4. THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD STIFLED OR CORRUPTED, IGNORANTLY OR MALICIOUSLY.
But though experience testifies that a seed of religion isdivinely sown in all, scarcely one in a hundred is found whocherishes it in his heart, and not one in whom it grows to maturityso far is it from yielding fruit in its season. Moreover, while somelose themselves in superstitious observances, and others, of setpurpose, wickedly revolt from God, the result is, that, in reward tothe true knowledge of him, all are so degenerate, that in no part ofthe world can genuine godliness be found. In saying that some fallaway into superstition, I mean not to insinuate that their excessiveabsurdity frees them from guilt; for the blindness under which theylabour is almost invariably accompanied with vain pride andstubbornness. Mingled vanity and pride appear in this, that whenmiserable men do seek after God, instead of ascending higher thanthemselves as they ought to do, they measure him by their own carnalstupidity, and neglecting solid inquiry, fly off to indulge theircuriosity in vain speculation. Hence, they do not conceive of him inthe character in which he is manifested, but imagine him to bewhatever their own rashness has devised. This abyss standing open,they cannot move one footstep without rushing headlong todestruction. With such an idea of God, nothing which they mayattempt to offer in the way of worship or obedience can have anyvalue in his sight, because it is not him they worship, but, insteadof him, the dream and figment of their own heart. This corruptprocedure is admirably described by Paul, when he says, that"thinking to be wise, they became fools" (Rom. 1: 22.) He hadpreviously said that "they became vain in their imaginations," butlest any should suppose them blameless, he afterwards adds that theywere deservedly blinded, because, not contented with sober inquiry,because, arrogating to themselves more than they have any title todo, they of their own accord court darkness, nay, bewitch themselveswith perverse, empty show. Hence it is that their folly, the resultnot only of vain curiosity, but of licentious desire and overweeningconfidence in the pursuit of forbidden knowledge, cannot be excused.
The expression of David, (Psalm 14: 1, 53: 1,) "The fool hassaid in his heart, There is no God," is primarily applied to thosewho, as will shortly farther appear, stifle the light of nature, andintentionally stupefy themselves. We see many, after they havebecome hardened in a daring course of sin, madly banishing allremembrance of God, though spontaneously suggested to them fromwithin, by natural sense. To show how detestable this madness is,the Psalmist introduces them as distinctly denying that there is aGod, because although they do not disown his essence, they rob himof his justice and providence, and represent him as sitting idly inheaven. Nothing being less accordant with the nature of God than tocast off the government of the world, leaving it to chance, and soto wink at the crimes of men that they may wanton with impunity inevil courses; it follows, that every man who indulges in security,after extinguishing all fear of divine judgement, virtually deniesthat there is a God. As a just punishment of the wicked, after theyhave closed their own eyes, God makes their hearts dull and heavy,and hence, seeing, they see not (Matt. 13:14-15; cf. Isa.6: 9-10 and Ps. 17:10). David, indeed, is the best interpreter of his own meaning, when he says elsewhere, the wicked has "no fear of God before his eyes," (Psalm 36: 1;) and, again, "He has said in his heart, God has forgotten; he hideth his face; he will never see it."(Ps. 10:11)
Thus although they are forced to acknowledgethat there is some God, they, however, rob him of his glory bydenying his power. For, as Paul declares, "If we believe not, heabideth faithful, he cannot deny himself," (2 Tim. 2: 13; so thosewho feign to themselves a dead and dumb idol, are truly said to denyGod. It is, moreover, to be observed, that though they struggle withtheir own convictions, and would fain not only banish God from theirminds, but from heaven also, their stupefaction is never so completeas to secure them from being occasionally dragged before the divinetribunal. Still, as no fear restrains them from rushing violently inthe face of God, so long as they are hurried on by that blindimpulse, it cannot be denied that their prevailing state of mind inregard to him is brutish oblivion.
In this way, the vain pretext which many employ to clothetheir superstition is overthrown. They deem it enough that they havesome kind of zeal for religion, how preposterous soever it may be,not observing that true religion must be conformable to the will ofGod as its unerring standard; that he can never deny himself, and isno spectra or phantom, to be metamorphosed at each individual'scaprice. It is easy to see how superstition, with its false glosses,mocks God, while it tries to please him. Usually fastening merely onthings on which he has declared he sets no value, it eithercontemptuously overlooks, or even undisguisedly rejects, the thingswhich he expressly enjoins, or in which we are assured that he takespleasure. Those, therefore, who set up a fictitious worship, merelyworship and adore their own delirious fancies; indeed, they wouldnever dare so to trifle with God, had they not previously fashionedhim after their own childish conceits. Hence that vague andwandering opinion of Deity is declared by an apostle to be ignoranceof God: "Howbeit, then, when ye knew not God, ye did service untothem which by nature are no gods."(Gal.4:8) And he elsewhere declares, thatthe Ephesians were "without God" (Eph. 2: 12) at the time when theywandered without any correct knowledge of him. It makes littledifference, at least in this respect, whether you hold the existenceof one God, or a plurality of gods, since, in both cases alike, bydeparting from the true God, you have nothing left but an execrableidol. It remains, therefore, to conclude with Lactantius, (Instit.Div. lib i. 2,, 6,) "No religion is genuine that is not inaccordance with truth."
To this fault they add a second, viz., that when they dothink of God it is against their will; never approaching him withoutbeing dragged into his presence, and when there, instead of thevoluntary fear flowing from reverence of the divine majesty, feelingonly that forced and servile fear which divine judgement extortsjudgement which, from the impossibility of escape, they arecompelled to dread, but which, while they dread, they at the sametime also hate. To impiety, and to it alone, the saying of Statiusproperly applies: "Fear first brought gods into the world," (Theb.lib. i.) Those whose inclinations are at variance with the justiceof God, knowing that his tribunal has been erected for thepunishment of transgression, earnestly wish that that tribunal wereoverthrown. Under the influence of this feeling they are actuallywarring against God, justice being one of his essential attributes.Perceiving that they are always within reach of his power, thatresistance and evasion are alike impossible, they fear and tremble.Accordingly, to avoid the appearance of condemning a majesty bywhich all are overawed, they have recourse to some species ofreligious observance, never ceasing meanwhile to defile themselveswith every kind of vice, and add crime to crime, until they havebroken the holy law of the Lord in every one of its requirements,and set his whole righteousness at nought; at all events, they arenot so restrained by their semblance of fear as not to luxuriate andtake pleasure in iniquity, choosing rather to indulge their carnalpropensities than to curb them with the bridle of the Holy Spirit.
But since this shadow of religion (it scarcely even deserves to becalled a shadow) is false and vain, it is easy to infer how muchthis confused knowledge of God differs from that piety which isinstilled into the breasts of believers, and from which alone truereligion springs. And yet hypocrites would fain, by means oftortuous windings, make a show of being near to God at the very timethey are fleeing from him. For while the whole life ought to be oneperpetual course of obedience, they rebel without fear in almost alltheir actions, and seek to appease him with a few paltry sacrifices;while they ought to serve him with integrity of heart and holinessof life, they endeavour to procure his favour by means of frivolousdevices and punctilios of no value. Nay, they take greater licensein their grovelling indulgences, because they imagine that they canfulfil their duty to him by preposterous expiations; in short, whiletheir confidence ought to have been fixed upon him, they put himaside, and rest in themselves or the creatures. At length theybewilder themselves in such a maze of error, that the darkness ofignorance obscures, and ultimately extinguishes, those sparks whichwere designed to show them the glory of God. Still, however, theconviction that there is some Deity continues to exist, like a plantwhich can never be completely eradicated, though so corrupt, that itis only capable of producing the worst of fruit.
Nay, we have still stronger evidence of the proposition for which I now contend, viz.,that a sense of Deity is naturally engraven on the human heart, inthe fact, that the very reprobate are forced to acknowledge it. Whenat their ease, they can jest about God, and talk pertly andloquaciously in disparagement of his power; but should despair, fromany cause, overtake them, it will stimulate them to seek him, anddictate ejaculatory prayers, proving that they were not entirelyignorant of God, but had perversely suppressed feelings which oughtto have been earlier manifested.