Thomas Chalmers

Lectures on Romans
Lectures on Romans -Rom.8:29

"For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren."

THERE IS a vast and immeasurable progression of events, between the conception of God's will in the depths of the eternity that is past, and the full consummation of that will in the yet unresolved mysteries of the eternity that is to come. And we occupy our given place along the line of that progression. We form one in the series of many generations; and, in our assigned part of this mighty chain, we can only see a little way on either side of it - because from our post of observation, and with our limited range of faculties, it soon loses itself both in the obscurity that is behind, and in the almost equal obscurity that is before us. Nevertheless we concede to Him who originated the whole of this wondrous process, that His eye reaches from the beginning to the end of it - that, from the lofty and uncreated summit of His own omniscience, He can descry all the successions of the universe that Himself hath made - that in the single fiat of His power, by which the mechanism of creation was called forth, and all its laws were ordained, there were comprehended all the events that take place in the history of nature or of providence - and that neither their variety can bewilder, nor their minuteness can elude the one glance, by which He is able to embrace all worlds, and look onward through an infinity of ages. And He doth thus foreknow, just because He did predestinate - just because in the very constitution of His work, there are the principles and the powers by which its every evolution is determined - just because the sovereignty that He hath over it, is far more absolute than that which the human artificer hath over all the operations and results of the machinery that he hath framed. It is not the only mode of conception in which we might regard the sovereignty of God, to imagine of every one event as isolated from all the others; but which still, at some period of high antiquity in the history of the Godhead, was made the subject of a distinct and authoritative ordination.

There is another mode, and by which the sovereignty would still be maintained in all its entireness - even to imagine of Him, that He brought forth the universe, just as a skilful inventor bringeth forth a piece of curious and complicated workmanship; and that He furnished it at the first with all the springs and the weights and the moving forces, that fix and ascertain both the most minute and the mightiest of its evolutions and that the wisdom by which He could frame the mechanism, is inseparable from the wisdom by which He could foresee all the particulars of its operation: And thus, just as you might say of him who maketh and who windeth up some array of human art, and who so is able to calculate and to predict all the consequent movements and positions of it at any point of the that may be specified, that it is he who by his own will hath determined through each of its separate footsteps the miniature history of his own little workmanship - in like manner may you say of the great and stupendous apparatus of creation, that all the facts and the futurities of its state at every moment, are determined by Him who called it into being at the first, and endued it at the first with all its properties.

We do not affirm in which of these ways it is that the affairs of tlìe divine government are conducted; but in either way, you concede to him who presideth over it, the entire and absolute sovereignty - in either way you realise the idea of a predestinating God. And we seldom meet with any disposition to question this entire and unexcepted sovereignty of God, in reference to the material world. In all the operations of a purely unconscious materialism. there is abundant willingness to admit a precise necessity, a rigid and unfailing ordination.

There is not a more impressive exhibition of this than in the simple but magnificent apparatus of the visible heavens - where, out of only two forces, those enormous masses that float in boundless vacancy, have for thousands of years persevered with mathematical certainty in the courses that God hath ordained for them - insomuch, that, even by the skill of man, the mystic complexity of these shining orbs hath been most beauteously unravelled; and, sure as geometry itself, the place and the velocity and the direction of every planet are most rigidly to be found. Now this is predestination; and it positively matters not to the question, whether the attual state of the heavens be willed by God at every one instant, or be the sure result of that invariable law which He at first impressed upon them.

And evcn in other departments of the material world, where the order of succeeding events hath hitherto baffled all human calculation, still it is held that there is such an order necessarily fixed by the laws of nature, or by the will of Him who hath established these laws - insomuch, that even the fluctuations of the weather are not at random; and a certain principle determines every fitful breeze, and every forming cloud, and every falling shower - though that principle hath not yet been seized upon by us, so as that we can prophesy a day of rain, just as we can prophesy the day of an eclipse. The vastness of Nature's variety, soon overpasses our feeble apprehension - yet it does not hinder our belief, that, apart from life and thought and volition, their reigns throughout the whole of its wide empire an unfailing necessity and, supposing that there were nought but blind and unconscious materialism in the world,we should not quarrel with the doctrine of predestination. We should recognise the appointment of God as descending even to the humblest event in the history of nature - as determining the force of every billow that breaks upon the shore - as prescribing both its velocity and path to every flying particle of dust that to our eye had been accidentally raised by some gale that blew over us - as conducting every vegetable seed to its determined spot; and so parcelling, as it were, over the soil of an uninhabited isl;and, all the varieties of the produce that it bore - So that it is not according to a fortuitous, but a rigidly preordained distribution of them, when we witness the trees that have arisen in one place; and the tufts of grass that abound in another; and places of rank luxuriance, where nevertheless there is not a blossom and not a stalk of herbage, that has not been set by an intelligent hand, and bidden into the very nook it occupies by that sovereign voice which assigns the bounds of every habitation.

Thus where there is nought but unconscious matter, we meet with no exception against the doctrine that God fixes all and predestines all; and that each process, however lengthened and however complicated, is overruled throughout by Him - so as that it goeth onward at every moment of time, with the sureness of mechanism: And, moreover, if, at any instant, you were to open your eyes on a landscape that had never been visited with human footstep, or rather that had never been disturbed by the spontaneous movement of any animal whatever - then it is questioned by few or by none, that the whole existing arrangement upon its surface is as it hath been ordered by the will of God; and standeth forth in all its most minute and subordinate details as He hath appointed it. Neither doth it disturb the conviction in our minds, that the influences which preside over this arrangement, or rather which actually gave rise to it, are so very complex, so very manifold, and to us so very much beyond the reach of all foresight and all calculation, that we are disposed to apply to the whole distribution of the things and objects within our contemplation the epithet of accidental - as of the breeze which wafted the downy seed to the random situation of the plant that afterwards sprung from it; or of the stream upon which it had alighted, and which carried it down to the jutting bank that detained and harboured it; or of the capricious weather, that gave to the future vegetation the very growth that was actually experienced, and the very strength and magnitude that were actually attained. We do make a heedless application of the term accidental to all these varieties - just because they are far too complex and bewildering for us to follow them in their history, or to trace them to their causes. Yet, nevertheless, when we do summon our attention to the topic, we do not refuse that the hand of God hath been in one and all of these countless diversities - that the flower which hath found its accommodation in the crevice of the rock has had its bed prepared by Him, and that He hath planted and watered it - that over the whole face of this wilderness, there is not an hairbreadth of deviation from that very picture of it, which was in the mind of the Divinity before that He evoked it into being - that design and destiny, in fact, are imprinted, in irreversible characters, on each individual specimen of botany in this yet untrodden land - that an intelligent finger did assign the precise locality and limits of every species, so that He hath fixed their residence, and marked their borders, with all the sureness of geometry- - and that, confused to our eyes as are these vast and varied assemblages which lie dispersed over some wide and solitary domain, yet, in this whole husbandry of nature, there is positively nought that hath fallen out at random, because under the absolute superintendence of Him who hath the elements in His hand, and each of which renders in His service the precise accomplishment of that whereunto He hath sent it.

We are all abundantly willing then to admit of an entire and absolute predestination, in the world of created matter; but it is when the same doctrine is extended to the world of created mind, that we shrink and are in difficulties. For example, let this solitary island, where Nature hath so long reigned and luxuriated without a rival, at length meet the observation of the voyager, and be recovered from its deep oblivion of ages - let it now become the peopled abode, both of animals and men - let new powers and new elements be thus brought to act upon its husbandry - let the skill and the labour and the intelligence of human creatures, spread a refined agriculture over the surface of it - So as to cause another distribution of the vegetable family, from that which obtained in the days of savage and solitary grandeur. Now you will remark that the actual state of this territory is not resolvable into the operation of physical causes alone; but is the mingled result of the physical blended with the moral - that the former influences, which wont to operate by themselves, are now comphicated with other influences still more capricious, or at least still less within the reach of calculation - that human thought and human choice now share an influence, over that arrangement which before was determined by the elements of nature.

Now what the predestinarian holds is, that the determination is just as precise and as necessary, after the accession of this new influence as it was before - that though living creatures have taken possession of the territory, yet that all its changes and all its processes are just as rigidly and as absolutely as ever under the sovereignty of God - that, in the dispersion of plants for example, the flying bird carries the seed to its destined spot with as great sureness, as it could be wafted there by the breeze of heaven - that the hoof of the unwieldy quadruped is as surely guided to crush the vegetation which God meaneth to be destroyed as are those invisible particles that float through the atmosphere, and are made to fall in blight or in mildew on those fields which they have spotted with disease that when the skipping deer hath dibbled by his foot a soft receptacle for the falling acorn, the law of gravitation hath not more determinately guided the one in a strict rectilineal path to that place, whence the magnificent oak of many centuries is to arise, than the law of animal nature hath brought the other with all its light and airy and tremulous motion to be the unconscious auxiliary therein.

Hitherto then all is destiny; and even when we pass upwardly to the doings of conscious and intelligent man, the sturdy predestinarian will not quit his hold; but affirms, that, even after the introduction of this new element, all is in as strict subordination to the will of God as before - that though the now cleared and cultivated farms, mind the well-kept gardens, and the beauteous shrubbery of rising villas, and all the comforts and ornaments of civilized life which grace the transformed landscape - that though these form a different picture of the island from that which we have imagined of it many generations before - Yet that the picture now, was in the mind of the Divinity before the creation of the world, as correctly and as vividly as the picture of it then - that He did not lose sight of it, when it passed from the operation of His own unconscious elements into the hands and the busy management of His own living, nay even of His own planning and purposing and rational creatures - that even then, it did not pass beyond the scope of God's prescience and of God's predetermination - that men are as certainly the instruments of His pleasure, as the fire and the air and the water that are said to be His ministers - Insomuch, that, in the glowing domains of art and population, every item of the perspective which is afforded, realised though it hath been by the busy hearts and hands of human beings, was also all settled and made sure in the counsels of eternity.

And it does give a semblance of great consistency and truth to this whole speculation - that, just as matter acts in virtue of certain powers and properties wherewith the Creator hath endowed it, so mind also hath powers and properties to which all its movements can be referred - and, more especially, that the part which man takes in the husbandry of the ground, may as distinctly he traced to the operation of a law in his nature, as the part which the elements have can be traced to certain fixed and unalienable principles, according to which they act on the physiology of the vegetable world. It is the Maker of all things who hath given to each of them its own peculiar characteristic, according to which each moves in its own peculiar and characteristic way. It is He, in particular, who hath adapted the economy of man's frame to the fruits of the earth; and who goads him on by the ever-recurring appetite of hunger; and who, making him wiser than the fowls of heaven, hath given to him a reach of anticipation through all the seasons of the year; and who hath enabled him to treasure up the experience of the past; and who hath supplied him with principles on which he can calculate and select and determine according to circumstances, and fix himself down in the abode of his settlement and on the field of his industry. And with these busy processes of choice a deliberation and the agency of motives, doth God not only decide the greater movements of his life, but in reality fills up all the subordinate details of it. And thus when man goeth forth unto his labour, he is all day long the creature of circumstances; and the soil, and the grain, and the exposure, and the local convenience, and the right successions for a profitable husbandry, and the facilities that may be opened, and the obstacles that must be overcome-. - -these act upon him as so many effective considerations every hour of the day, and they noeessarily guide and influence him even through the minutest details of his agriculture. And it is thus that we may detect a real process in his part of the operation as well as in the operation of the unconscious elements - a series of causes and effects, by which the instrument man, is directed in the husbandry of art, along with all the other instruments that without him carried forward the husbandry of nature - an actual and a firm concatenation of influences, by which he is guided to all his plans and all his performances, and which descends to every furrow that he draws, and every field that he incloses, and every handful of corn that he strews upon its surface.

And thus it is that in the opinion, we shall not say of theologians only, but even of those who are profoundest in philosophy, the intervention of man is not conceived to affect the predestination of God - the creature is regarded as but an instrument in the hand of the Creator, which He wieldeth at His pleasure - the mechanism of thought and desire and determination is held to be only one of those countless diversities of operation, through which it is God that worketh all in all. And, accordingly, it is the article of many a philosopher's as well as of many a theologian's creed, that the newly acquired features of the now cultivated island, were, one and all of them, in the perspective of God from the beginning - nay that it is the hand of God Himself which hath imprinted them all upon the face of the altered landscape - that with man, as the tool by which His own designs are carried into effect, every hedge-row hath been drawn, and every acre hath been reclaimed, and every edifice hath been raised, and one definite space hath been pencilled over with sweetest verdure, and another made to wave in foliage, and another to shine forth in flowery decoration, and another left in Nature's untamed luxuriance; but altogether, so as that with the agency of man, He hath as effectually imprest His own design and His own destination upon the whole of this territory, as when without His agency He had nothing but His own passive and unconscious elements to work by.

Thus far have we deemed it necessary, in justice to a topic, which, in the ordinary course of our lecturing, hath come in our way, to say something on the much controverted doctrine of predestination - Yet, while we do not hesitate to affirm that all our convictions are upon its side, such is our antipathy to any thing like mere speculation in the pulpit, that we are glad to dispose in half an hour of an argument, that would require a lengthened and elaborate treatise for the full solution of it. The particular illustration that we have chosen, is not perhaps the most effective for the purpose of convincing - yet we have preferred it, because we think it the best that has occurred to us, for elucidating all the particular uses that stand connected with this article of faith. These we shall defer till a future opportunity; and, meanwhile, we shall barely advert to one argument more, that, even apart from Scripture, (which according to my own view is altogether on the side of predestination,) but that even apart from Scripture, might we think be most triumphantly alleged in its behalf.

The argument is, that, by admitting of predestination in the world of matter, and excluding it from the world of mind, you, in fact, exclude God from the most dignified part of His own creation. While you invest Him with an entire and unexcepted supremacy over the mass of unconscious bodies, you rifle Him of His authority over the moral and the intelligent empire of spirits - Nay, by erecting each of these spirits into a principle of spontaneous and independent operation, the capricious movements of which God can neither predict nor predetermine, you lay open by far the noblest department of the universe, to an anarchy that no power can control, and no wisdom can foretell the issues of, He who hath made, and who sustains all things, is represented as standing by, unable to foresee the turns, or to direct the transitions of all those random and unaccountable processes, that are now in the hands of His own creatures; and, let the plans and wishes of the Divine Mind have been what they may, there is nought in providence and nought in history that is sure.

It is but a poor compensation that He presides over the motions of a sublime astronomy. It is but a poor compensation that the winds and the vapours, and the tides of ocean, and the changes of the atmosphere, and even all the processes of the vegetable kingdom - save when the usurper man hath wrested them from His grasp - It is but a poor compensation, that both the mechanism of the heavens above, and the whole of terrestrial physics on the earth below, are at His absolute disposal, - if He be thus dethroned from His ascendancy over the best and the fairest region of His works; and if, when once the elements of thought and life and will are caused to mingle their influence with other things, He, from that moment, is struck with impotency, and must suffer the progress of events to take its own fortuitous and unmanageable way. This consideration obtains great additional strength, when we recur to the undoubted experience which I lately insisted on - even on the might and the magnitude of little things, in regard to their bearing on the grandest passages of history; and that therefore if God be wrested of His power and His providence in that which is least, you in fact dethrone Him from His sovereignty over that which is greatest.

You remember the example that we gave from a very critical passage in the life of Mahomet - how he was preserved by the flight of a bird, and by the rapid process of inference which this gave rise to in the minds of his pursuers; and that, had it not been for these two steps in the concatenations of providence, all the designs of the impostor would have been arrested: And one of the greatest moral revolutions in the history of our species was thus made to turn on the most minute and familiar of all incidents. The doctrine that would limit the predestinations of God to the world of matter, might allow that it was He who hollowed the cave in which the pretender hid himself; and guarded its entrance with shrubbery; and perhaps even detained the bird for the purpose of turning away the footsteps of the destroyers: But one step remains, and that hath been placed by the assertors of a self-determining power in man beyond the reach of the Being from whom he sprung. It all hinged, you will observe, on a rapid volition in the breast of the murderers. And if there be any thing there to abridge God of His sovereignty - if when it be the part of man to will, it is the part of God as it were to stand by and to wait on the uncertain decision - if the Creator, instead of foreseeing all and determining all, must thus attend on the decisions of the creature; and shape the measures of His providence on earth, according to the signals that are given out by all, the petty and independent powers that swarm upon its surface - Then never, in the whole history of this world's politics we will venture to affirm, never was there exhibited a more disjointed and tumultuous government - never have we read of a more helpless or degraded sovereign.

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