Elder Beebe: Please give your views on Acts 17:27. "That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us."
REPLY: It is sometimes less difficult to tell what a passage does not mean than to demonstrate dearly its precise import. This text with its immediate connection is often brought forward by the advocates of free-will, free-agency, and conditional salvation to prove that all mankind are capable of, are called upon to seek the Lord, and to repent, etc., as conditions on which the Lord has promised to remit their sins, and save them. We are abundantly prepared to controvert such a perversion of the text, first by the express declaration of the Scriptures, that salvation is not of works, lest any man should boast, that by the deeds of the law no flesh shall be justified in the sight of God. That it is not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which he shed on us abundantly, through Jesus Christ our Savior. That being justified by his grace (not by our will or works), we should be made heirs, according to the hope of eternal life. And Paul's hope of eternal life was based on the promise which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.
Secondly. Because that repentance which is unto life is the gift of God, and cannot be obtained from any other source than from him whom God has exalted to be a Prince and a Savior; to give repentance unto Israel and the forgiveness of sins. And as to seeking after God, in any saving sense, the same apostle, who uttered the words of our text, on Mars' Hill in Athens, has proved from the Scriptures that, "There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God." (Rom. 3:10,11 compared with Psa. 14:2,3, and Isa. 9:4-8.) The total incompetency of unregenerate sinners to seek God in any spiritual sense is proved by the declaration that the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; neither can he know them; because they are spiritually discerned. (I Cor. 2:14) Also, John 3:3, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Men who cannot know the things of the spirit cannot be qualified to seek after God who is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and invisible, and whom no man by searching can find out. "For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the spirit of God." (I Cor. 2:11) These scriptures very clearly prove the negative of what is asserted by will-worshipers, and Arminians, as to the import of Paul's address to the idolatrous Athenians. But we have now to search for the true meaning of the apostle's address.
Let us remember that we are not at liberty to adopt any exposition of the scriptures, which would involve the scriptures themselves in contradiction. Whenever we arrive at the true sense of any portion of the divine testimony, it will harmonize perfectly with all other p arts of the scriptures of truth. However plausible, therefore, any interpretation of the word may seem, if such interpretation does not perfectly agree with all the scriptures, we must reject it as false and delusive, or we shall be liable to the charge of handling the word of God deceitfully.
Now in the case of Paul in speaking to the Athenians, he did not address them as spiritual children, qualified to hear and understand spiritual things; but as natural men who knew not the things of the spirit of God, and to whom the things of the spirit were foolishness, and things which they could not know, without being firstborn of God and taught by the Spirit. Yet he could and did address them as wise men of this world; as men of learning, of intelligence, of strong intellectual capacity, as rational men, and reasoned with them on the manifest folly of their idolatry. He called their attention to their numerous altars, with their inscriptions, and showed that they were gods which were made by men's hands, and therefore the creatures of men, and not the creator of men, and therefore not entitled to the worship of their makers. He also told them that he had observed among their altars one inscribed to what they called the unknown God; thus acknowledging their ignorance of the true God. All their flourish of altars and devotion to the true God was ignorantly performed, as fully acknowledged by their inscription. This God, of whom they were confessedly ignorant, Paul proceeds to declare unto them, as the God that made the world and all things therein; seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands, neither is worshiped with men's hands, as though he needed anything, seeing that he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men, for to dwell on all the face of the earth; and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him; though he be not far from every one of us."
Thus Paul declared to them the true God, whom they ignorantly worshiped, as the Creator of all things, as the Lord of heaven and earth, as the Independent God who needs nothing from men; and who cannot be worshiped by the physical or mental powers of his creatures, or by any works of men's hands, or imaginations of their unrenewed hearts; he is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. Totally inaccessible to men, by any power or ability which they possess; as "No man can come unto him, but by Christ, who is the way, and the truth, and the life." This God, of one blood, hath made all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth. As his creatures then all are alike; whether they be wise men or fools, civilized or savage--Jews or Gentiles, learned or unlearned, and as he cannot be worshiped by their hands or acts, all are on a level. The time of their existence on earth, the number of their days, the place of their birth, habitation and death, are determined and before appointed of the Lord. And the reason assigned by the apostle, for this wise reservation of all power, and absolute government in the hands of the Sovereign God who presides over all beings and all events in earth and in heaven, is, that man, instead of looking to the works of their own hands, or idols of their own make, should be compelled to look to him, or to seek after him as the controller of all events, and the sole ruler of the universe. God hath determined and before appointed all that comes to pass. Those whom he before appointed unto salvation shall, in strict harmony with his pre-determination, have their times and habitation, as he has arranged them in his inscrutable wisdom, so as to secure the end which God hath from the beginning declared and ordained, thus securing the accomplishment of his decree, that they shall seek the Lord instead of looking for salvation from sticks and stones, or from their own works--good or bad. The absolute sovereignty of God alone can secure this; for no man, independently of his special power and grace, ever did, or ever will truly seek the Lord. When God said to the psalmist, "Seek my face," the psalmist replied, "Thy face, Lord, will I seek." And God has informed us that he, "Said not unto Israel, Seek ye my face in vain." God makes no effort in vain. He speaks the word, and it stands fast; he commands, and it is done. And whenever God speaks the word in calling sinners to repentance whether it be at Jerusalem or at Athens, among Jews or Gentiles, in pagan or christian countries, his word is quick and powerful; it is like the rain and the snow that cometh down from heaven (unbidden and unrestrained by mortals), and it returneth not thither; but accomplishes the purpose of God, so shall it be with his word which goeth out of his mouth. It shall accomplish the work whereunto he hath sent it and prosper in the thing which he please.
If there then be a determination on the part of God, by his before appointment, that any sinner in Athens, or anywhere else, shall feel after God, they shall be found seasonably, where he has before appointed for that purpose, and surrounded by all the circumstances which are necessary to make them seek the Lord, and as by the quickening power, and instructing wisdom of the Spirit they shall be taught to see the vanity of idols, and to look away from themselves, they shall feel after God, from a conviction that none but God can save them. None but quickened sinners know what it is to feel after God. When the quickened sinner becomes convinced of his helplessness, and that none but God can save him; it is with him doubtful whether there be any mercy in store for one so vile, so wretched, and so helpless. But if by heaven's high appointment, he is led to seek the Lord as a Savior, it is with an if haply he may find him. The word haply means a peradventure, on the part of the seeking soul; if it may be so; and it is with this kind of fear and trembling he seeks; saying perhaps with the poet:
"I'll to the gracious king approach
Whose septre pardon gives;
Perhaps he may command my touch,
And then the Suppliant lives."
Feeling after him is an expressive idea. One who is blind, or in the dark, cannot see the object of his desire, but he feels after it, and if successful, he knows by the sense of feeling that he has found that which he desired. So with the awakened sinner, who is thoroughly convinced that there is salvation in no other name; all is dark to him, as to how God can maintain his justice and truth in his salvation, still from dire necessity he is constrained to feel after what he cannot see; and it is with a peradventure; if haply, I may find him of whom Moses and the prophets did write and when he finds him, he knows by his feelings as well as by the revelation of the blessed Savior to his faith, that it is his God and Savior, and he fully knows and cheerfully confesses,
"My seeking his face was all of his grace;
His mercy demands, and shall have all the praise."
"Though he be not far from every one of us." Jehovah, who alone can save sinners with an everlasting salvation is not a God afar off; he is everywhere present, beholding the evil and the good. However blind and incompetent we are to see him, he always sees us. All things are naked and open to him with whom we have to do. We are, with all his creatures, surrounded by his presence, his power, and his providence; "For in him we live, and move, and have our being." That is, as his creatures. We can neither live nor move independently of him. If he did not exist, we could have no being. Our life and breath, and all things depend on him.
"My thoughts, before they are my own,
Are to my God distinctly known;
He knows the words I mean to speak,
E're from my opening lips they break.
Within thy circling power I stand,
On every side, I find thy hand;
Awake, asleep, at home, abroad,
I am surrounded still with God.
If up to heaven, I take my flight,
‘Tis there thou dwells't enthron'd in light;
Or dive to hell, there vengeance reigns,
And Satan groans beneath his chains.
If mounted on a morning ray,
I fly beyond the western sea,
Thy swifter hand would first arrive,
And there arrest thy fugitive.
Or should I try to shun thy sight,
Beneath the spreading veil of night,
One glance of thine, one piercing ray,
Would kindle darkness into day."
Having thus faithfully declared the true God to the Athenians in his power, providence, sovereignty, purpose, determinations, appointments, and omnipresence, he appealed to certain of their poets, who had acknowledged their dependence on God for their being, and then deduced from the argument that we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device. For such were the gods which they worshiped, and such, we may add, are worshiped very extensively, even by professors of christianity at the present day by all who depend on gold, or silver, or the arts and devices of men for the salvation of souls. The apostle admits the long-suffering of God, with the idolatry of former times; when the sable shades of heathen darkness mantled all the Gentile world. But now that the Son of God has made his advent to the world, has broken down the separating wall between Jews and Gentiles, and given open testimony of his divine character and mission, in his resurrection from the dead, all men everywhere are commanded to repent; that is, to desist from idolatry. No longer shall they with impunity, in Gentile lands, ascribe salvation to gold or silver, or to the arts or works, or to the devices of men. Because he hath appointed, not only the bounds of our habitation, for the purposes before considered; but he hath also appointed a day in the which he will "Judge the world in righteousness, by that man whom he hath ordained, whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead."
The resurrection of Christ from the dead is given by Paul as an indisputable evidence, that God will judge the world in righteousness, and punish idolatry in due time. For if the sins of God's own chosen people, when found on the immaculate Lamb of God, could not be expiated with less than the Redeemer's life and blood, how shall they escape the righteous judgment of God, who dare to have any other god before him?
The term repent as applied by Paul to the Athenians, and to all men everywhere, is not the repentance which Christ is exalted to give to Israel, which is unto salvation, and needeth not to be repented of; but is that repentance, which implies a discontinuance of their idolatrous and heathen devotion - as rational men, and a due acknowledgement of the true and living God, in his manifested perfections, in Creation, Providence, Wisdom, Sovereignty and Omnipresence.
We have thus, by request, written our views on the text proposed. If they, or any portion of them, shall be found to conflict with any part of the scriptures of truth, let them be rejected. But first let them be carefully compared with the divine testimony, and for whatever of truth which this article contains, let God be praised; and may he forgive all our errors, and save us with his everlasting salvation, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
November 15, 1861.
Elder Gilbert Beebe
Editorials Volume 5
Pages 75 ‐ 82