PLAIN TESTS OF TRUE DOCTRINE. Dear Sir,
.. I DO not wonder that your mind is unsettled and uneasy. When you had derived peace and composure from the knowledge of the truth, it was not worth your while to consult the writers you mention, to know what they could offer in support of opinions which you were beforehand, upon solid grounds, convinced must be erroneous. Unless we have a clear and proper call to examine such books, I think it best to let them alone. A man, who, relying on the strength of his constitution, should tamper with poison, may be hurt before he is aware. There are some errors which, for the subtlety and malignity of their operation, may be compared to poison. And if we presume so far upon our judgment being fully formed and established, as to suppose we may indulge a needless curiosity of knowing the mistakes of others, and how they attempt to defend them, without the least danger of being entangled or perplexed ourselves ; we may have cause to repent of our rashness. You have made the experiment, and suffered by it. You have found there is something in your heart which you did not expect to find there, and which, if God were to leave you to yourself, would render you, notwithstanding all your former apparent stability, capable of believing a lie.
The advocates for that false candour which is so much in vogue at present, will recommend to you a liberal and impartial examination of every sentiment on religion, which may come in your way ; and that you should not reject any one, however it may shock you upon the first proposal, until you have heard and considered all that can be suggested in its favour. They will probably remind you, that to prove all things, in order to hold fast that which is good, is the direction of an apostle- But you had already proved, if not all things, yet many, enough at least, to give you a warrant for holding that fast which had evidenced itself to you by its effects to be good. May I not ask you, as Paul asked the Galatians, Where is the blessedness you once spoke of? Nay, I need not ask yon ; I well know, and 1 appeal to your own conscience, that in proportion as the principles which formerly made you happy, have been shaken by the suggestions of your new teachers, the blessedness you then spoke of has abated likewise. I long for the honour and comfort of being instrumental to your recovery, and with this view I take up my pen. There are some truths so evident, that they are scarcely capable of additional proof, nor should we think it worth while to waste a moment in confuting the person who should deny them. I am sure beyond a doubt, that two and two are equal to four. And if the title page of a large book informed me that the design of the author was to prove that two and two are equal to seven ; whatever reason I might have to think highly of the author's abilities, or to be diffident of my own -judgment, I need not toil through a folio, and care
fully weigh every thing his learning and ingenuity could suggest in support of an absurdity, before I could, warrantabty, contradict it.
I think an evidence, little less intuitive than that by which we perceive the whole to be greater than a part, may be obtained, with respect both to the ti'uth of the leading doctrines of the Gospel, and their true sense, provided the understanding be duly enlightened by the Holy Spirit, and the heart be humbly and honestly willing to be determined by the testimony of Scripture. Universal experience and observation so perfectly cor« respond with what the Bible teaches us concerning the heart of man, his present state, his weakness and wants, his anxieties and miseries, with their proper causes, and their ofihy remedy ; that he who riins may read, 'tf his judgment be not perverted by prejudices and pride. Indeed, if he idolizes what he calls his reason, and resolves to believe nothing but what he can fully comprehend ; if, While he admits a Divine Revelation, he neither expects nor will allow it to inform him of any thing but what he supposes he already knows; the more he reasons, the more he is likely to be bewildered in the labyrinths of scepticism. Yet reason has its use and place in religious concerns, and the religion of the New Testament is a reasonable service. But the reasoning of many persons reputed wise, is like the reasoning of madmen. Their inferences may be rightlydrawn, and therefore, if their premises were true, their conclusions would be just. But if the premises be false, the conclusion must be so likewise. The man who thinks he is made of glass, and is therefore afraid of moving or heing touched, lest he should be broken to pieces, may be said, so far, to reason jtistly, for if he really was made of glass, his fear would be well founded; but if he insists upon it, in defiance of all argument and persuasion, that he is really a glass man,
Vol. II. M
we no longer deem him rational, but pronounce him to be mad. Thus if a reasoner, in contradiction to the common sense of mankind, will assume the dignity, the wisdom, the integrity, and the goodness of man in his present state, as so many incontrovertible first principles; if he reasons consistently from such principles, he must of course, first undervalue, and finally discard, the revelation which he proposes to examine. For madness is in his heart, and unless it pleases God to bring him to his right mind, he is no more competent to judge of truth, than a man born blind to judge of colours.
Is it not highly reasonable to affirm, that God knows us better than we know ourselves? That what he says deserves our attention ? That what he promises must be worth our while to seek in the way which He has appointed ? Let reason work fairly upon these pla'iH data, and it will confirm all that the Scripture declares concerning the guilt and depravity of man, and of the method of his recovery by faith in the blood of Jesus. That fallen man needs a Saviour; that his salvation is a work too great for a creature to accomplish ; that he cannot be. saved without a proper atonement made for his sin ; nor unless his mind be enlightened, and renewed, by the powerful agency of the Holy Spirit. These points, reason, though unable to discover, or fully to comprehend,. can so far demonstrate, as to prove the impossibility of salvation upon any grounds, if the Scriptural representation of the character of God and the heart of man, be admitted as a true one.
Yet these points are not only disputed but denied, and by some persons in the most unqualified terms. The epithets, irrational, absurd, and enthusiastic, are freely applied both to the doctrines and to those who hold them; and the magisterial and decisive tone, in which these charges are made, has supplied the want of solid argument in their support. I do not wonder, that sentiments so favourable to the pride of man, and which lay but little restraint upon his inclinations, should be readily adopted by many, who are content to let others think for them. But I marvel that you are so soon removed from the truth you professed, to another Gospel. Yet I hope you are not removed, though for the present unsettled; and that the Lord will so humble and instruct you by your fall, as to make it the occasion of establishing you more firmly than ever. I wave argumentation, and appeal to facts ; and I shall confine myself to the consideration of a single point, because it is the central point, which has an influence upon every other religious sentiment. You once believed that Jesus, the Saviour of sinners, possesses all the attributes and perfections of Deity, that he ever was, and ever will be, the proper object of divine worship; but now you hesitate: your attention has been drawn to what is commended to you, as a more rational scheme. But they who are agreed to deny the eternal power and Godhead of the Lord Jesus, cannot agree among themselves who, or what He is. Some peremptorily affirm that he is a mere man, like one of us; others suppose him to be of the angelic order, perhaps of the highest rank, possibly superior to them all, but yet a creature, consequently no more worthy of divine honour (and in my view no more competent to the work of redemption) than a worm. If you read on both sides, you will find that the Arian and Socinian writers, abundantly prove that the sentiments which they gently oppose in each other, cannot be reconciled either with Scripture, or with plain common sense. But their opposition is so very gentle, their reciprocal candour and esteem so great, and their mutual dislike of our principles so very sincere and strong, that it seems, upon their plans, ty be of little importance, what or how we think oi Christ, provided we do not think of him too highly ; but let us judge from what we see and feel, and decide accordingly.
1. The truth or falsehood of our religious principles, may not be easily discernible, by their effects, in a time of prosperity. The house built upon a sand, may seem to stand as firm as that which is built upon the rock, till the floods and storms come to try them. But man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upwards. Admitting that the schemes which represent Christ as a creature, whose" knowledge and power must of course be limited, may seem to suit and satisfy those who are at ease ; they afford little consolation to a wounded conscience, or even to a person suffering under the various calamities to which every state of human life is liable, under the pressures of poverty, severe pain, and long illness ; or when the desire of our eyes is taken away by a sudden stroke; in cases where the help of man is found to be utterly in vain, there is a need of stronger arguments than the topics of what some call rational religion can suggest, to inspire peace, maintain hope, and influence the mind to a cheerful and willing submission to the will of God. Natural fortitude, and cold reasonings, more conformable to the philosophy of the heathens, than to the spirit of the Gospel, may stifle complaints ; but to rejoice in tribulation, and in every thing to give thanks, are privileges peculiar to those, who can joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom they have obtained reconciliation. A cordial belief that he suffered for our sins, that we were accepted in him, that he is our shepherd, full of care, compassion, and power ; who knows the very thoughts and feelings of the heart, and who, having been tempted for us, is
able and ready to succour us in all our temptations : a persuasion that his wisdom and love preside over all our dispensations ; a liberty of applying to him for strength according to our day, confirmed by a thousand past proofs, that when we have called upon hira, he has heard, supported, and delivered us : a humble confidence, which only he can give, that the heaviest afflictions are light, and the longest momentary, compared with that far more exceeding and eternal weight of glorv, to which he is leading us by them ; and that sense of the demerit of our sins, only fully to be estimated by the value of the necessary atonement, which will always constrain us to acknowledge that our greatest sufferings are less than our iniquities deserve. Considerations of this kind come home to our bosoms, are fully adequate to our wants, communicate a peace passing understanding, and enable those who feel their influence, to say " It is the Lord, let him do what seemeth "him good ;" and often they can add, to the astonishment of those who know not the power of their principles, As the sufferings of Christ (those which we endure for his sake or from his hand) abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.
2. This reminds me of another important point. If there be an hereafter ; if every one of us must give an account of himself to God and be unalterably fixed in a state of happiness, or misery, according to his righteous award, a thinking person, who professes to believe that he must appear at the tribunal of the great, impartial, omniscient Judge, can hardly have any true enjoyment of his situation here, but in proportion as he is favoured with a well-grounded hope (for a false and ill grounded hope, where such vast consequences are depending, must be an awful delusion indeed) that it will be well with him when he ahall go hence and be no more seen- Certaintv upon this head, or the nearest possible approaches to certainty, must surely be highly desirable. Let us inquire which scheme bids iairest to afford this satisfaction. It well grounded, it must be- built upon truth, and consequently it cannot be stronger than the conviction we have, that the principles are true upon which we build.
An ingenious writer* of the present day, though he thinks the Socinian doctrine " not only renders the u Scripture Unintelligible, but Christianity .' itself Incredible," is pleased, notwithstanding, to give i^a marked preference to what he styles the Athanasian or Calvinistic scheme, which he says, " I reject with strong conviction.'' But in the same page, in the very next preceding period, he frankly acknowledges, " I can, in this instance as in most "others, with much more confidence say what is " Not, than what is the truthf." It may perhaps be justly questioned, whether a man who declares himself uncertain what is the truth, can be competently qualified to decide with confidence, what is not the truth. He elsewhere says to the 'same purpose, " Indeed I seldom feel much of that satisfaction " which some derive from being sure they have « found out truth." In another publication, he gives the following account of his studies, and the result of his inquiries: " In early life, I was struck with " Bishop Butler's Analogy of Religion, natural and " revealed, to the constitution and course of nature. " I reckoned it happy for me, that this book was one " of the first that fell into my hands; it taught me " the proper mode of reasoning on moral and reli" gious subjects, and particularly the importance of " paying a due regard to the imperfection of human " knowledge. His sermons also, I thought, and do
« Q* Etice. f Swmons lately, printed, p. 158,193;
" still think excellent. Next to his works, I have " always been an admirer of the works of Dr. Clark. " And I cannot help adding, though it may seem " strange, that I likewise owe much to the philosoiM phical writings of Mr. Hume, which J likewise " studied early in life, Though an enemy to his " scepticism, I have profited by it. By attacking, " with great ability, every principle of truth and " reason, he taught me to examine the ground on " which I stood, and not hastily to take any thing " for granted. And now in the evening of a life de" voted to inquiries, and spent in endeavours (weak " and feeble indeed) to serve the best interests, pre" sent and future, of mankind; I am waiting for " the great Teacher, convinced that the order of " Nature is perfect, that infinite wisdom and good"ness governs all things, and that Christianity 11 comes from God ; but at the same time, puzzled " lay many difficulties, anxious for more light, and " resting with full and constant assurance only on "this one truth, That the practice of virtue is the " duty and dignity of man, and, in all events, his "wisest and safest course*."
I admire the ingeniousness of these confessions ; and I compassionate a state of mind- which, though seldom acknowledged with the same honesty, 1 believe to he far from uncommon. It is indeed lamentable, if persons of respectable characters and abilities, should devote no small part of their time and attention to the study of the Scriptures, the professed design of which is to make us wise unto salvation, and yet have no hope of being satisfied in the most fundamental points of religion till death shall remove them to a state which will exclude all possibility of doubt. For though death- be a great teacher
* Statjr's Review for December, 1784, page 48T.
indeed, it must be uncomfortable to remain in suspense, and under a possibility of being mistaken in matters essential to our peace, till the discovery of our mistake (if it should prove so) will come too late to admit of redress. Oh that we may be persuaded' iiVtime, earnestly to implore the assistance of that' still greater Teacher, who has promised his gracious help to all who humbly seek it! But if we set himaside, and rashly prefer the guidance of our own boasted reason, in points beyond the line of its comprehension, the most laborious researches will issue in uncertainty. Surely in the beginning it was not so. Our Lord's promise to his disciples was, " Ye shall" " know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. " If any man will do my will, he shall know of the " doctrine whether it be of God." And these promises were abundantly fulfilled to the first Christians. Not to insist on the strong testimony of Peter,' " We believe and are sure, that Thou art the Christ, " the Son of the living God." The apostles frequently declare, that their aim and intention, both in preaching and writing, was to make others equally sure with themselves ; " These things we write unto " you, that ye may have fellowship with us; that ye " may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye " may believe in the name of the Son of God." It was not the exclusive privilege of Paul, as an apostle, to know whom he had believed, and to be persuaded that he was able to keep that which he had committed to him. The Gospel came to others likewise, not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance, they had joy and peace in believing, they rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory ; they took joyfully the spoiling of their goods, knowing in themselves that they had in heaven a better and more enduring substance ; for after they believed, they were sealed; with the Holy Spirit of promise, and because they were sons, God had "sent forth the spirit of his " Son into their hearts, whereby they could call him " Abba, Father." These are Scriptural expressions, and but a very small part of what might be adduced to confirm, were it needful, the assertion of St. John, " He that believeth on the Son of God, hath the wit. " ness in himself." How different is this strain from that of the writer I have quoted above ! Shall we say, then, that the everlasting Gospel has lost its evidence, or its efficacy, in the course of seventeen hundred years i I'hat it could once inspire those who embraced it with a full assurance of hope ; but, at this distance of time it leaves inquirers puzzled with difficulties, and still more anxious for light i Rather we must maintain, that the same Gospel still produces the same effects. If Christ died, rose from the dead and entered into glory, only to assure Ub " that the practice of virtue is the duty and dignity " of man, and at all events his safest and wisest " course," I may venture to say, that he died and rose in vain. Surely, his gracious interposition does not make it more evident to us, than it was to the heathens, that nothing but the practice of virtue is necessary for a sinner. And I am quite at a loss to know what the writer means by virtue, when I find a bold attempt to set aside the authority of Moses and Paul, complimented by him as " a magnanimous "openness.*" Methinks a magnanimity of this kind, can be no branch of that virtue which is the duty and dignity of man.
Ask death-beds, my friends, they will speak ; I know, indeed, that many persons die as they lived, careless and insensible, no more impressed by the thoughts of an eternal state, than the beasts of the
* Appendix to th« Sermons, p. 394.
field; and I know that others, lest by-standers should suspect them of fear, or question the validity of their infidel principles to support them, have affected to jest in their last hours, and to meet death with a facetiousness utterly unbecoming a wise man. For it is a serious thing to die ; and the dignified composure of a true Christian, differs so much from the levity of a buffoon, as the sober conduct of a man differs from the mimickry and grimace of a monkey. I have known persons, not in the lowest class for that wisdom and virtue which is taught in the schools of scepticism, tremble, like the boughs of a tree in a storm, when the approach of death has excited an awful sensibility in their conscience, recalled to their remembrance a view of their past lives, and opened to their mind a prospect (till then unregarded) of what was before them. I have had the comfort of seeing many others very differently affected in dying circumstances. I have seen enough to convince me, if the testimony of the word of Godneeded any confirmation, that the true wisdom of man is most conspicuous (if he retains his senses) when he is about to leave this world; and that his duty, dignity, and happiness, are displayed to the highest advantage, when, like Stephen, he is ena, bled to commit his departing spirit into the hands of Jesus, and to venture his Eternal All, upon his faithfulness and ability to save, to the uttermost, those who, renouncing every other ground of hope,' confide entirely in his mediation. I have seen them in this situation, in the exercise of a good conscience, possessed of a solid, unshaken peace, and at a loss for words to express their joys, yet humbly sensible of their unworthiness, and the defects and defilements of their best services. I have heard them regret, that their regard to him, and their dependence upon him, had been so faint and so feeble;
but 1 never heard one regret, that he had honoured him too highly, or placed too much confidence in his authority and power.
- 3. Another test of the truth and goodness of doctrines, which will approve itself, to a careful and candid observer, without the assistance of critical learning, or laboured arguments, is their comparative efficacy or insufficiency, to reclaim men from wickedness, to inspire them with the fear and love of God, and to produce a habit of integrity and benevolence towards oif fellow-creatures. If I hear that a minister, who preaches Christ as the wisdom and power of God to salvation, and who is animated with that zeal for the glory of God, and the good of souls, of which they who truly believe in the eternal power and Godhead of the Saviour, and the value of his atonement, cannot be wholly destitute. I say, if I hear that such a one is about to be fixed in a place where ignorance and immorality generally prevail, I always take it for granted, that the effects of his ministry will soon be more or less visible: that the Lord's day will be better observed, the place of worship more frequented, that there will be some instances, at least, of profligates becoming. sober, of careless sinners excited to a concern for their souls, and that some persons who had long lived without God in the world, will begin to worship him in their families. I know that in such cases their will be pretenders found, like tares among the wheat; but I always expect there will likewise be such instances of real reformation, both as to religion and to moral conduct, as shall put gainsayers to shame and to silence, and satisfy candid and attentive inquirers, that a change so beneficial to individuals, to families, and to the community, was the effect of the doctrints delivered to them, and with which they were before unacquainted. The very different effects of that preaching which re
presents Christ as a creature, and sets aside the necessity of his atonement, I have olten had the occasion of observing, when introduced amongst a people, who have before been favoured with what 1 deem, and assuredly know, to be the true Gospel. In proportion as it has been received, a regular attendance upon public ordinances, a care to maintain family worship, a spiritnal frame of conversation and conduct, have gradually declined. Where moral essays are substituted 9- the truth as it is in Jesns, where men are taught to- seek their resources in their own powers, and to consider themselves as already wise and good, the preacher may, perhaps, please the ear, but he will seldom affect or mend the heart. In our days it may be truly said, " Virtus laudatur et alget." Fine encomiums upon the beauty of virtue abound ; but Christian virtue, the love of God, and of man for his sake, is only to be attained by faith in the blood of the Lamb, and the word of his testimony.
Since, therefore, the principles you once embraced, are best suited to comfort you under affliction, to give you a solid ground of hope in life and in death, and evidently found, to be the most efficacious to promote the fear of God, and the good of society ; 1 hope you will in future beware of the sophistry of those teachers who would deprive you of your gold, and can only give you counters in exchange. I commend you to that good Shepherd, who can pity and restore his wandering sheep;
And remain affectionately yours,