Theological Institutes

Part Second - Doctrines of the Holy Scriptures

By Richard Watson

Chapter 7

ATTRIBUTES OF God.-Holiness.

IN creatures, holiness is conformity to the will of God, as expressed in his laws, and consists in abstinence from every thing which has been comprehended under the general term of sin, and in the habit and practice of righteousness. Both these terms are properly understood to include various principles, affections, and acts, which, considered separately, are regarded as vices or virtues; and, collectively, as consti­tuting a holy or a polluted character. Our conception of holiness in creatures, both in its negative and its positive import, is therefore expli­cit; it is determined by the will of God. But when we speak of God, we speak of a Being who is a law to himself, and whose conduct cannot be referred to a higher authority than his own. This circumstance has given rise to various opinions on the subject of the holiness of the Divine Being, and to different modes of stating this glorious attribute of his moral nature. But without conducting the reader into the profitless question, whether there is a fixed and unalterable nature and fitness of things, independent of (he Divine will on the one hand; or on the other, whether good and evil have their foundation, not in the nature of things, but only in the Divine will, which makes them such, there is a method, less direct it may be, but more satisfactory, of assisting our thoughts on this subject.

It is certain that various affections and actions have been enjoined upon all rational creatures under the general name of righteousness, and that their contraries have been prohibited. It is a matter also of constant experience and observation, that the good of society is promoted only by the one, and injured by the other; and also that every individual derives, by the very constitution of his nature, benefit and happiness from rectitude; injury and misery from vice. This constitution of human nature is therefore an indication, that the Maker and Ruler of men formed them with the intent that they should avoid vice, and practise virtue; and that the former is the object of his aversion, the latter of his regard. On this principle all the laws, which in his legislative character almighty God has enacted for the government of mankind, have been constructed. "The law is holy, and the commandment holy, just, and good." In the administration of the world, where God is so often seen in his judicial capacity, the punishments which are inflicted, indirectly or immediately upon men, clearly tend to discourage and prevent the practice of evil. "Above all, the Gospel, that last and most perfect revelation of the Divine will, instead of giving the profes­sors of it any allowance to sin, because grace has abounded, (which is an injurious imputation cast upon it by ignorant and impious minds,) its chief design is to establish that great principle, God's moral purity, and to manifest his abhorrence of sin, and inviolable regard to purity and virtue in his reasonable creatures. It was for this he sent his Son into the world to turn men from their iniquities, and bring them back to the paths of righteousness. For this, the blessed Jesus submitted to the deepest humiliations and most grievous sufferings. He gave himself, (as St. Paul speaks) for his Church, that he might sanctify and cleanse it, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, but that it should be holy and without blemish: or, as it is elsewhere expressed, he gave himself for us, to redeem us from our iniquities, and to purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. In all this he is said to have done the will of his Father, and glorified him, that is, restored and promoted in the world, the cause of virtue and righteousness, which is the glory of God. And his life was the visible image of the Divine sanctity, proposed as a familiar example to mankind, for he was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners. He did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth. And as Christianity appears, by the character of its author, and by his actions and sufferings, to be a designed evidence of the holiness of God, or of his aversion to sin, and his gracious desire to turn men from it, so the institution itself is perfectly pure, it contains the clearest and most lively descriptions of moral virtue, and the strongest motives to the Practice of it. It promises, as from God, the kindest assistance to men, for making the Gospel effectual to renew them in the spirit of their minds, and to reform their lives, by his Spirit sent down from heaven, on purpose to convince the world of sin, and righteousness, and judgment. To enlighten them who were in darkness, and turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to strengthen its converts to true religion, unto all obedience and long suffering, and patience, to enable them to resist temptation, to abound in the fruits of righteousness, and perfect holiness in the fear of God." (Abernethy's Sermons.)

Since, then, it is so manifest, that "the Lord loveth righteousness, and hateth iniquity," it must be necessarily concluded, that this prefer­ence of the one, and hatred of the other, flow from some principle in his very nature. "That he is the righteous Lord. Of purer eyes than to behold evil,-one who cannot look upon iniquity." This principle is holiness, an attribute, which, in the most emphatic manner, is assumed by himself, and attributed to him, both by adoring angels in their choirs, and by inspired saints in their worship. He is, by his own designation, "the HOLY ONE of Israel ;" the seraphs in the vision of the prophet, cry continually, "HOLY, HOLY, HOLY, is the Lord God of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory," thus summing up all his glo­ries in this sole moral perfection. The language of the sanctuary on earth is borrowed from that of heaven. "Who shall not fear thee, 0 Lord, and glorify thy name, for thou only art HOLY."

If then there is this principle in the Divine mind, which leads him to prescribe, love, and reward truth, justice, benevolence, and every other virtuous affection and habit in his creatures which we sum up in the term holiness; and to forbid, restrain, and punish their opposites; that principle being essential in him, a part of his very nature and Godhead, must be the spring and guide of his own conduct; and thus we conceive without difficulty of the essential rectitude or holiness of the Divine nature, and the absolutely pure, and righteous character of his administration:  him there can be no malice, or envy, or hatred, or revenge, or pride, or cruelty, or tyranny, or injustice, or falsehood, or unfaithfulness; and if there be any thing beside which implies sin, and vice, and moral imperfection, holiness signifies that the Divine nature is at an infinite distance from it." (Tillotson.) Nor are we only to conceive of this quality negatively, but positively also, as "the actual, perpetual recti­tude of all his volitions, and all the works and actions which are conse­quent thereupon; and an eternal propension thereto, and love thereof, by which it is altogether impossible to that will that it should ever vary." (Howe.)

This attribute of holiness, exhibits itself in two great branches, justice and truth, which are sometimes also treated of as separate attributes.

JUSTICE, in its principle, is holiness, and is often expressed by the term righteousness; but when it relates to matters of government, the universal rectitude of the Divine nature shows itself in inflexible regard to what is right, and in an opposition to wrong, which cannot be warped or altered in any degree whatever. "Just and right is lie." Justice in God, when it is not regarded as universal, but particular, is either legislative or judicial.

Legislative justice determines man's duty, and binds him to the per­formance of it, and also defines the rewards and punishments, which shall be due upon the creature's obedience, or disobedience. This branch of Divine justice has many illustrations in Scripture. The principle of it is, that absolute right which God has to the entire and perpetual obedience of the creatures which he has made. This right is unquestionable, and in pursuance of it, all moral agents are placed under law, and are subject to rewards or punishments. None are excepted. Those who have not God's revealed law, have a law "written on their hearts," and are "a law unto themselves." The original law of obedience, given to man, was a law not to the first man, but to the whole human race ; for if, as the apostle has laid it down, "the whole world," comprising both Jews and Gentiles, is "guilty before God," then the whole world is under a law of obedience. In this respect God is just in asserting his own right to be obeyed, and in claiming, from the creature he has made and preserved, the obedience, which in strict righteousness he owes; but this claim is strictly limited, and never goes beyond justice into rigour. He is not a hard master, reaping where he has not sown, and gathering where he has not strewed." His law is however unchangeable in its demand upon man for universal obedience, because man is considered in it as a creature capable of yielding that obedience; but when the human race became corrupt, means of pardon, consistent with righteous government, were introduced, by the atonement for sin made by the death of Jesus Christ, received by faith; and supernatural aid was put within their reach, by which the evil of their nature might be removed, and the disposition and the power to obey the law of God imparted. The case of heathen nations to whom the Gospel is not yet preached, may hereafter be considered. It involves some difficulties, but it is enough for us to know, that "the Judge of the whole earth will do right ;" and that this shall be made apparent to all creatures, when the facts of the whole case shall be disclosed, "in the day of the revelation of Jesus' Christ."

Judicial justice, more generally termed distributive justice, is that which respects rewards amid punishments. God renders to men according to their works. This branch of justice is said to be remunerative, or praemiative, when he rewards the obedient; and vindictive, when he punishes the guilty. With respect to the first, it is indeed reward, properly speaking, not of debt, but of grace; for, antecedently, God cannot be a debtor to his creatures; but since he binds himself by engagements in his law, "this do and thou shalt live," express or tacit, or attaches a particular promise of reward to some particular duty, it becomes a part of justice to perform the engagement. On this principle also, St. Paul says, Heb. vi, 10, " God is not unrighteous to forget your work, and labour of love. And if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins." "Even this has justice in it. It is upon one account, the highest act of mercy imaginable, considering with what liberty and freedom the course and method were settled, wherein sins come to be pardoned: but it is an act of justice also, inas­much as it is the observation of a method to which lie had bound himself, and from which afterward, therefore, he cannot depart, cannot vary." (Howe's Post. Works.)

Vindictive or punitive justice, consists in the infliction of punishment. It renders the punishment of unpardoned sin certain, so that no criminal shall escape; and it guarantees the exact proportion of punishment to the nature and circumstances of the offence. Both these circumstances are marked in numerous passages of Scripture, the testimony of which on this subject may be summed up in the words of Elihu: "for the work of a man shall he render unto him, and cause every man to find accord­ing to his ways, yea, surely God will not do wickedly, neither will the Almighty pervert judgment."

What is called commutative justice, relates to the exchange of one thing for another of equal value, and is called forth by contracts, bar. gains, and similar transactions among men; but this branch of justice belongs not to God because of his dignity. "He hath no equal, there are none of the same order with him to make exchanges with him, or to transfer rights to him for any rights transferred from him." "Our righteousness extendeth not to him, nor can man be profitable to his Maker." The whole world of creatures is challenged and humbled by the question, "Who hath given him any thing, and it shall be recom­pensed to him again ?"

Strict impartiality is, however, a prominent character in the justice of God. "There is no respect of persons with God." As on the one hand he -hateth nothing which he has made, and cannot be influenced by prejudices and prepossessions; so on the other, he can fear no one however powerful. No being is necessary to him, even as an agent to fulfil his plans, that he should overlook his offences; no combination of beings can resist the steady and equal march of his administration. The majesty of his Godhead sets him infinitely above all such considerations. "The Lord our God is the God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty and terrible, which regardeth not persons, neither taketh rewards.-He accepteth not the person of princes, nor regardeth the rich more than the poor, for they are all the work of his hands."

There are however many circumstances in the administration of the affairs of the world, which appear irreconcilable to that strict and exact exercise of justice we have ascribed to God as the supreme Ruler. These have sometimes been urged as objections, and the writers of systems of "natural religion" have often found it difficult to answer them. That has arisen from their excluding from such systems, as much as possible, the light of revelation; and on that account, much more than from the real difficulties of the cases adduced, it is, that their reasonings are often unsatisfactory. Yet if man is, in point of fact, under a dispensation of grace and mercy, and that is now in perfect accordance with the strictest justice of God's moral government, neither his circumstances, nor the conduct of God toward him, can ever be judged of by systems which are constructed expressly on the prin­ciple of excluding all such views as are peculiar to the Scriptures In attempting it the cause of truth has been injured rather than served; because a feeble argument has been often wielded when a powerful one was at hand; and the answer to infidel objectors has been partial, lest it should be said that the full and sufficient reply was furnished, not by human reason, but by the reason, the wisdom of God himself as embodied in his word. This is however little better than a solemn manner of trifling with truths which so deeply concern men.

But let the two facts which respect the relations of man to God as the Governor of the world, and which stamp their character upon his administration, be both taken into account ;-that God is a just Ruler,- and yet, that offending man is under a dispensation of mercy, which provides, through the sacrifice of Christ meritoriously, and his own repentance and faith instrumentally, for his forgiveness, and for the healing of his corrupted nature; and a strong, and generally a most satisfactory light is thrown upon those cases which have been supposed most irreconcilable to an exact and righteous government.

The doctrine of a future and general judgment, which alone explains so many difficulties in the Divine administration, is grounded solely on the doctrine of redemption. Under an administration of strict justice, punishment must have followed offence without delay. This is indicated in the sanction of the first law, "in the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die," a threat which, we may learn from Scripture, would have been executed fully, but for the immediate introduction of the redeeming scheme. If we suppose the first pair to have preserved their innocence, and any of their descendants at any period to have become disobedient, they must have borne their own iniquity; and punishment, to death and excision, must instantly have followed; for, in the case of a Divine government, where the parties are God and a creature, every sin must be considered capital, since the penalty of death is, in every case, the sentence of the Divine law against transgression. Under such an administration, no reason would seem to exist for a general judgment at the close of the world's duration. That has its reason in the circum. stances of trial in which men are placed by the introduction of a method of recovery. Justice, in connection with a sufficient atonement, admits of the suspension of punishment for offence, of long suffering, of the application of means of repentance and conversion; arid that throughout the whole term of natural life. The judgment, the examination, and public exhibition of the use or abuse of this patience, and of those means, is deferred to one particular day, in which he who now offers grace shall administer justice, strict and unsparing. This world is not the appointed place of final judgment, under the new dispensation; the space of human life on earth is not the time appointed for it; amid however difficult it may be, without taking these timings into consideration, to trace the manifestations of justice in God's moral government, or to reconcile certain circumstances to the character of a righteous governor, by their aid the difficulty is removed. Justice, as the principle of his adminis­tration, has a sufficiently awful manifestation in the miseries which, in this life, are attached to vice; in the sorrows and sufferings to which a corrupted race is subjected; and, above all, in the satisfaction exacted from the Son of God himself, as the price of human pardon: but since the final punishment of persevering and obstinate offenders is, by God': own proclamation, postponed to "a day appointed, in which lie will judge the world in righteousness, by that man whom he lath ordained," and since also the final rewards of the reconciled and recovered part of mankind are equally delayed, it is folly to look for a perfect exercise of justice in the present state.

We may learn therefore from this,-

1. That it is no impeachment of a righteous government, that external prosperity should be the lot of great offenders. It may be part of a gracious administration to bring them to repentance by favour, or it may be designed to make their fall and final punishment more marked; or it may be intended to teach the important lesson of the slight vain of out­ward advantages, separate from holy habits and a thankful mind.

2. That it is not inconsistent with rectitude, that even those who are forgiven and reconciled, those who are become dear to God, should be afflicted and oppressed, since their defects and omissions may require chastisement, and since also these are made the means of their excelling in virtue, of aiding their heavenly mindedness, and of qualifying them for a better state.

3. That as time administration under which man is placed is one of grace in harmony with justice, the dispensation of what is matter of pure favour, may have great variety and be even very unequal without any impeachment of justice. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard seems designed to illustrate this. To all God will be able, at the reckon­ing at the close of time day, to say, " I do thee no wrong ;" no principle of justice will be violated; it will then appear that "he reaps not where he has not sow n." But the other principle will have been as strikingly made manifest, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with any own?"

With nations time case is otherwise. Their rewards and punishments being of a civil nature, may be fully administered in this life, and, as bodies politic, they have no posthumous existence. Reward and retri­bution, in their case, have been therefore in all ages visible and striking; and, in the conduct of the great Ruler to them, "his judgments" are said to be "abroad in the earth." In succession, every vicious nation has perished; and always by means so marked, and often so singular, as to bear upon them a broad and legible punitive character. With collective bodies of men, indeed, the government of God in this world is greatly concerned; and that both in their civil and religious character; with Churches, so to speak, as well as with states; and, in consequence, the cases oh individuals, as all cannot be of equal guilt or innocence, must often be mixed amid confounded. These apparent, and sometimes, perhaps, from the operation of a general system, real irregularities, can be compensated to the good, or overtaken as to the wicked, in their personal character in another state, to which we are constantly directed to look forward, as to the great and ample comment upon all that is obscure in this.

For time discoveries of the word of God as to this attribute of the Divine nature, we owe the most grateful acknowledgments to its Author. Without this revelation, indeed, the conceptions which heathens form of the justice with which the world is administered, are exceedingly imperfect and unsettled. The course of time world is to them a flow without a direction, movement without control; and gloom and impatience must often be the result:[1] taught as we are, we see nothing loose or disjointed in the system. A firm hand grasps and controls and directs the whole. This governing power is also manifested to us as our friend, our father, and our God, delighting in mercy, and resorting only to severity when we ourselves oblige the reluctant measure. On these firm principles of justice and mercy, truth and goodness, every thing in private as well as public is conducted; and from these stable foundations, no change, no convulsion, can shake off the vast frame of human inte­rests and concerns.

Allied to justice, as justice is allied to holiness, is the TRUTH of God, which manifestation of the moral character of God has also an eminent place in the inspired volume. His paths are said to be "mercy and truth,"-his words, ways, and judgments, to be true and righteous. "His mercy is great to the heavens amid his truth to the clouds. He keepeth truth for ever. The strength of Israel will not lie. It is impossible that God should lie. Ho 'is the faithful God which keepeth covenant and mercy: he abideth faithful." From these and other passages, it is plain that truth is contemplated by the sacred writers in its two great branches, veracity and faithfulness, both of which they ascribe to God, with an emphasis and vigour of phrase which show at once their belief of the facts, their trust and confidence in them, and the important place which they considered the existence of such a being to hold in a system of revealed religion. It forms, indeed, the basis of all religion, to know the true God, and to know that that God is true. In the Bible this must of necessity be fully and satisfactorily declared, because of the other discoveries which it makes of the Divine nature. If it reveals to us as the only living and true God, a being of knowledge infinitely perfect, then he himself cannot be deceived; and his knowledge is true, because conformable to the exact and perfect reality of things. If he is holy, without spot or defect, then his word must be conformable to his know­ledge, will, and intention. On this account he cannot deceive others. In all his dealings with us, he uses a perfect sincerity, and represents things as they are, whether laws to be obeyed, or doctrines to be believed. All is perfect and absolute veracity in his communications. "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all."

His FAITHFULNESS relates to his engagements, and is confirmed to us with the same certainty as his veracity. If he enters into engagements, promises, and covenants, he acts with perfect freedom. These are acts of grace to which he is under no compulsion, and they can never, there­fore, be reluctant engagements which he would wish to violate; because they flow from a ceaseless and changeless inclination to bestow benefits, and a delight in the exercise of goodness. They can never be made in haste or unadvisedly, for the whole case of his creatures to the end of time is before him, and no circumstances can arise which to him are new or unforeseen. He cannot want the power to fulfil his promises, because he is omnipotent; he cannot promise beyond his ability to make good, because his fulness is infinite; finally, "he cannot deny himself," because "hue is not a man that he should he, nor the son of man that he should repent ;" and thus every promise which he has made is guaranteed, as well by his natural attributes of wisdom, power, and sufficiency, as by his perfect moral rectitude. In this manner the true God stands contrasted with the "lying vanities" of the heathen deities; and in this his character of truth, the everlasting foundations of his religion are laid. That changes not, because the doctrines taught in it are in them. selves true without error, and can never be displaced by new and better discoveries; it fails not, because every gracious promise must by him he accomplished; and thus the religion of the Bible continues from age to age, and from day to day, as much a matter of personal experience as it ever was. In its doctrines it can never become an antiquated theory, for truth is eternal. In its practical application it can never become foreign to man, for it enters now, and must ever enter into his concerns, his duties, hopes, and comforts, to the end of time. We know what is true as an object of belief, because the God of truth has declared it; amid we know what is faithful, and, therefore, the object of unlimit­ed trust, because " he is faithful that bath promised." Whether, there. fore, in the language of the old divines, we consider God's word as "declaratory or promisory," declaring "how things are or how they shall be," or promising to us certain benefits, its absolute truth is confirmed to us by the truth of the Divine nature itself; it claims the undivided assent of our judgment, and the unsuspicious trust of our hearts; and presents, at once, a sure resting place for our opinions, and a faith object for our confidence.

Such are the adorable attributes of the ever-blessed God which are distinctly revealed to us in his own word; in addition to which there are other and more general ascriptions of excellence to him, which though, from the very greatness of the subject, and the imperfection of human conception and human language, they are vague and indeter­minate, serve, for this very reason, to heighten our conceptions of him, and to set before the humbled and awed spirit of man an overwhelming height and depth of majesty and glory.

God is perfect. We are thus taught to ascribe to him every natural and moral excellence we can conceive; and when we have done that, we are to conclude, that if any nameless and unconceived glory be neces­sary to complete a perfection which excludes all deficiency; which is capable of no excess; which is unalterably full and complete-it exists in him. Every attribute in him is perfect in its kind, and is the most elevated of its kind. It is perfect in its degree, not falling in the least below the standard of the highest excellence, either in our conceptions, or those of angels, or in the possible nature of things itself. These various perfections are systematically distributed into incommunicable, as self existence, immensity, eternity, omniscience, omnipotence, and the like, because there is nothing in creatures which could be signified by such names; no common properties of which these could be the common terms, and therefore, they remain peculiarly and exclusively proper to God himself: and communicable, such as wisdom, goodness, holiness, justice, and truth, because, under the same names, they may be spoken of him and of us, though in a sense infinitely inferior. But all these perfections form the one glorious perfection and fulness of ex­cellence which constitutes the Divine nature. They are not accidents, separable from that nature, or superadded to it; but the are his very nature itself, which is and must be perfectly wise and good, holy and just, almighty and all-sufficient. This idea of positive perfection, which runs through the whole of Scripture, warrants us also to conclude, that where negative attributes are ascribed to God, they imply always a positive excellence. Immortality implies "an endecaying fulness of life ;" and when God is said to be invisible, the meaning is, that he is a being of too high an excellency, of too glorious and transcendent a nature, to be subject to the observation of sense.

God is all-sufficient. This is another of those declarations of Scripture, which exalt our views of God into a mysterious, unbounded, and undefined amplitude of grandeur. It is sufficiency, absolute plenitude and fulness from himself, eternally rising out of his own perfections; for himself, so that he is ALL to himself, and depends upon no other being; and for all that communication, however large and however lasting, on which the whole universe of existent creatures depends, and from which future creations, if any take place, can only be supplied. The same vast thought is expressed by St. Paul, in the phrase "ALL IN ALL," which, as Howe justly observes, (Posthumous Works,) "is a most godlike phrase, wherein God doth speak of himself with Divine great. ness and majestic sense. Here is an ALL in ALL; an all comprehended, and an all comprehending; one create, and the other uncreated the former contained in the latter, and lost like a drop in the ocean, in the all comprehending, all-pervading, all-sustaining uncreated fulness." "In him we live, and move, and have our being."

God is unsearchable. All we see or hear of him is faint and shadowy manifestation. Beyond the highest glory, there is vet an unpierced and unapproached light, a track of intellectual and moral splendour untraveled by the thoughts of the contemplating and adoring spirits who are nearest to his throne. The manifestation of this nature of God, never fully to be revealed, because infinite, is represented as constituting the reward and the felicity of heaven. This is " to see God. ' This is "to be for ever with the Lord." This is to behold his glory as in a glass, with unveiled face, and to be changed into his image, from glory to glory, in boundless progression and infinite approximation. Yet, after all, it will be as true, after countless ages spent in heaven itself, as in the present state, that none by "searching can find out God," that is, "to perfection." lie will then be "a God that hideth himself;" and widely as the illumination may extend, "clouds and darkness will still be round about him.-His glorious name is exalted above all blessing and praise.-Thine, 0 Lord is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty ; for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, 0 Lord, and thou art exalted as head over all.-BLESSED be the LORD God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things; and BLESSED be his glorious NAME for ever, and let the whole earth be filled with his GLORY. Amen and Amen."


[1] The accomplished Quinctilitan may be given as an instance of this, and also of what time apostle calls their sorrowing "without hope." In pathetically lamenting time death of his wife and sons, he tells us, that he had lost all taste for study, and that every good parent would condemn him, if he employed his tongue for any other purpose than to accuse time gods, and testify against a Providence. "Quis enim bonus parens mihi ignoscat, ac non odorit hanc aniani inei firmitatem, si quis in me est alms usus vocis, quam ut incusem deos, superstes omnium meorum, nullam terras despicere providentiam tester ?" (Instut. Lib. 6.)