The elders and messengers of the several churches met in Association, in the city of Philadelphia, October, 1794.
To the churches in union with the Association, send greeting :
Dearly beloved brethren, — According to the order observed in our excellent Confession of faith, the subject from which we shall address you in this circular letter, is the Law of God, commonly called the Moral Law, by some the law of reason and the law of nature, because it is agreeable to the reason and nature of things, and was perfectly understood by our first parents in a state of purity.
False apprehensions of this law, have constituted and spread extensive error and confusion, confirmed men in sin and rebellion against the throne of Jehovah, and eclipsed the glory of gospel grace. It is of great importance, therefore, that we entertain just ideas of the divine law: which law may be defined, "That relation which necessarily exists between the Creator and the creature; and will everlastingly continue necessary to exist, though not independent of the divine will." If this definition be just, the law of God is not arbitrarily imposed on his creatures; it results from their relation to their God and to each other.
Jehovah is our Creator and kind protector, the being of beings, his excellence infinitely transcends all derived excellence; he ought therefore to be loved for what he is in and of himself, as well as for the relation he stands in to his creatures. Nothing can destroy the obligation of rational beings to love their God. Our possessing hearts of enmity against God, is so far from rendering us excusable for not loving and serving him, that it is the very thing, in which our criminality consists. Has the creature a right to hate his God? Surely not. If he has no right to hate, he ought to love. There is no medium in the present case: We must either bless God, or curse him. But let us not refer the present question to the partial decisions of men; let us attend to the awful and majestic voice of God, in the ten commands promulgated from Mount Sinai, -- which commands, so far as they are moral, are of personal and perpetual obligation; were written in the hearts of our first parents, in their state of innocency, and are written on the heart of every son and daughter of Adam, that has been born again, by the Spirit of the Lord and the power of his grace. This law, we have summarily comprehended by our Lord, in Matt. xxii. 37-39, "Jesus saith unto him, thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." "Love," says the Apostle, " is the fulfilling of the law."
The law of God refers to the whole man, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind." The heart is required, the reason is obvious; religion consists in the disposition, and a man may work to eternity, -- if his heart is not in the work, it is nothing. "Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity," true love to God and man, "it profiteth me nothing."
This law being founded in reason and righteousness, being the unchangeable and everlasting rule of equity; as far as our actions are in agreement with it, they are right ; and as far as they deviate from its just requisitions, they are wrong. Christ "came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil." Unbelievers are as much under the curse of the law, as though our Lord had never obeyed it in his own person. See John iii. 18, 36. And those who have a true and living faith in Christ, are as much under the moral law, as a rule of duty, as ever they were. They have received a free and complete pardon of all their sins. "There is no condemnation to those that are in Christ Jesus." But notwithstanding the penalty of the law cannot hurt the believer, he delights in the law of God after the inner man, and shall finally be brought into perfect conformity to its holy dictates. Those who are not conformed to the holy law of God in this world, must forever feel its awful penalty, eternal damnation.
We now proceed to the second grand division of this subject, as made by our Divine Teacher: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." If ever there was a period in which this precept required serious attention, it could not require it more than the present, when general discord pervades the nations. The great Creator has thought fit, that mankind should be united together in society. Mutual love and agreement are necessary to the prosperity of society; and it is as impossible to conceive of a happy community, whose members shall hate each other; as it is to conceive of a material system, where repulsion shall universally take place.
The man who loves others as himself will discover this affection, by promoting the good of his neighbor, in every thing that concerns either his body, his mind, his fortune, or reputation. We show our love to our neighbor by doing him no injury ourselves, and by preventing others from injuring him; by doing him justice in all things, and by promoting his temporal and eternal happiness. Those selfish, narrow-hearted people, who frequently boast that they have done no hurt, are only negatively good, mere cyphers in creation, unworthy the dignified character of loyal benevolent beings; and are wholly unfitted for a place in that more extensive future society, which will consist of beings ennobled by virtue and true benevolence. Love for our neighbor will incline us to do him justice in his property and reputation.
The property received from a parent, who is in duty obliged to provide for his offspring; property acquired by a person's own ingenuity or industry, and property acquired by purchase; these are all lawful, and it is iniquitous for any one to deprive us of such established rights. Whoever loves his neighbor as himself will be as tender of his property, as he wishes others to be of his own; and will be more fearful of breaking in upon another's right, than of losing a part of what he himself possesses. Whoever is raised to a station of power or influence, and takes the advantage of this power to oppress his fellow creatures, shows himself not only unjust but base ; for the heart where the law of kindness dwells, contemns every unfair action. And how cruel is it, in such a person, to appropriate to his own use the property of the poor and indigent, who should rather be ready to. relieve their wants, when they look up to him in their distress. The withholding of a just debt, all breaches of trust, all undue advantages taken by the trader, in commerce and traffic, are iniquitous, and deserve the severest punishment.
We have already observed, that a man of real goodness will not injure his neighbor's reputation. It is a just remark of an eminent author, that every man has a right to be thought and spoken of agreeably to his real character. Whoever then is the cause why his neighbor is not considered in the light he deserves, grossly violates this sacred rule of duty, nor is he possessed of true benevolence. One of the greatest injuries. against our neighbor's reputation, is falsehood in testimony. To open a door to villainy, to blast the character of an innocent person, are crimes of the deepest die; and few punishments can be too severe for such as are guilty of them. The voice both of Moses and of Christ, breathes love, peace, and good-will to man ; a temper conformed to its dictates, will shudder at the idea of spreading a false report. Even insinuations, by which an innocent character may be blemished, are cruel and impolitic. They are cruel, because they spring from malevolence of heart, and prove too often fatal to the peace and prospects of the unhappy victims ; they are irrational, because our own characters are in the hands of others, and our temporal concerns at their disposal.
The malicious causeless defamer, is certainly among the most abandoned characters in the world; neither profit, honor, nor pleasure, can he propose to himself, from the practice of his extraordinary disposition, unless the indulgence of malice be a pleasure; and if so, Satan has no inconsiderable share of happiness. The defamer has been justly compared to the dark assassin, who murders without giving notice of his intention. Here then is a law attended with no inconveniences, which not only leads us to the great duties we owe to our God, but also to the exercise of the first social duties to each other, as well as to practice those which we owe to ourselves.
Human laws are numerous, and too burdensome to the memory, and frequently raise disputes rather than intimate duty. But this worthy maxim is free from all perplexities; the most uninformed mind can scarcely misapprehend it, and the weakest memories are capable of retaining it. This precept lies ready on all occasions; we need but glance, as it were, upon our own minds, where it abides and shines like the polar star, to direct the course of the mariner. This injunction of our divine Redeemer is of vast and comprehensive influence, extending to all ranks and conditions of men, and to all kinds of action and intercourse between them, to matters of charity as well as justice, to negative as well as positive duties, to communities as well as individuals. But the law of God is not recommended to us by its own intrinsic excellence only; how many and how great are the advantages arising from a strict observance of it? The satisfaction it affords a rational mind, is certainly most refined and lasting. From hence arise pleasures that will flourish in the winter of adversity, illuminate death, and exist beyond time. The man who is conformed to the divine law, has the approbation of his own conscience, his great soul ever possesses a continued source of substantial delight. In the near approach of death, peace shall dawn upon his mind, like the radiance of the morning; and as the exiled captive exults with the hopes, that he is returning to his native home, he will look forward with rapture toward the happy country where his heart has fled before him.
To consider the distress and dangers, to which a person who disregards these essential duties is exposed, affords a truly melancholy prospect. At enmity with his God, he cannot be happy in the nature of things; at enmity with his fellow men, they will conspire against him for their mutual defence. Revenge from some baneful corner shall return the injury on the defamer's head, — his character shall bleed by his own arts, — his faith shall be questioned, — his best works misrepresented, — his excellencies, if he have any, be forgotten, and his conduct meet with just and universal abhorrence.
Let us then, dear brethren, contemplate the law, in order to know our obligations to God, and the impossibility of obtaining eternal life, by any performances of our own. This will make us willing to submit to the righteousness of Christ, and enable us to stand with boldness in the great examination day.
By the Association,
WILLIAM ROGERS, Moderator. THOMAS MElMMINGER, Clerk.
[From Philadelphia Baptist Association Minutes, 1794. - jrd]
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