James Henley Thornwell

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Earliest Inklings of a Long Discussion

It was on this day, December 17th, in 1840, that James Henley Thornwell wrote of his intention to address an issue which would then be debated in the Presbyterian Church for the next twenty years.

Readers will please consider the following as an initial dipping of the toe in some very deep waters. Students of American Presbyterian history will (or should) know something of the famous “Board Debates” of the 19th-century. All others will no doubt be suitably bored to tears. 😉

The Board Debates began in earnest in 1841 and continued on until their culmination in the famous debate between Thornwell and Hodge on the floor of the General Assembly in 1860. By some accounts, the debate continued on for another few decades at least. These Debates were essentially a leftover or unaddressed issue that resulted from the 1837 split of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. into Old School and New School factions. That split had occurred for a number of reasons, but the heart of the matter lay in the 1801 Plan of Union, whereby Congregationalists and Presbyterians worked in concert to plant churches throughout the rapidly expanding western territories. That association between the two denominations soured when the heterodox New Haven Theology began to spread first among Congregationalists and subsequently among Presbyterians.


To see the Board Debates sketched out, click here. For a thorough examination of the Board Debates, see Kenneth J. Foreman, Jr.’s doctoral dissertation
, The Debate on the Administration of Missions Led by James Henley Thornwell in the Presbyterian Church, 1839-1861.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of The Life & Letters of James H. Thornwell (1875), by Benjamin M. Palmer, pertaining to the Board DebatesNote too Dr. Palmer’s aside concerning both Thornwell’s temper and his prevailing humility:—

thornwell02It has been stated, in a preceding chapter, that most of the discussions in which Dr. Thornwell was engaged, were a sort of remainder from the original controversy by which the Church was rent, in 1837-1838. The first that emerged into view was the discussion about Boards. During the period when the Church was brought under a species of vassalage to Congregationalism, the great National Societies, which usurped her functions, conducted their operations by the agency of Boards. The Church had become familiar with that mode of action; and when the effectual blow was struck for her emancipation, this was supposed to be fully accomplished, when these national organizations were disowned. The great principle upon which the argument turned, that the Church, in her organized form, must do her own work, was supposed to be satisfied, when Boards exactly analogous were established by the Church herself, as the agents by whom her will was to be carried out. It could not be long, however, before it was perceived that the above-named cardinal principle must be extended further: that a Board, consisting of many members, distributed over a large territory, to whom her evangelistic functions were remitted, did not satisfy the idea of the Church acting in her own capacity, and under the rules which the Constitution prescribed for her guidance. Dr. Thornwell was one of those who planted themselves firmly against their continuance in the Church. It is not the business of the biographer to discuss his views, but only to afford him the opportunity of presenting them. It may be remarked, however, that he was not opposed to combined or united action on the part of the Church, but only insisted that the central agency should be simply executivethe mere instrument by which the Assembly acts, and not an agent standing in the place of the Assembly, and acting for it. The first occasion on which he publicly developed his views was at the meeting of the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia; where a stiff debate was held upon the principles involved, and in which the Rev. Thomas Smyth, D. D., of Charleston, S. C, was his chief antagonist. An incident is related of this debate, so characteristic of the man, that it deserves to be recorded. In the heat of the discussion, he suffered himself to be borne beyond the bounds of strict propriety. The old spirit of invective and sarcasm, which later years so perfectly subdued, manifested itself in expressions a little too scornful of his opponent, and the impression was not pleasant upon the house. It so happened that his speech closed exactly at the hour of recess at noon, and there was no opportunity for rejoinder. Immediately upon re-assembling, he arose and apologised in handsome terms for the discourtesy into which he had been betrayed, and declared his profound esteem for the learning, ability, and piety of his adversary. It was done so spontaneously, and with such evident sincerity, that criticism was completely disarmed; and there was a universal feeling of admiration for the magnanimity and courage which could so fully redeem a fault.

Words to Live By:
Thornwell’s views derived from a core principle—the idea that God is sovereign over His Church. His sovereignty is manifest in doctrine, in worship, and in polity or governance. In each of these three aspects of the Church, God has, in the Scriptures, revealed His sovereign will for the Church. We have no right to invent doctrine, we have no right to invent ways to worship Him, and we have no right to introduce structures and practices for the operation of His Church, other than what is revealed in His Word. That in sum is, I think, a fairly accurate summary of the heart of Thornwell’s system of thought. Others may disagree with him, but you have to admire Thornwell for never having backed away from his convictions.

Never mock a man for his studied convictions. If someone has put a lot of time, study and thought into carefully weighing a matter, then they at least deserve your respect, even if you disagree with them. If you must mock anyone at all, reserve your mockery for those who give little thought to a matter yet come down hard on one side or the other of an issue. Rash conclusions deserve to be belittled. Careful students, on the other hand, are in short supply and should be valued, wherever we find them.

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BCO is Presby-speak for Book of Church Order. It is the document that guides the organization, the discipline and the worship of the Church. Every Presbyterian denomination has a similar constitutional document, though they may call it by slightly different names.

The PCA was organized in 1973, but based its BCO on that of the denomination that they were separating from, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (aka, the Southern Presbyterian Church). To trace the lineage further, it may be less confusing to simply set out a chronology:

1789 – Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. adopts its Constitution, including the Form of Government, Forms of Process and Directory for Worship.
1821 – First revision of the PCUSA Book of Church Order.
1837 – Division of the PCUSA into Old School and New School factions.
1857 – The Old School PCUSA moves to revise the Book of Discipline section of their BCO [see our story below]
1861 – The Old School PCUSA divides north and south, thus creating the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern Presbyterian Church)
1867 – First draft of the PCUS Book of Church Order
1879 – First approved edition of the PCUS BCO [though minus the Directory for Worship]
1925 & 1929 – Major revisions of the PCUS BCO were adopted
1933 – This was the edition of the PCUS BCO upon which the PCA based its BCO, with some important revisions. (and we’ve been tweaking it ever since!)

If you’re still with us, here now is an account of the story behind the PCUSA’s attempted revision of their Book of Discipline, in 1857. Though never actually adopted, the committee’s draft is important because that work so reflected the thinking of James Henley Thornwell, and while Thornwell died early in 1862, he had greatly influenced the men who later picked up the work of drafting a Book of Church Order for the Southern Presbyterians. This 1857 draft of the Book of Discipline was a masterful revision of the old PCUSA Book, and it served as the guiding model for the discipline section of the PCUS Book of Church Order and thus, in turn, the PCA’s Book of Church Order.

So, coming to our story, in The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell, by Benjamin M. Palmer (pp. 428), we read the following account :

thornwell02“The only part of the proceedings of the Assembly of 1857 with which these Memoirs are concerned, was the appointment of a Committee to revise the Book of Discipline, with Dr. Thornwell as its Chairman. The subject came up before the Assembly through two overtures, one from Dr. R.J. Breckinridge, proposing a change from Presbyterial to Synodical representation, and a limitation of the General Assembly to fifty ministers and fifty ruling elders, each; the other from the Presbytery of Philadelphia, proposing a form of judicial proceedings.

The first suggestion was, to commit these topics to suitable men for consideration, who should report to the next Assembly. This was enlarged so as to require an examination and revision of the whole Book of Discipline. The Rev. Dr. Hoge, of Ohio, proposed to add the Form of Government also as a subject for revision, which was resisted by Dr. Thornwell, on the ground that the Church was not yet prepared for this. This measure was therefore dropped, and the Book of Discipline was put for revision into the hands of a committee, consisting of Rev. Drs. Thornwell, Breckinridge, Hodge, Hoge, McGill, Swift, and Judges Sharswood, Allen and Leavitt.

It may be added, that the subject continued to be under discussion until the breaking out of the war, and the separation of the Southern Church from the Northern. It was taken up in the Southern Assembly after its organization, under a committee of its own, which reported a revised code for adoption. The Presbyteries not being sufficiently agreed, the work was laid by; and thus the matter at present rests. The reader will be interested in the following letter from the lamented Dr. Van Rensselaer, the Moderator by whom the appointment of the original committee was made. It is addressed to Dr. Thornwell:

Philadelphia, August 10, 1857.

van rensselaerMY DEAR BROTHER: I feel some solicitude about the results of the action of the committee, appointed by the last Assembly, to revise our Book of Discipline. I say solicitude, chiefly because I had the responsibility of the appointment of the committee, as Moderator. On reviewing the whole matter frequently, I have always come to the conclusion that I could not have done better. I firmly believe that it is in your power to bring in a report satisfactory to the great body of our people. The reasons why I named you as chairman were, first, your conservative views on the subject of altering our Book; second, your influence in carrying the question in the Assembly; third, the great confidence and love of the Church towards you, and the respect entertained of your mental endowments; fourth, I wished to avoid the appearance of giving too much predominance to this section of the Church; fifth, I was strongly drawn towards you that night, by an influence which seemed to me more like a special Divine influence than anything I remember to have experienced during my whole life. My mind was led to you, and to none but you.

“Under these circumstances, I have a strong desire to see the work done, and done by you; and I believe that, under God, you can do it. Alterations in the book are unquestionably called for; and if they are made with judgment and decision, and are not too numerous, the Presbyteries will adopt them.”

Here follow some matters of detail, as to the meeting of the committee. Then the letter concludes:

“Praying that you may fulfill the best hopes of the Church in the important work committed to your care, I am,
“Yours respectfully and fraternally,
C. VAN RENSSELAER.”

Words to Live By:
Despite how things may seem at times—and they can seem bleak indeed—we must keep coming back to this firm assurance, that God is sovereign over His Church. He is guiding it inexorably toward His intended destination, and He will never fail in His purpose.

Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen. (Jude, vss. 24-25, KJV)

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Earliest Inklings of a Long Discussion

It was on this day, December 17th, in 1840, that James Henley Thornwell wrote of his intention to address an issue which would then be debated in the Presbyterian Church for the next twenty years.

Readers will please consider the following as an initial dipping of the toe in some very deep waters. Students of American Presbyterian history will (or should) know something of the famous “Board Debates” of the 19th-century. All others will no doubt be suitably bored to tears. 😉

The Board Debates began in 1841 and continued on until their culmination in the famous debate between Thornwell and Hodge on the floor of the General Assembly in 1860. By some accounts, the debate continued on for another few decades at least. These Debates were essentially a leftover or unaddressed issue that resulted from the 1837 split of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. into Old School and New School factions. That split had occurred for a number of reasons, but the heart of the matter lay in the 1801 Plan of Union, whereby Congregationalists and Presbyterians worked in concert to plant churches throughout the rapidly expanding western territories. That association between the two denominations soured when the heterodox New Haven Theology began to spread first among Congregationalists and subsequently among Presbyterians.


To see these debates sketched out, click here. For a thorough examination of the Board Debates, see Kenneth J. Foreman, Jr.’s doctoral dissertation
, The Debate on the Administration of Missions Led by James Henley Thornwell in the Presbyterian Church, 1839-1861.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of The Life & Letters of James H. Thornwell (1875), by Benjamin M. Palmer. Note too Dr. Palmer’s aside concerning both Thornwell’s temper and his prevailing humility:—

thornwell02It has been stated, in a preceding chapter, that most of the discussions in which Dr. Thornwell was engaged, were a sort of remainder from the original controversy by which the Church was rent, in 1837-1838. The first that emerged into view was the discussion about Boards. During the period when the Church was brought under a species of vassalage to Congregationalism, the great National Societies, which usurped her functions, conducted their operations by the agency of Boards. The Church had become familiar with that mode of action; and when the effectual blow was struck for her emancipation, this was supposed to be fully accomplished, when these national organizations were disowned. The great principle upon which the argument turned, that the Church, in her organized form, must do her own work, was supposed to be satisfied, when Boards exactly analogous were established by the Church herself, as the agents by whom her will was to be carried out. It could not be long, however, before it was perceived that the above- named cardinal principle must be extended further: that a Board, consisting of many members, distributed over a large territory, to whom her evangelistic functions were remitted, did not satisfy the idea of the Church acting in her own capacity, and under the rules which the Constitution prescribed for her guidance. Dr. Thornwell was one of those who planted themselves firmly against their continuance in the Church. It is not the business of the biographer to discuss his views, but only to afford him the opportunity of presenting them. It may be remarked, however, that he was not opposed to combined or united action on the part of the Church, but only insisted that the central agency should be simply executive: the mere instrument by which the Assembly acts, and not an agent standing in the place of the Assembly, and acting for it. The first occasion on which he publicly developed his views was at the meeting of the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia; where a stiff debate was held upon the principles involved, and in which the Rev. Thomas Smyth, D. D., of Charleston, S. C, was his chief antagonist. An incident is related of this debate, so characteristic of the man, that it deserves to be recorded. In the heat of the discussion, he suffered himself to be borne beyond the bounds of strict propriety. The old spirit of invective and sarcasm, which later years so perfectly subdued, manifested itself in expressions a little too scornful of his opponent, and the impression was not pleasant upon the house. It so happened that his speech closed exactly at the hour of recess at noon, and there was no opportunity for rejoinder. Immediately upon re-assembling, he arose and apologised in handsome terms for the discourtesy into which he had been betrayed, and declared his profound esteem for the learning, ability, and piety of his adversary. It was done so spontaneously, and with such evident sincerity, that criticism was completely disarmed; and there was a universal feeling of admiration for the magnanimity and courage which could so fully redeem a fault.

This discussion is thus referred to in the first of many letters it will be our pleasure to transcribe, addressed to Dr. R. J. Breckinridge, with whom he was thoroughly associated in the discussion of all these Church questions:

 “COLUMBIA, December 17, 1840.

“REV. AND DEAR SIR :
Above you have a draft on the Commercial Bank of Pennsylvania for seventy dollars. I endeavoured to procure one on some of the banks of Baltimore, but could not succeed. You will please apply the money to the Evangelical church at Lyons, and the Theological Seminary at Geneva. I read to my people the correspondence between your church and that of Lyons, and between yourself and J. H. Merle d’Aubigne; and without any other solicitation than what is contained in your Magazine, they made up among themselves the amount forwarded. It is but a pittance, but still it is a free-will offering. You may give half to the church and half to the Seminary.

You will probably hear exaggerated accounts of the discussion in our Synod on the subject of Boards and Agencies. For your February number, I intend to send you a document which I have carefully prepared upon this subject, and which has received the sanction of a very respectable minority among us. I would have sent it to you before; but affliction in my family, combined with other circumstances which it is useless to mention, prevented me from complying with the promise which I made in Philadelphia

“ Your sincere friend and Christian brother,

J. H. THORNWELL,.”

This was followed, a month later, with a fuller exposition of his views on the same subject, in a letter addressed also to Dr. Breckinridge:

“COLUMBIA, January 27, 1841.

“REV. AND DEAR SIR :

I have detained my manuscript in my hands much longer than I had any idea of doing, when I wrote to you before. My object in the delay has been to copy it; but day after day has passed over, and I have been so constantly occupied that I have had no time for the drudgery of re-writing it. I send it to you, therefore, with all the imperfections of a first draft. It was written before the meeting of our Synod, with the view of presenting it to that body, and in their name sending it as a memorial to the Assembly. This, how- ever, was not done. I submitted the manuscript to a few members of Synod, who cordially concurred in its leading statements. My object in publishing it is not to gain a point, but to elicit discussion. I believe that the Boards will eventually prove our masters, unless they are crushed in their infancy. They are founded upon a radical misconception of the true nature and extent of ecclesiastical power; and they can only be defended, by running into the principle against which the Reformers protested, and for which the Oxford divines are now zealously contending. This view of the subject ought to have been enlarged on more fully than has been done in the article, because the principle involved in it is of vital importance; but I thought it better to reserve a full discussion of it for some subsequent article.

“There is a fact connected with the influence of the Boards that speaks volumes against them. A few men in the Church have presumed to question the wisdom of their organization. These men are met with a universal cry of denunciation from all parts of the land. If, in their infancy, they (the Boards) can thus brow-beat discussion, what may we not expect from them in the maturity of manhood ?

“It is not to be disguised, that our Church is becoming deplorably secular. She has degenerated from a spiritual body into a mere petty corporation. When we meet in our ecclesiastical courts, instead of attending to the spiritual interests of God’s kingdom, we scarcely do anything more than examine and audit accounts, and devise ways and means for raising money. We are for doing God’s work by human wisdom and human policy; and what renders the evil still more alarming, is that so few are awake to the real state of the case. Your Magazine is the only paper in the Church that can be called a faithful witness for the truth. I do sincerely and heartily thank God for the large measure of grace which He has bestowed upon you. I regard the principles which you advocate of so much importance, that I could make any sacrifice of comfort or of means, consistent with other obligations, to aid and support you.

“I rejoice that you remember me and my poor labours in your prayers. My field of labour in the College is arduous and trying; but God has given me the ascendency among the students. I have an interesting prayer-meeting and a Bible-class. My sermons on Sunday are very seriously listened to; and I have succeeded in awaking a strong interest in the evidences of our religion.

“I have formed the plan of publishing an edition of ‘Butler’s Analogy,’ with an analysis of each chapter, a general view of the whole argument, and a special consideration of the glaring defects in the statement of Christian doctrine, with which the book abounds. It is a subject on which I have spent much patient thought, and on which I feel somewhat prepared to write. What think you of the scheme ? If you should favour it, any suggestions from you would be gratefully received. At some future day—I shall not venture to fix the time—you may expect an article from me on Natural Theology. I have been carefully collecting materials on the subject, and shall embody them in a review of Paley’s Theology,’ Bell and Brougham’s edition.

“In regard to the article on Boards,* I give you leave to abridge, amend, correct, wherever you deem it necessary. If you can conveniently do so, I would be glad to have you return the manuscript, as I have no copy of it.

“Sincerely yours,

J. H. THORNWELL.”

* This article appeared in the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, in 1841. It will be found in the fourth volume of his collected writings.

Words to Live By:
Thornwell’s views derived from a core principle—the idea that God is sovereign over His Church. His sovereignty is manifest in doctrine, in worship, and in polity or governance. In each of these three aspects of the Church, God has, in the Scriptures, revealed His sovereign will for the Church. We have no right to invent doctrine, we have no right to invent ways to worship Him, and we have no right to introduce structures and practices for the operation of His Church, other than what is revealed in His Word. That in sum is, I think, a fairly accurate summary of the heart of Thornwell’s system of thought. Others may disagree with him, but you have to admire Thornwell for never having backed away from his convictions.

Never mock a man for his studied convictions. If someone has put a lot of time, study and thought into carefully weighing a matter, then they at least deserve your respect, even if you disagree with them. If you must mock anyone at all, reserve your mockery for those who give little thought to a matter yet come down hard on one side or the other of an issue. Rash conclusions deserve to be belittled. Careful students, on the other hand, are in short supply and should be valued, wherever we find them.

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Our post today is drawn from Richard Webster’s History of the Presbyterian Church.

wilsonJamesPatriot_02The son of Rev. Dr. Matthew* and Elizabeth Wilson, James Patriot Wilson was born at Lewes, Sussex County, Delaware, February 21, 1769. His father was eminent as a physician and clergyman, and his mother was deemed a model in all her domestic and social relations. He was graduated with high honor at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, Pa., in August of 1788. So distinguished was he in the various branches, included in his collegiate course, that at the time of his graduation it was the expressed opinion of the Faculty that he was competent to instruct his classmates. He was at the same time offered a place in the University as Assistant Professor of Mathematics, but as his health was somewhat impaired and the air of his native place was more congenial with his constitution, he became an assistant in the Academy at Lewes, taking measures to regain his health, and occupying his leisure with reading history. Having devoted himself for sometime to the study of the law he was admitted to the bar in Sussex County, Delaware, in 1790.

In June, 1792, he was married to Elizabeth, daughter of John and Hannah Woods, of Lewes, Delaware, with whom he lived but little more than three years, as she died in December, 1795. She had two children, but neither of them survived her.

Though he had acquired a reputation as a lawyer that was perhaps unsurpassed perhaps in Delaware at the time, yet it was not long before he gave up this profession and entered the ministry. The death of his first wife may well have been what contributed to this change of course.

He was licensed to preach the gospel in 1804 by the Presbytery of Lewes, and in the same year was ordained and installed as pastor over the united congregations of Lewes, Cool Spring, and Indian River—the very congregations which had for many years enjoyed the ministry of his father.

In May of 1806, he was called, upon the death of Dr. Benjamin Rush (who had been his early and constant friend), to the pastoral charge of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He accepted the call, under the encouragement of his Presbytery, and relocateded to Philadelphia that same year. In May of 1828, he retired to his farm, near Hartsville, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, about twenty miles from the city, on account of the infirm state of his health, preaching nevertheless to his congregation as often as his health permitted. His resignation of his pastoral charge was not accepted till the spring of 1830. In the course of that season he visited the city and preached for the last time to his people. He died at his farm in the utmost peace, on December 9, 1830, and was buried on the 13th, in a spot selected by himself in the grave-yard of Neshaminy Church. His remains lie near the tomb of the celebrated William Tennant, the founder of the “Log College.” The degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred upon him by the University of Pennsylvania, in 1807.

Dr. Wilson was in person above the middle height, and had a countenance rather grave than animated, and expressive at once of strong benevolent feelings and high intelligence. He was affable and communicative, and generally talked so sensibly, or so learnedly, or so profoundly, that he was listened to with earnest attention.

About three years after the death of his first wife, he was married in May of 1798 to Mary, daughter of David and Mary M. Hall, and sister of the late Governor Hall, of Delaware. Mrs. Wilson later survived her husband by nine years, and died January 5, 1839. They had nine children, only two of whom survived into adulthood; one of which was the Rev. Dr. James P. Wilson, of Newark, New Jersey.

As an author Rev. Wilson published lectures upon some of the Parables and Historical Passages of the New Testament, in 1810; An Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of the Hebrew Language, 1812; Ridgely’s Body of Divinity, with Notes, 1814 ; A Series of Articles on The Primitive Government of the Christian Churches; also Liturgical Considerations (1833), along with many tracts and essays. For more on his various publications, see Annals of American Pulpit, by William B. Sprague, vol. 4, page 353.

[* A Memoir of Rev. Dr. Matthew Wilson can be found published in The Presbyterian Historical Almanac for 1863, on page 48.]

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Mercy Gives Rise to Atonement.

ThornwellJH_smAn important sermon by the Southern Presbyterian pastor and professor, James Henley Thornwell. The text of this sermon, as originally printed, was 72 pages long and it probably took Dr. Thornwell close to two hours to deliver this message, even if speaking at a fast rate. But getting past the length of his message, there is much here that is worth your time. It may seem to start slowly, and the reading may be challenging, but Thornwell quickly gets up to speed, and the content is good, solid theology drawn directly from Scripture. [Emphasis has been added for a key point toward the end of this transcript].

A Sermon, preached in the Chapel of the South Carolina College, on the 1st day of December, 1844.
by James H. Thornwell, Professor of Sacred Literature and Evidences of Christianity.
Published by Request.
Columbia: Printed by Samuel Weir, at the Southern Chronicle Office, 1845.

SERMON.

Romans 1:16.

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto Salvation to every one that believeth.”

The exultation and triumph with which the Apostle was accustomed to contemplate the provisions of the gospel show, that, to his mind, the scheme of redemption unfolded the perfections of the Divine character in an aspect of benignity to sinners, equally unexpected and glorious. The freshness of interest and intensity of enthusiasm, with which he habitually dwelt upon the Cross, were such as are wont to be elicited by a combination, in objects, of novelty and importance.—From it he had received full satisfaction upon questions which had awakened a deep curiosity and baffled the resources of his wisdom to resolve. A light had been reflected from the Person and Offices of Christ, which dissipated doubts that had painfully perplexed him, and revealed a prospect which might well endear to him a crucified Redeemer and change the current of his life. Discarding the refined system of licentiousness which renders the happiness of man a more important object than the moral government of God, and makes the distinctions between right and wrong mutable and arbitrary to save the guilty from despair, he assumes, in the masterly exposition, which he gives us, of the economy of grace, as the fundamental principle of his whol argument, the inseparable connection between punishment and guilt.—”The wrath of God,” he informs us, “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men”—”who will render to every man according to his deeds—unto them that are contentious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile.”

If sin be, in every instance, the object of Divine indignation; and such we perceive is the statement of the Apostle; it would seem to be impossible even for God, consistently with the perfections of His Own nature, to save the guilty from its doom. If every man must receive according to his deeds, and the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, the universality of guilt would seem to close the door upon every prospect of hope. Nature, at least, left the resources of her own strength, must always entertain distressing apprehensions, that perfection of government and the power of pardon are mutually destructive of each other, and that whatever, consequently, might be the mercy of God, He could hardly be expected to yield to its impulse at the expense of justice, holiness and truth. To those who are impressed with the magnitude of sin, the purity of God and the stern inflexibility of the divine law, the possibility of pardon is a question fraught with the profoundest interest and veiled in impenetrable gloom. It is the glory of the gospel to remove the perplexities of unaided reason, and to explain the method by which God can be just and, at the same time, justify those who are ungodly. On this account it is styled by the Apostle the power of God unto salvation. This expression he seems to have employed as an exact definition of the scheme of redemption. The gospel is not to be regarded as a simple revelation of the mercy of God and His ability to pardon; it is itself His power as a Saviour. The implication is irresistible that by the rich provisions of its grace and by them alone can the Lord deliver from going down to the pit; that, apart from the righteousness revealed to faith, Jehovah Himself, has not the power to receive the guilty into favour; that the mediation of Christ was the wonderful device of infinite wisdom to enable the Almighty, in consistency with justice, to save the lost. The phraseology of the text is a favourite mode in which the Apostle describes the mystery of the Cross. “For the preaching of the Cross,” he declares in his first Epistle to the Corinthians—”is to them that perish, foolishness, but unto us which are saved, it is the power of God. The Jews require a sign and the Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” To the same purport is a passage in Isaiah, in which Jehovah Himself solemnly refers to the grace of the gospel as constituting His strength to save from death. The disobedient and unprofitable, addressed under the symbol of briers and thorns, are exhorted to make their peace with God and what is remarkable they are directed to do so by “taking hold of His strength.” Now as faith in the Divine Redeemer is the only means to tranquility of conscience; as there is no peace to those who are strangers to the blood of the covenant, Jehovah’s strength, is evidently the same as the atonement of His Son. There lay His power to save; and independently of that, He could only be as a devouring flame to briers and thorns. “Who wold set the briers and thorns against me in battle? I would go through them, I would burn them together; or let him take hold of my strength that he may make peace with me; and he shall make peace with me.”

The Apostle, in his Epistle to the Galatians, seems to me directly to assert, that no scheme could have been devised, independently of the work of the Son of God, by which salvation could have been effected. “If there had been a law given, which could have given life, verily, righteousness should have been by the law; but the Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.” No method, in other words, could have been adopted, even in the plentitude of infinite power, by which God could acquit the guilty without the righteousness which His law demands’ and as such a righteousness is wholly impossible to human obedience, it must be secured by the mediation of a substitute. God cannot dispense with the claims of justice. His power to save is moral in its nature and cannot be exerted, cannot, in truth, be said to exist, while the law pronounces the sentence of death. The reasoning here is precisely analogous to that which succeeds the declaration of the text. The Gospel he pronounces to be the power of God unto Salvation, because “therein the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, the just shall live by faith.”

Such language must appear to those enigmatical and strange who view Christianity as little better than a republication of natural religion. Unaccustomed to the awful convictions of the malignity of sin and the holiness of God, which the enlightened understanding, through the pressure of conscience, is driven to adopt, they can perceive no difficulty in absolute forgiveness, and cannot consequently comprehend the mystery that restraints should be taken from the power of God, by the incarnation and death of the Redeemer. The necessity of the atonement, as assumed by the Apostle, is to them inexplicable jargon. The low views in which they indulge themselves, of the whole work and offices of the Saviour, are to be ascribed to imperfect apprehensions of the government of God. Their fundamental error consists in denying the need of satisfaction—in contemplating the Gospel in any other light than as “the power of God unto Salvation.” It is but a single step more, and the atonement itself is either formally discarded, or else frittered away through the subtle distinctions of philosophy and vain deceit. To appreciate aright the death and sufferings of Christ we must have a proper, if not an adequate, conception of the “needs be” into which He Himself resolved His undertaking; a needs be, which extended much farther than the fulfillment of prophecy; which had itself given rise to the predictions, in having given rise, in the depth of eternity, to the “counsel of peace.” We must enter into the meaning of the great Apostle when he measures the ability of God as a Saviour, by His power to provide a justifying righteousness.

The two great principles, on which the doctrine of atonement rests, are the inseparable connection between punishment and guilt, and the admissibility, under proper restrictions, of a surety to endure the curse of the law. The unpardonable nature of sin; the practicability of legal substitution, these are the pillars of the Christian fabric. In the first we acknowledge the indispensable necessity; in the other, the glorious possibility of an atoning Priest. In the first, we are taught the wages of sin; in the other, that they need not be reaped by ourselves. If the first were true to the exclusion of the second, eternal darkness would settle on the minds of the guilty; it is the second which opened the door of hope and furnished a field, magnificent and ample, in which God might display the resources of His wisdom and unfold the riches of His grace; be at once a just God and a Saviour.

The contemptuous confidence with which Sophists and Skeptics have denied the propriety of vicarious punishment, have evidently proceeded from the foolish apprehension that God, like ourselves, is bound to forgive upnn a confession of the fault. If these arrogant disputers of this world could be brought to feel the truth and severity of the first great principle on which the atonement has been stated to rest, they would cling to the second as the only anchor of hope; and instead of expending ingenuity in abortive efforts to undermine its strength, they would probably lay their learning under tribute to defend its fitness, while they permitted their heart to rejoice in its benignant aspect on the family of man. Let the position be firmly established that God can, by no means, clear the guilty; that sin must necessarily be punished, and all objections to the doctrine of suretyship would be given to the winds. To cling to them, under such circumstances, would be, with deliberate malice “to despise our own mercies.” The expectations of an easy pardon, secretly cherished, if not openly avowed, is the real source of pretended difficulties with “the righteousness of faith.” Hence, in discussing the doctrine of atonement, the foundations should be deeply and securely laid, in developing the Scriptural account of its necessity. Clear apprehensions upon this point would serve, at once, to define its nature, determine its extent, and put an end to cavils against its reality and truth.

The necessity of the atonement, it may be well to remark, is only the necessity of a means to an end.—The end itself, the salvation of the sinner, is, in no sense, necessary—that is the free and spontaneous purpose of Divine grace. Had all the tribes of men been permitted to sink into hopeless perdition, no violence would have been done to the nature of God, no breach been made in the integrity of His government. But the end having been determined, the death and obedience of Christ were indispensably necessary to carry it into execution : God could not receive the guilty into favor while the demands of His law were unsatisfied against them.

That the object of the atonement was to generate mercy in the Divine Being, to beget the purpose as well as the power to save, is the gratuitous caricature of those who have assailed the work, in order to deny the Divinity of the Redeemer. As well might it be pretended that the channel, which the torrent forces for itself among the rocks and declivities of the mountain, is itself the source of the impetuous current it conducts; or that the air, which daily transmits to us light and heat from the sun, is therefore the parent of these invaluable gifts. The mediation of Christ and the mercy of God are related to each other as cause and effect; but in an inverse order from that which is stated by Socinians; it is mercy that gives rise to atonement and not atonement that gives rise to mercy. The scriptural statement is: “God so loved the world, that He gave His Only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “God commendeth His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His Only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitation for our sins.” It was not, therefore, the design of the atonement to make God merciful–He was merciful before; it was not to generate the purpose of salvation; that had existed in the bosom of Deity from all eternity. It object was to render the exercise of mercy consistent with righteousness, to maintain the stability of the Divine throne and preserve the integrity of the Divine government, while outlaws and rebels were saved from the fate which their transgressions deserved. It is not in the nature of God to take pleasure in the death of the wicked; it is equally remote from His nature to disregard the distinctions of moral conduct and treat the wicked as the righteous. The atonement, therefore, was necessary, not, as Socinians slanderously report that we affirm, to touch the Divine Mind with compassion for the miserable; but, supposing the compassion to exist, to prepare the way by which it might be freely indulged with honour to God and safety to His Law as well as blessedness to man. The Gospel springs from mercy; and all its mysterious arrangements are only the contrivances of infinite wisdom, instigated by infinite grace, to acquire the power to save.

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A Sermon, preached in the Chapel of the South Carolina College, on the 1st day of December, 1844.
by James H. Thornwell, Professor of Sacred Literature and Evidences of Christianity.
Published by Request.
Columbia: Printed by Samuel Weir, at the Southern Chronicle Office, 1845.

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