An Exposition and Defense of Universalism

by Rev. I. D. Williamson, 1840

Sermon I - Introductory

"May we know what this new doctrine whereof thou speakest is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears; we would know therefore, what these things mean." (Acts 17:19-20)

The hearer will undoubtedly recognize this, as the language of certain philosophers of Athens, addressed to the Apostle Paul. At Thessalonica, the Jews raised a tumult and drove him out of the city. Departing thence, he went to Berea, and there preached the good word of the kingdom, with great success. Thither, however, the Jews followed him, and "stirred up the people against him", until he was no longer safe in that city. Accordingly, he departed, and went to Athens, and there waited for his companions, Silas and Timotheus to join him. He was now in the midst of the most opulent and powerful city of Greece -- a city, distinguished alike for the military talents, learning and eloquence of its inhabitants. There, the schools, professors and philosophers of Greece, were congregated, and there, temples and altars were reared to every false god of whose name the people had heard. The historian informs us, that "Paul's spirit was stirred within him, when he saw the whole city given to idolatry, therefore, disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with devout persons, and in the market, daily, with such as met him". In these disputations, he encountered certain of the Epicureans and Stoics, and they brought him to Areopagus, the place where they held their courts of justice, and there, they addressed him in the language of the text. "May we know what this new doctrine whereof thou speakest is? for thou bringest certain strange things to our ears; we would know therefore what these things mean; for they spent their time in nothing else, but to tell, or to hear some new thing."

I cannot forbear the remark here, that although these inquirers were actuated by nothing better than an idle curiosity, in making this request, yet their conduct was far more commendable, than that of those who condemn a man and his religion, without first giving him a hearing in his own behalf. Paul gladly embraced the opportunity thus afforded him of entering upon a defense of the gospel. He preached to them, "God that made the world, and all that dwell therein", pointed out to them the folly of their idolatrous practices, and appealed to them in behalf of Jesus and the resurrection, with such energy and power, that "some believed", and others said, "we will hear thee again of this matter".

I presume the hearer has already anticipated the use the speaker intends to make of this text. He stands before you, the advocate and the only public advocate in this large city, and even in the State, of the doctrine of impartial and efficient grace -- a doctrine, which to some of his hearers, may be both new and strange. He doubts not, that some of his auditors have turned in hither, and he trusts with good motives, for the purpose of learning what this new doctrine is; and they would gladly know what these things mean. The speaker has no sentiments to conceal, and if his hearers will manifest a good share of that patience which characterized the man of Uz, he will proceed in all frankness and simplicity to lay before them his views of the economy of his Father's grace. He asks, and he feels confident that he will receive from this enlightened and respectable audience, a candid and patient hearing, and if in the end, he fails of producing conviction that his sentiments are true, the hearer shall, at least, have it in his power to give a more enlightened judgement against them. He speaks for himself only, and is alone responsible for what he utters. At the same time, the hearer is at liberty to conclude that in these views, he mainly agrees with the great body of the denomination to which he is attached. These preliminaries being settled, we come now to lay before you the most prominent features of our faith. These are:

I. The existence of one only living and true God.

This supreme object of our devotions, we believe, to be possessed of every possibly great and glorious attribute and perfection, that can command our love or invite our praise. In him is POWER, which knows no control -- WISDOM, which never errs, but sees with infallible exactness, "the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the thing that is not yet done" -- MERCY, which melts in pity o'er the woes of man -- TRUTH, which cannot lie HOLINESS, without spot or blemish -- GOODNESS, unchanging as God and impartial as the light of heaven, and JUSTICE, which rewards the virtuous and punishes the vicious, according to those eternal principles of rectitude and equity, which are the same yesterday, today, and for ever. This is, with us, the foundation of all religious truth, the sure and steadfast corner-stone, on which the whole superstructure of the Christian temple rests. The evidence of the existence of such a God, meets us on every page of nature's ample volume, ever open before us. We read his name, stamped with the broad and legible impress of his own hand, on all the surrounding glories of creation. We discover the wonders of his Power, in the "ponderous globe of earth, self balanced on her center hung", and in the distant stars, that wheel their endless circles in awful majesty through the infinity of space above and around us. We trace the footsteps of his Wisdom, in the wonderful order and harmony that pervade all the operations of nature's vast, and complicated machinery. We see his Goodness, in every "changing season, as it rolls", and the teeming earth and bending heavens around us bear their testimony to his love. We mark the rules of his Justice, in the infallible certainty with which punishment, sooner or later, overtakes the guilty, and in the rich and sweet reward, that comes down upon the virtuous and the obedient. Thus we learn that there is a God, and we count it no credulity, to say, and to believe, in all its length and breadth, that the stupendous fabric of the universe was reared by the hand of a wise and powerful God, and we discover, neither reason, philosophy nor truth, in the mind of that misguided man, who hath "said in his heart, that there is no God". We are content to say, in the language of the sacred penman, "Lo! God hath made us, and not we ourselves", and we rejoice to know, that in him power never degenerates into tyranny, wisdom into cunning, mercy into weakness, nor justice into cruelty, but all blend, center and harmonize in changeless and immortal goodness. We believe that this God has established a moral government in the world -- that he takes cognizance of human conduct, rewards the virtuous and punishes the vicious -- that he has made a revelation of himself and his government to man -- and that he has so arranged the order of his providence, that all "conspires to his supreme control to universal good".

I must not here omit to remark, that the Lord our God, is one. Sole and supreme author, and governor of all things, he has no EQUAL to dispute his sway, no RIVALS to claim a portion of the homage due to him alone. We can acknowledge no other being as God, but him alone. Hence with the sentiments of the Polytheist who believes in many gods, the Pantheist who believes that all is god, and the Trinitarian, who believes in three Gods in one, and one in three -- we have no fellowship or communion. To us there is ONE GOD, the Father of all, and besides him there is none else. Thus the Scriptures teach and thus does reason decide. The heathen indeed, had a multitude of gods, but the Apostles and Prophets abjured the whole long catalogue of Pagan divinities, and worshiped with singleness of heart, the one and indivisible I AM; and it would in our judgment be as easy to prove, that these Patriarchs worshiped thirty thousand gods with the Romans, as that they acknowledged three beings of equal power and glory.

The doctrine of the simple and undivided unity of God, is no NEW or STRANGE thing under the sun. It is as old as that Gospel whose author bowed at the throne of his Father in prayer, thereby acknowledging him as supreme, and whose tongue confessed, saying, "My Father is greater than all". It is as old as the law, which was given in the midst of the thunders of mount Sinai; for there, God proclaimed his name as the one only living and true God. It is as old as Abraham, for to him, God said, "I am God and there is none else". It is as old as Adam, for to him God manifested himself as the one supreme. It is as old, yea older, than creation, for ere the morning stars sang together, or even the spirit of the Almighty walked forth upon the dark waters to rouse this universe into being, EVEN THEN, God undivided and alone, dwelt in the changeless eternity of his own presence, and angels and archangels bowed in ceaseless wonder before him, and worshiped him, as the sole and only object of adoration and praise. It ought not therefore, to be considered as something new or strange, that we should worship one God, and one alone.

But I pass this, for my object, in this discourse, is not so much to prove the truth of our faith, as to tell you what that faith is. The proof is reserved for our future labors.

II. Our faith recognizes, Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.

You will, of course, have concluded from the remarks already made, that however highly we may esteem the character of Jesus, we cannot recognize him as the self existent and supreme God. He himself claimed no such exaltation, but uniformly acknowledged the supremacy of God, not only in words, but in the fact that he worshiped him, and prayed to him, as a superior being.

He confessed, that he was SENT of God, and he claimed no power that he did not receive from God. "I can of my own self do nothing", was his constant assertion.

He claimed no higher title than the humble one, "the son of man", and if he claimed no more for himself, it is a misguided disciple that claims it for him. Instead therefore, of "giving the glory of God to another", we maintain, that Jesus of Nazareth was a created, and a dependent being, deriving all his wonderful powers from God. We are content to view him as did Peter, when he said, "he was a man approved of God, by signs and miracles, and wonders which God did by him, in the midst of the people", or Paul, when he said, "There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the MAN CHRIST JESUS, who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time". And if you ask me if he was NO MORE than a man, my answer is, in the language of Scripture, "He was made in ALL THINGS, like unto the brethren", but was "anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows", and endued with power greater than any other man. "We see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor, that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man".

Upon the nature of Christ's mission and work on earth, it is proper, that I should speak at some length, under this head. Jesus came NOT to placate the wrath of incensed and outraged Omnipotence. The heathens worshiped gods whose favor must be propitiated and whose wrath must be appeased by sacrifices and blood. But the radiant bow of heaven's immortal Lord and King, was never yet shrouded in a cloud so dark, that his own mercy and love, could not shine with brightness upon the world. The mission of Christ, is not presented in the Scriptures, as having originated in, or as having been rendered necessary on account of the wrath of God. On the contrary, it is uniformly set forth as originating in God, and as being the highest testimony of his LOVE. "God SO LOVED the world, that he gave his only begotten son". "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his son to die for us". These are the teachings of the Scriptures, and they certainly forbid the idea that it was any part of the object of a Savior's mission, to save men from the unmerciful wrath of God. Neither did Jesus come to save form the just PUNISHMENT OF SIN, by satisfying the divine justice, and suffering the penalty due the sinner in his room and stead. This is evident from the fact, that God himself has declared the principle of condemning the just, and justifying the wicked, to be an abomination in his sight, and of course, he could not do the abominable thing. It is evident also, from the consideration, that justice cannot be satisfied with the sufferings of the INNOCENT. When a law is transgressed, it is out upon the transgressor, and ten thousand rivers of innocent blood, can never satisfy the claims of that law. It asks the blood of the guilty, and of the GUILTY ALONE, and it is foul disgrace to the law of God, to represent it, as a blind Juggernaut, thirsting for blood, and equally well pleased whether that blood flows from the veins of the guilty, or gushes from the hearth of the innocent, so that the required quantum of blood is shed. One of the clearest principles of justice, is that which forbids the infliction of the punishment of the guilty upon the head of the innocent, and there is no justice in Heaven, or earth, that can be satisfied by the sufferings of the innocent for the guilty.

The position assumed, is further evinced in the fact, that God has said, "Every man shall suffer for his OWN SINS", and HAS and DOES STILL practice, upon the principle of punishing the guilty, which he would have no right to do, if justice had lost its claims, in consequence of having fully satisfied by the death and sufferings of Christ.

I may at some future time take this matter up, at large. At present I merely hint at it, in order to lead your minds to a just view of another prominent and PECULIAR principle of our faith which teaches, that "God will by no means clear the guilty", but will inflict upon EVERY SOUL of man, the just punishment of his sins, and there is no escape. Thus saith the Scriptures, "He that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong that he hath done, and there is no respect of persons". "Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not go unpunished". Now, it is a remarkable fact, that while the ceaseless cry is raised against us, that we deny all punishment for sin, we are the ONLY DENOMINATION who believe that ALL SIN will be punished. I know others believe, that SOME sinners will be fully punished, but they also believe, that MANY will escape the penalty of the law. They do indeed tell us, that all men deserve and endless hell, and would receive it, if justice were done, but they have all some spiritual insolvent act in the shape of an atonement, or forgiveness, or repentance, by which the vilest sinner may escape, and cheat justice of its dues. Set it down, as one of the PECULIAR doctrines of Universalism, that no man can, by any possibility, escape a just punishment for his sins We believe in the forgiveness or removal of SIN, NOT in the remission of PUNISHMENT, and neither forgiveness, nor atonement, nor repentance, nor any thing else, can step in between the sinner and the penalty of the violated law.

The dogma of endless wo, we reject as unmerciful, unjust and cruel, a penalty which a just God never did and never can annex to his law. It was not therefore necessary for Christ to come into the world to save men from a future endless hell, as a penalty of the divine law, for the good and sufficient reason, that no such penalty was ever annexed to that law. I am not speaking at random, but I know whereof I affirm, when I say that no living man can take up the Bible, and find a place where God gave man a law and annexed to it the penalty of endless misery. Hence, I say, that man needed not to be saved from such an evil, for the best of all possible reasons, that in the economy of God, he never was exposed to any such calamity.

I have now told you what Christ did not come for, will you hear from the blessed Savior himself what was the object of his mission on earth? He says, "To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the earth, that I might bear witness to the truth". Now the witness does not go into court to make truth. He goes there to testify to what is already true. So, Jesus, in our view, came not to make anything true that was not so before, but he was the faithful and true witness who came to make known the truth, "as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end".

He came to reveal the character and the purpose of God, and hence, near the close of his ministry he said, "I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do, I have declared thy name unto them which thou gavest men out of the world".

The fact was, that man was ignorant without hope and without God in the world. He was ignorant of himself, of his own nature and destiny, ignorant of God and his purposes of grace, and devoid of confidence in the care and protection of his heavenly Father. He bowed before stocks and stones, and said "these be my gods". He tore his flesh -- he tortured his body -- he cast himself in the flood -- he devoted himself to a living martyrdom, and burned the bodies of his children in the flame, to appease the wrath and secure the favor of his gods, and was well pleased, if by these rites he secured a trembling hope of safety for a day or an hour.

The grave yawned at his feet and there was no light to shine upon its darkness. Man shuddered as he thought that he must go down to feed the worm, and sleep in eternal silence in the tomb -- or if perchance, the spirit survived the shock of death, there was danger that he would be the companion of demons and the sport of fiends through a long eternity. Jesus came a light into the world. He tore away the vail which had so long obscured the face of the excellent glory, and revealed to a wondering world the character of God, in all its matchless beauty, as the FRIEND and FATHER, who fed the fowls of the air -- decked the lilies of the field, and watched the falling sparrow, and who would more abundantly take care of man, the last and noblest work of his hand. He also brought life and immortality to light, and bore his testimony to the resurrection of the dead, and to prove that his witness was true, descended into the grave -- rose from its power , and ascended on high, to receive gifts for men, "yea for the rebellious also that the Lord God might dwell among us". Thus, he bore witness to the truth, and labored to save man form ignorance, form sin, from doubt and fear, and from DEATH ITSELF by the power of the resurrection. To this end was he born, and for this cause came he into the world, "that he might bear witness to the truth", and because this truth is destined to prevail over all opposition, and save man universally, in prospect and fruition, therefore, is he, what we believe him to be, "the Savior of the world". This brings me to say that we believe,

III. In the resurrection of all men from the dead, and in the ultimate holiness and happiness of the whole human family.

This is, with us, the crowning excellency of the Gospel -- a theme on which we ever dwell with most lively satisfaction and joy. To this grand consummation of the divine government, all the attributes and perfections of God, and all the principles of the divine government are tending, and the sentiment thus shadowed forth in these, is repeated in clearer and more emphatic tones in the revelation which God has made.

The difference between us and other denominations, in regard to the resurrection of the dead is simply this. Others believe that men will be raised from the dead morally in the same state, or condition, in which they left this world. Thus, if a man dies a sinner, they believe that he will be raised up from the dead a sinner, with all his evil propensities and passions about him, and he will then receive the reward of his doings. To him the resurrection will be an endless and bitter curse, inasmuch as it will introduce him to a state of untold and immortal suffering. OUR VIEWS of the resurrection of the dead differ form this. We think that God has a higher, holier and better object in view, in the resurrection, than that of conferring an immortality upon sin and suffering. We believe that the lusts of the flesh, and all the evil passions that distract and torment man on earth, will be left IN THE EARTH where they originated, that God will not transplant them to another world to nourish them there. We believe that man shall be raised from the dead, as the apostle said he should be, "immortal", "incorruptible", "glorious", and "heavenly", and in the "image" of the risen Redeemer -- that he shall be, as the Savior said he should be, in the resurrection, "equal unto the angels", neither shall he die any more, but be a child of God, as he is a child of the resurrection, and that the future life, shall be to all, a ceaseless blessing, coming form the fullness of a father's grace. There, sin shall be finished and transgression shall end -- THERE, no storms of passion shall rise, no wave of sorrow disturb the waters of that peaceful river, which flows pure as amber, and clear as crystal, from the throne of God on high. The had of a father's love shall wipe the last tear from the eye of weeping humanity, and his soothing voice hush to silence the LAST sigh that shall escape from the pained heart of a creature of God. THERE, all shall be HOLY, and happy because they are holy, and there shall be no note of discord to mar the harmony of creation's jubilee. Such is the consummation of the government of God as we behold it. I ask you to compare these views of God and his government with a system which conducts us on to the future world, and thus leaves us with a fragment saved while countless millions mourn -- A SYSTEM which makes the universe itself a huge reservoir of tears, a theater of endless rebellion, cursing and blasphemy -- and when you have made the comparison, tell me in the name of reason, which is most worthy of a God of infinite goodness.

I have now given you an outline of a doctrine, which to some of you may be new, but new or old, so we believe, and so we preach. I have only to add, that this doctrine is in reality nothing new under the sun. God himself proclaimed it unto Abraham saying, "In thy seed shall all nations be blessed". Paul says expressly, that himself, and his faithful coadjutors in the ministry, labored and suffered reproach, because they trusted in the living God who was "the Savior of all men, especially of them that believed", and Peter affirms, that the "restitution of all things" had been spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began. Not one had failed of bearing testimony to this truth.

Among the apostolic fathers, John the bishop of Jerusalem, Gregory Naziazen, Clement of Alexandria, and the far famed Origen, were the open and avowed advocates of this doctrine. In fact, it was proclaimed with all boldness in the Christian church during the first three hundred years of its existence, and it was never found out to be a heresy, until about the year 550, when it was gravely, and for the first time condemned by a council of bishops and cardinals, who to say the least, had as much of the wisdom of the world, as they had of the Spirit of Jesus. But in every age, from that day to this, thee have been those who have seen and testified, that "the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world". Among the reformers, Zuinglius believed it, and it is thought that the illustrious Melancthon himself was not far form the kingdom. In latter days, and in the popular church many have believed. Archbishop Tillotson, Burnet, Law, the author of that inestimable work, "A serious Call", Dr. Samuel Clarke, the Chevalier Ramsey, Dr. Phillip Doddridge, Bishop Thomas Norton, John Prior Estlin, Thomas Belsham, Dr. Priestley, Ann Letitia Barbauld, the inimiable poet, and host of others, whose names are illustrious in the church, have been believers in this doctrine.

In our own country, it has had its advocates. The celebrated Dr. Rush believed it, and the sage Franklin was not far form it. The beloved father of this country was a friend of Murray, and Greene who gallantly fought by his side, hung with rapture upon the preaching of the only herald of a world's salvation, then in America.

I name not these things because they prove aught one way or the other, but I do it, simply to show you that it is not, as some suppose, a new doctrine, invented within the last half century, and believed only by the rash and inconsiderate.

But whether it be new or old, I have given you a hasty sketch of its most prominent features, and in my subsequent lectures, I intend to give you the proof of its truth. Appealing to your candor and reason, and to the sacred word of eternal truth, I will lay the matter before you, and I only ask you to approve or reject, as your own judgment, enlightened by revelation and unwarped by prejudice or superstition, shall decide, and of the result, I have no fears.

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