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which the Almighty is erecting the temple of truth, and creating an incorruptible world ? If the Creator thought it necessary to employ six days in completing the beauties of the material world ; and if the Redeemer judges it expedient progressively to perfect the more lasting beauties of a spiritual world, during six of his more ample days; how little reason have we to despise the comprehensive design ; especially when we consider six thousand years are far more inconsiderable in comparison with eternity, than six atoms in comparison with this terrestrial globe!
Now, if such a plan is not only reasonable, but has been evidently adopted by Him who “giveth not account of any of his matters,” Job xxxii, 13; it is undoubtedly true, that those who have lived in different periods of time, have not been permitted to enjoy all the various truths which God has successively revealed to man. Nevertheless, it is equally certain that every man, in what period of time, and in what peculiar circumstances soever he found himself placed, has received sufficient light to discover, as well as sufficient power to perform, what God has been pleased to require at his hands.
The day of evangelical truth is graciously allowed to all mankind, that they may thereby be assisted to discover, to love, and to obey their celestial Parent: and, finally, that they may reach the mark of their high destination, which is the enjoyment of those different degrees of blessedness which are reserved for the different classes of the faithful. Let us consider the morning of this sacred day. When the first man had extinguished in his heart the light of truth and the fire of charitywhen he became sufficiently stupid to think of concealing himself from bis God among the trees of the garden, and sufficiently impious to throw the blame of his offence upon his companion in transgression, instead of confessing his disobedience with all its aggravations-it is evident, that man was then without Christ, that is, without a Saviour, without hope, and without God in the world,” Eph. ii, 12. In that night of error and confusion, and probably of despair, the promise of a powerful Redeemer was given to our first parents, whence certain beams of hope were pro. duced, which formed the earliest twilight of the Gospel day.
The tradition of this gracious promise, which was made to Adam and confirmed to Noah; the natural law, which is nothing less than the remains of the Creator's image in the human heart; and the secret grace of the Redeemer, which is more or less operative in every man ; these collectively formed that evangelical dawn, which was for a long time universally experienced in the world, and which may with propriety be termed, either Gentilism, the religion of the first patriarch, the Gospel of the heathen, or the dispensation of the Father. In this low dispensation, and under these faint glimmerings of truth, the generality of mankind are still unhappily observed to live. And though clouds of prejudice, together with vain tradition, deprive Pagan nations, in part, of this inestimable light, yet sufficient remains among them for the direction of those who are seeking after the light of a less obscure dispen. sation.
When mankind had become almost universally unfaithful to the grace of Gentilism, and unmindful of the past vengeance of God in destroying the world; when they had plunged themselves into the most impious excesses, and were wholly given up to the greatest idolatry; at that time the Almighty resolved to separate from the corrupted nations a single people, who should preserve among them the Divine worship in its purity; a people, among whom the Messiah should be born, and who should spread around them both the expectation and the promise of so wonderful a Deliverer. Moses, Aaron, and Joshua, were the representatives of this extraordinary Person. Moses, as a prophet and legislator; Aaron, as a high priest appointed of God; and Joshua, as an illustrious conqueror, dividing the kingdoms of Canaan among those who had followed him through the dangers of a tedious warfare. Thus the Jews became a preaching people to the rest of the world, preserving in it the light of the Father's dispensation, and preparing it for the farther dispensation of the Son : insomuch, that the expectation of a Divine Restorer was spread over many parts of the earth, as we learn from two Pagan historians,* whose testimony deserves credit. Nay, the Sibyls, and even Virgil himself, took occasion, from this general expectation, of applying to Augustus the predictions of a sublime conqueror, who was to issue from the east, renewing the face of things.
Judaism, then, seems to have been nothing more than the dispensation of the Father, though undoubtedly more luminous than it had formerly appeared before the calling of Abraham. The moral law, given by Moses, was but a new edition of the natural law, which had been given long before, and the ceremonial law was added thereto, as a farther con. firmation of the original promise. This was, however, a remarkable advance toward the dispensation of the Son and that of the Holy Ghost, since the mysteries of both were shadowed forth by the interior parts of the temple, by sacrifices, by ablutions, by anointings, by perfumes, by burning lamps, and sacred fires.
The universal creed, under this 'ancient dispensation, still forms a part of that which is received among Christians. And there is no true wor. shipper under this economy but who can say, with sincerity, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator and Preserver of heaven and earth, the Avenger of sin, and the Rewarder of those who faithfully serve him. And I trust the time is coming when some Divine instructer will enable me more fully to know and obey this incomprehensible Father of the universe.” May such an instructer soon appear! was the united prayers of Socrates and Plato. “Let him hasten his coming,” says the true Jew, and the pious Theist, “ under whatever appellation he may choose to appear. Let him be called the Seed of the woman, the Seed of Abraham, or the Son of David ; let his name be the Messiah, the Son of God, the Logos, Emmanuel, Joshua, Jesus, Saviour; or only the Prophet, the Angel of the Covenant, or the Mes. senger of God; it is of little consequence. If he bring but life and im. mortality to light, I will receive him with gratitude and joy.” Such is the faith by which those Jews, Mohammedans, and Pagans, whose hearts are principled with humility, candour, and the fear of God, have been, and still continue to be, saved in every part of the world. For the Father of mercies, who knoweth whereof we are made, will no more absolutely condemn such worshippers, on account of the extraordinary respect they have discovered for Moses, Mohammed, and Confucius, than he will finally reject some pious Christians, for the sake of that excessive veneration which they manifest for particular saints and reformers. Nor will he punish either because their guides have mingled prejudice with truth, and legendary fables with the doctrines of theology,
* Percrebuerat Oriente toto vetus et constans opinio, esse in fatis ut Judea profecti rerum potirentur.-SUETONIUS.
Pluribus persuasio inerat, antiquis sacerdotum libris contineri eo ipso temporo fore, ut valesceret Oriens, profectique Judea rerum potirentur. Tacitus.
As a prudent physician proportions his medicines to the different ages and habits of his patients, so the enlightened pastor, who feels himself concerned for the spiritual health of his flock, sees it necessary to act with equal care and discretion. He preaches the dispensation of the Son to those who, like Socrates and Plato, are longing for a Divine instructer, as well as to those who, like Simeon, Nicodemus, and Cor. nelius, are waiting for the consolation of Israel. He leads them either from the law of Moses, or from the law of nature, to the Gospel of Christ ; explaining, with precision, those parts of the New Testament, which exhibit the commencement of the Son's dispensation, together with all he taught and suffered, while he continued upon earth.
Lastly, to such as have devoutly embraced this part of the Gospel, he publishes the glorious economy of the Holy Spirit, which was not fully opened till after the bodily appearance of the Redeemer was withdrawn from the world. Then it was that he descended in the fulness of the Spirit, directing and supporting his disciples, animating and sanctifying his members, and manifesting that kingdom of God, that dispensation of righteousness, peace, and joy, which is so largely treated of in the Acts and Epistles of the Apostles.
These three dispensations have one common end. They mutually tend to manifest the different perfections of the Supreme Being, to raise man from his present low estate, and to perfect his nature. This threefold design is apparent under the dispensation of the Father ; it unfolds itself more clearly under that of the Son; and shines out with increas. ing lustre under that of the Holy Spirit. As it is one and the same sun that animates every thing in the natural world, so it is one and the same God who operates every thing in the kingdom of grace. He, whom we address as our heavenly Father, in that sacred form of prayer which is common among Christians, is the very God in whose name the ancient patriarchs were accustomed to bless their children. The Word, through which we address him, is no other than that “Light of the world,” by which the antediluvian fathers were illuminated in their seve. ral generations: and the Holy Ghost, by which the souls of the faith. ful are divinely regenerated, is the same Spirit that primarily “ moved upon the face of the waters,” Gen. i, 2; of which also it was said in the days of Noah, “ My Spirit shall not always strive with man,” Gen. vi, 3.
There never was a time in which the Son and the Spirit were not occupied in completing the salvation of believers. But there was a time when the Son became manifest upon the earth, making a visible display of his astonishing labours ; and then it was that his particular dispensation had its commencement. So likewise there was a time when the Holy Ghost, more abundantly shed forth by the Father and the Son, began to work his mysterious operations in a more sensible manner; and at that time commenced the particular dispensation of the Spirit,
which serves to perfect the dispensation of the Son, as that of the Son was given to perfect the dispensation of the Father.
These distinctions are founded upon reason, upon revelation, and upon the apostles' creed.
1. Reason suggests, that mankind must for ever remain under the sovereignty of their omnipotent Creator, and accountable to him for the use they make of his innumerable favours. Reason farther discovers, that if man should admit the darkness of error into his understanding, and the fatal influence of sin into his will, he cannot possibly recover his pristine state, except through the manifestation of a new light, and the exertions of a stronger influence. But who shall produce the former, except that Saviour who is “the Light of the world,” John viii, 12, or who shall supply the latter, except that energetic Spirit which “ helpeth our infirmities?” Rom. viii, 26.
2. These distinctions are founded upon revelation. The volume of truth informs us, that the Creator foretold the coming of a Redeemer, and that the Redeemer, during his outward manifestation, proclaimed the near approach of “ another Comforter,” John xiv, 16, 17. It is un. doubtedly true, that some earnests of redeeming grace, together with the first firuits of the Spirit, were experienced even by the most ancient inhabitants of the earth. It is true, also, that by means of those earnests and first fruits, many myriads of mankind have been saved in every age of the world. But it is no less true, that the plenitude of these sacred gifts was reserved to a very distant period of time; since, after the first promise of a Redeemer was given, near four thousand years elapsed before he made his public appearance; and while he continued upon earth, it is expressly said, that “the IIoly Ghost was not yet given, [in its full measure,] because that Jesus was not yet glorified,” John vii, 39.
3. Christians are taught to distinguish these different degrees of evangelical grace, and to rejoice in all the advantages of these three dispensations, when they are solemnly baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And this they publicly profess to do, so often as they repeat the three principal articles of the apostles' creed. Happy would it be, if, through the demonstration of that Holy Spirit, in which they affect to believe, they were enabled experimentally to confess their almighty Father and his redeeming Son. Every one of them might then thankfully add, “I experience the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins : I joyfully and confidently expect the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
It is presumed, that no doctrines can come more strongly recommended to the consideration of professing Christians, than those which are undeniably founded upon reason and revelation, upon that outward form of baptism and that primitive creed, which are universally received in the Christian world.
The attentive reader will easily perceive, that the difference beiween these several dispensations is formed by those diflerent degrees in which the Redeemer is manifested. Under Gentilism and Judaism, or under the general and particular dispensations of the Father, the Redeemer is both announced and expected; he is announced by the Father's original promise, by tradition, by types, by prophecies; and he is expected as a Saviour who shall sooner or later make his appearance. Under the baptism of John, and under that imperfect Christianity which is received by a baptism of water, the Redeemer is apprehended, in some measure, by sense ; or by a faith which merely respects the history of the Gos. pel: but he is apprehended only as a Saviour manifested in the flesh, to accomplish the external act of redemption. It is otherwise under that perfect Christianity to which we are introduced by the mysterious baptism of the Spirit, in which the Redeemer is manifested after a manner abımdantly more glorious. He is now received as coming in the Spirit, after having died for our sins and risen again for our justification. Now he performs the spiritual work of redemption in the soul, delivering his people from the power of sin, by communicating to them the special efficacy of his death, his resurrection, and his triumph. Henceforth he is a Comforter, not only with, but in us; where he spiritually exercises his acknowledged offices, instructing, purifying, and finally subduing all things to himself.
The different preachers under these different dispensations. PERSUADED that confusion is the source of a thousand errors, the pru. dent minister endeavours to place the truths of the Gospel in their proper order ; and reflecting upon those preachers who have formerly proclaimed them, he is enabled to produce something upon their separate testimonies which may serve to edify the different classes of his hearers. Thus St. Paul, when preaching to the Athenians, judged it convenient to cite one of their own poets rather than Moses; and thus, in address. ing those teachers who leave the Gospel in order to set up a vain philo. sophy, the true minister may find it necessary to produce the description which Epictetus has given of a real philosopher.
Every dispensation has had its peculiar preachers, and the pastor who is led into all truth is anxious to second these preachers, by publishing, in their proper place, those sacred truths which they have respectively delivered according to their different proportions of grace.
The preachers, under the dispensation of the Father, are,
1. The works of creation. “ The heavens,” saith David, “ declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handy work,” Psalm xix, 1. “That which may be known of God,” adds St. Paul, “is manifest.” even among the heathen. “For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead: so that they are without excuse, because that when they knew God, they glorificd him not as God," Rom. i, 19-21.
2. Providence. “The living God," saith the apostle, “who, in times past, suffered all nations to walk in their own ways, left himself not without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness," Acts xiv, 15, 17.
3. Those dreadful scourges with which an avenging God is constrained to correct a rebellious world; such as famine, pestilence, var, &c.
4. Reason ; which is a ray from that Divine Word, that Eternal