Practical Atheism, in Denying the Agency of Divine Providence, Exposed
Adapted from a Sermon by Samuel Davies, preached in Hanover, Virginia; April 4, 1756
“At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill.’” Zephaniah 1:12
“For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7
Whoever considers the changes which have taken place in our country during the last decade or so, or considers its present condition, must see, that matters have gone very badly with us, and that they are still foreboding. Mr. Davies, was commenting in his day primarily about serious military treats and unrest which his country faced, but today these observations can be applied to Canada with respect to the unseen world of morality and ethics, the battle between right and wrong.
If our country is entirely under the management of blind chance, according to the gloomy doctrines of Atheists and Agnostics, we have reason to be worried; for the wheel of fortune has more than begun to turn against us! If all our affairs are entirely dependent upon natural causes, and wholly subject to the power and pleasure of mortals, it is time for us to tremble; for the power of man has been against us!
But if our land is a little province of God’s empire; if all natural causes are triggered, directed, and overruled by his superintending providence; if all our affairs are under his sovereign management, and all our calamities, private and public, are the chastisements of his hand, if this is the case in fact, as every true Christian believes and wishes, then it is high time for us to acknowledge it, and be deeply sensible of it, and eager to learn how we have incurred the displeasure of our gracious and righteous Governor, that we may correct our ways and work to regain his favor.
"I will punish," says the Lord, "I will punish the men who are complacent." The word here translated, "I will punish" is in the original Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament was written, "I will visit." And this word is very often used to refer to the punishments of God; some translations keep the literal translation such as the King James Version on Jeremiah 5:9: "Shall I not visit them for these things, says the Lord? Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?" (Jeremiah 5:9)
And this word suggests to us, that sinners are prone to look upon God as far from them; they flatter themselves that he will leave them alone in their sinful security, and that his judgments will always keep at a distance from them; "But," says God, "I will pay them a visit! I will come upon them unexpectedly with the terrors of my displeasure, and let them know, to their surprise, that I am not so far off as they imagine!"
This sense is very relevant to our text, where it is made one part of the character of these complacent Jews, that they say in their hearts, “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill." Men are often said in Scripture to say that in their hearts, which is their secret thought, or their inward disposition; that which is their governing principle, and which directs their practice; though they dare not express it in words, or though it be quite contrary to their outward profession, and the declaration of their lips.
To a heart-searching God, the disposition of the mind, and the principle of action, is a greater indicator of the person’s true character, than the strongest declaration in words; and by this he judges people, and not by their outward appearances and pretensions. To this purpose you read in Ezekiel, “I know” “says the Lord”, “the things that come into your mind." (Ezek 11:5) "You never may have said such a thing in words, but it has been in your thoughts; it has been in the disposition of your hearts; and that is what I pay attention to; that language is very clear to me."
And so, you see that the charge that is brought here against the Jews amounts to this, that their disposition and practice were such as would not at all agree to the practical belief of the providence of God. They thought and acted, as if it were their real and professed belief, that the Lord would do neither good nor evil, nor meddle with human affairs. If one should judge by their conduct, he would be apt to conclude that it was an article of their faith, that Jehovah had abdicated the throne of the universe, and that the blessings and calamities of life were the mere effects of secondary causes, without the influence, direction, or control of an all-ruling Providence.
This is often represented as the secret sentiment of wicked men, and a special cause of the judgments of God upon guilty nations.
In short, this atheistic pretention of independence, and secret or practical rejection of divine providence, is the fatal thing that generally overturned the empires, and impoverished, enslaved, and ruined the nations of the earth. This happened even among the Jews, the peculiar people of God, and brought his vengeance upon them, when even they had learned to speak in this atheistic way, "The LORD has forsaken the land, and the LORD does not see!" (Ez 9:9)
And is this not the main reason that Canada, now stumbles. This is the source of those many filthy streams of vice and impiety, which have begun to overwhelm us, and open the flood-gates of divine vengeance! Jehovah, who hears and understands the significant language of the heart and practice, no doubt hears this blasphemy whispered in every corner of our country, "We have nothing to do with Him. The sun, and clouds, and earth conspire to produce food for us; but what hand has God in all this? Many things in our country have taken a very bad turn, the plight of the unborn, the institution of marriage, the family, are languishing under the assaults of various forces; but what has God to do in all this? We will fight it out ourselves, flesh with flesh; that is by using human means, the media, demonstrations, lobbying and such… and let God look on as an idle spectator." Dreadful language, indeed! and, perhaps, the most audacious sinner among us would not venture to express it in words! But, what does the inward thought say, what does the practice of the church say? This is what we will look into; and for this purpose, I will,
1. First, offer a few arguments to establish the doctrine of a divine providence over the affairs of men, and particularly in national blessings and calamities. I will,
2. Secondly, point out some things in the disposition and conduct of our countrymen, which argue a secret and practical disbelief of this doctrine. And,
3. Thirdly, expose the aggravated wickedness of such a disbelief.
The intent, in the whole, is not so much to convince your understanding, as to impress your hearts with a sense of the divine government over the world. You already believe it in theory; but what is more important is that this belief deeply affect your hearts and lives! And this I hope to help. It seems like desperately little that one, in so small a gathering, can do, to reform a whole country, on this subject; We can only pray that God would raise up many effective voices to reach every corner of the land, and address and convict all the inhabitants on this point. At the very least let us apply ourselves to banish this atheistic spirit from among ourselves, and prevent our contributing to the destruction of this country, by indulging in it. Therefore, please consider, while, in the first place,
1. I offer a few arguments, to establish the doctrine of a divine providence over the affairs of men, and particularly in national and public blessings and calamities.
A great many arguments can be advanced to prove this. Consider the following:
We may argue from the perfections of God, and his relations to us. Can we imagine, that a God of infinite knowledge, power, wisdom, and goodness, would sit idle on the throne of his universe, and be an unconcerned, inactive spectator of his own creatures? Would he make such a world as this, and then cast it off his hand, as an abandoned orphan, and never again look after it? Had he no wise and good purposes in the production of this vast and amazing frame of things? And will he leave these designs to be accomplished or blasted by chance, or the whims or impulses of mortals?
We may argue from the natural dependence of creatures upon the supreme Creator, that he did not give them the incommunicable attribute of self-sufficiency; but they must depend in all they do on Him, on whom they depend for existence in so many ways.
From Scripture itself, this doctrine is supported through and through. There, how often do you find the supreme dominion of divine Providence over the world, asserted in the strongest terms? How often are personal and national blessings and calamities ascribed to the hand of God?
Rain and fruitful seasons, drought and famine, sickness and health, peace and war, poverty and riches, promotion and abasement, all such events are uniformly described as at the disposal of the great Lord of the universe! His Providence is even expressly said to extend to the hairs of our heads, to young ravens and sparrows, to the lily and grass of the field. And can we then suppose that he does not care for men, or of kingdoms and nations? In short, this doctrine is true, or our Bibles are good for nothing! For there is nothing they more frequently and strongly assert.
Scripture is plain in its assertion of this truth and it is attested in particular by even heathen witnesses, some of whom have some glimmering light from Revelation, or from their conversation with the Jews.
Let us first hear the extorted confession of that proud, but humiliated monarch, Nebuchadnezzar: "I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?" “And those who walk in pride he is able to humble!" (Dan 4:34-37)
God complains of that mighty conqueror Cyrus, who was the executioner of his justice upon the powerful Babylonian empire, and many other nations, "I equip you, though you do not know me." (Is 45:5) Yet we find even this heathen monarch, at least once, ascribing all his victories to the God of heaven, in his edict for the dismissal of the Jews, and the rebuilding of the temple. Ezra 1:2 records: "Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth!" I acknowledge my universal empire is his gift.
Hear also Nebuzaradan on this subject, the general of the King of Babylon. "The Lord your God (he says to Jeremiah) pronounced this disaster against this place. The LORD has brought it about, and has done as he said. Because you sinned against the LORD and did not obey his voice, this thing has come upon you." (Jer 40:3) You see, a heathen could instruct many of our countrymen who are professed Christians, that their sin is the cause of our present national calamities.
Will we ever see our newspapers and political writings be so far reformed, as to speak the language of these heathens? This seems so very unlikely, yet it is the truth; an accurate representation of reality. Sadly, they are filled with such empty boasts and bravadoes about our power over everything from gender to climate. Notions which would have been judged impious and intolerably insolent, by even heathens throughout history!
To acknowledge the hand of God in our victories and defeats, to profess a dependence on him for success, and acknowledge the utter insufficiency of all our efforts without him, this is more than unpolite and unfashionable, it is mocked and shunned in our day; this, to be sure, is judged as the pretentious language of an enthusiast, whereas one would think it would be the natural language of every creature.
From this we naturally go on,
2. In the second place, to point out some things in the disposition and conduct of our Christian countrymen, which argue a secret and practical disbelief of the doctrine of divine Providence. And these, alas! are easily discovered.
1) First, do you think there would be so little prayer among us, if we were generally affected with this truth? If we considered the works of Providence at all important, would we not think it worthwhile to pray for it, with our most earnest cries?
Where are the Abrahams among us, to intercede for our Sodom? Where are our Moseses to hold up the hands of prayer, while the battle rages? There must be a few people, and perhaps a few families, here and there, that show their friendship for their country in this way; and there are multitudes that seem to join in those forms of prayer for the public, which are used in the places where they respectively attend. But it is evident that there is but very little of a spirit of prayer in our land. How many private people live in the habitual neglect of secret devotion, how many families live and die together, without any appearance of family-religion?
In short, there is but little prayer to be heard in our country on any account; very few that earnestly cry to God for themselves. And how few then, how few plead for their country at the throne of grace! How few prayers are offered up for Canada today! Now, when men will not so much as earnestly ask the help of divine Providence, is it not plain that they have very low thoughts of it, and do not seriously believe it? It will never be well with our country, until we learn to bow the knees; until the voice of prayer is heard from every corner of our land. Let others do as they will; but as for us, let us become a little assembly of praying souls; and we may, in this way, do some real service to our country.
2) Secondly, is not the general indulgence of vice, and neglect of true religion, a plain evidence of the general disbelief of a divine Providence over our country? That wickedness is almost universally victorious, and practical religion and the concerns of eternity are generally neglected, is too evident to need a formal proof. Take a journey through our country, mingle in company, enter into families, observe the conduct of men in their leisure; and you will soon be convinced.
If there is much religion in our country, I am sure it is not the religion of our Bibles; it is not the religion of Jesus! It is a religion that consists in swearing, drinking, quarreling, carousing, luxury, and pleasure; in fraud, covetousness, and the grossest vices and impieties; it is a cold, careless, immoral, prayerless religion! Or, at best, it is a religion made up of a few lukewarm, insipid, Sunday formalities of devotion, without life, without spirit, without earnestness!
And would this be the case, do you think, if men were deeply aware that God exercises a providence over the kingdoms of the earth; to punish them for their sins? Would they dare to affront him like this, if they firmly believed that he would earnestly resent it? Or would they be so careless about securing his favor by a conscientious obedience? No! they would be eager, above all things, to stay on good terms with their Supreme Ruler; and they would no more dare to provoke him, than they would set a stick of dynamite under the foundations of their houses, to blow them up. But now they act as if it were their belief, that the Lord has forsaken the earth, and takes no notice of the conduct of the inhabitants; as if they had nothing to hope and nothing to fear from him; and therefore, they may do what they please, and fend for themselves as they please.
3) Thirdly, is not the general impenitence, notwithstanding the many moral calamities under which our country has groaned, sad evidence of this practical atheism? Judgments have crowded thick and heavy on our land, these last years. In 1756, Mr. Davies lists many military defeats and threats their land was afflicted by. Today, we enjoy peace in this respect but the defeats and threats are for now in the moral and ethical realm. Think of abortion, euthanasia, the attack on the family and the list goes on.
There are many shocking and provoking sins in our country which provoke God and he has let us see once more, that he does not need the use of enemies and military weapons to blast the endeavors of a guilty people. By their own mismanagement, they are defeating themselves, and will, in the end, undo their own schemes!
In truth, if there is a divine providence, I think it is terribly evident that it is against us. All the most outrageous attacks on decency, morality and even common sense are succeeding and every effort against them gains no traction at all.
Now, if there is a providence, these moral calamities are inflicted upon us by a divine hand: they are not the random strokes of chance, or the effects of blind fate; but the chastisements or judgments of an angry God! And if he is the inflictor of them, then it is certain he inflicts them for the sins of the land.
It is sin, it is sin alone, that can bring down punishments on the subjects of a just government. But is this generally believed? If it were, would it not strip impenitent sinners of their presumptuous airs, and bring them to the knee, as humble, broken-hearted penitents, at the feet of their offended God? If every one believed that his sins have had a share in bringing down the vengeance of God upon his country, would he not cry out in dismay: What have I done? God be merciful to me a sinner! Would he not immediately attempt to reform, which is the main thing in true repentance?
But sadly! have these moral calamities had this effect on our countrymen? How many who are affected by the outrages occurring all around us have been led to conversion? In vain has God chastised us, if not one soul is brought to repentance by all these means!
And if the effect is not reformation, what must follow but destruction? God may bear long with a guilty people; and, indeed, he has done so with us: but he will eventually take them in hand: and when he does take them in hand —he will make thorough end of them. If chastisement will not change them, then vengeance will destroy them!
And I can boldly pronounce, that you have no other alternative—but Repent or Perish! I will not presume to know the time, the degree, or the circumstances; but I can boldly declare, that misery and ruin await our country—if we still continue stubbornly impenitent. Men and money; logic and learning, courage, conduct, and skill— are all necessary for the defense of our land; but there is an unthought-of something as necessary as any, or all of these, and that is Reformation— a general, public reformation: and without this, all other means will be futile.
And this is not an attempt to prophesy: It is only drawing a natural consequence from known premises; and infer, what will be— from what has always been. In this way, God has always dealt with the kingdoms of the earth, these have always been the ways of his providential government. The ruins of Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and many a flourishing city, country, and empire— proclaim this truth. And if we disregard it, before long, our country may join this list.
The general impenitence of this nation, under all the providences of God to bring it to repentance, is by far the most discouraging symptom; much more so than anything else. May I then hope to be heard, at least in the small circle of this assembly, when, as an advocate for our country, I call you to repentance.
You have delayed long enough; you have trifled with your God, and delayed your reformation long enough. Whenever you think of our woeful moral decay, or whenever you meet with the like in time to come, immediately humble yourselves before the Lord; plead guilty! And lament your own sins— and lament and mourn over the sins of the land. If even all this congregation should be enabled, by divine grace, to do this, they might, in the sight of God, obtain the glorious character of deliverers of their country. Who knows but our Sodom might be spared, for the sake of a few such righteous people?
4. Fourthly, Is the general ingratitude not a plain evidence of the general disbelief of a providential government over the world? Our blessings, in this country, have been many: the blessings of a good soil, and a healthy and temperate climate— the blessings of liberty, plenty, and a long peace— the blessings of a well-constituted government, and a gentle administration— the invaluable but despised blessings of the gospel of Christ; blessings public and private, personal and relative, spiritual and temporal. In short, it is hard to find a spot upon our earth more rich in blessings— all things considered. But how little gratitude to God for all these blessings? How little is his hand acknowledged in them? Men bless their own good fortune, their hard work, or good management— but how few sincerely, and with their whole souls, bless their divine benefactor? Now if his hand in all of this were thoroughly believed, would they, could they be so senselessly ungrateful as they receive so many blessings from him? Rather their hearts would glow with love, and their lips would speak his praise!
5. Fifthly, how little serious and humble acknowledgment of the providence of God in our disappointments and failures, is to be found among us! Men murmur and fret in a sort of sullen senselessness; or they cast all the blame upon others. Those who know nothing of politics or war, will severely censure the men in power, for imprudent regulations, or negligence —military officers for their bad conduct, or soldiers for their cowardice. But who is it that sees and reveres the hand of an angry God in all this? Most people seem to think that the world is left to men— to manage as they please; and that God has nothing to do with it. They say in their hearts, "The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill."
These things show that this practical atheism is indeed very common and prevalent in our country! And now let us look into what makes this conduct so terrible as we come to the third and last heading:
3. to expose the terrible wickedness of this atheistic disposition and conduct.
And here, in no particular order are various things which bring out the awful nature of this attitude.
To deny the working of Providence, is the most daring rebellion against the King of heaven: it is to reject his government in his own territories, in his own world, which he has made! It is to draw away his subjects from their allegiance; and to represent him as a mere name; for what is his character as the ruler of the universe but an idle title, if he does not actually exercise a providence over it— but leaves his creatures to themselves, to worry and destroy one another, as they please? If he does not punish the kingdoms of the earth, for their sin; and if the blessings they enjoy, are not the gifts of his hand— then it is not worthwhile to acknowledge his government! For of what benefit is that government which neither rewards nor punishes its subjects?
But if God is indeed the author of these things, then it must be the most unnatural rebellion, the blackest treason— to deny his work. To be rejected in his own world by his own creatures; for the great Parent and support of nature— to be renounced by the creatures, whom he supports in existence every moment; that all his chastisements, and all his blessings— should not be able to bring his own offspring to acknowledge him— what can be more shocking or provoking!
This is also a most ungrateful wickedness. Consider! Will God so richly bless us from year to year; will he so gently chastise us— and yet be forgotten, disregarded, unacknowledged! It is hard, indeed, if such a country full of blessings cannot bring us so much as dutifully and thankfully to acknowledge him. Will poor subordinate, dependent creatures run away with all the glory, and set themselves up as God's rivals— or rather, entirely exclude him? Is this not the most unnatural ingratitude?
It is likewise intolerable pride and arrogance. You poor, precarious beings, who were nothing a little while ago, and who would relapse into nothing this moment, without the support of God’s hand; will you claim to be independent and self-sufficient? Are you able to manage the world, and look out for yourselves? And has the God, in whom you live, and move, and have your being— become a mere nothing to you? Can you carry on war, can you defend your country, and provide for yourselves— without him? Will you seize his throne! "your heart is proud, and you have said, ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods!" (Ezek 28:2) Truly! the post is too high for you. "Will you still say, ‘I am a god,’ in the presence of those who kill you?" (Ezek 28:9) What impiety and insolence; what arrogance and blasphemy is this?
Will you substitute the rule of nature above your God, and ascribe all the events you meet with, to the laws of physics, when they are but the mere instruments of God’s Providence? Can Jehovah bear with such a sacrilegious attempt upon the dignity of his crown?
Again, this atheistic spirit is the source of all vice and impiety. If men had a deep belief, that "Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth;" (Ps 58:11) would they neglect him as they do, or would they so audaciously provoke him, and defy him by their sins? Surely Not! a conviction of this would bring the sinner to his knees; it would restrain him from everything that would displease God, and prompt him to every holy duty. But if the Lord has forsaken the earth— then every man may live as he pleases, and do what is good in his own eyes, without any consequences.
This is the source of that torrent of wickedness, which has overwhelmed our country: mankind say in their hearts, that God will overlook their sinful conduct, or that he takes no notice of it— and from this comes their presumptuous sin and impenitence.
And is it not just such a spirit that prevents the healing and good effect of all the providences of God towards us and our country.
Calamities, physical and moral, may make us miserable, fretful, and impatient; but they can never bring us to reformation, and a genuine repentance for our sins against God— unless we are aware that it is a provoked God who lays them upon us.
The gifts of Providence may make us happy, malicious, proud, and self-confident; but they can never fire our hearts with gratitude, nor draw us to obedience— unless we receive them as from his gracious hand.
It is the lack of this which is causing all the providence of God to be so useless to our land! And so it is, they have produced so few, if any, instances, of true conversion. And so, it will be, that we will only abuse God's mercy, and we never will learn the art of extracting good out of evil, and profit by our afflictions— until we learn this lesson.
And now, on the whole, do you not shudder to think what a load of guilt lies upon our country, on account of this spirit of atheism which has spread over it? When the majority of the subjects turn rebels, and promise themselves that they can sin with impunity— is it not time for their Sovereign to come out against them and make them aware of his power and authority, at their cost? Is it not time for a neglected, disregarded, forgotten God—to take our country in hand, and extort from practical atheists a confession of his government— by the pressure of their miseries?
Will he always allow himself to be denied and rejected in his own dominions! I say his own dominions; for, certainly, Canada is a little province of his universal empire; and all the world will know it, either by the terrors of his justice, or by our voluntary confession and cheerful subjection. If gentler measures will not do, he may employ more forceful means to bring down our haughty spirits, and cause us to acknowledge his government, and our dependence and subjection.
Are not some of us guilty of this epidemic, fashionable infidelity? Have you not lived in this world until this moment, without being aware of that all-ruling divine Power, by which it is governed? Then you are to be ranked among the destroyers of your country. In truth! such people are its worst enemies! As infidels you must prepare; prepare for his judgments to teach you a more creature-like disposition! … Or if you escape his judgments in this life, prepare for those more dreadful punishments of the world to come— which will force the most rebellious spirit in hell to acknowledge that the Lord reigns!
Finally, amid all the tumults of this restless world— amid all the rise of moral decay and the threats of war, and, in short, amid all the events of life of every kind— let us work hard to impress our hearts with this truth— that all things are under the management of a wise and good God, who will always do what is best. This will be a source of obedience; this will teach us to turn the greatest miseries into blessings, and to derive good from evil; and this will be a sweet support, and give us a pleasant calm, amid all the pressures and tossing of this restless world— until we arrive at the harbor of eternal rest!