The Universal Rule Of Equity - Part I


Adapted from a Sermon By

Isaac Watts

Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12

This morning, guided by a sermon in two parts by Isaac Watts titled The Universal Rule Of Equity, we will consider some of the treasures of the golden rule of Matthew 7 verse 12.

When our blessed Lord took upon himself the public office of a prophet and teacher amongst men, he found it was not only necessary to instruct them in the sacred mysteries of religion, and inform them of their duty to God his Father, and to himself; but he devoted much of his ministry also, to teach them the practice of social virtue, and how they should behave toward their fellow-creatures.

In the heathen world the rules of morality were lost to a great extent, as well as the rules of piety and worship; and the Jews, the peculiar people of God, had glaringly corrupted both the one and the other.

As our Saviour refined the practice of religion towards God, and raised it by his gospel, to a high and heavenly degree, beyond what mortals had known before, so he explained and established the rules of moral virtue, in a more glorious and convincing manner than the world had ever seen before.

Read his life, and observe how often he takes time in the several seasons of his preaching, to give particular directions for our conduct towards our neighbours. But after all, he knew that the nature of man was corrupt, his passions strong, his memory frail, and that he would be ready to neglect or forget his various sacred precepts, when it was most necessary to practise them; and therefore he thought it proper to give one short and comprehensive rule of equity to regulate all our conduct, that should be written as it were in our very souls: And this is contained in the words of our text, Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

To enlarge a little upon this subject, and refresh a living sense of it upon our memories and our consciences, we will adopt the following method, and consider,

I. What is the true meaning of this divine rule.

II. What is the special argument that our Lord uses in order to enforce it.

III. In what are its particular excellencies displayed.

IV. And we will end with some reflections on this subject.

First, What is the true meaning of this rule?

In order to understand this rule aright, we have to consider what it does not require, as well as what it does: For on the one side, some selfish needy and unreasonable persons may expect more from us than this rule obliges us to perform: And on the other side, a shy and weak conscience may perhaps be led into a mistake, and think itself bound by this rule to perform some instances of kindness to others, which are utterly unreasonable and un-required, and which might be hurtful on other accounts to ourselves, or to our families, or to the rest of mankind.

We have to remember then, that this rule does not mean to compel us to give all that to another, or do all that for another, which we could possibly desire or wish to be bestowed upon us, or done for us; but whatsoever we could reasonably desire, and justly expect another should do to us, that we ought to do to him when he is in the like circumstances. All that in our calm and collected thoughts we judge fit and proper another should do for us, that we should practise and do for him.

Such requests as we could make to others, and could justify them to ourselves in our own consciences, according to the principles of humanity, the rules of civil society, and the rights of mankind, such we ought not to deny to others when they stand in need. Not all that a doting self-love would prompt us to ask, but all that our conscience tells us we might reasonably expect.

And here are a few instances which will more fully explain the principle.

A criminal under just condemnation for murder or robbery, may think in this way with himself, Surely I would pardon the judge if he were in my circumstances, therefore he ought to pardon me. Or the judge himself might think, I should be glad to be pardoned or not condemned if I were in the place of this criminal, therefore I will not condemn him. This sort of thoughts arising from unreasonable and unjust principles, either of a sinful self-love, or indulgence to iniquity, are not to be the measure of our actions nor expectations; these are not just and reasonable desires, nor can our own conscience in our calm and collected thoughts judge so concerning them.

Again, if we were poor and in great need, it may be we would be glad if our rich neighbour would gift us with a trust fund, sufficient to maintain us for the rest of our lives; but this we cannot reasonably expect, or reasonably desire and demand; therefore we are not bound, however rich we may be, to bestow such a gift on our poor neighbours, be their circumstances ever so difficult. We cannot rationally expect these things should be done to us, we cannot justly desire them of another, therefore we are not bound to do so to another.

But if we are placed as criminals in a court of law, we may reasonably expect that all the favorable circumstances surrounding our accusation, should be well weighed, and all the kind allowances made, which the nature of the charge or crime will admit; for our consciences would think it reasonable to allow so much to any criminal, if we ourselves were sitting in the place of the judge. Or if we, through the frowns of providence, are poor and destitute, we may reasonably expect our rich neighbour should give us a little of his bread, a little of his clothing, to address our extreme need now and then; and this much our neighbour may expect from us, when he is fallen into hard times by the providence of God, while our circumstances are good and we are prospering.

And so you see the true intent and meaning of this universal law of equity, that is, that we behave toward our neighbour in such a manner as our own hearts and consciences would think it reasonable he should behave towards us in a similar case. The

Second enquiry was this. What special argument does our Lord use to enforce the observance of this sacred precept?

When our Saviour had laid down this general rule, he adds, "This is the law and the prophets;" that is, this is the summary of all the rules of duty, which are written in the law of Moses, concerning our behavior towards our neighbour, and of all the laws which are explained by the later prophets, and sacred writers under the Old Testament. They are all summarized in this short line; Do to others as you would have others do to you. It is very near the same thing, in other words, with the law of Moses, You shall love your neighbor as yourself; Lev. 19. 18. but it is much plainer and more intelligible: And indeed this rule of Moses is to be understood and interpreted, and applied in practice according to this plain rule of Christ, in this way, "Let your love to your neighbour be as great as you can reasonably expect or desire your neighbour's love should be to yourself."

When our blessed Lord gives an abridgment or summary of the Ten Commandments, he does it in these words; Matt. 22. 37, 38, 39. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, that is, love God above all things; This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself; that is, consider him as an example of human nature, as a second self, and imitate your love to yourself in your conduct toward him: Or, according to our text, it may be explained in this way; ask of your own heart how you would have him love you, and let this be the rule and measure of your love to him. All our duties to God or man, all the commands of the first and the second table, all the dictates of the law and prophets depend on these two commandments.

Then we fulfil the purpose of the law, then we obey the prophets, then we fulfil the commands of Moses, and of Christ, when we give to God our supreme love, and when we put ourselves in the place of our neighbour, and then behave toward him, according to the love we expect he should show us. This is loving our neighbours as ourselves, and this love is the fulfilling of the law; Rom 13. 10.

When our Saviour delivers the words of our text, it is as if he had said to us, "If you would practise all the duties that you owe to your fellow-creatures, and fulfil all the laws of the second table, in the most concise and perfect manner, remember and practise this one general direction, deal with the rest of mankind as your conscience judges they should deal with you." But this leads us to the

Third enquiry, that is, in what do the peculiar excellencies of this rule show themselves?

This golden rule has many excellent properties belonging to it. Following are just a few to impress it on our consciences with more conviction, pleasure, and power.

I. It is a rule that is easily understood, and as easily applied by the simplest and weakest understanding. It is so plain, that what is said by Isaiah concerning all the precepts of the gospel, is more eminently true of this; It shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray; Isaiah 35. 8.

The laws of man are often expressed in such obscure language and legal terms, that it is a puzzle to find out the meaning of them: And the nice distinctions and subtle reasonings of men, often just add to their darkness, and raise new questions: But this is a law that every man understands; nor is it easy to be clouded by the comments and distortions of crafty men, if we are but sincerely resolved to judge and practise according to it.

By the means of this rule, they who never studied the civil law, nor made the effort of enquiring into the moral dictates of the light of nature; they who never examined the statutes of a nation, nor the rules of natural justice, are all furnished with a law or rule of equity in their own minds, by which to manage their whole practice, with regard to their neighbours. Those who are not capable of long trains of reasoning, or of applying several general rules to all their particular cases; yet are able to look into their own hearts, and to ask this easy question, "Would I myself be content to have others deal in this way with me? Why then should I deal in this way with another?"

II. It is a very short rule, and easy to remember: The weakest memory can retain it; and the poorest of mankind may carry this with them, and have it ready on all occasions. It is wonderfully useful, to solve a thousand cases of conscience that may arise unexpectedly, and may perplex our mind. "It lies ready," says a notable author, "For present use upon all exigencies and occasions. We can scarce be so far surprized by an immediate necessity of acting, as not to have time for a short recourse to this rule, or room for a sudden glance, as it were, upon it in our minds, where it rests and sparkles always like the Urim and Thummim on the breast of Aaron."

If we have no written cases of conscience, no books at hand to direct our practice, if we have no faithful minister near us, no wise and pious friend to consult on a sudden occasion, this one rule, written in the heart, may serve instead of all other helps. This blessed precept strikes a sudden and sacred light into the mind, where the case may seem intricate: It shines upon our way, and makes our path plain, where an honest and scrupulous conscience might be just a moment before bewildered in the dark, and not know how to act. "Practise that, believer in Christ, toward your neighbour, which you are convinced your neighbour should practise toward you."

III. This excellent precept of Christ, carries greater evidence to the conscience, and a stronger degree of conviction in it, than any other rule of moral virtue. As was said before, that a little reason will serve to apply it, so it may also be said that there is not much need of reasoning to find it out; for we find the proof of it within ourselves, even from our own inward sensation and feeling. If we would know what is just and equitable to do to our neighbour, we need but ask our own inward sense, and our conscience together, what we would think equitable and just to receive from him. And so there is but only one and the same measure of justice, by which we must apply it to ourselves and others; and that measure lies within us, even in the heart. We are very sensitive of benefits and injuries that we ourselves receive, and this very sense of injuries and benefits is, as it were, transcribed into our conscience, from the tenderest part of our own souls, and becomes there a rule of equity, how we should treat our neighbours.

It is a most righteous precept of the ancient Jewish law, and of universal obligation, Deut. 25. 13, 14, 15. You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small. You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, a large and a small. A full and fair weight you shall have, a full and fair measure you shall have. This precept as soon as it is mentioned, strikes the conscience with conviction of the justice of it: And what is said here of traffic and dealing, holds as truly of the general commerce between man and man, in all the ordinary and extraordinary affairs of life: That mutual exchange in good interactions, whereby society is upheld, must be regulated in the same way, and by the same rule; and the immediate conviction of the equity of it, does as strongly strike the conscience.

"There must be a perfect weight, and a just measure,” said the author cited earlier, “by which all men are mutually obliged to regulate their conduct, in acting and suffering, in commanding and obeying, in giving and receiving: and this can be no other than the equal and righteous rule of the text; the doing in all cases and to all persons, even as we would be done unto. There is no one so absurd and unreasonable, as not to see, and acknowledge the absolute equity of this command in the theory, regardless of how he may swerve and decline from it in his practice." For, it is founded not only in the reason of things, and in the common share, and equal interest that we all have in human nature; but it is also written in the most sensible and the compassionate part of our constitution; and from there it is derived to the mind and judgment, as a law of behaviour towards our fellow-creatures.

IV. And so it comes to pass, that it is a precept particularly fitted for practice, because it includes in it a powerful motive to stir us up to do what it enjoins. This character of it, we borrow from the same author, who talks in this way about it: "Other moral maxims propose naked truths to the understanding, which operate often but faintly and slowly on the will and passions, the two active principles of the mind of man: But it is the peculiar character of this rule, that it addresses itself equally to all these powers, even to the passions and the will, as well as the understanding. It not only directs, but influences; it imparts both light and heat; and at the same time that it informs us clearly what we are to do, excites us also in the most tender and moving manner, to the performance of it; for in truth, its seat is not more in the brain, than in the heart of man: It appeals to our very senses themselves, and exerts its secret force in so prevailing a way, that it is even felt as well as understood by us."

"There is nothing that we know, that gives a man so true and lively a sense of the sufferings of others, or restrains him so powerfully from doing unrighteous and oppressive things, as his having suffered himself under the experience of them. Now the supposing another man's abuse to be our own, is the giving ourselves a present sense, as it were, and a kind of imagined experience of it; which does, for the time, serve all the purposes of a true one."

V. It is such a rule, as, if well applied, will almost always save our neighbour from injury, and save us from guilt, if we should hurt him by accident. God will not impute guilt to us, if we should happen to mistake on a doubtful question, and to hurt our neighbour by a conscientious obedience to this rule.

It will almost always save us from injuring our neighbour. But still it cannot be said that it is always an absolute, infallible, and certain rule of right and wrong; for our knowledge of the eternal rules of right and wrong is only imperfect; neither our own heads or hearts, are masters of all the various and particular principles of equity. A mere enquiry into our own hearts or consciences, can never give us a perfect knowledge of the abstract rules of justice: Nor can it guarantee that we will always practice it perfectly, in all the most intricate cases, unless these perfect rules of justice were fully written in the heart of every man.

But under the present circumstances of mankind, in this poor, ignorant, and corrupt state of human nature, it appears to be the best, the most righteous, the most secure, and the most universal rule that ever could be invented or given to men; for it will certainly secure and prevent every man from injuring his neighbour in all cases, except where he himself is willing and content to receive equal injury: And surely, self-love will tell us, that these cases are extremely rare.

It is evident therefore, that an honest man will almost never go astray in keeping close to this rule. And if I should then happen to do an injury to my neighbour, instead of strict equity, yet I can appeal to God, and say; I endeavoured to apply this rule to my conscience, in the present circumstances, with the utmost sincerity; I acted no otherwise to my neighbour, than I desired or judged it reasonable for my neighbour to act towards me in a similar case. And surely my unavoidable mistake will not be imputed to me as a crime, where I have honestly followed the rule my Saviour has given me, and acted according to the best capacity of my judgment.

VI. And for this first part of the sermon we will close with this sixth peculiar excellency of this golden rule. It is a rule as much fitted to awaken us to sincere repentance when we transgress it, as it is to direct us to our present duty. This rule lives in the heart of a Christian, it dwells so near him, that it is, as it were, mingled with conscience itself: and by this means it becomes not only a safe guide, but a sharp reprover too: It soon reawakens our minds where either inclination or practice warps toward injustice and deceit.

Have we never felt our conscience stinging us with a bitter reflection derived from this rule, when we have neglected in any instance to fulfil our duty to our neighbour? Surely if we thought of it, we could neither practise injustice with ease of mind, nor dwell long under this guilt, without some inward reproaches: If the precept had not power enough to restrain us from present sin, yet it would spur us on to serious and speedy repentance.

Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.