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OF THE VARIOUS METHODS OF THE DIVINE OPERATION IN THE PRODUCTION OF THIS SAVING CHANGE.
There are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.
WHATEVER the original sense of these words was, and how peculiarly soever they may relate to the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, the whole tenor of this discourse will show with how much propriety they may, at least, be accommodated to the operations of his grace. I have proved to you in the last of these lectures, that wherever regeneration is produced, it is ultimately to be ascribed to a Divine agency; and though I cannot say it is equally important, yet I apprehend it may be both agreeable and useful to proceed,
Fifthly, To survey the VARIETY OF METHODS which God is pleased to take in producing this happy change: or, to borrow the language of the text, to consider the diversity of operations, by 247which the same God, who worketh all in all, i. e. who produces all the virtues and graces of the Christian character, in some degree, in all his people, is pleased, according to his own wise and gracious purposes, to proceed in his agency, on those whom he regenerates and saves.
And this survey will not be matter of mere curiosity, but may probably revive the hearts of some amongst you by the recollection of your own experience: and it may be a caution to others, who, for want of due compass and extent of thought and knowledge, are ready to argue, as if God had but one way to work on the human heart, and that one the particular manner by which he recovered them. Of this I shall speak more largely hereafter. In the mean time, I judged it necessary to premise this hint, to direct us as to the temper with which this discourse should be heard, as well as to the purpose to which it is to be improved.
Now what I have to offer on this subject will be ranged under these three heads. There is a diversity and variety observable—in the time—the occasion--and the manner, of the Divine operations on the soul.
I. There is an observable variety, as to the TIME of God's gracious operations on different persons.248
Some are called in their infancy:--others, and these perhaps the greatest part, are wrought upon in youth:--and some very few in the advance, and even in the decline of life.
1. Some are wrought upon by Divine grace in their infancy.
This is often the case; and I doubt not, but if parents were to do their duty, it would much more frequently be so. And it is an honor which God is pleased, in some instances, remarkably to confer on a good education; which is indeed so important a duty on one side, and so great a privilege on the other, that it is the less to be wondered at, that he so mercifully encourages Christian parents in the discharge of it: thus granting, as it were, an immediate reward for this labor of love. And I must here take the freedom, on my own observation, to say, that God seems especially to own the faithful endeavors of pious mothers in this respect. He has wisely and graciously given that sex a peculiar tenderness of address, and an easy and insinuating manner, which is admirably adapted to this great end, for which, no doubt, he especially intended it, that of conveying knowledge to children, and making tender impressions on their minds: and there is hardly any view in which the importance of the sex more evidently appears.249
We have encouragement to believe, there are a considerable number who are, as it were, sanctified from the womb, and in whom the seeds of Divine grace are sown, before they grow up to a capacity of understanding the public preaching of the word: a remark, which Mr. Baxter carries so far as to say, that he believes, "if the duties of religious education were conscientiously discharged, preaching would not be God's ordinary method of converting souls: but the greater part would be wrought upon before they were capable of entering into the design of a sermon." And indeed it seems to me, that children may early come to have some apprehensions of what is most important in religion. They may have a reverence for God, and a love for him, as that great Father who made them, and that kind Friend who gives them everything that they have: they may have a fear of doing anything that would displease him; and though it is not so easy for them to understand the doctrines peculiar to a Redeemer, yet when they hear of Christ as the Son of God, who came down from heaven to teach men and children the way thither; who loved them, and did them good every day, and at last died to deliver them from death and hell; their little hearts may well be impressed with such thoughts as these, and they may find a growing desire to be instructed in 250what Christ is, and what he taught and did, and to do what shall appear to be his will. And wherever this is the prevailing disposition, it seems to me that the seeds of holiness are sown in that soul, though but small proficiency may be made in knowledge, and though the capacities for service be very low.
I will add, that some remarkably pertinent and solid things, which little children have said concerning religion, seem to me plainly to evidence, that they have been, in many instances, under some uncommon teachings of the Divine Spirit: and it seems perfectly suitable to the genius of Christianity, that in this sense God should ordain strength out of the mouth of babes and sucklings, (Psal. viii. 2,) and should reveal to them what he has suffered to be hidden from the wise and prudent. (Matt. xi. 25.) Nor can I suppose it hard for any, who have been for a considerable time acquainted with the state of religion in Christian societies, to recollect various instances, in which persons thus taught of God, who have heard, and known, and loved the scriptures, and delighted in ordinances and serious discourse from their childhood, have been, in some measure, like Samuel, Obadiah, Jeremiah, Josiah, and Timothy, honored with eminent usefulness in the church, and have happily filled some of its most important 251stations of service. Almost every age has afforded instances of this; and I am persuaded, many are now growing up amongst us, who will be instances of it in ages yet to come.
2. Others, and these perhaps the greatest part of real Christians, are wrought upon in their youthful days.
Many parents are very deficient in a due care to cultivate the infant minds of their little ones; or the feeble and general impressions then made are, perhaps, worn out and lost, in the growing vanities of childhood and youth. They begin to be drawn away by evil inclinations and examples, and by the delusions of a flattering world, which then puts on its most attractive charms, to gain upon their inexperienced minds: and hereupon they follow after vanity, and become vain: (2 Kings xvii. 15:) of the rock which begat them, they grow unmindful, and forget the God that formed them. Deut. xxxii. 18. But by one method or another, God often stops them in this dangerous career; and awakening ordinances, or more awakening providences, bring them to a stand, and turn them the contrary way. The terrors of the Lord set themselves in array against them; (Job. vi. 4;) or his mercy melts their souls, and they yield themselves its willing captives. They consecrate their hearts, warm as they are 252with youthful vigor, to be the sacrifices of Divine love, and enter, it may be, very early into the bonds of God's covenant: and so prove such a seed to serve him, as is accounted to the Lord for a most honorable and useful generation. Psal. xxii. 30. Blessed be God, I speak to many who know this by experience! By far the greater part of those who have been admitted to your communion, since I settled among you, have been, as I apprehend, under the age of twenty-four years: and several of those, who were farther advanced in life when they first approached the table of the Lord, had been brought to real religion in their much earlier years; though particular circumstances, or some mistaken apprehensions, might prevent their giving up their names publicly to the Lord, so soon as they might, and as they ought to have done it.
3. Some few are wrought upon by Divine grace in the advance, and even in the decline of life.
I confess that the number of these is comparatively small: and it is not to be wondered at, that it is so. They are not many who arrive at what can properly be called old age; and of them but a very inconsiderable part are then brought to anything which looks like a saving change. Nor shall we be much surprised at this, if we consider 253the inveterate nature of bad habits, which render it almost as hard for them that are accustomed to do evil, to learn to do good, as it is for the Ethiopian to Change his skin, or the leopard his spots. Jer. xiii. 23. To such a degree are prejudices riveted in the mind, so insensible is it rendered of tender and generous impressions, so cold are the affections, and the habits, if the phrase may be allowed, so rigid, that, humanly speaking, there is much less probability of their being impressed with religion, than there was when they were in the bloom of life; notwithstanding all the seeming advantages which might arise from riper reason, deeper experience, and a nearer prospect of eternity. In all these things, it is in vain to reason against observation of fact, since we evidently see how uncommon a thing it is, for persons to be awakened and reformed in old age; especially if they have been educated in the principles of religion, and have made a florid profession of it in their youth--from which they have afterwards apostatized, out of a love to the wealth or honors of the world, or a relish for sensual delights. Such persons generally live and die monuments of Divine wrath, bearing, as it were, in characters dreadfully legible, the sad inscription of those, who having forsaken God, are finally forsaken of him. They appear as dry 254trees, twice dead, and fit for nothing but to be plucked up by the roots, and cast into the fire. Jude ver. 12; John xv. 16.
Nevertheless, to prove the infinite energy and sovereignty of Divine grace, God is sometimes pleased to work even on such. He touches the rock which has stood for ages unmoved, and the waters flow forth: he says to the dry bones, Live, and they obey; they are clothed with beauty, they are animated with life, and stand up as with the vigor of a renewed youth, to pursue the labors of religion, and to fight the battles of the Lord. Ezek. xxxviii. 20. Such instances, in which aged sinners have been thus wrought upon, I have read and heard; though, I grieve to say it, I can recollect very few, if any, that have occurred to me within the sphere of my own personal observation and acquaintance.
But besides this variety in the time, there is also,
II. An observable diversity, in the OCCASION, which Divine grace takes to operate upon different persons.
The occasions are indeed so various, that it would be impossible to enumerate them; I shall however just touch on some of the chief.
And here I might particularly consider a religious education in this view, and that daily converse with pious friends, which is of course connected 255with it. But though perhaps there may be no occasion more considerable in itself, and none that has been more eminently honored of God; yet it is proper to waive it here, as having been mentioned under the former head.
I proceed therefore further to observe, that some are wrought upon by the word of God; others by some remarkable providences; some by little incidents, which, inconsiderable as they seem in themselves, grow memorable by the noble effects they are made to produce: and others by secret and immediate impressions of God upon their spirits, which cannot be resolved into any external cause, or any visible occasion at all.
1. The administration of Divine ordinances, and especially the word of God and prayer, is an occasion, which he most frequently takes to work upon men's hearts by his grace.
I do not mention the administration of the sacraments upon this occasion; because, though they have so noble and effectual a tendency to improve men's minds in piety, and to promote Christian edification; yet I do not remember to have heard of any instance, in which they have been the means of men's conversion; which is the less to be wondered at, as they were appointed for a very different end.
There are many, however, that have been 256wrought upon in prayer, as there are many things concur in this to awaken and impress the mind. The solemn acknowledgments then made of the Divine perfections, the praises offered to his tremendous Majesty, the deep and humble confession of our various and aggravated guilt in his holy presence, the lamentations over it, the importunate pleadings for a variety of blessings both for time and eternity; in a word, all the overflowings of pious affections in the breast of him that leads the devotion, and especially the earnest entreaties then offered for unconverted sinners, the genuine expressions of an undissembled apprehension of their danger, and the fervent breathings after Divine grace, to be communicated to them for their spiritual life: all these things, I say, and many more, which occur in prayer, when it is managed aright, may, by the Divine blessing, be singularly useful. And I am well assured, there have been happy instances, in which, while God's people have yet been speaking to him on this head, he has graciously heard, and signally answered them. Isa. lxv. 24.
But the reading, and especially the preaching of the word of God, is the grand occasion and instrument in the conversion of souls. Of his own will he begets them with' the word of truth: (Jam. i. 18:) and it is admirably suited to those 257saving impressions which it is intended to make on the heart, being quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword. Heb. iv. 12. It was while Paul was preaching that the Lord opened Lydia's heart, so that she attended to the things which were spoken by him: (Acts xvi. 14:) and it was while Peter was thus employed, that such vast multitudes were pricked in their hearts, and said to him, and to the rest of the apostles present, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Acts ii. 37? And I am well persuaded, that various and lamentable as the instances are, in which men stop their ears and harden their hearts against it, God does not even to this day leave it without witness: but the terrors of the Lord, as displayed by his faithful ministers, have subdued their thousands, and the riches of his grace their ten thousands, when illustrated by those who have not only heard, but have themselves tasted of their sweetness. The preaching of the cross may indeed to them that perish be foolishness; but blessed be his name who died upon it, there is still a happy remnant, to whom it appears to be the power of God, and the wisdom of God. 1 Cor. i. 18, 24.
Evangelical subjects, when opened with perspicuity, and enforced with vigor and tenderness, by those that have experienced the transforming energy of them on their own hearts, and desire 258above all things, to be wise to win the souls of others, (Prov. xi. 30,) are generally the occasion of producing the most immediate and the most important change; as I doubt not, but many now present have seen and felt. And the observation of every year of life convinces me more and more that they who desire to be signally instrumental in this good work--this work of all others the most benevolent and important—must, in the account of a vain world, become fools, that they may be wise. 1 Cor. iii. 18. How contemptuously soever it may be fashionable to treat such preaching, we must make these subjects familiar to our hearers, and must treat them with all plainness of speech, and all seriousness of address, or we shall generally labor in vain, and spend our strength for nought. Isa. xlix. 4.
Would to God, that the teachers of our Israel may consider the importance of it, and grow wise by such experiments as these! that they may act the part of prudent physicians, who prescribe the medicines they find in fact most useful, and not those concerning which the finest speculations may be framed. Till then, whatever their learning, politeness, and parade may be, it cannot be expected that our health should be generally recovered; but we are like to continue, what we have long been, a vicious people, amidst the 259finest encomiums of virtue, that are anywhere to be found: nor will there be much room to wonder, if some of its most eloquent advocates should appear, even in their own practice, insensible of those charms which they so gracefully recommend to others, and sink in their character below those heathen moralists, whom they may choose to imitate, rather than Christ and his apostles. Nevertheless, I am persuaded, that if God intend mercy for us as a people, he will support among us a succession of those who shall dispense his truths in such a manner, as he has generally chosen to honor with success. But though the greater part of sincere converts are won by these, I am to add,
2. That remarkable providences, whether merciful or afflictive, are occasions which God takes to work upon the hearts of many others.
When ordinary means have long been attended in vain, God perhaps interposes, by other more peculiar and signal methods, to pluck the trifling and lethargic sinner as a firebrand out of the burning. Amos iv. 11.
Sometimes remarkable mercies and deliverances accomplish the work. An appearance of God in their favor, when they are conscious to themselves that they are the unworthiest of all his creatures, shall shame and melt them, and powerfully prevail on their minds to turn unto the 260Lord, who daily loads them with his benefits; (Ps. lxviii. 19;) and thus seems, in more senses than one, to send from heaven to save them, and to draw them out of many waters, in which they had otherwise been lost. Ps. xviii. 16.
But we more frequently see, that afflictions are the means of performing this happy work. By a gracious severity God is pleased to lay hold on many, and to give them reason to bless the hand, which, though by a rough motion, delivers them from the flames that were kindling around them, and shows the Lord to be merciful to them. Gen. xix. 16. Like Jonah in the ship, they are awakened by a storm to call upon their God: (John i. 6:) like Manasseh, they are taken among the thorns, and laid in fetters, that they may be brought to know the Lord: (2 Chron. xxxiii. 11, 13:) like the jailer, they are shaken with an earthquake, and trembling and astonished they fall down, and inquire what they shall do to be saved. Acts xvi. 26-30. The terrifying fear of the approach of death, or the distressing weight of some calamity, which threatens every moment to swallow them up in destruction, rouses their consciences to an attention to those divine truths which they had long forgotten, and opens those records of guilt which they had studiously sealed up.261
And there seems to be no affliction by which God more frequently works upon men than by sickness. When he weakens their capacity for the business of life, and spoils their relish for its enjoyments; when he confines them to their chambers, or even to their beds, and makes their chain straight and heavy; (Lam. iii. 7;) when he threatens to take them away in the midst of their days, (Psal. xii. 24,) to deprive them of the residue of their years, (Isa. xxiii. 10,) and immediately to bring them before that awful tribunal, for which they know, in their own consciences, they are so ill prepared: then do we often see the accomplishment of that observation which Elihu made so many ages ago; He chasteneth a man with pain upon his bed, and the multitude of his bones with strong pain, so that his life abhorreth bread, and his soul dainty meat: his flesh is consumed away that it cannot be seen: and his bones, that were not seen, stick out; yea, his soul draweth near to the grave, and his life to the destroyers: but sending him an interpreter, one among a thousand, to show unto man his uprightness, then he is gracious to him, and saith, in a spiritual as well as literal sense, Deliver him from going down to the pit, I have found a ransom. Job xxxiii. 19-24. Blessed be God, instances of this kind have been known among us, in which the sickness of the 262body has wrought the cure of the soul, under the conduct of the great Physician of both; and so has proved eminently to the glory of God, and the good of those who, for a while, have been in heaviness. 1 Pet. i. 6.
Yet it must be acknowledged, that, in other instances, the remorse which a man expresses upon a sick bed, and in the near views of eternity, proves but like that of some condemned malefactor, who, when he has obtained a pardon, throws off all those appearances of repentance with which he had once deceived himself, and perhaps deceived others too, and plunges himself anew into capital crime; it may be, into crimes for which he afterwards suffers death, without those compunctions of conscience which he before felt, being hardened by a return into sin, attended with such dreadful aggravations. This has been the case of many; and I pray God it may not be thus with any of you.
But if there be any among you that were once under powerful awakenings; and that have cried out of terrors on every side; (Job xviii. 11;) that have confessed your sins, it may be, with greater freedom, and a more particular detail of circumstances, than the minister who attended you could have desired, and have resolved against them with all the appearances of the most determined 263purpose; and yet, after all, have returned with the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire: (2 Pet. ii. 22:) such have peculiar reason to be alarmed. and terrified. Every day of Divine patience toward such is astonishing. And if to all this have been added the returns of danger, and signal interposition of Providence for your deliverance, and yet there be no kindly impressions of penitence and gratitude on your hearts, they who know the particulars of the case, must surely look upon you with horror as well as with wonder: for what can one imagine of such, but that they are given over by God to a darkness, which nothing but the flames of hell can enlighten, and a hardness, which nothing can penetrate but the sharpness of unquenchable fire, and the gnawings of the never-dying worm?
But to return from a digression, into which compassion towards such a deplorable case has insensibly led me, I would farther observe, that as these various interpositions of a remarkable Providence are often the means of working saving impressions on men's minds, so,
3. God is sometimes pleased to overrule little and inconsiderable incidents in life, as the occasion of accomplishing this happy change.
As the treasure of the Gospel was at first put into earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power 264might appear to be of God, and not of man; (2 Cor. iv. 6;) so God to make his own praise glorious, (Psal. lxvi. 2,) is sometimes pleased to produce the most important effects, by causes which seem in themselves least considerable. And it is astonishing to see from how small and seemingly unpromising a seed this plant of paradise springs up, and with how little cultivation too in some instances, after Paul had long attempted in vain to plant, and Apollos to water. 1 Cor. iii. 6, 7. A few lines in the Bible, or any other good book, perhaps taken up by chance, shall be the instrument; and a passage, on which the eye glances without expectation or design, shall strike to the heart, like an arrow from the bow of God himself--after quivers of the most pointed and polished shafts have been exhausted in vain, though such shafts were most skillfully aimed, and most vigorously discharged. In other instances, a word dropped in conversation, and that perhaps no way remarkable either for its spirit or propriety, shall do that which the most solemn ordinances have not been capable of doing: an important encouragement, by the way, to abound in religious discourse, which God has sometimes been pleased to honor as the happy means of saving a soul from death, and laying a 265foundation for the delights of an everlasting friendship with those who have been so recovered.
4. Sometimes this great work is accomplished by secret and immediate impressions from God upon the mind, without any visible means, instruments, or occasions at all.
These things do not frequently happen; nor does it seem fit they should, lest any should be encouraged to expect them in the neglect of the appointed means. Nevertheless, it is plain, in fact, that God is sometimes pleased to go out of the common way; and his mighty hand is to be acknowledged in it. The reasons are known to himself; and the praise is humbly to be ascribed to him who giveth not an account of any of his matters. Job. xxxiii. 13.
It is not, to be sure, so common now as it was in the days of Elihu, that God should speak to men in a dream, or seal instruction to them in slumberings on their bed; (Job xxxiii. 15, 16;) yet I have myself known several who have ascribed their first religious awakenings to some awful dream, in which the solemnity of the judgment day, or a view of the invisible world, has been represented to them with unspeakable terror; and others, to whom, when they have waked in the night, some words of scripture have occurred with such power, that they have not been 266able to divert their thoughts to anything else; and that when they themselves have not certainly known whether they were in the Bible or not.
I have known those that, in the circle of their vain companions, and in the midst of their sensual delights, have been struck to the very heart with some such scripture as this: to be carnally minded is death: (Rom. viii. 6:) or such a text as this has, on a sudden, darted into their minds; The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Rom. i. 18. Such passages have seemed to ring and thunder in their ears, till the sound of their music, and the noise of their mirth have been quite overpowered, so that they have been driven from their revels to their knees, and have returned no more into the paths of the destroyer.
Yea, to add no more instances of this kind, I have known those of distinguished genius, polite manners, and great experience in human affairs, who, after having outgrown all the impressions of a religious education; after having been hardened, rather than subdued, by the most singular mercies, even various, repeated, and astonishing deliverances, which have appeared to themselves no less than miraculous; after having lived for years without God in the world, notoriously corrupt themselves, and laboring to the utmost to corrupt 267others; have been stopped on a sudden in the full career of their sin, and have felt such rays of the Divine presence, and of redeeming love, darting in upon their minds, almost like lightning from heaven, as have at once roused, overpowered, and transformed them; so that they have come out of their chambers with an irreconcilable enmity to those vices, to which, when they entered them, they were the tamest and most abandoned slaves; and have appeared, from that very hour, the votaries, the patrons, the champions of religion; and after a course of the most resolute attachment to it, in spite of all the reasonings, or the railleries, the importunities, or the reproaches of its enemies, they have continued to this day some of its brightest ornaments: a change which I behold with equal wonder and delight, and which, if a nation should join in deriding it, I would adore as the finger of God.99The conversion of Col. Gardiner is evidently alluded to here, in which Dr. Doddridge was deeply interested.--J. N. B.
In mentioning these things thus publicly, I do indeed take an uncommon freedom, which some may perhaps censure; but so far as human testimony can give an assurance of truth, I may justly say, that I speak what I know, and testify what, in its genuine and powerful effects, I have myself seen. John iii. 11. And since the possibility 268of abusing such condescensions of Divine mercy did not prevent their being granted, I can not think it ought to engage me to be silent, when so natural an opportunity offered of declaring them, to the glory of him who worketh all things according to the counsel of his own will. Ephes. i. 11. Yet I must repeat the caution which I before suggested, that it would be madness for any to neglect God's appointed means of operation, on presumption that they shall be added to the small list of those who have been such uncommon and astonishing trophies of the efficacy and sovereignty of Divine grace.
These remarks must for the present suffice, with regard to the various occasions by which God works upon men's minds.1010It is well to notice that the revealed word of God is in all these different modes of application the powerful instrument. This is the only safeguard against delusions of all kinds.--J. N. B. And I hope you will excuse me, if in illustrating some of them, I have a little anticipated some things which might have been mentioned under the third head, in which I proposed,
III. To consider some varieties observable in the manner in which Divine grace operates on the mind.
And this variety, by the way, will be observable 269in many instances where the occasions are in general the same. Thus among those that are awakened by the word of God, or by his providence, some are shaken by strong terrors, some are melted into deep sorrows; others are astonished, as it were, and captivated at once, by the discovery of the love of God in Christ, and others are led on by such gentle and gradual impressions, that they can hardly recollect any remarkable circumstance at all relating to the manner in which this blessed work was begun, or conducted in their souls.
1. Some converts are awakened by strong terrors.
It is obvious, that conviction of sin, in some degree or other, is absolutely necessary to make way for the entrance of the gospel into the soul. But the degrees are various in different persons; and as for those of whom we now speak, God reproves them aloud and sets their sins in order before them, (Psal. 1. 21,) marshals them in dreadful array, as the expression imports; so that they seem like defenceless criminals surrounded by a host of enemies, whose weapons are raised for their destruction. Yea, God himself, the great, the terrible, the eternal, and omnipotent God, seems to set them up as a mark for those arrows, (Lam. iii. 12,) the poison of which drinketh up their 270spirits: (Job. vi. 4:) and, as he himself expresses it, He is unto them as a bear or a lion, ready to tear and rend the very caul of their heart. Hos. xiii. 8.
They come, as it were, to the trembling and terrifying Mount Sinai, to blackness, and darkness, and tempest. Heb. xii. 18. The conviction of guilt is attended with such a sense of the demerit of sin, as fills them with horror and astonishment, and engages them to wish in the bitterness of their souls, that they had never been born. They are left for a time, and that perhaps for weeks and months, to be, as it were, deafened with the loud thunders of the law; a dreadful sound, as Eliphaz expresses it, is in their ears, (Job. xv. 21,) even the sentence of their own damnation; and the awful curse of an almighty, sin-avenging God comes into their bowels like water, and like oil into their bones. Psal. cix. 18.
They are filled with such deep remorse for their past sins, that they verily think no iniquity was ever like theirs, and that no punishment will be like theirs. They hardly see a glimmering of hope that they shall obtain deliverance, but expect, in a very little while, to be sealed up under wrath, if they are not already so. When they bear the offers and the promises of the Gospel, they can apply none of them to themselves, and 271find comfort in none: but every threatening and every curse of the book of God seems to have been written as their intended portion. And thus, perhaps, they continue for weeks or for months together, expecting every day and every night that destruction from God, which is now a terror to them. (Job xxxi. 23,) should utterly swallow them up, and leave them neither root nor branch, neither comfort nor hope. Mal. iv. 1. The law is a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ, (Gal. iii. 24,) and it scourges them with the most rigorous discipline; yea, the infernal lion roars over them, though he is not permitted to devour them: he particularly terrifies them when they think of approaching God, as if they were to meet with some peculiar danger there, where alone they can find their relief: or, if they do in broken accents utter their prayer before God, it seems to be shut out, (Lam. iii. 8,) and they are apprehensive that it is turned into sin. Psal. cix. 7. Yet there is one thing to be observed in the midst of this scene of horror, and it is a circumstance of great importance, that they justify God when he seems most inexorable, and subscribe to that sentence as righteous which dooms them to eternal ruin.
2. Others are melted into deep sorrows.
Their eyes run down with tears; and they are ready to wish that their head were waters, and 272their eyes fountains, that they might continue to weep day and night. Jer. ix. 1, 18. They see the evil of sin, and the misery to which it has reduced them, in a most deplorable view; and it may be, while those described under the former head are ready to tremble because they can not weep; these are ready to weep because they cannot tremble. They lament, among other things, the want of those strong horrors which some have felt: they cry out, "Woe is me! for l am undone; (Isa. vi. 5;) I have destroyed myself, and in myself my help is not found." Hos. xiii. 9.
It may be, indeed, a considerable time before they can persuade themselves there is any help for them even in God. They know there is help in him through Christ for penitent and believing sinners: but they cannot easily be convinced that they believe, because they do not feel that confident trust which some others have much sooner been brought to; and they are afraid, lest whatever they experience, which looks like repentance, should be only the false appearance of it, proceeding from mere self-love and a natural dread of future misery. They dwell perpetually on the dark side of things: they read over the catalogue of their iniquities again and again, and attend to those passages in which the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against every kind 273and degree of sin; (Rom. i. 18;) while they are slow of heart to admit those reviving consolations which the various rich and precious promises of the Gospel are so admirably well calculated to administer.
The state of such souls, when they are first savingly enlightened, is like that of the earth, when fogs and mists have vailed the face of the sun after it is risen. But it very often happens, with respect to such souls, that when these mists are at length dispersed, a very bright and cheerful day opens: they are comforted by the warmer beams of the Sun of Righteousness, according to the hours in which they have been beclouded, and are made glad according to the days in which they were afflicted: (Psal. xc. 15:) and going on to fear the Lord, and to obey the voice of his servant, though they have long walked in darkness, and seen no light, they are at length encouraged by his Spirit enforcing the exhortations of his word, to trust in the name of the Lord, and stay themselves upon their God. Isa. 1. 10.
3. Some are captivated with astonishing and delightful views of the love of God in Christ.
There is always, as we observed before, in the awakened soul, some conviction of sin and apprehension of danger; nevertheless, there are instances in which God heals almost as soon as he 274wounds, and speaks peace almost as soon as he speaks trouble. He graciously shortens, to some souls, the pangs of the new birth, and gives them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. Isa. lxi. 3. The news of salvation by the blood, and righteousness, and grace of Christ, is received with so thankful a sense, with so joyful a compliance, that the soul, feeling beyond all doubt the cordial sincerity with which it embraces the offer, is filled with joy unspeakable, and full of glory: (1 Pet. i. 8:) the heart does magnify the Lord, and the spirit rejoices in God the Saviour. Luke i. 46, 47.
This was remarkably the case of the jailer, who in the very night in which he was converted, that same night in which the foundation of his house had been shaken, and his own soul too shaken, by an earthquake, so that he had endeavored to lay violent hands on himself: yet, I say, that very night, before the day appeared, having been directed to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, that he might be saved, and been enabled, by Divine grace to comply with the exhortation, it is added concerning him, that he rejoiced, believing in God with all his house. Acts xvi. 34. Thus too the Thessalonians, though they received the word in much affliction, and ran the risk of losing their 275possessions and their lives in adhering to it, yet received it with joy of the Holy Ghost. 1 Thes. i. 6. And though I cannot say this is God's most ordinary way of' dealing, and though I fear the counterfeit appearance of such a, work as this often leaves men in the number of those whom our Lord represents by stony ground hearers; (Matt. xiii. 20, 21;) yet it is certain, some instances of this kind are still to be found. But then I must observe, this is a joy attended with the deepest humility, and animates the soul to the most ardent and affectionate resolution of walking worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and long-suffering with joyfulness. Col. i. 10, 11.
4. Others--and these perhaps the greatest part of such as are religiously educated--are led on by such gentle and insensible degrees, that they can hardly recollect any remarkable circumstances that have attended their conversion, nor can certainly fix on the particular time of it.
God is sometimes, in the preceding instances, in the whirlwind, the earthquake, and the fire; but he is also frequently in the still small voice. 1 Kings xix. 11, 12. The operations of the Holy Spirit on the soul are often, and perhaps generally, of such a nature, that it is difficult exactly to distinguish 276them from the rational exercise of our own thoughts, because the Spirit operates by suggesting rational views of things, and awakening rational affections. For whatever some have vainly and dangerously insinuated, nothing is so rational as the sentiments and temper which prevail in renewed souls, and to which it is the work of God's regenerating Spirit to bring them.
These operations, where there is a religious education, often begin very early: but then, in some degree, the impressions wear off from the weak and flexible mind; and perhaps there are various instances in which they alternately revive and decay again. And this vicissitude of affectionate applications to religion under moving ordinances, afflictions, or deliverances, and of backslidings and remissness in it, with respect to many, may be permitted to continue for a long time. At length, under the various methods of Providence and Grace, the soul attains to greater steadiness, and a more habitual victory over the remains of indwelling sin: but it may be exceeding hard, and perhaps absolutely impossible, to determine concerning some remarkable scenes through which it has passed, whether such a one in particular, perhaps the last which strikes the memory, were the season of its new birth; or whether it were merely a recovery from such a 277degree of negligence and remissness, as may possibly be consistent with real religion, and be found in a regenerate soul.
These balancings of backsliding and recovery often occasion very great perplexity; and such sort of converts are frequently much discouraged, because they cannot give the history of their religious experiences in so clear and distinct a manner as others: and particularly, because they have not passed through such violent terrors and agitations of mind as many, who were perhaps once sunk into much deeper degeneracy have done. Nevertheless, where there is a consciousness of an undissembled love to God, an unreserved devotedness to his service, a cordial trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and a sincere affection to mankind in general, and especially to those of the household of faith, a man ought not to perplex himself on this account. For as every man knows he was born into the world, by a consciousness that he now lives and acts here, though it is impossible he should remember anything of the time or circumstances in which he was first introduced into it; so may a Christian be assured, that some way or another he was born of the Spirit, if he can trace its genuine fruits and efficacious influences in a renewed heart and life.
I have thus laid down several particulars. which 278appeared to me important, in order to illustrate that diversity which is observable in the methods of the Divine operations on the heart; and they will naturally lead us to these three reflections, with which I shall conclude my present Discourse. Let us not make our own experiences a standard for others,—nor the experiences of others a standard for ourselves;—nor let us be unwilling, in a prudent manner, to communicate our spiritual experiences to each other.
1. Let us not make our own experiences a standard for others.
Let us remember that there is, as we have heard, a diversity of operations; and that many a person may be a dear child of God, who was not born just with those circumstances which attended our own regeneration. Others may not so particularly have discerned the time, the occasion, the progress of the change; they may not have felt all that we have felt, either in the way of extraordinary terror or extraordinary comfort; and yet, perhaps, may equal, or even exceed us in that holy temper, to which it was the great intention of our Heavenly Father, by one method or another, to bring all his children. Nay, I will add, that Christians of a very amiable and honorable character may express themselves but in a dark, and something of an improper manner, 279concerning the doctrine of regeneration, and may, in conscience, scruple the use of some phrases relating to it, which we judge to be exceeding suitable; and yet, that very scruple which displeases us may proceed from a. reverence for God and truth, and from such a tenderness of heart as is the effect of his renewing grace. We should therefore be very cautious how we judge each other, and take upon us to reject those whom perhaps God has received.
I remember good Dr. Owen, whose candor was, in many respects, very remarkable, carries this so far, as somewhere to say, "that some may, perhaps, have experienced the saving influences of the Holy Spirit on their hearts, who do not in words acknowledge the necessity, or even the reality of those influences." Judging men's hearts, and judging their states, is a work for which we are so ill qualified, that we have reason to be exceeding thankful it is not assigned to us. And when we are entering into such an examination of their character, as our duty may in some particular circumstances seem to require, we should be very solicitous that we do not lay down arbitrary and precarious rules. It seems, indeed, that so far as we can learn it, we may more safely judge by their present temper and conduct, than by the history 280of anything which has formerly passed in their minds.
And let me add it as a necessary caution here, that they who never felt any of the extraordinary emotions of mind, which have been described under some former heads, but have been brought to religion by less observable methods, perhaps by calm, rational views of it--of whom I believe there are great numbers—should be very cautious that they do not rashly censure such things as I have now been representing, as if they were mere enthusiasm. I can not but think this a criminal limiting the Holy One of Israel, (Psal. lxxviii. 41,) and fear it will be found a boldness highly displeasing to him, and very injurious to the souls of those who allow themselves in it, and of others too, if they be such as are employed in the ministerial work: not now to insist on what, in comparison of this, is but a small matter, the apparent rudeness and petulance of contradicting facts so well attested as many of this kind have been, and running counter to the solid effects which such impressions have produced. The rashness which prevails under different forms among men of the most opposite sentiments, is too obvious; but if we would give ourselves leave calmly to weigh and consider matters, our spirits would be rendered on all sides more moderate, and many 281harsh and hasty censures would be suspended, which at present prove very little more than the ignorance, pride, and folly of those that pass them.
2. Let us not make the experiences of others a standard for ourselves.
This is frequently the case, and especially with those who are naturally of an humble and tender temper; for whose peace and comfort therefore one can not but be peculiarly solicitous. Having heard of some extraordinary experiences of others, they are ready to imagine, because they can trace nothing correspondent to these in their own minds, that they are utter strangers to real regeneration, and have nothing more than such religious notions and forms, as natural men may easily learn of each other.
But what I have now been saying of the variety of the Divine operations on the heart, affords a solid answer to such scruples, when they arise in a pious mind. Reflect, on this occasion, how it is in the works of nature: there we know that God works in all, so that he is the life and existence of the whole creation; and yet, as an excellent writer expresses it, "He alone seems not to work.'' His agency is so invisible and secret, that did not reason and scripture join to teach it, one might live a great many years in the world without knowing anything more, than that such 282and such effects are produced by correspondent second causes: though in strict propriety of speech they are no causes at all, but owe all their efficacy to the Divine presence and operation. Sense tells us that the sun enlightens the earth, and warms it; that the rain waters it, the seeds produce vegetables, and the animals continue their proper race; but that God is the Father of lights, (Jam. i. 17,) that he has prepared the light and the sun: (Psal. lxxiv. 16;) that he visits the earth, and causes rain to descend into the furrows thereof, (Ps. lxv. 9, 10,) so as to make the grass to grow for cattle, and corn and herb for the service of man; (Psal. civ. 14;) that he sends forth his Spirit, and the animal race is created, and the face of the earth renewed; (Psal. civ. 30;) this, I say, is what multitudes of the human race are not aware of; because in all these things he acts in a gentle, stated, and regular manner, and employs inferior agents as the instruments of his providence. And just thus gentle, silent, and regular are the influences of his Spirit upon men's souls; and it is often impossible exactly to distinguish them from the teachings of parents and ministers, and from those reflections which seem to spring from our own minds, though it is he that gives us counsel, while our reins instruct us in our secret musings, (Psal. xvi. 7,) and that 283teaches us to profit by the lessons which others give us.
Be not therefore surprised, and be not dejected, though you cannot assign the place, the time, the manner, in which your conversion began; and though you are strangers to the terrors, the sorrows, or the transports of joy, which you have heard one and another express. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and the Spirit dispenses his influences where and when, and in what measure and degree he pleases; but while the way and manner of his operation may be secret and unknown, the effects of it are sensible and evident; and as with regard to the wind, thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit. John iii. 8. You may not certainly know when to fix the precise time of your conversion, or how to trace the particular steps by which it has been brought to pass; for as thou knowest not what is the way of the Spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all. Eccl. xi. 5. But though you cannot trace the process of the operation, the effects of it are such as you may feel within you, and by its fruits it will be known. Matt. vii. 20.
It is indeed desirable to be able to give an account 284of the beginning and the progress of the work of God upon your souls, as some that are regenerate can do; but this is not necessary to evidence the truth of grace. Happy is he who in this case can say as the blind man in the gospel, One thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see. John ix. 25. For as you know that there is fire when you see the flame, though you know not how or when it began; so also it may be discerned, that you have really undergone a saving change, though you know not how or when it was wrought in your hearts. If you answer the characters I laid down in the preceding discourses, as essential to the truly regenerate, which are all comprehended in repentance and faith, producing an unfeigned love and uniform obedience, you may trace the cause from the effect, with far greater certainty than you could have traced such an effect, as what would infallibly follow from any cause which you could have perceived in your minds previous to it. There may be great awakenings, violent terrors, and ecstatic joys, where there is no saving work of God on the soul; but where the Divine image is produced, and the soul is actually renewed, we are sure, as was before observed, that grace has been working, though we know not when, or where, or how.285
And therefore, on the whole, guarding against both these extremes, and to cure them both,
3. Let Christians, in a prudent and humble manner, be ready to communicate their religious experiences to each other.
God undoubtedly intended that the variety of his operations should be observed and owned in the world of grace, as well as in that of nature; and as these things pass in the secret recesses of men's hearts, how should they be known, unless they will themselves communicate and declare them? And let me caution you against that strange averseness to all freedoms of this kind, which, especially in persons of a reserved temper, is so ready to prevail.
Let not any think it beneath them to do it. You well know that David, who was not only a a man of an admirable genius, but a mighty prince, too, was far from thinking it so; on the contrary, deeply impressed with the Divine condescension in all the gracious visits he had received from him, he calls, as it were, the whole pious world around him, that they might be edified and comforted by the relation: Come, says he, and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he has done for my soul. Psal. lxvi. 16. He proclaimed it, not with his voice and harp alone, but with his immortal pen; and 286many other noble and excellent persons concurred with him; and the invaluable treasure of their experiences, in as great a variety of circumstances as we can well imagine, is transmitted to us in the book of Psalms. Can any just reason then be assigned, why they, who live under a nobler dispensation, and a more abundant communication of the Spirit, should be entirely silent on this subject?
There may indeed be an over-forwardness, which is the apparent effect of pride and self-conceit, and which, with thinking people, may bring even the sincerity of the speaker into question, or put his indiscretion beyond all possibility of being questioned. But it would be very unreasonable to argue, that because a thing may be done ill, it cannot possibly be done well.
Why may not intimate friends open their hearts to each other on such delightful topics? Why may not they, who have met with anything peculiar of this kind, communicate it to their minister? And though I must in conscience declare against making it absolutely and universally a term of communion, yet I am well assured that in some instances a prudent and serious communication of these things to a Christian society, when a person is to be admitted into fellowship with it, has often answered very valuable ends. 287By this means God has the honor of his own work: and others have the pleasure of sympathizing with the relator, both in his sorrows and his joys: they derive from hence some additional satisfaction as to his fitness for an approach to the Lord's table; they learn with pleasure the Divine blessing which attends the administration of ordinances among them: and make observations and remarks which may assist them in offering their addresses to God, and in giving proper advices to others who are in circumstances like those related. To all which we may add, that the ministers of Christ do, in particular, learn what may be a means of forming them to a more experimental manner of preaching, as well as in many instances discover those, before unknown, tokens of success which may strengthen their hands in the work of their great Master.
It is by frequent conversations of this kind, I have learned many of the particulars on which I have grounded the preceding discourse. I hope therefore you will excuse me, if, on so natural an occasion, I have borne my public testimony to what has been so edifying to me, both as a minister and a Christian. And the tender regard which I have for young persons training up for the work of the ministry, and my ardent desire that they may learn the language of Zion, and 288have those peculiar advantages which nothing but an acquaintance with causes, and an observation on facts can give, has been a further inducement to me to add this reflection, with which I conclude my discourse; humbly hoping that what you have heard upon this occasion will, by the Divine blessing, furnish out agreeable matter for such conversation as I have now recommended, to the glory of God, and to the advancement of religion among you. Amen.289
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