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SERMON X XII.
THE NATURAL AND MORAL POWER OF MEN IN RES
PECT TO THE DIVINE DECREES.
Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship
ye cannot be saved. - Acts, xxvii. 31.
The history of Paul's voyage to Italy is one of the most affecting and instructive narratives in the word of God. It displays his power, wisdom, and goodness, in governing the winds and waves, and the hearts and hands of men, in the most trying and distressing circumstances. Paul set out in company with nearly three hundred persons, for a dangerous voyage, in a dangerous season of the year, and in direct opposition to his own opinion and advice. These ominous circumstances undoubtedly spread a gloom over the whole company, and made them leave the last sight of land with heavy hearts. Though the weather was in their favor at first, yet there soon arose a tempestuous wind, which obliged them to lighten the ship and commit themselves to the mercy of the waves. While they were in this situation, neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and the storm continued and increased until all hope of safety was lost. At length, Paul stood up and addressed to their desponding minds this pathetic and consoling language: “ Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Črete, and to have gained this harm and loss. . And now I exhort you to be of good cheer; for there shall be no loss of any man's life among you, but of the ship. For there stood by me this night, the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve; saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Cæsar; and lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer, for I believe God that it shall be even as it was told me. Howbeit we must be cast upon a certain island. But when the fourteenth night was come, as we were driven up and down in Adria, about midnight the shipmen deemed that they drew near to some country; and sounded, and found it twenty fathoms. Then fearing lest they should have fallen upon rocks, they cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished for the day. And as the shipmen were about to flee out of the ship, when they had let down the boat into the sea, under color as though they would have cast anchors out of the foreship, Paul said to the centurion, and to the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.” This seasonable and solemn address had the desired effect, and proved the occasion of saving the lives of the whole company. For they complied with his advice, and took every precaution which their dangerous situation required. “ And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land.” This is the connection of the words of the text; and in this connection they plainly imply, that those who sailed with Paul, had natural power to frustrate the decrees of God. For he had decreed that Paul should stand before Cæsar, and that those who were with him in the shipwreck should get safe to land. But yet, if the sailors had left the ship, as they once intended, they would have frustrated these divine purposes. For notwithstanding God had revealed these purposes to Paul, and he firmly believed they would be fulfilled, yet he expressly said to the centurion and to the soldiers, “ Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved." These words, in this connection, plainly convey this general idea, that whatever God decrees shall take place by the instrumentality of men, they have natural power to prevent. If this point can be clearly illustrated and established, it will serve to throw light upon some important and interesting subjects. Accordingly, I shall endeavor to make it appear,
I. That God does decree that some things shall take place by the instrumentality of men.
II. That such things shall certainly take place. And yet,
III. That men have natural power to prevent their taking place.
I. It is too plain to be denied, that God does decree that some things shall take place by the instrumentality of men. We know that he determined to preserve Noah and his family in the general deluge; and he employed not only their agency, but the agency of many others, to effect his purpose. He predicted the preservation of Jacob and his family in a time of famine, and he employed Joseph to bring about the event. He
determined to lead the children of Israel from the house of bondage to the land of promise ; and he employed Moses, and Aaron, and Joshua, as the principal agents to accomplish his design. He decreed to overthrow the Babylonian, Persian, and Grecian empires in succession; and he carried into execution his purposes by the instrumentality of Cyrus, Alexander, and Augustus Cæsar. He determined that Christ should be cruci. fied; and he brought about the great and important event by means of
wicked hearts and wicked hands. He determined that the gospel of Christ should be speedily spread; and he qualified and disposed Peter, and his fellow apostles, to propagate it through all Judea. He determined that it should have a wider spread; and he raised up Paul to preach the glad tidings of salvation to the heathen world. And in connection with this, he determined that he should be carried to Rome by means of a certain ship, and the instrumentality of certain sailors. These instances, and many more which the sacred writers have recorded, clearly prove that God does decree to bring about the common events of providence by the instrumentality of men. I proceed to show,
II. That whatever God has decreed to bring to pass by the instrumentality of men, shall certainly take place. There is no room to doubt whether that will take place which God has determined to bring to pass by his own hand. This is so plain, that those who deny the doctrine of divine decrees in general
, profess to believe that God has decreed his own actions, and will most certainly act as he has determined to act. But many pretend to doubt whether every thing which God has decreed to be done by human agency will eventually come to pass. They suppose, therefore, there must be some uncertainty with respect to such events as God determines to bring to pass by human agency. But if God has decreed to bring about some events by human agency, it is absolutely certain that such agency will be exerted, and such events will exist. For the divine decree always fixes the certainty of whatever is decreed, by establishing an infallible connection between the means and the end. This is the difference between divine foreknowledge and decree. Foreknowledge does not make any future event certain, but only proves that it is certain; whereas a decree makes a future event certain, by constituting an infallible connection between the event decreed, and the cause or means of its coming to pass. When God decreed that Paul and his company should get safe to land, he fixed an infallible connection between their safety and the exertion of the sailors who managed the ship. And it was this infallible connection between the means and the end, which rendered this deliverance absolutely certain before it took place. Paul believed what the angel of God told him, and entertained no doubt of arriving safe to land, while danger stared him in the face on every side. His faith was founded upon the divine decree, which formed an infallible connection between his safety and the means of securing it. And upon the ground of this infallible connection between the means and end, God represents the accomplishment of all his decrees as absolutely certain. “I am God, and there is none like me; declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure." David declares, “ The counsel of the Lord standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.” And Solomon asserts, “ There is no wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel against the Lord.” And again he says,
And again he says, “ There are many devices in man's heart; nevertheless, the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand.” Men have often attempted to frustrate the divine decrees, but have never succeeded. Joseph's brethren endeavored to defeat the divine purposes, but all their efforts served to bring them to pass. Pharaoh attempted to defeat the divine designs, but was made the active instrument of carrying them into execution. Ahab vainly imagined that he could elude the divine decree, but met the arrow decreed to destroy him. No instance can be found of men's frustrating the decrees of God. Indeed, he challenges them to do this, if they can. 66 The Lord of hosts hath sworn, surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand." And he said of his disobedient people who went into Egypt with a design to frustrate his prediction, they “shall know whose words shall stand, mine, or theirs.” It is absolutely certain that whatever God has decreed shall take place, whether with, or without human agency, shall infallibly come to pass; because in all cases his decree has established an inseparable connection between the means and the end. If men are the means decreed, they shall as certainly as any other means decreed, contribute to the end, and eventually bring it to pass. But yet,
III. Those events which God has decreed to bring about by the instrumentality of men, they have natural power to prevent. Though God had decreed and predicted that Paul should stand before Cæsar, and that all who sailed with him should arrive safe to land, yet these very men had natural power to prevent the fulfilment of the divine decree and prediction. If the centurion and soldiers had suffered the sailors to leave the ship, which they had natural power to do, it would have proved the destruction of the whole company. Or if the soldiers had killed all the prisoners, as they purposed, and as they might have
done, Paul would not have stood before Cæsar as God had decreed. And though it was decreed that the ship and lading should be lost in the storm, yet this damage might have been prevented, if the master and owner of the ship would have hearkened to Paul. So he expressly told them, when it was too late to rectify their error. Though God decreed that Noah should build the Ark and save his family, yet he had natural power to neglect that work, and so to frustrate that divine purpose. Though God decreed that Joseph should preserve his father's family in Egypt during the famine, yet he had natural power and opportunity to destroy, instead of preserving them, and so to prevent the event decreed and predicted. Though God decreed that Hazael should kill the king his master, yet he had natural power to refrain from that traitorous deed, and so to prevent the evil which God had determined and declared should exist. Though God decreed that Judas should betray Christ, yet he had natural power to refrain from that action, to which he was bribed by the Jews and tempted by Satan, and so to counteract the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. In these instances, there can be no doubt but that those who fulfilled, had natural power to frustrate the divine purposes which depended upon their agency. And now to make it appear that this is true in all cases, I would observe,
1. That when God decrees that any event shall be brought about by the instrumentality of men, he always decrees that they shall have natural power to fulfil his decree. This must be extremely plain to every one; for we cannot suppose that God would decree that any event should be brought about by human agents incapable of bringing it about. But no man is capable of doing that which he has not natural power to do. When God decreed that Hazael should destroy his royal master, he decreed that Hazael should have both health and strength to perform the traitorous deed; for, had he been deprived of these, he could not have fulfilled the divine decree. This holds in all cases in which a decreed event depends upon the instrumentality of men. The decree of God is so far from taking away the natural
power of those who are appointed to execute it, that it always secures that power. The decree which made it certain that Judas should betray Christ, made it equally certain that he should have natural power to perpetrate that crime; so that it was certain that he should neither take away his own life, nor have it taken away, before he had actually betrayed his Master. For God to decree that men should be instrumental in bringing some particular event to pass, and yet not decree to give them natural power to do what was necessary on their part to be done, would be the same as to decree that that event should not take