Sermon X. The Rule of Final Judgment.
Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation, he that feareth him and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. Acts x. 34, 35.
After that lamentable event "which brought death into the world and all our wo," all flesh corrupted their way before God. The sinful propensities of our fallen nature overcoming the feeble dictates of reason, there was danger that the knowledge and fear of the great Creator and Governor of the universe would be totally extinguished in the earth. To restore men from this moral degradation, and to preserve among them his name, his worship, and service, it pleased God, at sundry times, to reveal himself to the patriarchs, and finally more fully to his chosen people Israel. In the midst of the darkness of idolatry which overspread the nation, they were selected to preserve the knowledge of the one living and true God, until the fulness of time came, when he should send forth his Son to proclaim his salvation to all the ends of the earth.
But, as was natural, from the pride of human nature, the Jews became elated with their spiritual distinctions, and they fancied that their law should last for ever. It was indeed to be continued in that spiritual dispensation which was to be the fulfilling [108/109] both of the law and the prophets, and to the blessings of which the Gentiles should be admitted; but they supposed it was to be perpetuated in those ceremonial institutions which confined God's covenant favour to their own nation. This restrictive idea of the nature and extent of God's mercy in the promised Messiah, was contrary to the original promise to Abraham, that in his seed all the families of the earth should be blessed; it was contrary to the voice of the prophets, declaring that all the ends of the earth should see the salvation of God; yet it was rigidly cherished by the Jews. Even the apostles of him who came to give his life a ransom for all, were influenced by its contracted spirit; they supposed that redemption should extend only to Israel, and that the fold of the Messiah was inaccessible except through the narrow door of legal ceremonies.
This opinion swayed the apostles even after their Master had commissioned them to preach the Gospel to all nations. To correct an error so fundamentally opposed to the design of the Gospel, a miraculous vision was vouchsafed to Peter. In this vision, under an emblematic representation of a sheet let down from heaven containing various animals, some of which, according to the Jewish law, were unclean, but which Peter was directed to eat, he was taught that the ceremonial distinctions of the Jewish law were abolished, and that the church of God was thenceforward opened to all nations. As an evidence of this, he was commanded to attend some messengers sent to him from Cornelius, a devout Gentile, who desired to be taught the things belonging to the kingdom of God. Thus miraculously instructed in God's gracious purpose [109/110] to grant to the Gentiles repentance unto life, Peter opened his discourse with Cornelius in the words of my text--"Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation, he that feareth him and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him."
Here then, brethren, we behold the important character in which God will judge mankind, and the impartial rule by which he will determine his favour to them.
The statement of the doctrine contained in the text, the proof of it, and the inferences deducible from it, must be particulars interesting to us all, and shall be the object of the following discourse.
The text declares the general truth, that God is no respecter of persons; but that he accepts men according to the fear and service which they render him. This principle may be considered in its application to those destitute of the light of the Gospel, and to those who enjoy its light.
"God is no respecter of persons." All men deriving their being from him, and equally dependent upon him, he considers them as equally his children, and deals with them all by an impartial rule--the fear and service which they render him. No external qualifications or advantages which men possess, in any degree influence the decisions of the holy and just Governor of the universe concerning their spiritual state. No descent from any particular nation, however distinguished by his temporal favours, on which descent the Jews prided themselves, will affect his just determination concerning their spiritual character. Nor does he regulate his final favour to mankind merely by his arbitrary [110/111] pleasure. As it respects, indeed, the spiritual privileges which he confers on men in this life, he exercises the power of the potter over his clay, to "create one vessel to honour, and another to dishonour." He pours on some the full splendour of Gospel truth, while he dispenses to others only the faint light of reason and nature. Still, in every nation, they that fear him and work righteousness, according to the measure of religious knowledge and aid which they enjoy, are accepted with him. "The Judge of the whole earth will do right." The moral qualities of his intelligent creatures are the only standard by which he will finally regulate his favours to them. "He will judge every man according as his work shall be."
Let us apply this general principle to those destitute of the light of the Gospel. The state of the heathen world excites many interesting inquiries in the benevolent mind; and the text satisfies these inquiries, by declaring the standard by which God will judge those to whom it has not pleased him to vouchsafe his revealed will. He accepts them according to the fear and service which they render him. If they cultivate the knowledge of him which they have received from tradition, and which nature, and reason, and conscience, confirm; if adoring his power who made the universe, they fear to offend him who is as omnipotent to destroy as he is to save; if rendering homage to his goodness, they devote themselves to him in whom they live, and move, and have their being; if obeying his voice speaking to them through the dictates of reason and conscience, it is their study, as far as [111/112] the infirmity of their nature will admit, to "work righteousness," they will be accepted by that merciful Parent whose creatures and children they are. God will judge them independently of those disadvantages over which they have no control; he will accept them according as their work shall be. Cornelius was an alien from the commonwealth of Israel, and a stranger to the covenant of promise; he lived among those Gentile nations who, when compared with the light which shone upon Israel, may be said to have sitten in darkness and the shadow of death, yet he is styled "a devout man, one who feared God with all his house, and gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway." And because he was thus pious and holy, though he was not in external covenant with God, he was accepted--"his prayers and his alms came up for a memorial." He was accepted before the offer of the Gospel was made to him. And he was still further accepted, by being received, through the miraculous ministry of Peter, into the Christian fold. Here he enjoyed superior means of virtue, superior spiritual aid, and the prospect of superior reward. In the present state of the world, there are large portions of mankind who, like Cornelius, are aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise. Destitute of the light of divine truth, of the knowledge of a Saviour, of the means of grace, of the hope of glory, their spiritual condition is more deplorable than was that of Cornelius. From his vicinity to God's favoured people, to whom appertained the adoption, and the covenant, and the giving of the law, and [112/113] the promises, he possessed means of spiritual instruction far superior to those now enjoyed by vast portions of the heathen world. Still it is true at the present day, that in every nation, even though destitute of God's revealed will, they who fear him and work righteousness are accepted with him; they are accepted through the merits of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, of that Saviour who gave himself a ransom for all. Obscure, and in many respects erroneous, is their knowledge of the God who made and preserves them; superstitious and imperfect is the homage which they render him; feeble and partial are the intimations of duty afforded by natural conscience, by the glimmering light of reason and tradition; in them too the Divine Spirit, given only in an inferior measure, exerts only in an inferior degree his life-giving power; the hope of immortality, excited only by the dubious deductions of reason and the uncertain dictates of their feelings, sheds only a faint light on the darkness of the grave. Oh! how precious to Christians should be that blessed Gospel which displays in full lustre, and rests on the testimony of God himself, these most interesting truths--how distinguished the privileges of Christians on whom has shone the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ--and how earnestly should they desire and labour to extend to the benighted nations, that Gospel which enlightens with divine truth the path of this life, and prepares those who obey it for more exalted glory in the life to come. Still God the Father is no respecter of persons; and, therefore, in whatever degree the unenlightened heathen know, fear, and serve him, thus far they will be accepted--thus far they will be re[113/114]warded. For where a man has a willing mind, he is accepted according, to what he has, and not according to what he has not.
There is another particular in which, personally, we are more deeply concerned. What is God's rule of judgment concerning those who enjoy the light of the Gospel? Here it is equally true that God is no respecter of persons.
Where the Gospel is proclaimed, he has offered to all men a Saviour; through the atonement of this Saviour salvation is attainable by them all--the means of grace are within the embrace of all--the hope of glory is offered to them all--all may come and drink of the waters of life--all may, through faith and patience, inherit the promises. And under the Gospel dispensation, as under the light of reason and nature, the standard by which all men shall be judged is their fearing God and working righteousness. More, much more than will be exacted of virtuous heathens, will be required of those who enjoy the light of the Gospel. To them a Saviour is proclaimed, the only-begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth, and they must from the heart believe in him. This divine Saviour brings a message, which, recommended by its own interesting import, is attested by signs, and wonders, and mighty works; that God is reconciling the world unto himself, and they must thankfully receive the message of reconciliation. The atonement of this Saviour is revealed as the only meritorious condition on which God, who has a right to prescribe what terms of pardon he pleases to his offending creatures, will vouchsafe to restore them to his favour; and on this atonement they must [114/115] supremely rely; counting their best performances and their most brilliant virtues as wholly unavailing to obtain, on a claim of right, either the pardon of their sins or the glories of heaven. The grace of God's Holy Spirit is revealed as the powerful agent by which their corrupt nature is to be renewed, their unholy passions subdued, divine virtues implanted in their souls, and good works produced in their conduct; and this grace, therefore, must be their supreme dependence; its powerful succours they must seek to obtain by earnest prayer, and by the participation of the divine ordinances appointed to convey it; working powerfully on their minds, and yet to be known only by its fruits, this divine spirit must be cherished as the only source of spiritual life; and by co-operation with its gracious influences must they seek to be transformed by the renewing of their mind, and to be made perfect in every good word and work. A church is established, through which, as the body of Christ, communion is to be maintained with him, its divine head. In this church sacraments and ordinances are established as the channels of his mercy and grace; officers set over this church, deriving their power from Christ, its divine head, dispense the word of his truth, and celebrate the means and pledges of his grace and mercy; and unto this church all they to whom the Gospel is proclaimed must be added, if, according to God's ordinary and established method, they would be saved; by hearing the word and participating of the ordinances duly preached and celebrated by the authorized ministry of this church, must they derive from its divine head spiritual strength and nourishment, until at length they are fitted to see him face to [115/116] face in the glories of the church triumphant. To them life and immortality are brought to light; darkness is dispelled from the grave by the divine Redeemer, who passed in glory through it; it is become the passage to seats of immortal bliss. As heirs of this heaven, Christians are called to live on earth as strangers and pilgrims; refreshed by the enjoyments of the world, but not setting their affections supremely upon them; and pressing forward through all discouragements, through all difficulties, through all temptations, to that home which is prepared for them, eternal in the heavens. Thus must they to whom the Gospel is proclaimed fear God, by humbly receiving the record which he has given them of his Son; thus must they work righteousness according to the precepts, the means, and the motives unfolded by that Saviour in whom they are commanded to believe. Vain will be their pretence of fearing God, while they reject him whom God has sent; vain will be their pretence of working righteousness, while they neglect that Gospel which affords the full rules, the spotless example, and the most powerful aids and motives to virtue. But while they fear God by receiving his blessed Son as their Saviour, and work righteousness, guided by the principles, strengthened by the aids, and animated by the motives there revealed, they will be accepted. No worldly circumstances will affect God's impartial judgment. Jew and Greek, Barbarian, Scythian, bond and free, are all invited to partake of the blessings of the Gospel; and the standard by which they shall be judged to be qualified for these blessings, is their fearing God and working righteousness. No unconditional decree, selecting certain individuals to everlasting [116/117] life, and reprobating others, disgraces the records of heaven, and transforms the sceptre of mercy into the tyrant's rod. God's-will is that all men should be saved--he will judge them as their work shall be--he is no respecter of persons.
The proof of this important truth, which, in its application to those who are destitute of the light of the Gospel, and to those who enjoy it, has been thus exhibited, cannot be difficult.
To represent God as a respecter of persons, awarding his final favour to mankind by an arbitrary standard, or by a capricious and partial judgment, would equally violate his attributes, and be derogatory to his character.
It would violate his attributes--his justice, which renders to all their impartial due--his holiness, which regards with favour the righteous only--his goodness, which prompts him to bestow happiness on those only capable and worthy of enjoying it--and his truth, which is pledged to judge every man according to what he hath done, whether it be good or bad.
To represent God as a respecter of persons, would also be derogatory to his character. He is the Father, the Sovereign, the Judge of his creatures.
An earthly parent would deserve opprobrium, who should regulate his favours to his children by any other standard than their respective deserts: let us not then attribute to the Parent of the universe what would be disgraceful in a human parent. An earthly sovereign, who should dispense his favours to his subjects, not according to their merits, but as caprice or power might dictate, would be deemed a tyrant: and shall we ascribe to God, [117/118] the Sovereign of the universe, what would be disgraceful in a human sovereign? We should deem an earthly judge deserving of the severest crimination, who, in his decisions, should be swayed by partiality, or by caprice, or by any other motives than those of impartial justice: and shall we impute to the righteous Judge of all, what would be dishonourable in a judge of a human tribunal? Father of our spirits! Sovereign of the universe! Judge of the earth! let us not then sink thee to a level with the most unworthy of our race. No! thou art no respecter of persons. They who fear thee and work righteousness, shall be accepted with thee.
The inferences from the truth now explained and established, are many and important.
The doctrine contained in the text removes the imputations which are sometimes cast upon them, from the inequality of his dispensations to mankind.
We behold a large portion of the human race destitute of the blessings of the Gospel: they have not heard a Saviour's name, nor have their ears rejoiced in the glad tidings of salvation through a Saviour's merits. Does this appear an imputation on the goodness and justice of the Governor of the universe? No; he is still good and just--he is still no respecter of persons: he has extended the merits, though not the name, of his blessed Son to all mankind, so as to make salvation possible to all those who fear him and work righteousness. And in applying this standard to the virtuous heathen, he will judge them according to what they have, and not according to what they hare not. As of old, it is said that God "winked at," excused [118/119] "those times of ignorance" when men deformed his worship by the rites of idolatry and superstition; we may, therefore, reasonably conclude that he will not be strict to mark what is done amiss in those dark corners of the earth where the light of his Gospel has not shone, and where, of course, benighted man has no means of knowing, in the full lustre of his attributes, that one living and true God who must be worshipped in spirit and in truth. Nor will God reap where he has not sown--he will not exact from those who sit in darkness, who enjoy only the feeble intimations of his being, worship, and will, discoverable by the obscure lights of tradition, of reason, and of conscience, the same spiritual improvements which he will exact of those who are blessed with the full revelation of his glory in Jesus Christ; and as the virtue of the heathen must necessarily be far inferior to that of the Christian, so, according to the rules of justice, will be his final reward. This is no imputation on God's goodness; he has a just right to do what he will with his own. In the exercise of this right he renders his intelligent creatures capable of different degrees of virtue and happiness. This is no infringement on his goodness, for he deals with them according to the improvement which they make of the advantage that they enjoy. The source of goodness, he diffuses felicity in various degrees through the countless orders of intelligent beings. He thus, powerfully illustrating his glory in the variety of his works, and yet making all his virtuous creatures happy in proportion to their various capacities, establishes his justice. Angels, pure and celestial spirits, are created capable of higher happiness than man; and [119/120] even among celestial spirits, as among men, one star differeth from another star in glory. The seraph who bows in adoration near the throne, enjoys fuller communications of the divine glory than the ministering spirit who worships at a humbler distance. God then will accept, through the merits of his Son, those among the heathen who fear him and work righteousness, according to the means which they enjoy and the light which he vouchsafes them. They are destitute of many advantages which Christians enjoy, in being deprived of that Gospel which would dispel all their darkness, their doubts, and fears, and rendering them capable of higher virtue, would also render them capable of higher bliss; and our exertions should be united with our prayers, that God's "way may be known upon earth, his saving health among all nations." [Psalm lxvii. 2.] But to make salvation absolutely impossible to the heathen--to doom them to eternal perdition, because they have not believed in a Saviour who was never made known to them, is no doctrine of our church; for, though she condemns those who assert that men may be saved according to the law which they profess, independently of the merits of Christ, yet, in declaring that he made an atonement for the sins of the whole world, both original and actual, she is of course led to maintain that God is no respecter of persons, but accepts, in every nation, those that fear him and work righteousness.
Another inference from this important truth is, that the guilt of those must be aggravated, and their punishment severe, who, where the Gospel is proclaimed, reject or neglect it.
 Can they plead that, notwithstanding their neglect or rejection of the Gospel, they still fear God and work righteousness! What must be that fear of God which rejects the record that God has given of his Son; which ranks among the tricks of knavery, or the delusions of superstition, those mighty signs and wonders that attested the mission of the Son of God; which hesitates not to brand as an impostor him whom the Father hath glorified and sent into the world! What must be that righteousness which daringly violates the command of God to believe on his Son; which disclaims those exalted means of piety and virtue afforded in the revelation of Jesus Christ, and which, under the pretence of doing the will of God as obscurely intimated by the lights of reason and conscience, opposes that will clearly and forcibly proclaimed from heaven; teaching men to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live righteously, soberly, and godly in the world? Surely if justice be an attribute of the Governor of the universe, signal must be the punishment of those who contemn his authority, who reject his merciful counsel for their salvation, the rules of righteousness, the messages of peace, the glories of eternity! Even they who despised his law proclaimed by Moses, who was but his servant, perished; of how much sorer punishment shall they be thought worthy who trample under foot the Son of God, and count the blood of the covenant an unholy thing!
But, my Christian brethren, aggravated also will be our guilt, and severe our punishment, if, while we profess to believe in the revelation of the will of God contained in the Gospel, we do not fear him nor work righteousness.
 The luminous pages of God's written word, delineating our duty and exciting us to perform it, lie open before us. The interesting truths, the holy laws, the powerful aids, the cheering promises, the awful threatenings of this word, are constantly promulgated to us. The ordinances of the church, enforcing holiness, dispensing grace, offering mercy, are administered before us. God calls us in the warnings of his providence and the strivings of his Holy Spirit: he calls us to receive his counsel, to hearken to his reproof. He, the Son of God, manifest in the flesh, who died to redeem us from the sorrows and sins of the world, invites us to follow him, to be like him holy, that with him we maybe for ever happy. Heaven displays its glories--hell unfolds its terrors. If thus urged, invited, warned, we do not fear God and work righteousness, reason will brand our conduct with shame; conscience will fix on it the stain of the blackest ingratitude, folly, and guilt: and he whose name we have dishonoured, will finally, as the Judge of the world, seal our eternal condemnation. For assuredly a day is approaching, when, in the everlasting bliss assigned to the righteous, and the everlasting misery allotted to the wicked, the truth will be proclaimed with awful power--"God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation, they only who fear him and work righteousness, are accepted with him."