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DIFFICULTIES ATTENDING THE APPLICATION OF THESE
EVIDENCES TO OURSELVES.
EXAMINE YOURSELVES WHETHER YE BE IN THE FAITH : PROVE YOUR
OWN selves; KNOW YE NOT YOUR OWN SELVES, HOW THAT JESUS CHRIST IS IN YOU, EXCEPT YE BE REPROBATes?
2 CORINTHIANS XIII. 5.
In the last Discourse but one I proposed from these words to examine,
I. Some of the imaginary evidences of regeneration.
III. Some of the difficulties which attend the application of the real evidences to ourselves.
There has been much debate in the Christian world concerning the faith of assurance ; or, as it is in better language styled by St. Paul,' the full assurance of hope.' The question debated has, however, not been whether men felt assured that they were Christians, but whether this assurance has been evangelical, or built on satisfactory and scriptural evidence. That such a faith has' existed I have no doubt ; nor do I see how it can be rationally doubted. That the apostles were evangelically assured of their own piety, and consequent salvation, must be admitted by all who believe the Scriptures. I have fought a good fight,' says St. Paul, • I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.'— For me to live is Christ; to die is gain.'-'We know,' says St. John, that we have passed from death unto life.' From the accounts given us concerning the first Martyrs, I think we cannot hesitate to admit that they also were the subjects of the same faith. Nor is the evidence concerning a number of those who have lived and suffered in modern times less convincing to me. These men have in various instances lived in a manner eminently evangelical, have devoted themselves through a long period to the service of God, with so much humility, self-denial, uniformity, stedfastness, and evangelical zeal, have laboured for the good of their fellow creatures with so much disinterestedness, charity, and constancy, have lived so much above the world, and with a conversation so heavenly, that when they are declaring themselves possessed of this faith, and have died with peace and exultation, which must be supposed to result from it, we cannot, unless by wilful rejection of evidence, hesitate to admit that they were possessed of this enviable attainment. Indeed, I can hardly doubt, that any man who reads their history with candour, will readily admit the doctrine, so far as the men to whom I refer are concerned. But, if these things be admitted, it will probably be readily conceded, that there are in every country and in every age where Christianity prevails, some persons who enjoy the Faith or Hope of assurance.
At the same time, I am fully persuaded that the number of these persons is not very great. If the Christians and ministers with whom I have had opportunity to converse, many of whom have been eminently exemplary in their lives, may be allowed to stand as representatives of Christians in general, it must certainly be true, that the faith of assurance is pot common.
Indeed, I am persuaded, that this blessing is much more frequently experienced in times and places of affliction and persecution, than in seasons of peace and prosperity. Severe trials and sufferings furnish of themselves clearer proofs of the piety of those who are tried, than can ordinarily be furnished by circumstances of ease and quiet. The faith which will patiently submit, which will encounter, which will endure, which will overcome, in periods of great affliction, has in this very process both acquired and exhibited peculiar strength, and furnished evidence of its genuineness which can bardly be derived from any other source.
At the same time it is, I think, irresistibly inferred from the declarations contained in the word of God, and from the bistory of his providence recorded both within and without the Scriptures, that God, in his infinite mercy, furnishes his chidren with peculiar support and consolation in times of peculiar trial; and that, as their day is,' so he causes their strength to be. Among the means of consolation enjoyed by Christians, none seems better adapted to furnish them with the necessary support under severe distresses, than an assurance that they are children of God. Accordingly, this very consolation appears to have been given to the suffering saints of the Old and New Testaments, as a peculiar support to them in their peculiar trials. From analogy it might be concluded, and from the bistory of facts it may with the strongest probability, if not with absolute certainty, be determined, that the same blessing has been given in times of eminent affliction to saints in every succeeding age of the church.
Still there is no reason to think that the faith of assurance is generally attained among eminent Christians. This fact has sometimes been called in question, sometimes denied, and oftener wondered at.“ Why," it is inquired, “ are not Christians oftener, nay, why are they not generally, assured of their gracious state? There certainly is a difference between sin and holiness sufficiently broad to be seen and marked. The Scriptures have actually marked this difference with such clearness and exactness, as to give us ample information concerning both the nature and the limits of these great moral attributes. They have separated those who possess them into two classes, not only entirely distinct, but directly opposite to each other : so opposite, that the one class is styled in them, the friends, and the other, the enemies, of God. Further, they present to us various means of judging, by which we are directed, as well as encouraged and enabled, to try and estimate our own religious character. The subject is also so spoken of in the Scriptures, as naturally to lead us into the conclusion, that these different characters may be distinctly known; and that it is our duty so to act, as upon the whole to form satisfactory views concerning our moral condition. Finally, the writers of the New Testament, and indeed of the Old also, speak of themselves, as knowing their own piety; and of others, as able to know theirs.”
To these observations I answer, in the first place, that holiness and sin are, in themselves, thus clearly distinguishable. Angels cannot but know that they are holy; and fiends, that they are sinful.
Secondly: This difference is sufficiently marked in the Scriptures. If we saw holiness in ourselves exactly as it is exhibited in the Scriptures, that is, unmixed, we should certainly know ourselves to be holy.
Thirdly: Holy and sinful men are just as different from each other as they are represented in the Scriptures ; but this does not enable us to determine which they are.
Fourthly: The means furnished us in the Scriptures of judging concerning our religious character are, undoubtedly, the best which the nature of our circumstances will admit; and such as, if correctly applied to ourselves, and known to be thus applied, would undoubtedly decide this great point in a satisfactory manner. Still this does not infer, that it usually will or can be thus decided.
Fifthly : We are undoubtedly required in the Scriptures to examine ourselves ; and the performance of this duty, while it is indispensable on our part, unquestionably may be and is of great importance to us; although we may not, as a consequence of it, become possessed of the faith of assurance.
Sixthly: The writers in the old and New Testaments did, in many instances, certainly know that they were holy; but they were inspired. It will not therefore follow, that others who are uninspired will of course possess the same knowledge of their own state.
Seventhly: The scriptural writers very extensively use the words know, and knowledge, not in the sense of absolute science, but to denote belief, persuasion, a strong hope, &c. in the same manner as these terms are used in common speech. We cannot therefore certainly conclude, from the use of these terms with respect to this subject, that the divine writers expected those to whom they wrote generally to possess the faith of assurance.
Finally : It is our duty to possess this faith. It is also our duty to be perfect. Yet St. John says of himself, and all other Christians, · If we say, that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. As therefore, notwithstanding this duty, no man is perfect; so, notwithstanding the duty of obtaining the faith of assurance, few persons may actually possess it.
The real difficulty is chiefly passed by, in all the observations made above; and lies in applying the scriptural evidences of holiness to our own particular cases. This subject, I shall now attempt to examine in several particulars.
The difficulties which attend the application of these evidences to ourselves arise from various sources. Among them the following will be found to possess a very serious influence :
1. The vast iniportance of the case.
A case of great moment is at all times apt strongly to agitate our minds. Men deeply interested by any concern, are therefore considered as less capable of discerning clearly and judging justly, than the same men when dispassionate. As this is the subject even of proverbial declaration, it cannot need proof. The case in hand is of infinite moment to each individual. Whenever he brings it to view, he is prone to. feel a degree, and often not a small one, of anxiety. It is therefore seen, together with the evidences which attend it, by. the mind through the medium of disturbed feelings. Earnest wishes to find satisfaction, on the one hand, and strong apprehensions lest it should not be found, on the other, naturally disorder that calm temperament, which is so necessary to clear investigation, and satisfactory conclusions. In this state, the mind is prone to be unsatisfied with its own investigation ; fears that it has not acted impartially ; suspects that it has not viewed the evidence possessed by it in a just light; and when its judgments are favourable to itself, is prone to tremble lest they have been too favourable, and the result of biassed inclinations, rather than of clear discernment. A presumptuous decision in its favour it perfectly well knows to be full of danger; and is ready to think almost every favourable judgment presumptuous. In this situation, all such judgments are apt to be regarded with a general suspicion; and the mind chooses rather to continue unsatisfied, and to undergo the distresses of anxiety and alarm, than to hazard the danger of ill founded