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On the Paternal Character of God

by Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)

"If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much
more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?"

                                                                                               —Matthew 7:11

In our purposed treatment of this verse we shall advert to some of the general doctrine that may be deduced from it. 

The first thing to be noticed is the designation of evil, given by our Saviour, to men, of whom He nevertheless admits, that they profess a habit and are prompted by an affection, both of which are unquestionably good. It is surely a good thing for one to have a parental fondness towards his own offspring. We cannot dispute that there is much of loveliness, in the various guises and manifestations of this universal instinct of our nature. We feel as if it had a moral beauty, even when we observe it among the inferior animals and, still more, when we rise to those more touching and graceful exhibitions of it, which occur every day in our own species, whether we read it in the delight of a mother's eye when she looks around on the health and happiness of her children; or, when disease has entered the household, we read it more unequivocally still in the agitations and alarms of a mother's tenderness. In the shade as well as in the sunshine of domestic history, does this affection give proof the most conclusive both of its reality and its force. And we are not sure if there be not even more of what may be called the picturesque of human virtue, in its darker passages, as when the mother plies the work and the labours of an untired watchfulness over her infant's dying bed, or pours the flood of now unlocked sensibilities over her infant's early tomb. There never was a heart that could be less unmoved by such a representation, than that of our pitying Saviour; and we may be very sure that He who wept at the grave of Lazarus would have given both His sympathy and His approval to this agony of afflicted nature. He would recognize it to be good, to be unquestionably good; and still we have to ask, what it was that He saw in those parents, who, in the instance at least which Himself has specified, felt and acted in the way that was good, what that was which could have led Him who knew what was in man, to denounce them in character as evil? 

The devotedness of a parent to his children, equals, even in every-day life, that which History has recorded to us of the sublimest heroism. For them he makes the largest surrenders of ease and time and fortune. He will compass sea and land in quest of a provision for them and, for their sakes, nerve himself against the buffeting of all the elements at one time adventurously ploughing the ocean in their behalf; and, at another, living for years in the exile and estrangement of a foreign clime, with nought to soothe him in the midst of his fatigues but the imagery of his dear and far distant home. It is the strength of this family affection by which the great society of mankind is upholden, made up as it is of families. It is this which nourishes them in childhood, which counsels and cares for them in youth, and which even after the perversities or the losses of their manhood welcomes them back again to the roof of their nativity, and throws them as before on the yet unquelled and unextinguishable kindness of the parents who gave them birth; and who, even in the winter frost of their now declining years, and perhaps the hardship of their declining circumstances, still find the love of offspring all alive and warm in their aged bosoms. It is in truth one of the strongest and most enduring of nature's propensities as beautiful in its exhibition as it is useful in its exercises; and still the mystery is unresolved, what He, whose discerning eye saw it to be in all men and spoke of it as good, what that was which He saw universally along with it, and on which He could censure and stigmatize all men as evil. 

For an answer to this question, we might draw aid and illustration still from the case of a family. We admit the whole truth and tenderness of the parental affection. It were in the face of all experience, did we deny either the reality or the strength of those instinctive regards, which flow downwards from a father's or a mother's heart, upon their own offspring and we just bid you advert to the weight of gratitude which so rightfully lies on those children who are the objects of them. Surely if the spectacle of tenderness on the one side be so very pleasing, the spectacle of disobedience or neglect on the other is most offensively revolting. In proportion as the father lavishes of his ceaseless and antired generosity upon the son, in that proportion do we look with moral antipathy to the disdain, or the defiance, or the reckless independence of the son upon the father. Even though he should do with his hand the bidding of this his natural superior, yet, if he bear in his heart either a cold indifference or a positive distaste to the person and society of his own parent, this were enough to convict him of a moral perversity the most monstrous and unnatural. We cannot refuse the undoubted good will which glows unextinguished, and perhaps unextinguishable, in the bosom of the one: and all that we ask of you is just to form a right estimate, when, instead of being met from the other by reverence and by good will back again, it is only responded to with contempt, or with carelessness, or with the selfish unconcern of one who can ravenously seize upon the gifts but without one movement either of grateful or of duteous inclination towards the giver. On looking to this domestic relationship, it were a libel on humanity to affirm, that there is not among parents, much of that love and liberality to their children which are undoubtedly and most beauteously good. But if, on the other hand, if it shall be found of any of these children, that they can trample all this indulgence under feet, and, heedless of the hand that sustains them, can forget the claims of a father's tenderness and turn unimpressed away from the earnestness of a father's 
voice, then, as surely as the first of these exhibitions was good, so the second of them is most odiously and most painfully evil. 

Now we admit that the love of parents to offspring is nearly universal; and we venture not to affirm how often or how seldom it may be, that this ingratitude of offspring to parents is exemplified within the limits of an earthly household, or how often violence is done to this relationship in separate families. But viewing creation as that spacious household which is presided over by a universal parent, and peopled by a universal family looking to the relationship in which all the men of our earth stand to their Father who is in heaven, we affirm, that there is none exempted from the guilt of having done most outrageous violence to this relationship, no not one. The charge which we distinctly prefer against every son and daughter of the species is their heedlessness of God; or, if they would but examine their own hearts and they will find it there, a cleaving and constant ungodliness. The fondest and most unnatural mothers are alike in this the one differing wholly from the other in relation to their own family; but, viewed as members of the universal family, each deformed by foulest ingratitude to the common parent of them all not chargeable in common with the want of love to their own offspring ; but, in reference to Him of whom themselves are the offspring, universally chargeable with the most flagrant defects both of love and of loyalty not evil it may be but good, in regard to that instinctive affection which binds them to their own little ones; yet not good, but glaringly and undeniably evil, in regard to their distaste and disinclination for God. Look to them as at the head, each of her own household community, and they have at least one point or property of good parents. Look to them as members of that great community, whose habitation is the universe, and whose head is the creator of all and they have all the delinquency in their spirits of evil children. Our Saviour saw the one thing they had and pronounced it to be good, even as when he looked to the young man in the gospel He loved him. But He further sees the one thing they lack, the great master-virtue of every creature both in heaven and on earth, and without which all other virtue is baseless and perishable; and so they who knew how to give good gifts unto their children, are nevertheless evil and accursed children themselves. 

This language is not too strong for the guilt and the turpitude of that enormity wherewith humanity is chargeable. Yet the majority of our world are all unsuspicious of having ought so foul and so enormous about them. They can see and be imprest by it as a great moral delinquency, when a son bears either a scowl upon his countenance, or an antipathy in his bosom towards his earthly father; and they will even readily admit, that no constrained obedience by the hand, can atone for the disaffection of the heart in a state of hostility and revolt against the parent who gave him birth. And even should there be no positive hostility, yet should the heart be in a state of indifference only, as the indifference you will observe of a child to that parent, who tended him from infancy to manhood, and who now feels it the sorest agony of nature, that he should have brought up a family who simply do not care for him. This neglectis enough of itself to fasten the imputation of a very foul deformity on him who is chargeable therewith. Yes! we are capable of feeling most vivid indignation, when an earthly parent is thus robbed of that moral property which belongs to him, in the love and the loyalty of his own offspring 
and how then can you miss the far more emphatic application of a principle, the very same in kind, though far more intense in degree to our Father who is in Heaven? What do you make, we ask, of that great human family, who have cast off the allegiance of their hearts from Him, and have turned every one of them to his own way? Do you call it nothing that this stray planet of ours should be burdened with a race sunk in deepest apathy toward God; and, if not lifting up the cry of positive rebellion, yet losing all sense of His kindness in universal regardlessness? What do you think of man, that derived and dependent creature, walking through life so heedlessly and so independently of the Creator who gave him birth. And receiving from his hand the inspiration of every breath which he draws; but with no habitual aspiring of the soul to Him back again as curiously fashioned by the skill of that Master Architect who formed him; yet bearing it as proudly as if all his parts and all his faculties were his ownnourished from his cradle to his grave by the gifts of an all-sustaining Providence; and reckless all the while of the giver who bestows them — selfishly revelling in the midst of a thousand earthly gratifications; but without any rejoicing gratitude to Him who out of the treasury of His own fulness, hath poured them forth in such luxuriance upon our world and living every hour under the guardianship of a God whose eye watches him continually; and yet with his own eye almost as continually averted from his God.

You will now perceive how Jesus Christ, while He admitted of mankind that they possessed one thing that was good even the parental affection, yet He denounced them in the general as evil. He had recently come from the place where that evil was felt in all its enormity. He had just left heaven, where, on the one hand, He witnessed the strength and the warmth of that parental affection which radiated from the throne of God upon all His creatures and He had now lighted upon earth, where He further witnessed the total heedlessness and ingratitude of creatures back again. Possessing as He did the intelligence and the sympathies of that celestial family where He had been. He could not pronounce otherwise than in our text on the men whom He visited. The love of parents to children He could not but approve as a virtue which graced the character even of God in heaven, and which still surviving the fall of our species in the shape of a constitutional instinct, operated strongly and universally among the families of earth. Yet just in proportion that He admired the affection of parents, would He abhor the disaffection of children and the very feeling which yourselves have when you look to the earthly relationship. But He looked also to the heavenly relationship and then He clearly and immediately saw, that, though the parental love of the one relationship had in the shape of an instinct remained unbroken in our world; yet the final loyalty and gratitude of the other relationship had not survived the moral ruin of our species, but in the shape of a principle had totally disappeared. And so on the one hand when He witnessed among men this strong devotedness of spirit to their offspring, and on the other hand witnessed as strong a defection of spirit from their God, He both could admit that one thing which they retained to be good, and yet, wantmg as they did that great virtue which links the creature to his Creator, He denounced themselves as evil. 

This ought to teach, as undoubted doctrine and as true in the eye of sound philosophy as it is in the eye of sound faith,  the depravity of our nature. This depravity does not lie in the utter destitution of all that is amiable in feeling, or of all that is useful in the practical and urgent principles of our nature. It may be expressed by one word. It lies in ungodliness. This is the constituting essence of that great moral disease under which humanity labours, a disease however that prevents not humanity from giving forth many beauteous exhibitions, whether it glows at one time with sentiments of proudest heroism, or melts at another with the sensibilities of a most graceful tenderness. There might be beauty of character even as there is beauty of colour and form, where there is no religion. There might be a moral as well as a material loveliness, apart from any love of God in the heart, or from the moving efficacy of God's law upon the conduct. There is beauty in the blush of a rose, and there is beauty of a higher character in the blush that mantles the cheek of modesty, and yet there may be just as little of loyalty to God in the living as in the inanimate subject. It is pleasing to the eye of taste, when we behold the attachment of a mother to her young, even among the inferior animals. But the same attachment is still more exquisitely pleasing, because enhanced to us by all the home sympathies of our own felt and familiar nature, when we behold a mother of our species lavishing her endearments and her smiles upon an infant family and still as before, might the rational be as destitute of any inclination towards God as the irrational creatures and while we refuse to neither a most precious affection, we affirm of both that they are alike dead to the power or the principle of sacredness.

Ere we leave this part of our argument, we have one observation more to offer. The reason why, in looking to the multitude of man's natural virtues, we lose sight of his ungodliness is, that, in point of fact, God wills our most busy and strenuous cultivation of them all. This gives rise to a confusion of sentiment, in the midst of which we are apt to miss altogether the truth of that fatal, that entire depravity, which scripture every where ascribes to us; and which, if we did but study her lessons aright, experience would confirm. 

There is spontaneous compassion in many a bosom; and God wills us to be compassionate. There is instinctive affection almost with all for their own children; and God tells us to love our children. There is an inborn uprightness with some in virtue of which they would not lie, and would not steal; and God bids us to lie not and to steal not. And hence that perplexity of thought, which I am now trying to unravel. People delude themselves into the imagination of a certain godliness within them, because they do many things the matter of which is the very matter of God's own commandment. The difficulty is to make them conceive of two actions which in respect of materiel are altogether the same, that in respect of morale they may be wholly dissimilar, nay opposite. To refrain from theft in the spirit of high and honourable feeling, is not the same exhibition with that of refraining from theft in the spirit of obedience to the law of God. It is the same exhibition of conduct, but not of character; the same in respect of performance, but not in respect of principle. But thus it is that a man, because of a harmony in actions which are merely external, may confound the different affections from which they have sprung and which are internal; and, merely because of certain doings which in the letter and outward description of them are so in any conformities to heaven's law, he may credit himself with the possession of godliness when, in fact and within the whole compass of his moral economy, there is no godliness to be found. In this way would we convince him of sin. We dispute not that he may have many good points, many desirable properties; but he wants altogether the property of a reigning and ascendant godliness. He may be in a state of high moral accomplishment; but, substantially and really, he is in a state of practical atheism. 

We have left ourselves but little room for that which is nevertheless the main lesson of our text, a lesson of confidence in the liberality and good-will of our Father in heaven. To beget in our hearts this delightful assurance, He avails Himself of imagery at once the most pathetic and the most persuasive. He announces Himself to us in the famihar character of a parent. He steps forward as it were from the deep and awful mystery of His unfathomable nature and tells us that within its recesses, there are the workings towards us of all a Father's tenderness. To beget a trust in those bosoms, where else there might well have been a dark and overwhelming terror, He enlists upon His side the dearest and the kindliest of all human recollections and there is not a man who looking back upon the days of his cherished boyhood, feels reminded by our text of the guides and the guardians of his early home, but is told that there is a fondness which far surpasses theirs, and which now beckons and beams upon him from heaven. It is thus that the unseen God looks out upon the world from the shroud of His invisibility, and, as if to relieve our imaginations from the fears and the jealousies of a tremendous unknown. He seizes on the most intelligible of all earthly relationships; and therewith represents Himself to our species not as a Master over his household, but as a Father at the head of his family. To dissipate the injurious suspicions of His own creatures, He is fain to divest Himself of all that is spectral or alarming and how it may well be thought could this be done more successfully, than by thus likening Himself to those parents who smiled upon our infancy; and, with a friendship which never can misgive, kept by us and counselled us through all the difficulties of our ascent to manhood. The lofty pavilion of His residence on high is disarmed of all its terrors, when the glorious Being by whom it is occupied thus lets Himself down as it were among our earthly tabernacles; and tells us that the instinct which Himself has planted there, but feebly expresses the affection that is in His own breast to the family of mankind. It is true that in this same text. He characterizes mankind as evil not however as a denunciation of wrath, but rather as a device or an argument by which to win His way more effectually to our confidence. The love of offspring is one beauteous fragment of our nature which has survived its overthrow. It still gleams and gladdens throughout the ruins of fallen humanity, and casts a remaining brightness over the habitations of its outcast species. And the argument is, as if, such be the strength of this principle in our nature, that it still keeps its ground even after the mighty havoc of so wide and wasteful a disorder, how purely and how powerfully must it operate still in the unaltered heart of Him who formed us at the first after His own image in that unviolated sanctuary which neither darkness nor disorder can possibly enter, even the sinless nature of the Godhead. There it still burns undiminished and undisturbed in all its original lustre and by the "how much more" of our text, the forcible appeal is carried home to all the experience we ever had of love and liberality from our earthly parents who are evil. If our memory can tell that they, burdened with all the evil of their accursed nature, that even they have loved us then, with Faith rejoicing in the unchanged and primeval goodness of our Father in Heaven, let us have the assurance in our hearts that He loves more truly, that He loves more tenderly than they. 

Nevertheless, and in the face of this touching demonstration, does the guilty nature of man keep by its sullen and distrustful jealousies. It feels all the consciousness of a turpitude within; and, conceiving rightly of God as a God of inviolable sacredness, it images a Being, who, from the height of His afronted majesty, looks down with the terrors of an offended countenance on the sinful world that is beneath Him. This is the strong though secret apprehension which lurks in the bosom of all who know themselves to be transgressors. They are haunted by the dread and the disquietude of a yet unsettled controversy; and till they perceive how an adjustment can be made, and without disparagement to the high and lofty attributes of the Godhead, they cannot be at rest. It is vain to tell them of Heaven's parental love, and how far it outstrips the earthly affection of their own parents. Still there is that which disturbs and terrifies in the imasrination of Heaven's high sacredness. It is even in vain to speak of its being a love unquenched by man's disobedience, as pictured forth in the Father who ran to meet his wandering prodigal and to welcome him back again. Still the sense of a dishonoured law and an incensed Lawgiver abides in the sinner's guilty bosom; and nothing can effectually appease his fears, but the revelation of that way by which the acceptance of the rebel has been made to harmonize with the dignity of the offended sovereign. 

This brings us to the sacrifice which has been made for the sins of the world to the decease which was accomplished at Jerusalem and by which the mighty, the mysterious problem was resolved, that was unfathomable to the wisdom of Nature, and that angels desired to look into. This resolves all difficulties; and now that the propitiation has been rendered, man is freely invited to rejoice in his God, and God rejoices over man as if man had never fallen. Sin is obliterated by the sacrifice that has been made for it ; and now with a clear conscience because now on a consecrated way, might the guiltiest of our world draw nigh and make his requests known unto God. He is now on firm and high vantage ground for prayer; and in the face of Jesus Christ that vail which mantled the aspect of the Divinity is withdrawn. The voice of the intercessor is now added to the voice of the supphant; and while the mercy of the Godhead is all awake to the sinner's imploring cry, the Truth and the Holiness and the Justice, are all propitiated by the Saviour who died for him. This is the mediatorial ground on which the righteous God and His rebellious creatures can commune peaceably and now that the incense of a sweet-smelling savour is between them, He can effuse all the love and liberality of a Father on His redeemed children, and bestow good things on all who ask Him. Forgiveness is yours if you will. The clean heart and the right spirit are yours if you will. Heaven with all its glories is open to receive you. And holiness which is the dress of Heaven is ready to fall, like Elijah's mantle, from the hand of Him who hath said "Turn unto me and I will pour out my spirit upon you." Under the economy of the Gospel all the lets and hindrances, which obstructed these generous communications from the upper sanctuary, are now done away. And, kinder far than ever earthly father to his offspring, does the bountiful God who is in Heaven, rejoice in meeting all the wishes, and supplying all the wants of His spiritual family. 

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