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MATTHEW, CHAP. V.-VERSE 48.
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
PRACTICE is the end of all precepts and exhortations: laws are therefore enacted, that subjects may obey: exhortations are therefore added, that they may be encouraged to do their duty. It must then be a very great absurdity to make any thing, in its own nature impracticable, the subject matter either of command or advice. And does not the text seem liable to this objection? Is there any thing which men have more reason to think impossible to them, than to arrive at the perfections of the Deity? Why then are we commanded or exhorted to be perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect, since nothing but disappointment can be the issue of our strongest endeavors after this perfection, from which we stand excluded by the unalterable laws of nature? This difficulty is too obvious to escape any one's notice. Some therefore tell you that the text contains only matter of counsel or advice, but not of precept or command, and with this softening they think the difficulty may be digested; as if it were more reasonable, or more becoming an inspired teacher, to advise than to command impossibilities: whereas the only difference in the case is, that in matters of command we must either obey or suffer, in matters of counsel only we have a greater latitude allowed to us; so that with respect to ourselves it is more tolerable to be advised than to be commanded to things impracticable: but with respect to the lawgiver, it is one and the same thing, and his reason and equity can be no more justified in advising than in command
ing impossibilities. Others tell you that it is not equality, but quality of perfections that is enjoined in the text; that is, we are commanded to aim at the same perfections with God, though not in the same degree; that, as God is just, and righteous, and merciful, so must we endeavor to be just, and righteous, and merciful, though not to the same degree or extent that God is. This exposition avoids the difficulty complained of; for there is nothing extraordinary in commanding men to imitate the perfections of God in a degree suitable to their own nature and ability. But then this is an exposition, not arising from the circumstances of the text, which lead us to a more extensive view.
In the 43d verse our Saviour says, Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.' In the 44th verse he corrects the partiality of this law; but I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.' In the 45th and 46th verses, he confirms his own precept from the example and authority of God: that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven; for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For, if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same?' And in the 48th verse he concludes this argument in the words of the text; Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.' From whence it is evident that the quality or temper of mercy and compassion was not the thing recommended to us by our blessed Lord from the example of God, for that he told them even the publicans had in some degree, for they loved those who loved them; but it is the extent of this mercy and compassion which was discernible in the works of Providence, which he presses from this example: your Father in heaven is bountiful to the evil as well as the good; to the unjust as well as the just go ye therefore and do likewise, and learn from hence to love your enemies as well as your friends; to do good to those who hate you, as well as to those who love you. This certainly was recommending not only the temper of mercy, which is natural to the Deity, but also that
extensive exercise of it, that perfection of goodness, which shone forth in all his works.
Since then we can have no relief from expositions of this kind, we must consider the text in another view, and see what assistance we can have from the circumstances of the context, or the general reason in which the precept is founded. And these two inquiries will take in what is necessary to be known on this subject. For if we consider this precept as part of the gospel doctrine, it will be sufficient to know how far it may be extended on the authority of the gospel or if we consider it as a general maxim and rule of religion, which had a foundation in reason antecedent to the promulgation of the gospel, it will be sufficient to understand how far the reason of the command goes, and how it may be applied to the several duties of religion and morality.
First then, let us examine the text as it stands limited by the circumstances of the context.
It is evident from what has been already observed, that the precept of the text stands applied to the particular case of charity and mercy. Had it been otherwise, had our Saviour intended, in every instance of our duty, to refer us to the perfection of God, as the proper rule and measure of our obedience, this precept should have stood at the close of his sermon, which might have given it a reference to all that had gone before, and not been confined in the middle of his discourse to a particular duty. It is farther to be observed, that the instance of duty to which this precept is annexed, is illustrated by a particular mention of God's dealing with men in like cases. We are bid to love our enemies, and are told how merciful and compassionate God is to the evil and unjust; the natural application of the example lies in the exhortation of the text, that we should aim at that perfection of mercy and goodness, which we may every day see exercised by God towards us all. But in other instances of duty mentioned in this sermon, the example of God is not proposed; and considering the connexion between the example and the application, there can be no reason to carry the application to other cases, in which the same example is not proposed. Nay farther, there are some points of duty explained and enforced in this sermon on the
mount, to which neither the example nor the exhortation can be applied. Such are the duties arising from the relations which are peculiar to man, and no where else to be found: as in the case of afflictions and persecutions, which we ought to bear patiently, not in consideration of the example of the Deity, whom no afflictions can approach, but in consideration of his goodness and power, who thinks fit to inflict them on us. In the instance of mercy and forgiveness, to which the exhortation in the text stands applied, there can be no greater or properer motive to obedience than the example of our heavenly Father; it cuts off all the pretences which men have for anger or revenge. Has your enemy abused or affronted What then? Are you greater than God, who bears with so much lenity the perpetual abuses and affronts of wicked men? Or are you provoked to revenge the iniquities you behold, and to extirpate the profane and ungodly? Believe at least that God is not unconcerned for his own honor; and therefore, even in this case, you cannot be more safe or secure than by following the example which he sets you in the daily administrations of his providence.
Supposing then that this example is confined to the exercise of love and mercy; yet still, can we pretend to be as good and as merciful as God is, or does our Saviour require it of us? If not, where is the limitation to be placed? It must be placed undoubtedly where our Saviour himself has placed it. He tells you how imperfect the old doctrine was, because it required of us only to love our friends, and permitted us to hate our enemies but God, says he, loves and does good to his enemies as well as his friends. This is perfect love, not restrained by partialities. When therefore it follows, Be ye perfect, as your Father;' the precise meaning is, let your love be universal, unconfined by partialities, and with respect to its objects, as large as God's is: not that our love either to enemies or friends can be supposed in other respects, and as to the effects of it, to bear any proportion to the divine love.
But as in this case of extending our love, the example is proper, and therefore also the exhortation to follow it; so in others it would be very injurious to the Deity to suppose that any example could be drawn from his perfections. In our
present state of corruption, it is a great part of religion to govern our thoughts well, and the inward inclinations of our hearts; but it would be as reasonable to bid us govern the world as God governs it, as to govern our thoughts as he governs his : he is liable to none of the imperfections which make the government of our thoughts to be a necessary duty in us: he has told us, My thoughts are not as your thoughts :' and where there is no similitude in the cases, no example can be drawn from the one to the other. So that in this, and in many other instances which might be given, we have a duty incumbent on us, towards the due performance of which we can draw no example from the divine perfections. Since then the exhortation to imitate the divine perfections cannot reach to all parts of our duty, I see no reason why it should be extended to any on the authority of our Saviour, to which he himself has not extended it and as the use of it is peculiarly reserved in holy writ to the case of mercy and forgiveness, it ought by no means to be drawn into a general precept, to the perplexing as well the understandings as the consciences of the weak. St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, exhorts them to be 'followers of God, as dear children :' but then it is with regard to this very case: for he had said immediately before, chap. iv. 32. Be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake, hath forgiven you;' and, with reference to this duty, he adds, ver. 1st of the next chapter, Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children;' to which he subjoins, And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, giving himself for us:' ver. 2. So that his exhortation to follow God stands inclosed on both sides with the precepts of love and charity, as if he intended to secure it from being applied to any thing else. And if our Saviour meant any thing more in the text, if he had a view to any other duties or commands than that of love and mercy only, when he placed before us the example of our heavenly Father, St. Luke, I am sure, has done him great injury in reporting his doctrine. He, in the sixth chapter of his gospel, gives us the sermon on the mount; when he comes to the topic of love and forgiveness, he introduces the example of God, who is kind to the unthankful, and to the evil.' He concludes also with an