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THE following Letter, somewhat defaced, and without signature, was
lately found among the papers of an aged person, deceased. From the time and place of its date, and from the evidence of tradition, there is full reason to believe it was written by the Rev. Dr. Johnson, first President of King's College, New-York. Not to say any thing of its contents, the circumstances under which it appcars to have been written are a proof of the veneration which was entertained for the Doctor among Christians of different denominations, and of the readiness with which he set himself to instruct those who applied to him for that purpose, which it is known was a remarkable trait in his character,
A LETTER to Mr. SAMUEL BROWNE, of Waterbury, in answer to
his Letter of December 28, 1737, in defence of absolute predestination.
STRATFORD, JANUARY 1, 1737-8, DEAR SIR, :
I AM very well pleased with the nervous reasoning of your modest and ingenious letter of December 28, and wish I had leisure to return so large and particular an answer as it deserves: I will, however, offer a few short strictures upon what you therein advance in favour of the doctrine of absolute and personal decrees concerning the future eternal condition of men, after this life. In order to which, I would first observe to you, that what prejudices me against that doctrine is, that it manifestly appears to me to be contrary to the divine attributes, to many plain texts of scripture, and to the general drift and design of the whole word of God.
This doctrine appears contrary to the nature and attributes of God, in that it seems plainly inconsistent with the very notion of his being a moral Governor of the world, since it necessarily implies in it a design in him to lay his creatures under a necessity of being sinful, and miserable to all eternity, antecedent to any consideration of their demerit, and this out of a most selfish view of seeking his own glory at the expense of their eternal misery; and besides this, it implies a manifest double dealing with them, in declaring, and that even with an oath, his earnest desire of their happiness, while he secretly designs their infallible ruin. It also appears contrary to a a great many plain texts of holy scripture, which so often assure us that God is not willing that any should perish, but would have all to come to repentance, and be saved; and that for this end, Christ tasted death for every man, and became a propitiation for the sins of the whole world, * &c. And lastly, it seems manifestly repugnant to the general drift of the whole scriptures, (which is plainly to engage mankind to all holiness in heart and life,) there being nothing that can so [effectually tend to cut the sinews of all our endeavours to repent and obey, as even the most distant surmise, that possibly all our exertions may prove fruitless;t) since, for aught we know, we may
* And gave himself a ransom for all, nay even for those that by denying the Lord that bought them, bring on themselves swift destruction.../
2 Pet. ii. 1, and iii. 9; 1 Tim. ii. 4, 6; Heb. ii. 9; 1 John ii. 2. 1 The passages in brackets are supplied, not being legible in the MAS,
be excluded from all possibility of succeeding by an absolute and inexorable decree of reprobation: whereas on the contrary, nothing can more effectually tend to engage us to be holy as God is holy, rightcous as he is righteous, and merciful as he our Heavenly Father is merciful, than those amiable apprehensions which represent him as being in and through Christ, an universal and irrespective lover of the souls that he has made, and sincerely and solicitously desirous of their happiness, in proportion to their several capacities, and ready, without respect of persons, for his sake to lend them all the aid and assistance necessary thereto, so far as can consist with treating them as being what they are, and what he has made them ; i. e. free, selfexerting, and self-determining agents, and to make all the tender and merciful allowances for their frailty that can consist with the sincerity of their obedience, and his righteousness and authority in the government of the world; and this I take to be the idea or conception of him, which, agreeably to the light of nature, the holy scriptures universally give us concerning him. On which accounts if there be any difficulties from either reason or scripture, (as to me there appear none, but what by attentive consideration may be casily surmounted) yet, methinks, we should be strongly inclined, for God's sake, as well as our own, if possible, to get over them; and whatever obscure texts there are, that may seem to carry a different sound with them, to interpret them (as in fact the Church of God always did, in her best and purest ages) into a consistency with the divine attributes, and those many plain texts that are entirely consonant to them, and the general drift of the whole word of God; being well assured that whatever be the meaning of those few obscure texts, they cannot possibly mean any thing contrary either to the light of nature, or any other texts of scripture; or any thing that can tend to make us negligent, or to quiet us in our sins, or to discourage or dishearten us in our utmost endeavours to reform our lives, and bring forth the fruits of holiness and new obedience.
You have mentioned but two texts to support the doctrine of ab. solute personal decrees relating to the eternal state of men, and they are, Rom. ix. 6. &c. and Eph. i. 4. and what I shall say on these texts may be applied to most, if not all others that relate to this subject. And, first, as to Rom. 9, in order to the solution of what difficulties may seem to arise from this text, we must distinguish between talents bestowed on men in this life, which is a state of probation, and the retribution to be awarded in the life to come, according to what use men make of them here. In the one, God acts as a sovereign Lord of his favours; and in the other, as a righteous Judge of the behaviour of his creatures under them. Justice seems evidently to require, that in giving being to a creature, it be placed in a condition that is (in the whole of its circumstances and duration) better than not to be, or that renders being desirable to it, every thing considered ; nor can it, I think, consist with justice to put a creature into a state that is, in the whole, worse than not to be at all, unless it be for its own personal demerit. But all that is bestowed upon it, beyond a condition that does, in the whole, render
being desirable, is matter of favour and grace. Now, in the distribution of talents, which are favours, it will be readily allowed, that God may deal as he pleases. He may bestow his favours to whom, and in what measure and manner he thinks fit, and none can reasonably complain. In this, he is sovereign and arbitrary; allotting to one the nature and condition of a man; to another that of an angel; to one man, or number of men, one talent, viz. the light of nature; to another, two talents, viz. Judaism; and to another, five, viz. Christianity ; to one man a healthy, to another a sickly constitution; to one poverty, to another riches; to one small abilities and mean advantages; to ano. ther large powers and great opportunities for learning, &c. [In these and the like distributions of his favours in this state of probation, I allow God's decrees to be absolute and personal, as well as national;] but this is but a temporary and probationary state : whereas, in the state of retribution, after this life, the condition of men will be de. cided for all eternity, not according to what they have rcceived here, but according to what improvements they have made : there an absolute decision has nothing to do : God's decrees and dispensations, therefore, with regard to that state, can imply nothing else but his resolution to treat all men according to the use they shall have made of his several allotments to them in this world, in exact proportion to what they had received.
Now I cannot find, by attending to the language of St. Paul, or the occasion and scope of his reasoning, in the epistle to the Romans, that the 9th chapter has any direct relation to the condition of men after this life, or what retribution God will make to them then, in proportion to their behaviour here in the use of the talents he has committed to their trust; but it is manifestly to be understood of the various distributions of his talents and favours to them during this their state of probation, in choosing or rejecting whom he pleases, with regard to the privileges of being his peculiar people, in which he is merely sovereign and arbitrary. He was so in choosing the secd of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, at first to enjoy the great talent of revealed religion, and the promise of the Messiah, and in rejecting that of Ishmael and Esau from that favour, though they were Rot destitute of a good degree of favour, in enjoying the lesser tal. ent of the light of nature, and so he was now in rejecting the Jews for a time, and calling the Gentiles to the yet greater and inestimable talent of the gospel : I say, of these St. Paul is to be understood ; for it is manifest that those passages of Jacob and Esau, and of Isaac and Ishmael are not to be understood of the persons themselves, (much less of their eternal state) but of the nations to descend from them, as will appear, if you look into the texts in Genesis, from whence they are quoted. Thus of Jacob and Esau it was said to Rebecca, Gen. xxv. 23. Two nations are in thy womb, two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; the one people shall be stronger than the other people, and the elder shall serve the younger: And that text, Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated, quoted from Mal. i. 2. 3. is manifestly to be understood, not of the persons, but of the nations. Where, by the way, neither is God's
hatred of Esau to be understood to imply absolute hatred, for he had a good blessing, but only of a less degree of love, according to a known figure of speech in the Hebrew language, in which, that is frequently spoken absolutely, which is meant comparatively. In the same sense, Christ says, He that hateth not father and mother, &c. cannot be my disciple....Luke xiv. 26, where surely he cannot be understood to mean absolute hatred, but only a less degree of love : and so he explains himself in another place, by saying, He that lovcth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me....Mat. x. 37. So that God's hating Esau only means that he loved Jacob, i. e. the people of Israel, more than Esau, i. e, the people of Edom, and bestowed greater talents on one than on the other.
It is therefore only with respect to the bestowment of certain spe. cial privileges and talents in this life, that St. Paul is here to be understood when he says v. xvi, It is not of him that willeth, (for Abraham wished, Othat Ishmael might live!) nor of him that runneth, (for Esau ran to fetch the venison, that he might get the blessing, but of God that sheweth mercy; who therefore, in the bestowment of favours Chath mercy on whom he will have mercy, and hath compassion on whom he will have compassion:] for here justice hath nothing to do; so that in distributing his favours, there can be no unrighteousness in him : He may do what he will with his own: and with respect to these it may justly be said, who art thou, O man, that replest against God ?
Shall the thing formed say unto him that formed it, why hast thou made me thuis? hath not the potter power over the clay to make of the same lump, one vessel to honour and another to dishonour ? Where yet it must be observed that vessels made for dishonourable or less hon. ourable services, have yet some degree, some interest in their owner's love and favour. But all this has nothing to do with the distributions of the life to come: There justice alone takes place, which consists only in exactly proportioning rewards and punishments to men, according to their good or ill conduct in the use of the several favours and talents committed to them in this life. · But you will perhaps say, is not the example of Pharaoh, v. 17. to be understood with regard to the retributions of the life to come? I answer, No. For St. Paul was as well concerned to vindicate the justice of God in rejecting the Jews for their perverseness, as the sovereignty of God in freely bestowing his gospel favours upon the Gentiles. To this purpose therefore, it is, that he alledgeth the instance of Pharaoh, that he might justify God's dealings in rejecting the Jews, and justly hardening their hearts, i.e. leaving them to the hardness of their hearts in rejecting Christ; as he had justly hardened Pharaoh's heart, i. e. left him to the hardness of his heart in resisting the force of the miracles he had wrought for his conviction; and. to shew, that God might justly make the Jews monuments of his wrath in cutting them off from being a people, for their obstinate rejecting of Christ, as he had made Pharaoh a monument of his wrath, in the eyes of the world, for his obstinacy in hardening his heart against all the means used for his conviction. And that expression, For this cause have I raised thee up, &c. does not mean, For this cause have I given thee bcing, but For this causc have I made thee to stand,
as the Hebrew word imports, i.e. for this cause have I supported thee and prolonged thy life through one plague after another, that I might, for thy obstinacy and perverseness, make thee an illustrious example of my vengeance to all the earth. And whom he will, he hardeneth, means only, whom he will of those who deserve to be abandoned for their obstinacy, proceeding according to his wise and righteous good pleasure, in the government of the world, he justly leaves to the hardness of their hearts, for the terror of others, as he did Pharaoh, and was now in like manner determined to leave the Jews for their obstinate wickedness in rejecting and crucifying Christ. But what has all this to do with any absolute decrees of God, and especially with regard to the personal and eternal state of men ? And thus much for the 9th of Romans. · As to your other text, Eph. i. 4. you know the Ephesians were mostly Gentiles, though there might be some Jews among them, and the design of that expression of choosing them in Christ before the foundation of the world, was probably, as Dr. Whitby supposes, to obviate a notion that had obtained among the Jews, which we find in their writers, as though God had chosen them only in the Messiah that was to come, and that before the foundation of the world, which they conceited was made for their sakes: whereas, the Apostle, in allusion to their way of speaking, would have them know that they ought not to arrogate the notion of any such privilege to them. selves alone ; but that God had chosen or designed the Gentiles, as well as them, to have the benefit of the Messiah, and that before the foundation of the world, that they might be holy or sanctified to God in him, and be engaged by faith in him, to lead holy and virtuous lives here, and so be happy forever hereafter. And accordingly it may be truly said of all that are called to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, that they are chosen in Christ as being at least externally members of his body the Church, to have the great talent of the gospel committed to them, [and that for this end, that by the dispensation of the gospel,] they might learn to be holy in all manner of conversation, and be thereby partakers of the benefits of that adoption, they were predestinated unto : For all that are baptized are as to their external standing in the family and houschold of God, and so are the reputed children of God, having a conditional title to the eternal inheritance, and are really such, and will finally be treated as such, by being put into the possession of that heavenly inheritance provided for them, if they yield a filial obedience to God conformable to the gospel, and persevere faithful to their high and holy calling to the end of their days. Now I cannot see that this text need, or can reasonably be supposed, (consistent with other texts,) to imply any such absolute personal decree concerning the eternal condition of men as you plead for: So far from this, that it is the condition only of future happiness that is here spoken of.
Upon the whole, it seems to me, that the right way of forming a just notion of God's decrees, is to judge of them by the facts as they really are before our eyes. There are in fact a great variety of privi. leges and talents actually bestowed: Therefore God, as the sovereign lord of his favours, decreed there should be such a variety.