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natural, wholly evangelical, or mixed. He knows that he exercises a love to God; but may be unable to determine whether he loves the character of God, considered by itself; whether he loves the divine perfections for what they are; or whether he loves God, because he regards him as a friend to himself; and delights in his perfections, because he considers them as engaged and operating to promote his present and eternal good. It would be difficult for most persons to determine precisely what views they would form of this glorious Being, if it were revealed to them that he was their enemy.
As it is often difficult for the Christian to distinguish his natural affections which, so long as he is a man, he will always continue to exercise, from the corresponding evangelical ones, which he exercises as a Christian; so it must evidently be more difficult for an unrenewed man, who has never had any other beside natural affections, to discern that these are not evangelical. When he loves God, and other divine objects, in what manner shall he determine that he loves him only because he believes him reconciled to himself? When he delights in the divine perfections, it will not be easy for him to see that it is only because he supposes them to be engaged to promote his welfare. When he loves the Scriptures, it will be difficult for him to perceive that it is only because of their sublimity and beauty, the good sense which they contain, the happy influence which they have on mankind, and the comforting promises which he considers them as speaking to himself. When he loves Christians, it will often be beyond his power to determine that it is not because of their natural amiableness of character, the agreeableness of their manners, their friendship or kind offices to himself, and their general usefulness to others with whom he is connected.
A person is quiet under provocatious. This may arise from meekness. It may also arise from a sense of the wisdom, the dignity, and the usefulness of this spirit. He is kind to enemies. This may arise from the desire of obtaining the peculiar evidence that he is a good man, furnished by this exercise of Christian benevolence, from a sense of the nobleness of forgiveness, or from the danger of not finding himself forgiven.
I might extend this course of thought through all the objects of self-examination, and show that similar difficulties attend them all. Every Christian must, I think, have experi
enced them in his own case; and every person, accustomed to converse much with others on the grounds of their hope concerning themselves, must have perceived them continually occurring in the progress of every such conversation.
4. Another source of this difficulty is found in the transient nature of all our emotions.
By this I intend that every exercise of our affections has only a momentary existence in the mind. It rises, is indulged, and is gone. All our knowledge of its nature, in the mean time, exists in the consciousness of it while it is passing; in our remembrance of that consciousness, known to be imperfect; and in our acquaintance with its effects, often of a character more or less doubtful. Few words can be necessary to show that our knowledge of these exercises, gained in this manner, must be attended by many imperfections. Our opportunity for viewing it while it is passing is so short, and often so carelessly employed; our remembrance of it when it is past is so far removed from certain accuracy; and its effects may be so easily, and for aught that appears so justly, attributed to various causes, that the whole view taken of them by the mind will frequently be obscure, and its decision unsatisfactory.
Hence appears the wisdom of fastening upon a course of such exercises, as furnishing far better means of determining our religious character, rather than resting it upon a few. A character may be successfully discerned in many exercises of a similar kind, which usually we shall attempt in vain to discover to our satisfaction in a small number. A thousand blades of grass will in the spring give a green and living aspect to that field, which with a hundred would still retain the russet appearance of absolute death.
5. Another fruitful source of the same difficulties is furnished by the imperfect state of religion in the mind.
This indeed may, in an extensive sense, be considered as the general source of them all. I have heretofore observed, that angels cannot but know that they are holy, and fiends, that they are sinful. Were we perfectly holy, then, we should certainly know this to be our character.
But there are particular difficulties attending this subject, which deserve to be marked.
The mind of every Christian experiences many alternations
of holiness and sin. Temptations often and unexpectedly intrude. The objects which engross the whole heart of the sinner, unhappily engage at times, in greater or less degrees, that of the Christian. Nor is their influence always transient. David, Solomon, and other saints mentioned in the Scriptures, sinned for a length of time. Not a small number of sins are committed in thought, word, and action, in the brighter and better seasons, nay, in the brightest and best. "I sin," says Bishop Beveridge; "I repent of my sins, and sin in my repentance. I pray for forgiveness, and sin in my prayers. I resolve against my future sin, and sin in forming my resolutions. So that I may say, my whole life is almost a continued course of sin." This is the language of one of the best men that ever lived. A still better man has said, The good that I would, that I do not; but the evil that I would not, that I do. I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me. After the inward man, I delight in the law of God. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin, which is in my members. O wretched man, that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
Now the whole life, not of such men as these, but of men who, though generally of a similar character, are greatly inferior to these in religious excellence, is almost always the real object of a Christian's examination. This also is to be continually examined; the worst and the best parts alike. But it is plain, that the comfortable evidence of our piety, furnished by the prevalence of holiness in the best seasons, will be always impaired by contrary evidence in periods of declension; will sometimes be rendered obscure, and at others overbalanced. It is farther evident that, as our whole judgment will and ought to be usually made up, partly of the evidence furnished by our present state, and partly of our past judgments, and the evidence on which they were founded; evidence contradicting, impairing, and obscuring each other; a degree of confusion and uncertainty in the views of the mind concerning its religious character will almost necessarily result, in many instances, from this complicated and perplexed state of things.
6. No small difficulties are often thrown in our way by the backslidings of others.
Many persons who are really Christians decline at times from holiness of life so greatly, and so long, as to excite not only the sneers and contempt, but the just censures also, of those who are not Christians; and the extreme regret, and the Christian discipline, of those who are. Other men, in cases of this nature, frequently question or deny the very existence of religion. Christians do not indeed go this unwarrantable length; but they cannot avoid recollecting that, frequently, the persons who have thus declined were in their view better than themselves, and feeling the hopes which they have entertained of their own piety greatly lessened. They are compelled to doubt of the religion of these men, and almost irresistibly question the reality of their own.
There are other persons who strongly believe themselves to be religious; and who at the same time live in such a manner as to persuade others that they are eminent Christians; who afterwards prove by their conduct that they are not Christians. Judas, Hymenæus, Philetus, and others, were of this character, and multitudes more in every succeeding age. When these persons fall, all the evidence which convinced either themselves or others of their piety is plainly proved to be unsolid, and we are naturally led to ask whether the evidence on which we have relied, as the foundation of our own hope, be not the very same; or, if it is known to be different, whether we have reason to think it at all better. In this way we naturally come to suspect the grounds on which the belief of our piety has rested, and to doubt whether we are not equally deceived with them.
7. I am of opinion that God, for wise and good reasons, administers his spiritual providence in such a manner, as to leave his children destitute of the faith of assurance, for their own good.
This opinion, I am well aware, will most probably be doubted, although I entertain not a doubt of it myself. It is proper, therefore, that I should mention some reasons which induce me to adopt it.
(1.) It is perfectly plain, that the evidence, enjoyed by Christians concerning their piety, is in no regular manner or degree proportioned to their real excellence of character. The proof of this position is complete, both from our own observation, and from the history of experimental and practical
religion, given us in the lives of great multitudes of eminently good men. Such men, after having enjoyed for a long time the most consoling evidence of their good estate, have, through periods also long, been distressed with doubts and darkness, and sometimes with deep despondence, and have nevertheless afterwards obtained the same consolations throughout their remaining lives. To such seasons the psalmist plainly alludes in many declarations, descriptions, and prayers. These are the seasons, in which he speaks of God as hiding his face from him;' and of himself, as disquieted, troubled, sorrowful, mourning, as almost gone, as having his feet in the miry pit, and as overwhelmed by the billows of affliction. Such seasons are also familiarly spoken of by Christians, as times of darkness and sorrow, in which the light of God's countenance is hidden from them.
(2.) There is not, I believe, a single promise in the Gospel to Christians, as such, of the faith of assurance; nor any direct intimation, that they shall possess evidence of their piety, proportioned to the degree in which it exists. All the promises of this nature seem to be indefinite; and to indicate, that Christians shall enjoy some evidence of this nature, rather than to point out the degree in which it shall be enjoyed. The Spirit testifies with their spirits,' in a degree and manner accordant with his pleasure, that they are children of God.' It is indeed said, that if any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God.' But the word know, in this case, plainly means no other than that he shall have a strong and satisfying persuasion; for it cannot be said, that knowledge, in the proper sense, is ever attainable with regard to this subject. And this strong persuasion, that the Bible is the word of God, may exist without any satisfactory evidence that we are his children.
(3.) There seems to be a plain and important reason, why most Christians should be left in some degree of uncertainty concerning this subject. In all the earlier stages of their piety, and in all other cases in which it is not eminently vigorous, they would be prone, if they possessed high consolatory evidence, especially if they possessed full assurance of their renovation, imperfect as they then always are, to be at ease; to settle quietly down in that imperfect state; and in this manner to come far short of those religious attainments which