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TO MR. GILLESPIE. IN ANSWER TO OBJECTIONS.
Northampton, Sept. 4, 1747.
Rev. And Dear Sir,
I received your letter of Nov. 24, 1746, though very long after it was written. I thank you for it, and for your offering me a correspondence with you. Such an offer I shall gladly embrace, and esteem it a great privilege, more especially from the character I have received of you from Mr. Abercrombie, who I perceive was intimately acquainted with you.
As to the objections you make against some things contained in my late book on Religious Affections, I am sorry you did not read the book through, before you made them; if you had, perhaps the difficulties would not have appeared quite so great. As to what is contained in the 74th and 75th pages, I suppose there is not the least difference of opinion between you and me, unless it be concerning the signification and propriety of expressions. I am fully of your mind, and always was without the least doubt of it; “That every one, both saint and sinner, is indispensably bound, at all seasons, by the divine authority, to believe instantly on the Lord Jesus, and that the command of the Lord, 1 John iii. 23. that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, as it is a prescription of the moral law, no less binds the sinner to immediate performance, than the commandment not to kill, to keep the Sabbath-day, or any other duty, as to the present performance of which, in way of duty, all agree the sinner is bound; and that men are bound to trust the divine faithfulness, be their case with respect to light and darkness, sight, &c. what it will; and that no situation they can be in, looses them from obligation to glorify the Lord at all seasons, and expecting the fulfilment of his words; and that the sinner that is without spiritual light or sight is bound to believe, and that it is a duty at that very time incumbent on him to believe.” But I conceive that there is a great deal of difference between these two things, viz. its being a man’s duty that is without spiritual light or sight to believe, and its being his duty to believe without spiritual light or sight, or to believe while he yet remains without spiritual light or sight. Just the same difference that is between these two things, viz. its being his duty that has no faith to believe, and its being his duty to believe without faith, or to believe without believing. I trust there is none will assert the latter, because of the contradiction that it implies. As it is not proper to say, it is a man’s duty to believe without faith, because it implies a contradiction, 337 so I think it equally improper to say it is a man’s duty to believe without these things that are essentially implied in faith, because that also implies a contradiction. But a spiritual sight of Christ or knowledge of Christ is essentially implied in the very nature and notion of faith, and therefore it is absurd to talk of believing on Christ without spiritual light or sight. It is the duty of a man that is without these things that essentially belong to faith, to believe, and it is the duty of a man that is without these things that essentially belong to love, to love God; because it is an indispensable obligation that lies on all men at all times, and in all circumstances, to love God: but yet it is not a duty to love God without loving him, or continuing without those things that essentially belong to his love. It is the duty of those that have no sense of the loveliness of God, and have no esteem of him, to love him, and they be not in the least excused by the want of this sense and esteem, in not loving him one moment; but yet it would be properly nonsense to say it is their duty to love him without any sense of his loveliness or any esteem of him. It is indeed their duty this moment to come out of their disesteem and stupid wicked insensibility of his loveliness, and to love him. I made the distinction (I thought) very plainly, in the midst of those sentences you quote as exceptionable. I say expressly, p. 74. “It is truly the duty of those who are in darkness to come out of darkness into light and believe; but, that they should confidently believe and trust, while they yet remain without spiritual light or sight, is an anti-scriptural and absurd doctrine.” The misunderstanding between us, dear Sir, I suppose to be in the different application of the particle without, in my use of it, and your understanding of it, or what we understand as spoken of and supposed in the expression, without spiritual light or sight. As I use it, I apply it to the act of believing, and I suppose it to be very absurd to talk of an act of faith without spiritual light and sight, wherein I suppose you will allow me to be in the right. As you understand it, it is applied to duty or obligation, and you suppose it to be not at all absurd to talk of an obligation to believe without spiritual light or sight, but that the obligation remains full where there is no spiritual light or sight, wherein I allow you are in the right. I think, Sir, if you read what I have said in my book on this head again, it will be exceeding apparent to you, that it is thus that I apply the preposition without, and not as you before understood it. I thought I had very plainly manifested that what I meant by being in darkness was a being in spiritual blindness, and so in a dead, stupid, carnal, and unchristian frame and way, and not what is commonly called a being without the light of God’s countenance, under the hidings of his face. We have a great number of people in these parts that go on that supposition in their notions and practice, that there really is such a thing as such a manner of believing, such a kind of faith as this, viz. a confident believing and firm trusting in God in the dark, in the sense mentioned, that is to be sought after, and is “the subject matter of divine prescription, and which many actually have; and indeed there are innumerable instances of such as are apparently in a most senseless, careless, negligent, apostate, and every way unchristian and wicked frame, that yet, encouraged by this principle, do retain an exceeding strong confidence of their good state, and count that herein they do their duty and give much glory to God, under the notion of trusting God in the dark, and hoping against hope, and not trusting on their own righteousness; and they suppose it would show a legal spirit to do otherwise. I thought it would be manifest to every reader that I was arguing against such a sort of people.
You say, “It merits consideration whether the believer should ever doubt of his state, on any account whatever, because doubting, as opposed to believing, is absolutely sinful.” Here, Sir, you seem to suppose that a person’s doubting of his own good estate, is the proper opposite of faith, and these and some other expressions in your letter seem to suppose that doubting of one’s good estate and unbelief is the same thing, and so, that being confident of one’s good estate and faith are the same thing. This I acknowledge I don’t understand; I don’t take faith, and a person’s believing that they have faith, to be the same thing. Nor do I take unbelief, or being without faith, and doubting whether they have it, to be the same thing, but entirely different. I should have been glad either that you had taken a little more notice of what. I say on this head, p. 76, 77. or that you had said something to convince me that I am wrong in this point. The exercise of faith is doubtless the way to be delivered from darkness, deadness, backsliding, &c. or rather is the deliverance; as forsaking sin is the way to deliverance from sin, and is the deliverance itself. The exercise of grace is doubtless the way to deliverance from a graceless frame, that consists in the want of the exercise of grace. But as to what you say, or seem to intimate, of a person’s being confident of his own good estate, as being the way to be delivered from darkness, deadness, backsliding, and prevailing iniquity, I think, whoever supposes this to be God’s method of delivering his saints, when sunk into an evil, careless, carnal, and unchristian frame, first to assure them of their good estate and his favour, while they yet remain in such a frame, and to make that the means of their deliverance, does surely mistake God’s method of dealing with such persons. Among all the multitudes I have had opportunity to observe, I never knew one dealt with after this manner. I have known many brought back from great declension, that appeared to me to be true saints, but it was in a way very diverse from this. In the first place, conscience has been awakened, and they have been brought into great fear of the wrath of God, having his favour hid, and they have been the subjects of a kind of new work of humiliation, brought to a great sense of their deserving of God’s wrath, even while they have yet feared it, before God has delivered them from the apprehension of it, and comforted them with a renewed sense of his favour.
As to what I say of the necessity of universal obedience, or of one way of known sin, (i. e. so as properly to be said to be the way and manner of the man,) being exception enough against a man’s salvation; I should have known better what to have said further about it, if you had briefly shown how the scriptures that I mention, and the arguments I deduce from them, are insufficient for the proof of this point. I confess they appear to me to prove it as fully as any thing concerning the necessary qualifications of a true saint can be proved from Scripture.
You object against my saying, p. 276. “Nor can a true saint ever fall away, so that it shall come to this, that ordinarily there shall be no remarkable difference in his walk and behaviour since his conversion, from what was before.” This, I think, implies no more than that his walk over the same ground, in like circumstances, and under like trials, will have a remarkable difference. As to the instance you mention of David and Solomon, I don’t know that the Scripture gives us any where so much of a history of their walk and behaviour before their conversion, as to put us into any proper capacity of comparing their after walk with their former. These examples are uncertain. But I think those doctrines of the Scripture are not uncertain, which I mention in the place you cite, to confirm the point, which teach that converts are new men, new creatures, that they are renewed not only within but without, that old things are passed away, and all things become new, that they walk in newness of life, that the members of their bodies are new, that whereas they before were the servants of sin, and yielded their members servants of iniquity, now they yield them servants of righteousness unto holiness.
As to those doubts and cases of difficulty you mention, I should think it very needless for a divine of your character, to apply yourself to me for a solution of difficulties, for whom it would be more proper to learn of you. However, since you are pleased to insist on my giving my mind upon them, I would observe, as to the first case you mention, of a person incessantly harassed by Satan, &c. you don’t say of what nature the temptations are that he is harassed with. But I think it impossible to give proper advice and direction without knowing this. Satan is to be resisted in a very different manner, in different kinds of onsets. When persons are harassed with those strange, horrid injections, mat melancholic persons are often subject to, he is to be resisted in a very different manner, from what is proper in case of violent temptation to gratify 338 some worldly lust. In the former case, I should by no means advise a person to resist the devil by entering the lists with him, and vehemently engaging their mind in an earnest dispute and violent struggle with the grand adversary, but rather by diverting the mind from his frightful suggestions, by going on stedfastly and diligently in the ordinary course of duty, without allowing themselves time and leisure to attend to the devil’s sophistry, or viewing his frightful representations, committing themselves to God by prayer in this way, without anxiety about what had been suggested. That is the best way of resisting the devil, that crosses his design most; and he more effectually disappoints him in such cases, that treats him with neglect, than he that attends so much to him, as to engage in a direct conflict, and goes about to try his strength and skill with him, in a violent dispute or combat. The latter course rather gives him advantage, than any thing else. It is what he would; if he can get persons thus engaged in a violent struggle, he gains a great point. He knows that melancholic persons are not fit for it. By this he gains that point of diverting and taking off the person from the ordinary course of duty, which is one great thing he aims at; and by this, having gained the person’s attention to what he says, he has opportunity to use all his craft and subtlety, and by this struggle he raises melancholic vapours to a greater degree, and further weakens the person’s mind, and gets him faster and faster in his snares, deeper and deeper in the mire. He increases the person’s anxiety of mind, which is the very thing by which mainly he fulfils all his purposes with such persons.
Concerning the other difficulty you mention relating to the verifying of Rom. viii. 20. “All things shall work together for good,” &c. in a saint that falls under backsliding and spiritual decays, &c. it seems to be a matter of some difficulty to understand exactly how this is to be taken, and how far it may from hence be inferred, that the temptations the saints meet with from Satan, and an evil world, and their own declensions and sins, shall surely work for their good. However, since you desire my thoughts, I would express them, such as they are, as follows.
In order rightly to state this matter, there are two things may be laid down, as positions of certain and indubitable truth concerning this doctrine of the apostle.
First, The meaning cannot be that God’s dispensations and disposals towards each saint are the best for him, most tending to his happiness, of all that are possible: or that all things that are ordered for him, or done by God with respect to him, are in all respects better for him than any thing else that God could have ordered or done, issuing in the highest good and happiness, that it is possible he should be brought to; for that would be as much as to say, that God will bestow on every one of his elect, as much happiness as he can (confer,) in the utmost exercise of his omnipotence, and this sets aside all these different degrees of grace and holiness here, and glory hereafter, which he bestows according to his sovereign pleasure.
All things may work together for good to the saints. All may be of benefit to them, and may have a concurring tendency to their happiness, and may all finally issue in it, and yet not tend to or issue in the highest degree of good and happiness possible. There is a certain measure of holiness and happiness, that each one of the elect is eternally appointed to, and all things that relate to him work together to bring to pass this appointed measure of good. The text and context speak of God’s eternal purpose of good to the elect, predestinating them to a conformity to his Son in holiness and happiness; and the implicit reasoning of the apostle leads us to suppose that all things will purely concur to bring to effect God’s eternal purpose. And therefore from his reasoning it may be inferred, that all things will tend to and work together to bring to pass, that degree of good that God has purposed to bestow upon them, and not any more. And indeed it would be in itself unreasonable to suppose any thing else but this; inasmuch as God is the supreme orderer of all things, doubtless all things shall be so ordered, that with one consent, they shall help to bring to pass his ends, aims, and purposes; but surely not to bring to pass what he does not aim at, and never intended. God in his government of the world is carrying on his own designs in every thing; but he is not carrying on that which is not his design, and therefore there is no need of supposing, that all the circumstances, means, and advantages of every saint, are the best in every respect that God could have ordered for him, or that there could have been no circumstances or means that he could have been the subject of, that would with God’s usual blessing have issued in his greater good. Every saint is as it were a living stone, that in this present state of preparation, is fitting for the place appointed for him in the heavenly temple. And in this sense all things undoubtedly work together for good to every one that is called according to God’s purpose. He is, all the while he lives in this world, by all the dispensations of Providence towards him, fitting for the particular mansion in glory, that is appointed and prepared for him, or hewing for his appointed place in the heavenly building.
Secondly, Another thing which is no less certain and demonstrable than the position that has been already laid down, and indeed follows from it, is this, When it is said, “all things work together for good,” &c. hereby cannot be intended that all things, both positive and negative, are best for them, or that it is so universally, that not only every positive thing that the saints are the subjects of, or are concerned in, will work for their good, but also that when any thing is absent or withheld from them by God in his providence, that absence or withholding is also for their good in that sense, or to be better for them than the presence or bestowment would have been; for this would have the same absurd consequence that was mentioned before, viz. That God makes every saint as happy as possibly he can. And besides, if so, it would follow that God’s withholding greater degrees of the sanctifying influences of his Spirit is for the saints’ good, and that it is best for them to live and die so low in grace as they do, which would be as much as to say that it is for their good to have no more good, or that it is for their happiness to have no more happiness here and hereafter. If we take good notice of the apostle’s discourse in Rom. viii. it will be apparent that his words imply no such thing. All God’s creatures, and all that God does in disposing of them, is for the good of the saint. But it will not thence follow, that all God’s forbearing to do is also for his good, or that it is best for him that God does no more for him.
Therefore, the following things I humbly conceive to be the truth, concerning the sins and temptations of the saints being for their good.
1. That all things whatsoever are for the good of the saints, things negative as well as positive, in this sense, that God intends that some benefit to them shall arise from every thing, so that something of the grace and love of God will hereafter be seen to have been exercised towards them in every thing. At the same time, the sovereignty of God will also be seen, with regard to the measure of the good or benefit aimed at, in that some other things, if God had seen cause to order them, would have produced a higher benefit. And with regard to negative disposals, consisting not in God’s doing, but forbearing to do, not in giving, but withholding, some benefit in some respect or other, will ever accrue to the saints, even from these; though sometimes the benefit will not be equal to the benefit withheld, if it had been bestowed. As for instance, when a saint lives and dies comparatively low in grace. There is some good improvement shall be made, even of this, in the eternal state of the saint, whereby he shall receive a real benefit, though the benefit shall not be equal to the benefit of a higher degree of holiness, if God had bestowed it.
2. God carries on a design of love to his people, and to each individual saint, not only in all things that they are the subjects of while they live, but also in all his works and disposals, and in all his acts from eternity to eternity.
3. That the sin, in general, of the saints, is for their good, and for the best in this respect, viz. that it is a thing that, through the sovereign grace of God, and his infinite wisdom, will issue in a high advancement of their eternal happiness, that they have been sinful, fallen creatures, and not from the beginning perfectly innocent and holy, as the elect angels; and that they shall obtain some additional good on occasion of all the sin they have been the subjects of, or have committed, beyond what they would have had, if they never had been fallen creatures.
339 4. The sin of the saints in this sense cannot be for their good, that it should finally be best for them, that while they lived in this world, their restoration and recovery from the corruption they became subject to by the fall, was no greater, the mortification of sin, and spiritual vivification of their soul, carried on to no greater degree, that they remained so deficient, as to love to God, christian love to men, humility, heavenly-mindedness, and that they were so barren, and did so few good works, and consequently, that in general, they had so much sin, and of the exercises of it, and not more holiness, and of the exercises and fruits of that, for in proportion as one of these is more, the other will be less, as infallibly as darkness is more or less in proportion to the diminution or increase of light. It cannot finally be better for the saints, that in general, while they live, they had so much sin of heart and life, rather than more holiness of heart and life. Because the reward of all at last will be according to their works, and he that sowed sparingly shall reap sparingly, and he that sowed bountifully shall reap bountifully, and he that builds wood, hay, and stubble, shall finally suffer loss, and have a less reward, than if he had built gold, silver, and precious stones though he himself shall be saved. But notwithstanding this,
5. The sins and falls of the saints may be for their good, and for the better, in this respect, that the issue may be better than if the temptation had not happened, and so the occasion not given, either for the sin of yielding to the temptation, or the virtue of overcoming it: and yet not in the respect (with regard to their sins or falls in general) that it should be better for them in the issue, that they have yielded to the temptation offered, than if they had overcome. For the fewer victories they obtain over temptation, the fewer are their good works, and particularly of that kind of good works to which a distinguished reward is promised in Rev. ii. and iii. and in many other parts of Scripture. The word of God represents the work of a Christian in this world as a warfare, and it is evident in the Scripture that he who acquits himself as the best soldier shall win the greatest prize. Therefore, when the saints are brought into backslidings and decays, by being overcome by temptations, the issue of their backslidings may be some good to them. They may receive some benefit by occasion of it, beyond what they would have received if that temptation had never prevailed, and yet their backslidings in general may be a great loss to them in the following respect, viz. That they shall have much less reward, than if the temptations had been overcome, and they notwithstanding had persevered in spiritual vigour and diligence. But yet this don’t hinder, but that,
6. It may be so ordered by a sovereign and all-wise God, that the saints’ falls and backslidings, through their being overcome by temptations in some particular instances, may prove best for them, not only in that the issue may be greater good to them, than they would have received if the temptation had not happened, but even greater in that instance, than if the temptation had been overcome. It may be so ordered that their being overcome by that temptation, shall be the occasion of their having greater strength, and on the whole, obtaining more and greater victories, than if they had not fallen in that instance. But this is no where promised, nor can it be so, that, in the general, it should prove better for them that they were foiled so much, and overcome so little, in the course of their lives, and that finally their decay is so great, or their progress so small. From these things it appears,
7. That the saying of the apostle, all things work together for good to them that love God, though it be fulfilled in some respects to all saints, and at all times, and in all circumstances, yet it is fulfilled more especially and eminently to the saints continuing in the exercise of love to God, not falling from the exercises, or failing in the fruits, of divine love in times of trial. Then it is, that temptations, enemies, and suffering, will be best for them, working that which is most for their good every way, and they shall be more than conquerors over tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword, Rom. viii. 35-37.
8. As God is carrying on a design of love to each individual saint, in all his works and disposals whatsoever, as was observed before, so the particular design of love to them that he is carrying on, is to fit them for, and bring them to, their appointed place in the heavenly temple, or to that individual, precise happiness and glory in heaven, that his eternal love designed for them, and no other (for God’s design of love or of happiness to them, is only just what it is, and is not different from itself). And to fulfil this particular design of love, every thing that God does, or in any respect disposes, whether it be positive, privative, or negative, contributes, because doubtless every thing that God does, or in any respect offers, tends to fulfil his aims and designs. Therefore, undoubtedly,
9. All the while the saint lives in the world, he is fitting for his appointed mansion in glory, and hewing for his place in the heavenly building. And all his temptations, though they may occasion, for the present, great spiritual wounds, yet at last, they shall be an occasion of his being more fitted for his place in glory. And therefore we may determine, that however the true saint may die, in some respects, under decays, under the decay of comfort, and of the exercise of some religious affections, yet every saint dies at that time when his habitual fitness for his place in the heavenly temple is most complete, because otherwise, all things that happen to him while he lives, would not work together to fit him for that place.
10. God brings his saints at the end of their lives to this greatest fitness for their place in heaven, not by diminishing grace in their hearts, but by increasing it, and carrying on the work of grace in their souls. If it be not so, that cannot be true, that where God has begun a good work he will perform it, or carry it on to the day of Christ, for if they die with a less degree of grace than they had before, then it ceases to be carried on before the day of Christ comes. If grace is finally diminished, then Satan so far finally obtains the victory. He finally prevails to diminish the fire in the smoking flax, and then how is that promise verified, that God will not quench the smoking flax, till he bring forth judgment unto victory? So that it must needs be, that although saints may die under decay in some respects, yet they never die under a real habitual decay of the work of grace in general. If they fall, they shall rise again before they die, and rise higher than before, if not in joy, and some other affections, yet in greater degrees of spiritual knowledge, self-emptiness, trust in God, and solidity and ripeness of grace.
If these things that have been observed are true, then we may infer from them these corollaries.
1st, That notwithstanding the truth of that saying of the apostle, Rom. viii. 28. the saints have cause to lament their leanness and barrenness, and that they are guilty of so much sin, not only as it is to the dishonour of God, but also as that which is like to be to their own eternal loss and damage.
2dly, That nothing can be inferred from the forementioned promise tending to set aside, or make void, the influence of motives to earnest endeavours to avoid all sin, to increase in holiness, and abound in good works, from an aim at a high and eminent degree of glory and happiness in the future world.
3dly, That though it is to the eternal damage of the saints, ordinarily, when they yield to, and are overcome by temptations, yet Satan and other enemies of the saints by whom these temptations come, are always wholly disappointed in their temptation, and baffled in their design to hurt the saints, inasmuch as the temptation and the sin that comes by it, is for the saints’ good, and they receive a greater benefit in the issue, than if the temptation had not been, and yet less than if the temptation had been overcome.
As to Mr. Boston’s View of the Covenant of Grace, I have had some opportunity with it, and I confess I did not understand his scheme delivered in that book. I have read his Fourfold State of Man, and liked it exceeding well. I think he herein shows himself to be a truly great divine.
Hoping that you will accept my letter with candour, and remember me in your prayers, I subscribe myself
Your affectionate and obliged Brother
Your affectionate and obliged Brother
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