An Exposition and Defense of Universalism

by Rev. I. D. Williamson, 1840

Sermon XIV

Influence of Universalism

"Come thou with us and we will do the good; for the Lord hath spoken good concerning Israel."
(Numbers 10:29)

In my previous lectures, I have endeavored to prove the truth of the great and leading doctrines of that system of faith, which is know under the name of Universalism. In the present discourse I intend to lay before you, an exposition of the influence which I suppose these doctrines are calculated to exercise, upon the hearts and the lives of those who believe.

There is perhaps no one question more frequently put by the opposers of the doctrine of Universal Salvation, than this, What good will it do to preach or believe it, even if it be true? The question is an important one, and it shall be treated with all that candor which its importance so obviously demands.

I profess to you that I would not advocate a system which I did not most religiously believe calculated to promote the interests of man. But believing s I do, most heartily, that every man, woman, and child, would be benefited by faith in the doctrine of impartial grace, I am constrained to proclaim it in the midst of obloquy and reproach, and to cry unto you with affectionate earnestness, "Come thou with us and we will do thee god." If you ask me what good it would do you to believe in this doctrine? My answer is,

I. It would increase your happiness.

I make this remark, with the intention of applying it in its broadest and most literal sense. I make no exceptions, but I say there is no human being who would not be made more happy by a living faith in the immortal purity and everlasting felicity of the whole human family. I care not what your present faith may be. I care not whether you agree, at present, with the atheist, deist, skeptic, or with any one of the numerous denominations of professing Christians. One thing I know, you have not a faith which presents more glorious hopes, or more heart-cheering anticipations than Universalism, and it is impossible for you to invent one that shall do so. Immortality and perfect unalloyed felicity for all created intelligences, is the "summum bonum," the "ne plus ultra" of all good, beyond which imagination itself cannot proceed. I say, therefore, there is no man among you, who would not be made happier by a firm faith in a system which promises all that the benevolent heart can wish, and even more than the most lively imagination can conceive. Let us see if I am not right here.

Suppose you are an atheist. You believe that his beautiful world came into existence by chance, or sprang from the operation of the laws of matter, and that all its vast concerns are going on at hap-hazard, or subject only to the laws of nature. And as for yourself, you are but the being of a day, the offspring of chance, ushered into life, like the insect whose wing glitters in the sunbeam, to sport your little hour, and die to live no more. You look upward to heaven,a and there is no Father there. You look around you, and all is confusion. You look forward, and all is darkness and gloom. You look downward, and the grave yawns at your feet, and the highest hope you have is that there you will soon feed the greedy worm, and moulder back to your native dust!

Need I compare such a faith with that of the Christian, in order to show that so far as its influence upon human happiness is concerned, the latter is as much above the former as the heavens are above the earth. I trust such a work is unnecessary, for I have seen the atheist, or at least the man who professed to have no faith in a God, and from his own lips have I and the confession of the happifying influence of the Christian faith. Never did I see the man of this sort who would not say to me, "Sir, I wish I could believe as you do, for could I look up to heaven, and feel that I had a friend and a father there, who would take care of me all my life long, and crown me with immortality at last, I know I should be a happier, if not a better man." I say then that Universalism heartily believed, would make the atheist more happy than he can be without it.

But suppose you are a deist. You believe in the God of nature, and in his general providence, but you have no idea that he stoops to converse with man, or to reveal to him his character or purposes. You know that you must die, and have no hope that you shall live again. The day of your death is the boundary of all you expectations, and you have no idea that you shall live at all beyond the grave. To you heaven is a dream, and immortality a fable. Your children and friends are dying around you, and when you part with them you part to meet no more, and you expect soon to close your own eyes upon all the endearments of earth, and bid a sad and eternal farewell to friends and friendship, to hope and happiness, nay, even to existence itself.

I am willing to grant that this faith is better than atheism, for there is some little comfort to be derived from the thought that the affairs of this world are measurably under the government and control of a wise and good creator and governor. But I utter a philosophical, as well as a scriptural truth, when I say that this cannot satisfy the desires of the mind, or still those yearnings after immortality which are inwoven with the very constitution of the human soul. Man is so made, that he must necessarily and unavoidably look forward to the future, and hope or fear.

"The soul uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in the world to come."

I have said that this is with man unavoidable, for I believe that he can no more avoid looking into the future than he can avoid looking backward and remembering the past. But whether it be absolutely unavoidable or not, is of little consequence to our present argument. There is no doubt of the fact, that all men everywhere do draw upon the future for sources of enjoyment and there is just as little doubt that a large share of human happiness is derived from anticipation. Some have gone so far as to maintain that the pleasure derived from anticipated good is greater than that produced by the actual possession of the good itself. However this may be, it is nevertheless, positively certain, that hope opens rich fountains of happiness to man, and hence it follows, that any system which limits the sphere of hope to a few years, and cuts it short at death, must deprive man of one of the richest sources of happiness. But I need not argue this question, for I know not that it is often disputed, that a firm hope in future and immortal blessedness, is a blessing well calculated to promote the happiness of man. I may add, that this is a fountain which remains full and overflowing at the very time when it is needed most, when all other sources of felicity have failed.

To the deist, then, we say, "Come thou with us, and we will do thee good." We will give thee a hope that shall make thee happy. We will inspire thee with confidence in God, as a friend, in whom we may at all times trust without fear of danger or disappointment. We will give thee a hope that shall cheer thee in life, grow brighter and brighter, as the lamp of life burns dim and feeble, sustain thee in affliction, and give thee a triumphant song of victory, when death shall claim his tribute.

Suppose, again, you are a Christian but have unfortunately embraced those narrow views of the economy of your Father's grace, that so extensively and unhappily prevail in the church, at the present day. You believe that "God from all eternity, has elected some men to be redeemed and everlastingly saved by Jesus, and the remainder he was pleased to pass by, and ordain to dishonor and wrath, to the praise of his vindictive justice." Can such faith make you calmly and peacefully happy in life, and resigned and joyous in the hour of death? I doubt it much, because, in the first place, you cannot know for a positive certainty that you are one of the very and precious elect of God, and so long as there is a lingering doubt upon that question, you must be measurably unhappy. But, in the second place, even if it were possible to remove all doubt upon that question, even that would not be fully satisfactory. There are ties that bind you to your fellow-creatures, and give you a deep and abiding interest in their welfare. I will therefore view your case in the most favorable light. I will suppose that your election is sure, and you are persuaded, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that you name is enrolled among the number of the precious elect of God. I ask, can even this satisfy you? Is there no soul out of the ark of safety in whose welfare you feel an interest? Are there not those around you that you love? And have you no heart to feel for them? I ask, how is it, when you look upon a cherished child of your love, and behold the indelible mark of reprobation stamped upon its countenance? Ah, I know how it is. Your feelings are like those of the good old patriarch, when the bloody coat was brought home, and he knew it belonged to his darling Joseph, and he refused to be comforted saying, "I will go down to the grave, to my son, mourning." No man can be fully satisfied with a faith which presents him with a reasonable probability, nay, an absolute certainty, that myriads of his fellow-creatures, and perhaps among them his own children, will fall victims to a hopeless decree of utter and eternal reprobation.

I grant that, with such views, you may at times enjoy a kind of satisfaction in the hope that dear and beloved self is safe, but that any man who has a head to reason, and a heart to feel, can possibly be as happy with such a faith, as he would be with one that embraced the whole world in the sure and steadfast covenant of redeeming grace, is altogether out of the question.

But I will make another supposition. You have rejected the notion of election and reprobation. You now believe that God offers salvation freely to all his creatures, and that they may all be saved, if they will comply with the conditions of grace. Those who comply with these conditions will be saved, and those who do not comply will be lost. The question is, whether this faith is best calculated to promote human happiness? I judge not, for no man can be positively certain that he has, and that he will, to the end of his life, continue to do all those things on which his eternal all depends. So long as there is doubt upon that head, it will be a constant source of misery. If fact, the foundation of hope in this system, is far more unsubstantial than in the other. The man who believes in sovereign election, if he can satisfy himself that he is elected, can rest secure in the steadfast hope that he will be saved, and that no power in heaven or earth can prevent it. But it is a large discount from this, to embrace a faith which puts us in jeopardy every hour, lest some false step of ours should plunge us in ceaseless perdition.

But I will do here as in the other case. I will place the matter in its most favorable aspect before you. You are now satisfied of your own safety, and there remains no lingering doubt that when you depart from this world, your soul will wing its way to the realms of eternal blessedness and joy. Is that all you want? And are you now satisfied, and perfectly happy? Dear man! Have you no wife? No Children? No friends? No human being that you love? If you have, where are your bowels of mercy and your feelings of compassion, that you can be happy while the storm of endless wrath is gathering, fearful and dark, and their unsheltered heads are exposed, naked, to its fury? I know not but you may be comfortable with such a faith, but I do know, from bitter experience, that I could not. And that any man, who loves his neighbor as himself, can be as happy with such a faith, as he would be with one that promises life and immortality to a world, is absolutely impossible.

The man who cherishes such a faith may have seasons of joy. He may have occasional gleaming of sunshine, but the broad daylight of felicity, pure and perpetual, he may not expect. He may reflect upon heaven and its glories, its songs of joy and anthems of ceaseless praise, and the prospect of obtaining a habitation there, may cause him to rejoice. But he must also look at the other side of the picture and when he thins of hell, with all its horrors, its dire music of misery, and its groans of everlasting despair, and remembers that himself, or his children, may one day be thee, his soul dies within him, and his joy is turned to mourning. He finds in the thought, as did the eloquent Saurin, "A mortal poison, diffusing itself through every period of live, rendering society tiresome, pleasure insipid, and life itself a cruel bitter." "Come thou with us, and we will do thee good." Believe in the full, free, perfect, and sure salvation of a world, and thou shalt be saved -- saved from doubts and fears, that now "waste your faith and nourish your despair." Ye have need to learn that God is unchangably "good unto all, and his tender mercies are over all the works of his hands" -- that he has linked the eternal glory of his creatures fast to his own throne, by the strong and indissoluble chain of his love, and that no power in heaven or on earth, in time, or eternity, can pluck us out of his hands. Learn this, I pray you, and your joys shall be abundant, and ye will tell me, as every man who believes will tell me, that faith has made you happier. It has dispelled the clouds of darkness that brooded over the future, and raised you up to better prospects and more glorious hopes. But I observe that faith in the doctrine of universal salvation will not only make you happier, but,

II. It will make you better.

I am not among the number of those who contend that it is no matter what a man believes, for I am sure that faith exercises a most powerful influence upon the character and the conduct of man. The great part of that which we are in the habit of considering as our stock of knowledge, is no more nor less than faith, and there are comparatively but few of the acts of our lives, that proceed from what we positively know. "We walk by faith, and not by sight," is no less a truth of experience than of scripture. Let a man look upon the Mohemmedan, ready at all times to raise a sword in an indiscriminate slaughter of all that do not bow down at the altar of the Arabian prophet, and let him tell me, if he can, what but faith is it that makes the difference between that man and the Christian? And I greatly err, if a view of the matter in this light does not oblige him to confess, that there is some little consequence attached to the great question, what a man shall, and what he shall not believe. Among the different sects of Christians, separated as they are by minor points, the difference may not be so great, as between the Christian and the Mohammedan faith. But that there is a difference in the moral influence of different systems among Christians, there can be no doubt.

You have, many of you, been in the habit of supposing that Universalism had no requirements to ask of its believers, and that its moral influence must be decidedly bad, and you may be surprised to hear me advocate its claims as an instrument of moral reform. But so it must be. I distinctly claim for the doctrine of universal grace, not only and equal share of moral power with other systems, but I claim for it a purer, higher and holier moral influence, than can be exerted by any other system, and I five it you, as the deliberate conviction of my judgement, that there is no man among you who would not be made better by faith in that doctrine, and a life corresponding with its requirements. And now for the reasons that induce me to hold this opinion.

I might indeed insist upon this, as a legitimate conclusion from my previous position, that it will make men happier, for I hold it as an incontrovertible truth, that you cannot make a man happier without at the same time making him better. Happiness is our being's end and aim, and it is in pursuit of this, that we perform every act of our lives. It is a want of this that leads men into sin. It is a restless, uneasy and unsatisfied spirit, that goads men on and urges them to the commission of all those foul deeds that disgrace humanity, and I risk nothing in saying, that no man ever yet committed a crime when he was calm, contented, satisfied and happy. In proportion, therefore, as any doctrine is calculated to satisfy our desires for happiness, will it exert a salutary moral influence.

If therefore, the doctrine of Universal Grace is, as I have shown, better calculated to make men calmly and peacefully happy, than any other system, it follows as a legitimate conclusion, that it will exert the most powerful and salutary moral influence. But I will not insist on this argument for there are an abundance of evidences in favor of our position without it.

I. It presents the only salutary doctrine of punishment.

There is no greater error than the supposition that man's respect and reverence for law is increased by adding to the amount of the penalty. In fact, the very reverse of this proposition comes much nearer the truth than the proposition itself. The whole history of the world will bear witness, that in all ages, and in all countries, those laws have been most respected and best obeyed, whose penalties have been most mild and merciful. But when tyrants have ruled with a rod of iron, and sought to enforce obedience to their laws, by means of most severe and unmerciful punishments,then the weak and timid have despaired, and the stout-hearted have despised them, and transgression has abounded. Now the common doctrine of punishment annexes to the law of God a most unmerciful penalty. It makes God punish men eternally, and of course, without any design to do them the least possible good. With such views the feeble in mind despair, and contract a morbid insensibility to danger, and the strong in spirit brave it out, despising not only the law, but also the lawgiver. They look upon God as a hard master, who rules with a despotic sway -- upon his law as a grievous burden -- upon themselves as slaves, who have no further interest in obedience, than an escape from the merciless wrath of a despotic lawgiver.

On the other hand, Universalism makes punishment mild and merciful -- the law itself holy and good -- man a child, and the penalty of the law, the wise and salutary chastisement of a kind friend, who seeks by it to turn our wandering feet from the way of destruction and misery, to the path of virtue, where alone we can be happy. Now I say that in order for punishment to be effectual, its justice must be seen, and its goodness appreciated. Any other view of punishment though it may make slaves and hypocrites, can never produce that cheerful and spontaneous obedience which flows from a willing heart. I say, therefore, that Universalism is calculated to exert a higher and purer moral influence than any other system, because it appeals to the hearts rather than the fears of men.

But again, Punishment in order to be effectual, must be speedy and certain. In both these respects, our views of punishment have a decided advantage over all other systems. The common doctrines of the day, do indeed threaten a most tremendously severe punishment, but they nullify its influence by placing it far in the future, for their language is like that of the false prophets of Israel, "He prophesies of the things that are afar off, and the vision that he seeth is for many days to come." But, to cap the climax, and as if on purpose to palliate all fear, and destroy entirely the influence of punishment, they offer to the vilest sinner, an easy method of escaping from that punishment, which is, in the first place, removed to the dim distance of future years, far beyond the reach of mortal vision.

Should our legislature pass a law, that the man who was guilty of theft should be punished with death at the stake thirty years from the time of transgression, you would at one say, that although the punishment was severe, yet it could have no effect, for the reason that it was too far off. But should they add a clause, providing that at any time during the thirty years, the thief shall have the privilege of repenting, and if he does so, the punishment shall not be inflicted at all, you would laugh them to scorn. And yet this is a faithful and true, though faint representation of the common notion of the law of God and its penalty. He has given to man a law, and annexed to that law a penalty, inconceivably lasting and severe. But when we ask is it to be inflicted: The answer is, not while man shall live in this world. It is reserved to another state of existence, and is placed behind that curtain which separates time from eternity. And will it certainly be inflicted upon every man that violates the law? Oh! no, for the most hardened offender can at any time, during this life repent, and in one brief hour he shall be placed out of all danger from the penalty of the law. Thus do these doctrines perpetually cry, in the language of the serpent, "Ye shall not surely die." Ye may sin, and ye shall have your whole lives given you to perform a work which can be done in an hour, and when done, shall give you a clear escape from the penalty of the law.

On the other hand, Universalism teaches that the penalty of the law, though mild and merciful, is speedy and sure. Her language is, "In the day that thou eatest of the fruit of sin, thou shalt surely die," and there is no escape, for "he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong that he hath done, and there is no respect of persons." Ye may flatter yourselves that punishment is far away, and with a hope of an easy escape, but it is an idle dream. It is nigh thee, even at thy doors, and will most surely come upon thee. These are the doctrines of Universalism upon the subject of punishment, and it is evident, at a glance, that they are capable of exercising a far more powerfully restraining influence than any other system can boast.

II. Universalism presents the character of God in such a light that it will draw out the affections of the believer's heart in love to him, and good will to his children.

Love to God, and good will to mean, lie at the foundation of all true morality. On these two commands hang all the law and the prophets. That system, therefore, is best calculated to exercise a salutary, moral influence, which can best secure obedience to these two requirements. Now, I say, that the best possible way to make a man love God, is, to stamp on his mind the conviction, that God is his friend and his father. You may draw a picture of the great divinity, clothed in vengeance as with a garment, and roll over the head of the sinner the tremendous thunders of eternal wrath, to the end of his days, and though you may thus make him tremble like a slave, you cannot make him love like a child. But tell a man that God is good; stamp on his mind the full conviction, that in heaven there is one who is better than all, whose kindness knows no bounds, and whose faithfulness will never leave nor forsake the souls that he has made; and then you touch the heart and draw out the soul in love to him, as a being infinitely worthy of the warmest devotions of the mind. This is what Universalism teaches, and hence I say, that before all systems, and above all systems, it is most powerful in its influence to secure love to God.

Love to our neighbor is the next in the catalogue of moral virtues. How shall that be secured? Not by convincing a man that his neighbor is a mass of total depravity, hated of God, and destined to be fuel for hell fire, and fit only for a companion of devils. Such views as these can never go one step toward making a man love his neighbor. But convince a man that his neighbor is his brother, a child of the same God, and an heir of the same immortal and incorruptible inheritance, and when that truth is fixed in the mind, he will love him, as one to whom he is bound by a common interest, common origin, and common destiny. This is what Universalism teaches. It tells a man to recognize in all around him, the children of the same God, and the heirs of the same inheritance as himself, and calls on him to love them with the whole heart. Its moral influence then must be good, for it will produce love to God and good will to man; and as for all other moral duties, they are but the streams that flow from this fountain. Keep the fountain full, and the streams will not fail to flow continually.

I am frequently questioned upon the subject of the requirements of Universalism. If that be true, what has man to do? is the question. I answer, "Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself." That is all. If you love God, you will serve him, and if you love your neighbor, you will do him good and not evil.

There are many other views that I might take of the subject, all tending to establish the truth of the position I have assumed. But I am admonished that it is time to bring this discourse to a close. I can prove, with the clearness of light, in theory, that, upon all the known principles and laws of the human mind, Universalism is superior to any other system in its moral tendency. But after all, it is better to do so practically. Let us live the doctrine we profess, and we shall demonstrate the fact, beyond all controversy. Bigotry may resist the force of evidence, and sophistry may evade the most cogent reasoning, but there is a silent power in virtue, that nothing can withstand.

Again, then, I say, let those who profess to believe, live as their faith dictates, and though a silent, yet will it be a more powerful argument, in favor of the moral power of the doctrine, than I could put together, even though I could come to you with the zeal of a Paul, and the eloquence of an Apollos!

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