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SERMON X X XVI.
AND was called a transgressor from the womb. - ISAIAH, xlviii. 8.
In order to see the propriety of this declaration, it is necessary to look into the context, and see the method God takes to convince his ancient people of the native corruption of their hearts, which they were unwilling to acknowledge, and endeavored to conceal. — “Hear ye this, O house of Jacob, which are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah; which swear by the name of the Lord, and make mention of the God of Israel, but not in truth, nor in righteousness. For they call themselves of the holy city, and stay themselves upon the God of Israel.” This was the noble profession they made, with a view to conceal the native corruption of their hearts. But the Lord of hosts tells them, “I have declared the former things from the beginning; and they went forth out of my mouth and I showed them; I did them suddenly, and they came to pass. Because I knew that thou art obstinate; and thy neck is an iron sinew and thy brow brass; I have even from the beginning declared it to thee; before it came to pass I showed it thee; lest thou shouldest say, Mine idol hath done them; and my graven image and my molten image hath commanded them. Thou hast heard, see all this; and will not ye declare it? I have showed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, and thou didst not know them. They are created now, and not from the beginning; even before the day when thou beardest them not; lest thou shouldest say, Behold, I knew them. Yea, thou heardest not; yea, thou knewest not; yea, from that time that thine ear was not opened; for I knew that thou wouldest deal very treacherously, and wast called a transgressor from the womb.” God here traces all the insincerity, stupidity, obstinacy, ignorance and unbelief of sinners to the native depravity of their hearts, which led them to disregard his commands and to disbelieve his predictions. The text in this connection naturally leads us to conclude,
That mankind begin to sin as soon as they become capable of sinning. I shall show,
I. What we are to understand by sin;
III. That they do sin as soon as they become capable of sinning; and,
IV. Why they always have sinful exercises before they have any holy ones.
1. I am to show what is to be understood by sin. The apostle John has given us a concise and just definition of sin. “ Sin is the transgression of the law.” If then we can determine what the law requires, we can determine what the transgression of it is; and if we can find what the transgression of it is, we can find what sin is. The law, we know, requires true love to God and man.
True love is the fulfilling of the law. And true love consists in disinterested, impartial, universal benevolence. The transgression of the law, therefore, must essentially consist in something which is directly opposite to such pure, holy love. And there is nothing in nature more directly opposite to perfectly disinterested love, than interested love, or selfishness. So that all sin consists in the free, voluntary exercise of selfishness. As true love is a free, voluntary exercise of a moral agent, so false love is a free, voluntary exercise of a moral agent. And as a mere want of love is not obedience to the law, so a mere want of selfishness is not a transgression of the law.
A mere want of any thing has no properties, either good or evil. It follows that nothing short of the positive exercise of true love is obe. dience to the law, and nothing short of the positive exercise of selfishness is a transgression of the law. There is, indeed, a distinction often made between internal and external obedience, and between internal and external disobedience. But this distinction is merely apparent and not real; for all real obedience is internal, and lies in the heart and not in the outward act. And so all' real disobedience is internal, and lies in the heart and not in the outward act. This ought to be remembered, when we come to speak of the first sinful exercises which take place in the human heart. Having considered what sin is, I proceed to show,
II. When mankind become capable of sinning.
If sin be a free, voluntary, moral exercise, it must be supposed that they are not capable of sinning before they become
Here then it seems necessary to inquire what
mental powers and faculties are necessary to constitute a moral agent. Perception, memory and volition appear to be the essential powers or properties which constitute a free agent. Animals are free agents. They act freely and voluntarily in the view of motives. “ The ox knoweth its owner, and the ass his master's crib.” The ox has perception, volition and memory. The ox, as well as the ass, knows his master and his master's crib, and remembers where he was fed, and freely and voluntarily goes to the place he remembers, to be fed again. He is therefore a free, voluntary agent.
But he is not a moral agent; for his perception, memory, and volition cannot give him a capacity to know what is right and what is wrong. He does not know that it is right to feed at his master's crib, and wrong to feed at another man's crib. No animals have any higher mental powers than perception, memory, and volition; and therefore they are not and cannot be made moral agents, at any period of their existence. But God has made man wiser than the beasts of the field and fowls of the air; and endued him not only with perception, reason, memory, and volition, but with a moral faculty to discern moral good and moral evil. This moral faculty is what we call conscience, by which we discover what is right and what is wrong in ourselves and others. The faculty itself has no moral excellence in it, and is called a moral rather than a mere natural faculty, because it enables us to distinguish moral actions or exercises from mere natural actions.
Having found what mental powers and faculties constitute a mere agent, and what mental powers and faculties constitute a moral agent, we may perhaps easily and certainly determine when a little animal becomes an agent, and when a little child becomes a moral agent, and capable of acting right or wrong. We know that a little lamb becomes an agent as soon as it possesses perception, memory and volition ; for so soon we see it move and act freely and voluntarily in the view of motives or external objects. Why then do we not as certainly know that a little child becomes a moral agent as soon as it possesses perception, reason, conscience, memory and volition ? And why must we not suppose that the little child becomes possessed of all the mental powers and faculties which constitute him a moral agent, as early as the little lamb becomes possessed of all the mental powers and faculties which constitute it a natural agent? We are obliged in both cases to judge by actions, and not by words. Does not the little child appear to move and act freely and voluntarily in the view of motives, long before it is capable of speaking? Why then may it not become a moral agent, as early as the little lamb becomes a natural agent? Or at least, why may it not become a moral