God, in all of His glory, rules supreme in every realm of existence, and is the ultimate Authority, and this fact is a truth, to which we do not sufficiently pay heed, either in our approach to issues and problems, or in our customary practice of living life. There are many Christian people who speak loudly of religious obligations, as if there was something holy or imperative in religious duties that does not belong to the “customary practice” of just doing what is right, all the time, apart from religious responsibilities — many, who would offer up their very lives rather than profess a belief in a false religious dogma, would hardly sacrifice an hour’s fleshly gratification to faithfully adhere to the Divine command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is therefore important to remember that the authority which imposes religious obligations and moral obligations is one and the same — that authority is – the will of God. Faithfulness to God is just as truly violated by a neglect of His everyday moral regulations, as by a compromise of – religious – principles. Religion and Morality are abstract terms, only used to designate different classes of duties which God has imposed upon mankind; but they are all imposed by Him, and all are enforced with equal authority. The violation of any particular part of the Divine will therefore involves equal guilt, and each offense is equally a disregard of the Divine authority. Whether faithfulness is required of a portion of doctrine or practice, of theology or of morals, the obligation is the same. It is the Divine mandate which constitutes this obligation, and not the composition or ability of our compliance; so that, while I think a Protestant does no more than his duty when he prefers death to sacrificing to Caesar or to making a profession of the Roman Catholic faith, I think also that every Christian who believes that Christ has prohibited swearing does no more than his duty when he prefers death to taking an oath; there is no difference in the Divine economy.
I would especially ask that you bear in mind this principle, of the identity of the Authority of moral and religious obligations, because he/she may otherwise imagine that the obligation of what might be considered a – petty – moral law is too emphatically insisted upon, and that faithfulness to this trivial thing is to be had at too great a sacrifice of comfort and pleasure.
The purpose of referring to the ultimate Authority of God in both religious and moral considerations is to stress the unfitness of attempting to derive human responsibilities from the attributes of God. This is not to say that no illustration of our duties cannot be gained from them, but that those attributes are too imperfectly grasped by our finite perceptions to enable us to refer to them for specific moral rules or obligations. The truth, indeed, is that we do not accurately and correctly know what the Divine attributes are; we step into but shallow waters with our limited abilities, and quickly find out that His ways and His thoughts are way over our heads. We say that God is merciful; but if we endeavor to define, with precision, what the term merciful means, we will find it a difficult, perhaps an impossible task; and especially we will have a difficult task if, after the definition, we attempt to balance every instance which pleads mercy in the world, with our own notions of the attribute of mercy. These words are spoken with reverence when I say that we cannot always perceive the mercifulness of God in His unusual administration of mercy, either towards his rational or his irrational creation. Also, respecting His attribute of Justice; who can precisely define what this attribute comprises? Who, especially, can prove that the Almighty intends that we should always be able to understand His justice in His Divine excellence? We say that He is unchangeable; but what is the sense in which we understand the term? Do we mean that, of necessity, God cannot change His system of moral government, or that He cannot alter, or add to, His laws for mankind? It cannot mean this, because the evidence of progressive revelation disproves it. Need we mention His Goodness, His Grace, His Holiness, His Sovereignty, Faithfulness, or Love?
If it is true that the attributes of God are not adequately within our powers of examination, allowing us to form accurate rules for living; it is plain that we cannot always trust our “logical” conclusions. We cannot infer rules of conduct from Divine attributes, without being answerable to error; and the liability increases in proportion to the attempt to be critically accurate. And here lies a great problem with the Christian Church.
Obtaining rules for living from the attributes of God is a rock upon which the judgments of many have suffered shipwreck, a quicksand and a slough where many have suffered serious difficulties. For example, he/she cannot resolve the commands to exterminate a people with their notions of the attribute of mercy, and consequently question the veracity of the Mosaic writings. Again, because he/she finds that there were wars permitted by God, concludes that, because He is unchangeable, wars cannot be incompatible with His present will. Again, on their flawed belief of this immutability, they confuse themselves because the dispensations and boundaries of God have been changed; and they vainly labor, to blend these flawed ideas into those laws which result from His attributes, so that they can maintain their defective idea of the unchanging nature of God. We have no business doing these things, and I will venture to assert that he who will take nothing upon trust – who will exercise no faith – who will believe in no rule, and in no instruction – which he is not able to square with God’s Divine attributes – must be committed to hopeless unbelief and doubt.
The lesson is a simple but important one: That our sole business is to discover the actual and present will of God, without questioning why His will is such and such, or why it has ever been different; and without seeking to rationalize from our notions of the Divine attributes, rules of conduct which are more safely and more accurately revealed by other means.
As a result of basing our knowledge, of the will of God, on His personal attributes, the definitions of “virtue” have necessarily been numerous; and virtue must essentially consist in conforming our conduct to some standard, which he/she believes to be the true one. This must be true of those systems, at least, which make virtue consist in doing right. Modern definitions go something like this, “Virtue is moral excellence; something uncommonly great and beautiful, which rises far above what is rude and ordinary.”
By common definitions it would appear that virtue is a relative quality, based not upon some achievement of a perfect or permanent standard, but upon the existing, relative, practice of our peers. Thus the person, who possesses no virtue amongst good company, might possess much amongst poor company. So, that practice which “rises far above” the shared practice of one peer group, might be fairly common in another; and if men become much worse than they are now, that conduct which is now considered un-virtuous would be highly virtuous amongst them which now is not virtuous at all. No doubt, such a definition of virtue is likely to lead to a very deficient practice; for what is the likelihood that a man will achieve to that standard which God proposes, if his highest estimate of virtue rises no higher than some arbitrary standard of superiority over other men?
A better definition of virtue is: conformity with the present expressed will of God.
Virtue, as it respects the quality of the person and the act needs to be considered also. The value of an act is one thing; the reward to the person is another. Assuming that he knows what moral the rules declare to be right and wrong; but it is very possible that an individual may do what is right without any virtue, because there may be no righteousness in his motives and intentions. He does a virtuous act, but he is not a virtuous person.
The concern here is that we put too much emphasis on the moral character of actions and not the intentions of the heart. We regard the act too much, and the intention too little. The carjacker, who fires a gun at a victim and fails in his aim, is just as wicked as if he had killed him; yet we do not feel the same degree of indignation at his crime. So, too, of a person who does good. A man who plunges into a river and saves a child from drowning, impresses the parents with a stronger sense of his righteousness than if, with the same exertions, he had failed. — We should attempt to correct this inequality of judgment, and in forming our estimates of human conduct strive to know what the person intended. It should as a matter of practice bear in mind, and especially with reference to our own actions, that to have been unable to execute an ill intention subtracts nothing from our guilt; and that at that judgment seat where intention and action will both be weighed, it will mean little if we can only say that we have done no evil. Nor let it be less remembered, with respect to those who desire to do good but don’t have the power, that their virtue is not lessened by their lack of ability. I ought, perhaps, to be as grateful to the man who feels my pain but cannot relieve it, as to him who sends me money or a doctor. The mite of the widow of old was estimated even more highly than the greater offerings of the rich.