« Prev Lecture XVII. Preached May the 8th, 1691. Next »

LECTURE XVII.66   Preached May the 8th, 1691.

Matt. v. 48.

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

NEXT to the doctrine of the Trinity, comes (according to proper theological order) that of the Divine Attributes or Perfections, most fitly to be considered. After the discourse of the Trinity which we have showed you subsists in the God head, we have chosen this text, both as it serves to confirm, and as it serves to regulate, that foregoing doctrine.

First, As it serves to confirm it. For when we are so plainly told that “there are three that bear record in heaven;” and that the great Object of our religion, and whereto we are most solemnly to be devoted, is represented to us as three, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; supposing such a triad as you see in the Godhead, you can suppose it under no other notion than that of a very great and high perfection belonging thereunto. And that, therefore, it must greatly intrench upon the perfection of the Godhead, and unspeakably diminish it, if there should be any attempt or offer made to diminish and detract from that sacred number. It could not but be a horrid maim to the very Object of our religion: and against any such disposition thereunto, or to do any thing, or to admit of any thought into our minds that may have that tendency, it would fortify us greatly, to have the belief well fixed in our minds of the perfection of the Godhead. And,


Secondly, It serves to regulate that doctrine of the Trinity too: that is, to direct us to understand it so as may consist with the other perfections of the Godhead; where we are sure it is impossible there can be any war, or that there should not be the highest and most perfect agreement. We must so conceive of the Trinity in the Godhead, and the perfections that we are here and elsewhere taught to ascribe unto it, as that these may manifestly accord with one another. And for that purpose, we must conceive of the divine perfections as the Scripture doth direct us, according as God himself speaks of them; allowing his word to be our measure, in making our estimate and judgment concerning them. They that take another course, and pretend to discover to us the incomprehensible nature of God, by methods and measures of theirs’ secluding this, and opposing it in any kind, truly we have a great deal more reason to be astonished at their confidence than we have to admire their knowledge; as if they could make a better discovery and a clearer representation of God to us than he himself. But if we do understand the divine perfections according to those plain and express measures which he hath given us in his word, or which he enables us to collect, as we are reasonable creatures, from what he hath said in his word concerning himself and them, it would then withhold us from any such exorbitant conceptions concerning the Trinity of persons in the Godhead, as shall not be easily reconcileable with the doctrine of his perfections, according as he hath represented and stated it himself.

And upon that account, shall we apply ourselves to consider so much concerning the perfections of the Godhead, as this scripture will give us a general ground for. Indeed to speak of the several perfections and attributes that do belong to the Divine Nature, distinctly and at large, would be the work of a life’s time; and very little agree with what I have designed, the expounding and opening to you the principles of religion, in as short a time as I can. Therefore, I have pitched upon this text, designing to sum up ail under it, which I think requisite to say concerning the excellencies and perfections of the Divine Being, which we commonly speak of under the name, his at tributes. You may take the ground of discourse thus,

That all the excellencies which are requisite to make up the most absolute perfection, belong as attributes to the nature of God; or as so many attributes to be ascribed to God. This, some may possibly apprehend will be but to do what hath been done already, and to do it over again. That is, when in proving to you the existence of the Deity, we shewed that we are 43to conceive of him under the notion of a Being absolutely perfect. It is true, it was impossible to demonstrate his existence without forelaying that notion of God. And that is suitable to what the laws of method do require, in treating of any subject whatsoever. That is, if there be occasion to put the question an sit, whether such a thing be or not and to prove the existence of it, first, and before we come to that inquiry, to inquire quid sit, and what it is. To open the nature of such a thing, there must be first some general notion assigned and laid down of that whose existence we would prove, and about which the first inquiry was made an sit, whether it be yea or nay. Otherwise, in attempting to prove that, we may as well prove any thing else, if we do not give such a notion of it as will distinguish it from another thing.

But now after we have done so, it comes properly of course then, to proceed to a more narrow inspection into the nature of such a thing. And so the order of tractation did require it should be in this present case. That is, when we were to in quire concerning the existence of the Deity, first to put you in mind, what you and all must be supposed to apprehend concerning the thing we inquired about, that is, a Being of absolute perfection in the general: and we can have no other notion of God but as a Being absolutely perfect. That being done, and it having been evinced to you that there is such a Fountain-Being from whence whatsoever perfections we do be hold, and come under our notice among the creatures, must have descended and been derived, inasmuch as whatsoever we behold, and take notice of, that comes under any notion of perfection with us at all, is not nothing, and therefore could not come from nothing, and therefore must be first in a fountain from whence it came. When by this means, I say, we have plainly evinced, that there is one Being which hath all perfection originally in itself; and thereupon shewn that Being to be a fit Object for religion, and to be worshipped by us, and to whom duties and exercises of religion ought to be performed, and that this can be done acceptably no way but agreeable to his own will; thereupon we were put upon an inquiry, how that will of his might be understood and known: and having found that it was discovered (with that design and to that purpose that he might be duly and acceptably worshipped) in that word that bears his name, thence we come regularly and of course, to speak of things particularly and more expressly concerning him (whereof we have had some general notions before) which are contained in this Book, and which this word will help us to a more distinct knowledge of. And therefore now, in speaking to 44the proposition laid down, we are to consider the subject of it: “your heavenly Father,” and then we are to consider the thing affirmed concerning this subject: He “is perfect.”

I. For the former, the subject of this affirmation, we must consider in what sense (as there will be occasion to take notice of by and by) he can be spoken of under the name of a subject. Scholars know how to distinguish between a subject of predication, and a subject of inhæsion. He can be no subject of inhæsion, as you will see presently. But a subject concerning which, this or that may be affirmed or spoken, that is the only thing which we can truly and properly mean when we speak of God under that name or term. But whereas he is here mentioned as our “Father which is in heaven,” (as our Saviour directs be should be prayed unto, in that comprehensive system of petitions that he himself was pleased to give his disciples, “Our Father which art in heaven,”) we must distinguish between Christ’s calling him Father himself and his teaching us to call him so, or his speaking of him as our Father. When Christ himself calls him “Our Father,” he calls him so as he was: and so he doth speak himself, when he speaks of his having come from, his having descended from the Father. He could mean by the term “Father,” nothing else but the first person in the Trinity. But when he speaks of him as our Father and directs us so to speak of him, or to speak to him, we do not need so to limit that term “Father,” in reference to us, for we may fitly enough consider the whole God in the paternal relation to ourselves. Concerning the Father there is no doubt, for so our Saviour hath taught us to conceive and speak, “I go to my Father and your Father, My God and your God,” John xx. 17. And even the Son is spoken of as our “everlasting Father.” Isaiah ix. 6. And all the children of God are said to be born of his Spirit, and to be begotten thereby. John iii. 1. And suppose we should look upon Father, here, strictly as a personal name or title, yet so we must consider the Divine Nature as subsisting fontaliter, or as in a fountain in that person: and it is that person as having that nature eminently and originally and firstly in him; even that same nature that is common to each of the persons. And so it is not the person as the person, but as having the Divine Nature in it, which is the subject here spoken of. “Your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” The Godhead or the nature of God subsisting as in the Fountain, in the Father: and that same nature which is also common with him to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. But then,

II. For that which is affirmed or spoken of this subject, He “is perfect.” How are we at a loss when we come to speak of 45this divine perfection! “I have seen an end” (saith the Psalmist) “of all perfection, but thy commandments are, or thy commandment is exceedingly broad.” Even so much of divine perfection as is expressed that one way (in the divine word) is of so exceeding vast a latitude as to represent itself as the matter of the highest wonder to a very enlarged and comprehensive mind, that had exceeded the bounds of all other perfection and already gone beyond them all. I have seen an end of all perfection, but how vast a perfection beyond all that do I perceive in thy divine word, wherein there are yet but some sunbeams, some glimmerings of the perfection of the Divine Nature! Indeed when we go about to speak of such a subject as this, or to think of it, we may even fear to meet with such a rebuke as that, Job xxxviii. 2. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” Can we think, by searching to find out God? Can we find out the Almighty unto perfection? Job xi. 7 Somewhat, the case requires should be said, of what we can say and conceive but little of. Something, the exigency of our case doth require; that we labour, all of us, to be informed concerning one with whom we have so much to do, and in whose hands all our great concerns do lie.

For the word that is used here, “perfect,” and the words in the learned languages that we are referred to by these penmen, they do (as all words must do) fall most inconceivably short of the thing. Words cannot but be poor, and labour under a penury when they are expressive of any thing of God. Alas! They can go but a little way in it.

The words that we have here to do with more immediately, do carry in them a kind of diminishing and lessening intimation of coming to a state, or having come to a state that is higher and more excellent, from a state that was meaner and lower; in which the subject spoken of is (as it were) supposed to have been before, according to the general and indefinite use of such words. As the Greek word τελειος that is here used, refers to a word that signifies an end, and so carries an intimation with it, as one had but then attained an end which he was aiming at, and tending towards before, which implies such a diminution as can by no means be admitted concerning God. As when any one doth then suppose himself to have arrived at an eternal sort of perfection, when he hath compassed an end that he was about. “I work this day, and to-morrow, and the third day I shall be perfect;” finish a work I was engaged in, which is but an external sort of perfection. The word (for want of being more expressive) is borrowed and employed here, in a case of very transcendent height above that. And so for the Latin word 46 perfectio, or perfectus, it carries an intimation with it as if the thing spoken of were, now at length, thoroughly made that which before it was not. Such expressions do (through the natural poverty of speech and language) lessen and diminish greatly the thing that should be represented and set forth by them.

But to consider the thing itself, (as we may be capable to open to you somewhat of the divine perfections) there are two things to be done in reference hereto. We shall note to you, some things more generally that do concern the divine perfections indefinitely considered: and then shall (though briefly) come to consider some of the particular perfections themselves, which we are more specially concerned to take notice of, that are comprehended under those generals.

1. There are some things more generally to ‘be laid down concerning the divine perfections, or excellencies, or attributes; you may call them which of these you will, fitly enough. And,

(1.) There is this to be considered concerning them, that there are of these divine excellencies or perfections, which we are taught to attribute to God, some that are altogether incommunicable ones. There are some that are incommunicable; that is, that have not so much as a name common to him, and to us, by which they are to be signified and spoken of. As there is his Self-subsistence, his All-sufficiency, his Eternity and his Immensity. These are attributes, or perfections of the Divine Nature that are not so much as common in name to him and to us; so appropriate to him, that there is nothing known by the same name that can be said of us. And there are some of his attributes and perfections that are communicable, that is, which under one and the same name, maybe spoken of him and of us, of him and of the creature. As his wisdom; there is also such a thing among men: and his power; they have some power: and his goodness; they have some goodness: and so his justice, his holiness, and his truth: these are divine perfections that are spoken of under one and the same name, concerning him and concerning some of his creatures. That is one thing that you have in general to note; as concerning the incommunicable attributes of God, they have not so much as the same name with him and with us: for there is nothing in us, to which such names do agree: All-sufficiency, immensity, eternity, omnipotency, self-existence and the like. But the other (as was said) are signified by words applicable to some what in us, as to be wise, to be good, to be just, to be powerful and the like. And,


(2.) In the next place, you must note, that for those divine attributes and perfections which are communicable, it is only the name that is common to that thing in him, and that thing in us, which is expressed thereby. It is true that there is the same name but not the same nature. There is a likeness, a similitude, but not an identity, or a sameness. Take heed of apprehending, or imagining any such thing between the divine wisdom, or the divine power, or the divine goodness, that are uncreated, and that which is created; and so of his holiness, his justice and the like. We are not to think there is a sameness of nature, though there be the same names used in such perfections as these, as they are found to be in God, and as they are found to be in us, or in the creature: for it is impossible that the nature which is infinite, and the natures which are finite can be the same. An infinite nature and a finite nature must needs differ infinitely, and therefore can by no means be the same nature. Wherefore, all that is said in this case, in reference to us, when God is pleased to derive and communicate from himself unto those whom he regenerates, that which is called the Divine Nature; it is only said of it,—that it is his image, and his likeness, that is conveyed or communicated: it is only some what like God or the image of God that is impressed upon, and wrought into the soul. We must take heed of thinking that it is the same nature, as they have thought and blasphemously spoken, who have talked of being godded in God; as if the very nature of God was under such a name as this, transmitted into the creature. And again,

(3.) We must understand these perfections, or excellencies of the Divine Nature to be his very nature itself, and not to be any accidental thing superadded thereunto. We must not conceive that such divine perfections as wisdom and power and goodness and the like, are additions to the nature of God: but they are his very nature itself. There can be no such thing as an accidental supervention to the Divine Nature; but every thing that is in God must be conceived to be God. He is essential wisdom and goodness and truth, and is not these things by accident, as men may be, so as to have those things separable from their nature; no, nor can his nature, indeed, be so much as conceived without them. We are not to look upon them as accidents, either as separable or inseparable from his nature, but as being essentially included in it. And this is most evident, upon the account we have showed you; and the thing speaks itself in demonstrating to you the existence of the Godhead, that that Being whose existence we were to demonstrate, 48is self existent, existing always by and from itself without depending, without being beholden to any thing from whence it was. Now what is so self-existent is existent necessarily; that is, it owes its own existence to that peculiar excellency of its own nature, to which it is repugnant, and impossible not to exist. Now, whatsoever doth exist necessarily, so that its non-existence should be altogether impossible (which is the peculiar manner of the Divine existence) that must needs be unalterable. What is necessary, must be eternally or invariably necessary, and without any mutation: and nothing can be superadded to another but must infer a mutation: any addition would make an alteration. Therefore, none of these perfections are additions to God; for then they would make a change; but that which is necessarily what it is, never admits of any change, neither by addition nor subtraction any Ways.

(4.) You must take this general note farther, that it is hence consequential, that the excellencies and perfections of the Divine Nature are in him, in perfect simplicity. That is, if none of them do differ from the Divine Nature, then it is impossible they should differ from one another; they cannot really differ one from another in themselves. It is true, indeed, that by our imperfect way of conceiving things, through the narrowness and incomprehensiveness of our minds, which cannot take in all things at once, we are fain to admit distinct notions which are wont to be called inadequate notions, concerning the Deity. We can conceive of such and such excellencies but by parts, but by little and little. It is but a small portion we can take tip of him in the whole, and but very little after all. And therefore, all we are fain (looking upon the glorious and ever blessed Deity) to conceive, is an unknown wisdom in him, and an unknown goodness, and an unknown holiness and the like. Not as if these things did more really differ in him than one and the same face, (as one aptly expresseth it) doth really differ in itself because a great many glasses are placed against it, that do themselves differ from one another, and are variously figured and cut, do seem to represent divers faces. There is, I say, no more of real difference in these perfections from one another, as they are in God, than there would be in that case of so many real things that are reflected by so many glasses, where the difference of the reflected image doth proceed from the glasses, and not from the original which is one and the same to them all. And that we may preserve the notion entire of the Divine Simplicity, it is easy to be demonstrated to them that shall consider—that if there be not a most perfect simplicity in the Divine Nature, so as that the several excellencies 49belonging thereto be really in him, one and the same thing, then these excellencies could not meet there but by composition; they would make a composition in the Divine Nature if they were there with real difference. But such a composition in the Divine Nature is altogether impossible, upon these two accounts. First, If there were such a composition there must be supposed a causation: if the Divine Nature were compounded, it would be inferred it were caused; and so God were not the first Cause of the first being: and, Secondly, (though one would think that nothing should need to be added after that, it being plain, nothing can be prior to God,) If there were a composition there would also be a limitation, and so these perfections of the Divine Being would not be infinite, and consequently they must be perfections altogether disagreeable, no way agreeing to the Divine Nature. It cannot but be that he must be infinitely wise, infinitely good, infinitely powerful, and the like. But he should not be so, if these things did really differ in him from one another; for whatsoever doth really differ from one another, doth limit that other from which it differs. If there be an infiniteness in goodness, or an infiniteness in power, or an infiniteness in knowledge, we cannot suppose many infinites; there cannot be more infinites than one; and therefore it is but one and the same thing that is all these. Whatsoever you do design to the one, you must detract from the other. And if you should suppose two infinites, you do thereby suppose neither to be infinite, but both to be finite. That therefore, you must fixedly retain, as a general rule, that the several excellencies and perfections of the Divine Nature, are in him, in most perfect simplicity, and so do not differ in him, as, one thing differs from another, Only the Divine Nature and Being itself, as it hath all excellency and perfection in it doth, when it comes to cast an aspect upon us and upon our minds, appear as various, though in itself it is most simply one. And again,

(5.) You must further note this, that the negative attributes of the Divine Being do always imply somewhat positive. There are some things ascribed to God in negative terms, which must be understood to have a positive sense and meaning, under those terms. As when it is said of God, he is immortal, which is a negative term, it implies the most infinite and undecaying fulness of life. And so when it is said of God, that he is invisible, though that be a negative term, such a being as cannot be seen, the meaning is, that his being is of that high and glorious excellency as not to be liable and subject to so mean a thing as the sight of our eye; it is too fine, too bright 50and glorious for so mean and low a faculty to reach unto, And,

(6.) You must note this, that any particular excellency that men attribute or ascribe to God, it must always be understood to be ascribed to him in the highest pitch of perfection, and not with that diminution wherewith we behold the shadow of such things to be accompanied in the creature. And therefore, we must take heed of debasing the excellencies of the Divine Nature, by confining, concerning them, to that which only gives some faint representation of them among us. We speak of several things that are real excellencies among the creatures; as quickness of sense, to be able presently to feel whatsoever is noxious and hurtful: this sense of pain, is in the creature a perfection; but we are not to conceive any such thing in God: but we are to conceive that which is transcendent in him, that comprehends in itself the power of giving such and such perfections to the creature; so as that those things are eminently, constantly, only in him which, speaking of this and that particular perfection, is in a distinct, formal notion in the creature. We must not say, that this or that we behold in the creature is in him, but some transcendent excellency that doth virtually and eminently comprehend it; as when the Psalmist tells us, “He that planted the eye, doth he not see? and he that formed the ear doth not he hear? and he that teacheth man knowledge doth not he know?” we are not to think that there is such seeing, or such hearing with God, or any kind of sensation as is with us: but there is that transcendent excellency in him, that doth eminently contain all these in a far more glorious manner than we can conceive. These things, it is fit we should note generally, concerning the divine attributes, or perfections, as a ground for somewhat more distinctly, though very briefly, concerning these attributes, or perfections of God, particularly considered.

But before we pass from this discourse, of what is of more general import concerning them, give me leave to suggest somewhat to you that may be of present use, and that may influence practice, and tend to better the hearts and spirits of us, who are now called to hear about such a subject; “Your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” So our Lord, who was a Teacher come forth from God, on one of his great errands, doth direct us to conceive concerning him. I pray let our thoughts stay here a little, and meditate, and pause awhile; both on this Subject here spoken of, and that which is affirmed concerning this Subject.

[1.] The Subject spoken of, “Your Father which is in heaven.” This NAME, “Your Father,” should carry a very attractive 51sound with it to every ear, and to every heart among us. It is very unfit that we should, any of us, sleep and slumber under the mention of this name, this title given to God, “your Father.” Let us bethink ourselves: Can we call God Father? It is a thing to be thought on—with much caution, and then, if that hath produced any effect, and reached any good issue with us, it ought to be thought on—with high consolation.

First. With great caution. “Your Father which is in heaven is perfect:” when we find that some are addressed by our blessed Lord, with the supposed capacity of bespeaking God as their Father, would it not strike cold to any man’s heart, that should have cause to think, “Am not I excluded? Am not I one of them that may not dare to take such a name into my mouth and apply it to him, to call him my Father? Doth not my own heart smite me, that I assume so much to myself as to say, God is my Father?” There were those that briskly and boldly pretended to it in our Lord’s time. “We are not born of fornication, we have all one Father, even God.” say some of these petulent hearers. John viii. 44. It ought to be seriously considered, “What Godlike thing have I in me to be speak me his child, or that may give me the confidence to call him my Father? What childlike dispositions do I find in me towards him? Is there that trust that becomes a child, that love, that dutifulness, that study to please him?” Let us consider whether we can call him Father, and our hearts not smite us, and tell us inwardly, this is a title that belongs not to thee to give. But if we can find it doth, it is a thing to be considered as with great caution.

Secondly. With high consolation afterwards. Can I indeed say, that he is my Father? What then can I have to complain of? what have I to fear? what have I to desire? what have I to crave beyond what this contains, and carries in it? And pray take heed of diminishing so great a thing to yourselves. Have you, upon a strict inquiry, reason to look upon yourselves as one of that regenerate seed which is peculiar and appropriate to God? carries his signature, his stamp, his image? It is then a very unworthy thing to your Father, to let your spirits sink. It should greaten your minds, it should make you to say within yourselves, “Then am I to live far above the world, it is base, for the children of such a Father to live mean, and lie low, and to grovel in the dust; and to let his own heart despond and sink within him, upon the less grateful aspect and appearances of things from this world. For alas! what is this world to me, if God be my Father?” And, “Your Father, which is in heaven is perfect.” You must consider how this our Father is in heaven; not as confined there, not as if heaven did confine him, 52whom the “heaven of heavens cannot contain.” And we should thereupon consider, that truly if heaven do not confine him, this earth ought not to confine me. If he be my Father, there should be no exclusive limits between him and me. If he be my Father, so in heaven as that though he hath his throne, the theatre of his glory, his court, and his retinue there above, yet he doth also diffuse a vital and essential presence throughout the creation, so as that this earth itself is not excluded, “Whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven thou art there; If I traverse the seas, wherever I come, there thou art.” Psalm cxxxix. 7. I say, if heaven doth not contain him, but that he reacheth this earth too, I should thereupon think this earth should not so confine me, but I will reach him, and apply myself to him, and converse and lead my life with him. And since heaven is represented as the seat of his most glorious residence, we should always think ourselves to have concerns lying there above. I am not to be limited then to this base low earth, if I have a Father in heaven. It is intolerable hereupon, that we should live here upon earth, if we had renounced and quitted all claim to heaven, never looking up thither. What! Do we forget that our Father is there? There he dwells in glory, there he beholds the dwellers upon earth, and looks into the very inmost motions of our thoughts, and workings of our spirits, from day to day, and from moment to moment; if he see a mind carried after vanity all the day long, will he not say, “What! Is such a one, one of the off spring of heaven, but hath no business there, who never minds any thing but this base earth?” Shall he have cause to observe this concerning us, and thus to judge and censure us from day to day? “These are the children of the earth, sons of the earth, they have nothing to do in heaven, they never look up thither.” Such words standing here in the Bible, “Your Father which is in heaven is perfect;” methinks they should make strange impressions upon our spirits when we come to look on them and seriously consider them.

[2.] And then what is affirmed concerning this Subject, (though I must not spend time upon that now,) he is perfect, every way perfect. We may yet, by the way, see what ground of reproof there is here for us, that we so little adore, and so little imitate this perfection. That God is not greater in our eyes when we are beholding him, and considering, that whatsoever our minds can conceive of excellency, we find it in him in the highest perfection, and yet we adore him not, we take no notice of that glorious One, how sad is the case when even this itself is a continual increase of guilt upon us, that we know so much of God, that a poor creature should have cause to say, “I should have been 53far more innocent if I had known less, and been less capable of knowing God. I might have been an innocent creature, in comparison, if I had not known so much.” To know him to be so perfectly holy and not to imitate him, to know him to be so good and not to trust him, to love him, to depend upon him and to seek union with him; to know him to be so perfect, and content myself with my own imperfection, when according to this rule of our Lord we should be “perfect as our Father which is in heaven is perfect.”

« Prev Lecture XVII. Preached May the 8th, 1691. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection