The Universal Rule Of Equity - Part II


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 we return to second part of the sermon by Isaac Watts on the Universal Rule Of Equity: the golden rule of Matthew 7:12.

In the first part of the sermon we considered:

I. What is the true meaning of this divine rule: We first saw what it was not, and then the true intent and meaning of this universal law of equity was expressed as: 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.

II. Then we looked into the special argument that our Lord uses in order to enforce it. And it was summarised in these words: 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.

III. And then we considered how six of its particular excellencies are displayed.

This morning we will consider four more of these particular excellencies and end with

IV. some closing reflections on the subject.

VII. And so another consideration which highlights the excellency of this divine, golden rule, is that It is a most extensive rule, with regard to all the positions, ranks, and characters of mankind; for it is perfectly suited to them all: And it may safely be said, that it is equally useful to the rich and the poor, to the buyer and the seller, to the prince and to the peasant, to the employer and the employee: They all come under the single rule of duty and justice: This should govern them in all their conduct. Believer in Christ, whatever your condition may be in the world, do but put yourselves into the circumstances of one another, in your own thoughts, for a moment, and ask what is reasonable to be done to yourselves. And your consciences will return a speedy and easy answer what you should do to others.

Let the tenant say, "If I were a landlord, what should I think reasonable that my tenant should pay me?" And the landlord should ask himself, "Were I a tenant, what, should I claim of my landlord?" I would have the business owner enquire, "What should I expect, if I were an employee, from my employer?" And let the employee say, "What, if it were my business, should I expect from the hands of one that worked for me?" Parents should ask themselves, "If I had been a negligent child, and guilty of some minor offence, could I think it just my father should be so angry with me?" And the son should ask himself, "If I were a father, would I not think it reasonable my child should obey me in such particular instances or commands?" Thus the landlord and tenant, thus the employer and employee, thus the father and the son may come to a happy ordering of their mutual obligations.

The merchant should say to himself, "If I were a craftsman, should I think it reasonable that the labour of my hands, all my hard work, should be forced down to so cheap a price?" The seller of goods should say, “If I were the buyer, would I think it just to have such corrupt or faulty merchandise put into my hands? Am I willing to have my necessity, my ignorance, or unwariness thus taken advantage of?" And the buyer should ask himself, "If I were the seller, should I bear to have my goods thus run down and depreciated below their just value?"

The white collar professions may also learn their duty from this rule. The lawyer should say to himself, "What if I were the client, should I think it equitable to have my cause so long delayed, by so many time wasting evasions, from a resolution?" The physicians and the surgeons should put themselves in the places of their sick or wounded patients, and say, "Do we prescribe never a medicine, or use never a procedure more than we would think proper for ourselves, if we were languishing under the same sickness or wounds? Do we take the same safe and speedy methods of relief for others that we would have applied to ourselves?"

And the preachers of the gospel should place themselves in the place of their hearers, and say, "Do we labour in private, in our secret hours of retirement, and in our public work, for the conversion and salvation of those who hear us, as we would have ministers do for us, if we were the ones perishing in our sins, and in danger of eternal death? Do we take such pains to awaken the slumberers on the borders of hell, as we ourselves would have others take, in order to awaken us out of such fatal slumbers? Do we study and seek out with what divine medicines we shall refresh and comfort discouraged believers, even as we should desire to be comforted and refreshed?" Such sort of self-enquiries as these, will lead us to the practice of our present duty, and solve many a difficult case of conscience better than the reading of the largest books.

VIII. This sacred rule is a most comprehensive one, with regard to all the actions and duties that concern our neighbours. It is not confined merely to the practice of justice, but it extends much wider and farther: It is a mighty influence in the direction and practice of meekness, of patience, of charity, of truth and faithfulness, and every kind of social virtue, and a most happy guard against every social vice.

It would be endless to enter into all the special cases of vice and virtue, which relate to the social life, and to show how much they are affected by this rule, and what divine advantages we may attain for the practice of morality, by keeping this one sentence always in our thoughts. Yet it will be profitable on such important a theme, to give a short description of some of these advantages.

This golden precept would teach us how to regulate our temper and general behaviour in the world. Am I not willing to be treated in a friendly and civil manner by those who speak with me? Let me treat others then with all appropriate civility, and make it appear that Christianity is a religion of true honour, and that a Christian is indeed a well-bred man.

Do I think it unreasonable that my neighbour, though he be my superior, should assume haughty airs and disdain me? Let me watch therefore against all such scornful speeches and disdainful airs, when I speak with one, who is inferior to me. Do I think it a grievous thing, that a man should break out into sudden anger against me, if I happen to speak a word contrary to his feelings, or to set himself in a rage for a minor offence? Let me set a strict guard then over my temper, and learn to bear opposition without impatience. Let me quench the first risings of sudden anger, lest they kindle into an ungoverned flame, and hurry me on to the practice of what I condemn in others.

This excellent rule would teach us tenderness and kindliness to those that are unhappy. We should never ridicule the natural infirmities of the meanest of our fellow-creatures, nor their providential disadvantages, if we did but put ourselves in the place of the blind and lame, the deformed and the poor, and ask whether we should think it just and reasonable to be made the mockery and the jest of those that behold us. We should certainly be inclined to visit the sick, and feed the hungry, to give drink to him that is thirsty, and to secure the feeble and helpless from the oppression of the mighty, if we enquired of our own hearts, what treatment we should expect if we were hungry and thirsty, if we were sick and helpless.

This blessed command of our Saviour would incline us to reprove with gentleness, to punish with mercy, and never to censure others without a just reason, and a plain call of providence; for we ourselves desire and would reasonably expect this sort of treatment from others. If we carried this sentence always in our memories, would we propagate scandalous reports before we know the truth of them; and publish doubtful suspicions of our neighbour's guilt? Would we blacken his character to the utmost, even where there is a real crime, and make no reasonable allowances for him? Would we perpetually tease children, or friends, or subordinates with old faults, and make their follies and failures a matter for our entertainment?

Would we censure every little deviation from the truth, as heresy? Would we pronounce anathemas and curses upon him that leaves out of his creed a few hard words which men have invented, or that differs from us in the business of foods and days, and ceremonies? We ourselves find it difficult to have doubtful reports of evil published concerning us, and suspicions blown up into guilt: We think it hard if our crimes are aggravated to the utmost, and no reasonable allowances are made: We find it very painful to us, and think it unreasonable to be ever teased with the mention of our former follies, or to have our little differences from another's faith or worship to be pronounced heresy, and to be cut off from the church for it.

In short, if this blessed rule of our Saviour was only more universally followed, we would never persecute one another for our disagreement in opinion, for we would then learn this lesson, that another has as much right to differ from me in his sentiment, as I have to differ from him. If this rule did but prevail amongst all that call themselves Christian; then truth, honesty and justice, meekness and love would reign and triumph through all the churches of Christ, and those vile affections and practices of pride, envy, wrath, cruelty, backbiting, and persecution would be forever banished from it.

IX. It is not only a rule of equity and love to direct our whole conduct toward our neighbours in the social life, but it is also most beneficial with regard to ourselves; and it promotes our own interest in the best manner: For if we apply ourselves to treating our neighbours according to all the justice and tenderness that this rule will incline us to, we may reasonably expect the same kind and tender treatment from those that are round about us. Such a practice will naturally engage the greatest part of mankind on our side, whenever we happen to be assaulted or oppressed by the malicious or violent. Happy is that person who has gained the love of mankind, by making the love of himself a rule and measure of his actions toward them, and has piously followed that precept of the law of God, Love your neighbour as yourself.

Let us remember that we live in a changeable world, and the scenes of life are continually shifting. I am now prospering, and in possession of riches, and if I treat my subordinate, or any poor man, insolently, I may expect the like insolent treatment if my circumstances sink, and reduce me to a state of poverty or service. But if I follow this golden rule of our Saviour, in treating my inferiors, I do, as it were, hoard up for myself a treasure of merit and benevolence amongst men, which I may hope to receive and taste of, in the day of my necessity and distress. Thus in behaving myself toward others according to this holy rule of friendship, I not only please and obey my God and my Saviour, but I happily secure my temporal interests also.

X. In the last place, to mention no more, This rule is fitted to make the whole world as happy as the present state of things will allow. It is hard to describe or conceive what a multitude of blessings and joys the practice of this single precept would introduce among all mankind.

If we were not so entirely wrapped up in self, in our own party, or in our own family, but could look upon our neighbours as ourselves, and seek their advantage together with our own, every man would become a fountain of blessing amongst his neighbours, and the mutual benefits of mankind would scatter happiness through all the world. In such a benevolent state as this, every man would be, as it were, a good angel to all that came within his reach: This earth would be a little image of heaven; and our present social life amongst men would be a foretaste of our future happiness among saints and angels. In those glorious regions, every one rejoices in the welfare of the whole community, and they have a double relish of their own personal blessedness, by the pleasure they take in contributing to the blessedness of all their fellows.

And so we have considered a short and very imperfect account of the excellencies of this sacred rule of equity and love, and named some of the advantages it has above most other precepts of morality. We will close with a few reflections on so wonderful a subject.

Reflection I. In what a concise way has our Saviour provided for the practice of all the moral duties enjoined by Moses and the prophets! For he has summed them up in a very few words, and reduced them to one short rule; but the extent and application of it is universal, and almost infinite. Though we should forget twenty particular precepts of love and righteousness, yet if this one is fresh in our thoughts, and always ready at hand, we will practise all those particular precepts effectually, by the mere influence of this one general rule. It is true, it is a real advantage toward our practice of virtue and justice, to have the mind stored with special precepts, suited particularly to every case; but where the memory is defective, or other rules are not learned, this golden one will go far towards supplying the place of many. Our Saviour himself grants this truth, when he says, This is the law and the prophets.

II. What divine wisdom is manifested in making this golden rule of equity a fundamental law, in the two most famous religions that ever God appointed to the children of men; that is, the Jewish and the Christian! Love your neighbour as yourself, was a rule appointed to the Jews; Lev. 19. 18. This is repeated by our Saviour; Matt. 19. 19. And a happy explanation or comment on it given in our text, Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. There were none of the heathen philosophers that delivered this as a general law, in so strong, so universal, and so comprehensive a manner as our Saviour has done, though one or two of them offered some occasional hints of the same kind. But our Saviour appoints it as the grand rule of social virtue, amongst all the subjects of his kingdom; and he tells us too, that this is the sum and substance of the directions given by Moses and the prophets for the conduct of men toward their fellow-creatures.

The wisdom of this precept eminently appears in this: Our blessed Lord well knew that self-love would be a powerful temptation to men, to turn them aside from the sacred laws of justice in dealing with their neighbours; and therefore he wisely takes this very principle of self-love, and joins it in the consultation with our reason and conscience, how we should behave toward our fellow-creatures. Thus by his divine prudence, he constrains even this selfish, and rebellions principle to assist our consciences and our rational powers, in directing us how to practise the social duties of life.

It was Christ the Son of God who gave laws to Moses for Israel before his incarnation, and it is he who is come in the flesh, as a preacher of righteousness to men in these latter days; and in both these dispensations, he has manifested this sacred wisdom. "You know the heart of a sojourner,” said the Lord, in his dictates to Moses, Exod. 23. 9. “for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt; therefore you shall not oppress a sojourner.” And he gives us still the same general rule for our conduct: "Look into your own hearts, consider what human nature is, you know you are men of like frailty with others, enquire what treatment you would reasonably expect from your fellows, and be sure you behave in the same manner toward them."

III. Since the wisdom of Christ thought fit to teach us rules of equity and righteousness amongst men, and has, as it were, extracted the very soul and spirit of all social duties, and summed them up in this short sentence: Let not the disciples of Christ forget this rule; nor let the most eminent and exalted Christians think it beneath their study and their practice. The love of God and Christ is not the whole of our duty, nor can we be Christians indeed, if we neglect to love our neighbour. How vain are all our pretences to faith in Christ, and piety toward God, if we grow careless in our conduct toward men! All our fancied attainments in the school of Christ, how are they disgraced and destroyed, if we abandon this rule of moral virtue, and treat our neighbours, contrary to this divine principle of equity and love!

What will we answer in the great judgment-day to an enquiring God, when in flaming fire he will remind us? "I gave you a plain and easy rule of righteousness in my Word, I wrote it in your hearts also, in very legible characters: If you had but looked carefully into your consciences, you might have read it there: But you resolved to sacrifice all to your lusts: you have wronged and defrauded your brethren, and exposed yourselves to my righteous sentence, for your wilful practice of unrighteousness against so plain a law."

And so, as we close,

Recollection.—How great is the goodness of our Blessed Saviour, to give us so complete, so plain, so easy, and so divine a rule, to regulate all our actions in the social life! How wonderfully has he summarized Moses and the prophets in two short lines, that is, the command of a supreme love to the Lord our God, and a love to our neighbour like that which we bear to ourselves!

Remember this short and comprehensive lesson; and amongst all your duties and zeal toward your God, do not forget this rule of conduct toward your fellow-creatures. You have no reason to complain, It is too high and hard for my understanding to grasp, or too tiresome and painful for my memory to retain, or too burdensome to carry it about always with me. You ought to be convinced, fully convinced, of the justice of it: It is the means of striking your conscience with strong light and evidence, and who has not felt the force of it, like an inward motive, awakening to the practice of all that it enjoins. Would that you would ever live under its prevailing influences, and then might humbly appeal to God, that you have transacted your affairs with men, by the principles of sincere godliness, truth, and justice.

Pray that God would graciously forgive all the wretched instances of your departure from this sacred law of equity. This sacred law will awaken the soul to repentance, as well as direct it to duty; and whatever station of life you are engaged in, whatever rank, character, office, or relation you have in the world, or in the church of Christ, form all your future conduct by this command of the Saviour, and bring all your past actions to this holy test, and let your conscience repent or rejoice.

Consider how brilliant a light would be cast, on the religion of Jesus, and on all the professors of it, if this rule were always applied! But sadly! it lies silent in our Bibles, and we do not hear it; or it sleeps in our hearts, and we do not awake it, when we have most need of its help. We read and we forget even this short rule of righteousness, and so we practise iniquity daily, and injure our neighbours without remorse. What wretched creatures we are! How great is our negligence and our guilt, that we do not so much as ask our consciences honestly, how we should treat our fellow-creatures; but we ask our lusts and our passions, we enquire of our ambition and pride, our covetousness, our wrath and revenge, how we should behave towards others.

Remember how often you have turned aside from this blessed rule of the Saviour, by consulting with the corrupt principles of flesh and blood! How often have you neglected this holy precept, to follow the vicious customs of a sinful world, and a degenerate age! A degenerate age indeed, that has forgotten the practice of truth and love! Where shall we write this rule in large and golden letters, that the whole city might read it daily? Shall we engrave it on every door, that all who pass by may see it? Shall it stand fixed to every post of the house, that it may direct all our domestic conduct? Shall it meet us at the entrance of every shop, and thus guard our traffic from iniquity, and sanctify all our commerce? Shall we make a pendant of it, and wear it around our necks, that we may never put it off, unless we lie down to sleep, and cannot act?

But the Spirit of Christ is the best writer of his own golden rule, and the heart of man is the best table to receive and bear this writing. Would that the holy Spirit would write the sacred law of justice and love more deeply, more effectually in all our hearts, that the religion of our Saviour might look like itself, all amiable and holy; and that while we give glory to God on high, for his saving grace, we might find peace and truth spreading through all the earth, and good-will multiplied among the children of men.

And so the will of God would be done on earth, as it is in heaven, and the kingdom of our Redeemer come in its expected glory.

Even so come Lord Jesus.