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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
as a moral factor, is generally distinguished as internal or rational and external or authoritative, according as the reason for acting arises in the mind of the agent, or from the will of another who has a right or authority to prescribe rules to others. Bishop Warburton (Div. Leg. bk. i, § 4), however, has contended that all obligation necessarily implies an obliger different from the party obliged; i.e. moral obligation, being the obligation of a free agent, implies a law; and a law implies a lawgiver, and that therefore the will of God is the true ground of all obligation, strictly and properly so called. The perception of the difference between right and wrong can be said to oblige only as an indication of the will of God. This seems reasonable indeed when we consider that our sense of rectitude springs out of a regard for and knowledge of him who is perfect. True, moral obligation is that by which we are bound to perform what is right, and to avoid what is wrong. Various, however, have been the opinions concerning the ground of moral obligation, or what it arises from. One says, it is a moral necessity of doing actions or forbearing them; that is, such a necessity as whoever breaks through it is ipso facto worthy of blame for so doing; another regards it as springing from the moral fitness of things; another, from conformity with reason and nature; another, from agreement with truth: and another, from expediency and promotion of the public good. A late writer has defined obligation to be "a state of mind perceiving the reasons for acting, or forbearing to act."
But we confess this has a difficulty in it to us, because it carries with it an idea that if a man should by his habitual practice of iniquity be so hardened as to lose a sense of duty, and not perceive the reasons why he should act morally, then he is under no obligation. And thus a depraved man might say he is under no obligation to obey the laws of the land, because, through his desire of living a licentious life, he is led to suppose that there should be none. Evidently a difference should be made between obligation and a sense of it. Moral obligation, we think, arises from the will of God, as revealed in the light and law of nature, and in his Word. This is binding upon all men, because there is no situation in which mankind have not either one or the other of these. We find, however, that the generality of men are so far sunk in depravity that a sense of obligation is nearly or quite lost. Still, however, their losing the sense does not render the obligation less strong. "Obligation to virtue is eternal and immutable, but the sense of it is lost by sin." Believing this, we do not accept the theory of those thinkers who lose sight altogether of man's perception of rectitude, and give undue, if not exclusive, prominence e.g. Locke (Life, by Lord King, 2:129), Warburton, Horsley, as well as Paley and his followers — to the rewards and punishments of a future life, as prompting to the practice of virtue. For although God, in accommodation to the weakness of our nature and the perils of our condition, has condescended to quicken us in the discharge of our duty by appealing to our hopes and fears, both in regard to the life that now is and that which is to come, it does not follow that self-love, or a concern for our own happiness, should be the only, or even the chief spring of our obedience. On the contrary, obedience to the divine will may spring from veneration and love for the divine character, arising from the most thorough conviction of the rectitude, wisdom, and goodness of the divine arrangements.
That this, more than a regard to the rewards of everlasting life, is the proper spring of virtuous conduct, is as plain as it is important to remark. To do what is right merely for the sake of everlasting life is evidently acting from a motive far inferior, in purity and power, to love and veneration for the character and commands of him who is just and good, in a sense and to an extent to which our most elevated conceptions are inadequate. That which should bind us to the throne of the Eternal is not the iron chain of selfishness, but the golden links of a love for all that is right; and our aspirations to the realms of bliss should be breathings after the prevalence of universal purity, rather than desires for our individual happiness. Self and its little circle are too narrow to hold the heart of man when it is touched with a sense of its true dignity, and enlightened with the knowledge of its lofty destination. It swells with generous admiration of all that is right and good, and expands with a love which refuses to acknowledge any limits but the limits of life and the capacities of enjoyment. In the nature and will of him from whom all being and all happiness proceed, it acknowledges the only proper object of its adoration and submission; and in surrendering itself to his authority it is purified from all the dross of selfishness, and cheered by the light of a calm and unquenchable love for all that is right and good. Dr. Adams (Sermon on the Nature and Obligation of Virtue) has well said, "Right implies duty in its idea. To perceive that an action is right is to see a reason for doing it in the action itself, abstracted from all other considerations whatever. Now this perception, this acknowledged rectitude in the action, is the very essence of obligation; that which commands the approbation of choice, and binds. the conscience of every rational being." Mr. Stewart (Act. and Mor. Powers, 2:294) has put. it. in still more powerful and concise form, viz. that "The very notion of virtue implies the notion of obligation." See Sanderson, De Juramnenti Obligatione, praelect. i, sec. 11; De Obligatione Conscientiae, praelect. v; Whewell, Morality, bk. i, ch. iv, p. 84-89; King, Essay on Evil, Prelim. Dissert. sec.; Dr. Ghalmers, Bridgewater Treatise, 1:78; Warburton, Legation, 1:38, 46, etc.; Paley, Moral Philos. 1:54; Robinson, Pref. to vol. iv of Saurin's Sermons; Mason, Christian Morals, ser. 23, 2:256; Doddridge, Lect. lect. 52; Grove, Philos. 2:66; Cudworth, Intell. System, 2:505, 636, et al.; Dr. Bushnell on the Vicarious Sacrifice, and review thereof in the Christian Examiners, May, 1866, art. v; Krauth's Fleming, Vocab. of Philos. s.v. (See RIGHT); (See SANCTION).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Obligation (2)'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​o/obligation-2.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.