laws? what new systems of administration? Prayer, commanded to-day, might be forbidden to-morrow. Prayer, acceptable to him to-day, might be hateful to him to-morrow. The things, for which we now ask with certain assurance of being heard, might speedily be denied. He, who at one season did his duty, might, at another, by the very same conduct, be only exposed to punishment. Nothing in this case, could be known by creatures to be permanently agreeable to his will, and finally secure of a reward. The government of the universe
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would be a government of fickleness and caprice; and consequently more or less, and no finite being can conjecture how far, a government of oppression and cruelty. Think what would be the exertions and effects of Infinite knowledge and power, wielding the sceptre of the universe under the control of so dangerous a disposition. For aught that can be foreseen, the time might speedily, as well as easily, arrive, when under such a dominion, this vast empire might, in a moment of change, be reduced to a desert of ravage and ruin.
As things are actually ordered by God, every part of the system is established on immoveable foundations. Every Intelligent creature knows, therefore, or may know, on what he is absolutely to depend. If he is obedient, his obedience will always be acceptable to his Maker. The law, once established, will never be changed. Sooner shall Heaven and Earth pass away, than one jot, or tittle, of it shall pass, until all be fufilled. Every declaration of God is true: every promise will be exactly accomplished. Whatever sins, or backslidings, the children of God may have committed; his promise assures them of everlasting life. Whatever gross guilt, or impious rebellion, a Christian may have been the subject of, if they do not involve the sin against the Holy Ghost; still, if he exercises repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, he will be received in the end.
Of this unchangeable system, one great and glorious part is, that every humble, faithful prayer, shall he certainly heard, accepted, and answered. Not one ever was, or will be, offered up in vain. This scheme of things contains every possible encouragement to pray; and displays the absolute necessity, as well as the superior usefulness and efficacy, of prayer. Any other scheme would exceedingly lessen, or entirely destroy, both the encouragement, and the usefulness, of prayer.
So far, then, are the predetermination and immutability of God from preventing and discouraging prayer, that they hold out infinitely more and greater inducements to this duty, than can be furnished in any other manner.
I have dwelt the longer, and the more particularly, upon this objection, because I consider it as the fundamental one; and because I believe it to be, in some minds, regarded as possessing real weight, and attended by real difficulties.
2. It is also objected, that it is useless, and impertinent, to declare our wants to an omniscient Being, because he knows them already.
That God knows all our wants, that he knows them more perfectly than ourselves, and that he thus knew them from eternity, will, it is presumed, be universally admitted here. This knowledge must be attributed to God by every man, who believes the Scriptures, or considers him as the Author of all things. To give him, therefore, any information concerning ourselves, with a supposition that he needs thus to be informed, can never be the
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intention of a Christian suppliant; nor any part of a Christian prayer.
The true end of reciting our wants before God is, doubtless, far distant from any thing that is even glanced at in the objection. Unquestionably it is the same end with that, which we propose in confessing our sins; viz, the production of proper views in our own minds. It is to awaken in ourselves a strong sense of our feebleness, our guilt, our dependence on God for all good, and our indebtedness to him for every blessing which we receive. By such views, deeply impressed, we are more happily prepared for the reception of blessings, than we otherwise can be. We are rendered humble ; submissive ; affected with the greatness of our necessities, the importance of those supplies, which we ask, and the glory of that goodness, by which such wants of such beings are supplied. This state of mind is the happiest of all dispositions for the reception of mercies ; and is inwrought effectually in us, only by prayer. Unless man, therefore, has an interest in not acquiring this disposition, the objection is groundless.
3. It is further objected, that, as God is infinitely wise and good, whether we consider him as having predetermined all things, or not, his wisdom and goodness will prompt him to give us whatever is proper to be given, and to withhold whatever is not, equally with, and without, our prayers. Our prayers, therefore, must at the best be useless. "We cannot," says the objector, "prevent, change, or influence, the dictates of Infinite wisdom and goodness by our prayers. If we could; it would be wrong, and undesirable; and ought plainly neither to be done, nor wished."
All this is readily admitted: and, were the design, or the nature, of prayer such, as is here supposed, the impropriety of praying would, I presume, be also admitted. Certainly, it could never be a proper design, in any creature, to attempt a change in the dictates of Infinite wisdom and goodness.
But it may be very proper for infinite wisdom to bestow on a humble suppliant that, which it would very properly withhold from him, who refuses to pray. The question is not, here, concerning what infinite wisdom will, or will not, give; but concerning the persons, to whom it will give. Infinite wisdom may bestow all its favours on those, who are willing to ask for them; and not on those, who are unwilling: on those, who feel their dependence upon itself; not on those, who say in their conduct, What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? and what profit shall we have, if we pray unto him? on those who cheerfully, and implicitly, subject themselves to its dictates; not on those, who speculate ingeniously concerning them.
Finally; Infinite wisdom may with propriety communicate its blessings to those, who by such means, as are in their power, become prepared to receive them with a spirit of gratitude, reverence, and obedience; and may with equal propriety withhold them, at
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the same time, from such as are too proud, too indolent., too indifferent, or too worldly-minded, to regard them with serious attention, or to receive them with a grateful or reverential spirit. Until all this can be disproved, the objection will stand for nothing. But this can never be disproved. Reason declares it all as her own decision; and Revelation places it beyond a cavil, or a doubt. In the Scriptures we are taught expressly, that such is the real system of Infinite wisdom and goodness; and that blessings actually descend only as answers to prayer.
4. It is further objected, that to suppose our prayers sufficiently efficacious to procure blessings for ourselves, and especially for others, indicates vanity and presumption.
If we thought our prayers sufficiently meritorious, in the sight of God, to deserve such blessings, as are bestowed either on ourselves, or on others ; there would be some ground for this objection. But when we pray, as an act of obedience to his will, it is obviously unfounded. There can be neither presumption, not vanity, in believing that God is pleased with obedience, and that he will bless those who obey. God has commanded all men to pray to him. There is no presumption in believing this precept. He has declared, that faithful prayer is pleasing to him. There is no presumption in believing his declaration. He has promised to bless those who thus pray. Without presumption we may rely on his promise.
He has commanded us to pray for all men; and has promised to answer such prayers, when faithfully presented. In the Scriptures he has recorded numerous instances, in which he has actually answered such prayers by giving blessings to those, for whom they were asked. To obey this command, to confide in this promise, and to receive this testimony, is neither vain, nor presumptuous. The contrary conduct is chargeable with this criminality for the objector supposes, that God will give him blessings in a way directly opposed to that, in which alone he has encouraged men to expect them.
But further; does not God make one man the instrument of blessings to another; to many; to thousands; to millions; and that in an immense variety of ways? How does it appear, that the heart, the desires, the supplications, of a good man may not be the means of such blessings as truly, as properly, and as often, as his voice, or his hands? All these blessings come from God. Will not he, who seeth not as man seeth, but looketh on the heart, as willingly regard the virtuous efforts, of which he is there a witness, as those of the hands, or the tongue? How few blessings do we enjoy, in which others have not been more or less instrumental! For our daily food and raiment, nay, for our very being, we are indebted to those, who have lived in every age of time. In the same manner we are now reaping the benefits, flowing from the prayers of good men in all past ages. The salvation of every
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Christian is a direct answer to the prayer of Christ. John xvii. 21, 22.
These are all the material objections, usually made against prayer, as a duty of man: I mean, all which are customarily exhibited, as material, by the objectors themselves. If the observations, which have here been made in answer to them, have the same weight in the minds of others, as in my own; it will be seen, that they have no solid basis. Notwithstanding the speciousness which in the eyes of some individuals they have seemed to wear, the encouragements to this duty, mentioned in these discourses. stand altogether unassailed, and possessed of their whole strength. The objectors have conceived erroneously both of the nature, and design, of prayer: and misapprehended the proper influence of the several things, from which they derive their supposed difficulties.
Let every one of my audience, then, go fearlessly, and constantly, to the duty of prayer; and be perfectly assured, that if he prays faithfully, he will not pray in vain. Let him remember, that prayer is a duty, instituted by God; that he cannot but honour his own institution; and that he cannot but be pleased with those, by whom it is obeyed. To pray is to obey God; to please him; to honour him. Those, who honour him, he will honour; while those, who despise him, shall be lightly esteemed. He has set before you every motive to induce you to perform this duty; commands; examples, particularly that of Christ; promises; instances of the actual and wonderful efficacy of prayer; and the clearest testimonies of his own approbation. At the same time, while he has taught you, that no blessing is given but in answer to prayer, he has assured you also, that all good, temporal and eternal, descends as its proper answer from Heaven. Nothing has he left untried to persuade you to this duty.
With his good pleasure, all your own interests conspire in urging you to pray. Prayer will make you daily better, wiser, and lovelier in his sight, by cherishing in you those views and emotions, which constitute the character of a good man. It will sooth every tumult of your bosoms; allay your fears; comfort your sorrows; invigorate your hopes; give you peace in hand, and anticipate glory to come. It will restrain you from sin; strengthen you against temptation; recall you from wandering; give life and serenity to your consciences; furnish you with clearer views concerning your duty; alarm you concerning your danger; and inspire you with ardour, confidence, and delight, in the christian course.
In prayer, God will meet you, and commune with you face to face, as a man with his friend. He will lift upon you the light of his reconciled countenance; will put joy and gladness in your hearts; and will awaken in you the spirit of thanksgiving and the voice of melody. When you pass through the waters he will be with you
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and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you; when you walk through the fire, ,you shall not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle on you : for he is the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour. In an acceptable time he will hear you, and in a day of salvation will he help you. The mountains will, indeed, depart, and the hills be removed: but, if you seek him faithfully, his kindness shall not depart from you, nor his covenant of peace be removed. Seek, then, the Lord, while he may be found: Call ye upon him, while he is near. When you call, he will answer; and when you cry unto him, he will say, Here I am.