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the question stated and explained.
The main question I would consider, and for the negative of which I would offer some arguments in the following discourse is this; Whether, according to the rules of christ, any ought to be admitted to the communion and privileges of members of the visible church of christ in complete standing, but such as are in profession, and in the eye of the church’s christian judgment, godly or gracious persons?
When I speak of members of the visible church of christ, in complete standing, I would be understood of those who are received as the proper immediate subjects of all the external privileges Christ has appointed for the ordinary members of his church. I say ordinary members, in distinction from any peculiar privileges and honours of church-officers and rulers. All allow, there are some that are in some respect in the church of God, who are not members in complete standing, in the sense that has been explained. All that acknowledge infant baptism, allow infants, who are the proper subjects of baptism, and are baptized, to be in some sort members of the christian church; yet none suppose them to be members in such standing as to be the proper immediate subjects of all ecclesiastical ordinances and privileges: but that some further qualifications are requisite in order to this, to be obtained, either in a course of nature, or by education, or by divine grace. And some who are baptized in infancy, even after they come to be adult, may yet remain for a season short of such a standing as has been spoken of; being destitute of sufficient knowledge, and perhaps some other qualifications, through the neglect of parents, or their own negligence, or otherwise; or because they carelessly neglected to qualify themselves for ecclesiastical privileges by making a public profession of the christian faith, or owning the christian covenant, or forbear to offer themselves as candidates for these privileges; and yet not be cast out of the church, or cease to be in any respect its members: this, I suppose, will also be generally allowed.
One thing mainly intended in the foregoing question is, whether any adult persons but such as are in the profession and appearance endowed with the christian grace or piety, ought to be admitted to the christian sacraments. Particularly, whether they ought to be admitted to the Lord’s supper; and, if they are such as were not baptized in infancy, ought to be admitted to baptism. Adult persons having those qualifications that oblige others to receive them as the proper immediate subjects of the christian sacraments, is a main thing intended in the question, by being such as ought to be admitted to the communion and privileges of members of the visible church, in complete standing. There are many adult persons that by the allowance of all are in some respects within the church of God, who are not members in good standing, in this respect. There are many, for instance, that have not at present the qualifications proper to recommend them to the Lord’s supper: there are many scandalous persons, who are under suspension. The late venerable Mr. Stoddard, and many other great divines, suppose, that even excommunicated persons are still members of the church of God; and some suppose, the worshippers of Baal in Israel, even those who were bred up such from their infancy, remained still members of the church of God. And very many protestant divines suppose, that the members of the church of Rome, though they are brought up and live continually in gross idolatry, and innumerable errors and superstitions that tend utterly to make void the gospel of Christ, still are in the visible church of Christ: yet, I suppose, no orthodox divines would hold these to be properly and regularly qualified for the Lord’s supper. It was therefore requisite, in the question before us, that a distinction should be made between the members of the visible church in general, and members in complete standing.
It was also requisite, that such a distinction should be made in the question, to avoid lengthening out this discourse exceedingly, with needless questions and debates concerning the state of baptized infants; that is needless as to my present purpose. Though I have no doubts about the doctrine of infant baptism; yet God’s manner of dealing with such infants as are regularly dedicated to him in baptism, is a matter liable to great disputes and many controversies, and would require a large dissertation by itself to clear it up; which, as it would extend this discourse beyond all bounds, so it appears not necessary in order to a clear determination of the present question. The revelation of God’s word is much plainer and more express concerning adult persons, that act for themselves in religious matters, than concerning infants. The Scriptures were written for the sake of adult persons, or those that are capable of knowing what is written. It is to such the apostle speaks in the Epistles, and to such only does God speak throughout his word; and the Scriptures especially speak for the sake of these, and about those to whom they speak. And therefore if the word of God affords us light enough concerning those spoken of in the question, as I have stated it, clearly to determine the matter with respect to them, we need not wait till we see all doubts and controversies about baptized infants cleared and settled, before we pass a judgment with respect to the point in hand. The denominations, characters, and descriptions, which we find given in the Scripture to visible Christians, and to the visible church, are principally with an eye to the church of Christ in its adult state and proper standing. If any one was about to describe that kind of birds called doves, it would be most proper to describe grown doves, and not young ones in the egg or nest, without wings or feathers. So if any one should describe a palm-tree or olive-tree by their visible form and appearance, it would be presumed that they described those of these kinds of trees in their natural and proper state; and not as just peeping from the ground, or as thunder-struck or blown down. And therefore I would here give notice, once for all, that when in the ensuing discourse I use such like phrases as visible saints, members of the visible church, &c. I, for the most part, mean persons that are adult and in good standing.
The question is not, whether Christ has made converting grace or piety itself the condition or rule of his people’s admitting any to the privileges of members in full communion with them. There is no one qualification of the mind whatsoever, that Christ has properly made the term of this; not so much as a common belief that Jesus is the Messiah, or a belief of the being of a God. It is the credible profession and visibility of these things, that 435 is the church’s rule in this case. Christian piety or godliness may be a qualification requisite to communion in the christian sacraments, just in the same manner as a belief that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Scriptures the word of God, are requisite qualifications; and in the same manner as some kind of repentance is a qualification in one that has been suspended for being grossly scandalous, in order to his coming again to the Lord’s supper; and yet godliness itself not be properly the rule of the church’s proceeding, in like manner as such a belief and repentance, as I have mentioned, are not their rule. It is a visibility to the eye of a christian judgment, that is the rule of the church’s proceeding in each of these cases.–There are two distinctions must be here observed. As,
1. We must distinguish between such qualifications as are requisite to give a person a right to ecclesiastical privileges in foro ecclesiæ, or a right to be admitted by the church to those privileges; and those qualifications that are a proper and good foundation for a man’s own conduct in coming and offering himself as a candidate for immediate admission to these privileges. There is a difference between these. Thus, for instance, a profession of the belief of a future state and of revealed religion, and some other things that are internal and out of sight, and a visibility of these things to the eye of a christian judgment, is all relating to these things, that is requisite to give a man a right in foro ecclesiæ, or before the church; but it is the real existence of these things, that is what lays a proper and good foundation for his making this profession, and so demanding these privileges. None will suppose, that he has good and proper ground for such a conduct, who does not believe another world, nor believe the Bible to be the word of God. And then,
2. We must distinguish between that which nextly brings an obligation on a man’s conscience to seek admission to a christian ordinance, and that which is a good foundation for the dictate of an enlightened well-informed conscience, and so in properly a solid foundation of a right in him to act thus. Certainly this distinction does really take place among mankind in innumerable cases. The dictates of men’s consciences are what bring them under a most immediate obligation to act; but it is that which is a good foundation for such a dictate of an enlightened conscience, that alone is a solid foundation of a right in him so to act. Believing the doctrine of the Trinity with all the heart, in some sense, (let us suppose a moral sense,) is one thing requisite in order to a person’s having a solid foundation of a right in him to go and demand baptism in the name of the Trinity; but his best judgment or dictate of his conscience, concerning his believing this doctrine with this sincerity, or with all his heart, may be sufficient to bring an obligation on his conscience. Again, when a delinquent has been convicted of scandal, it is repentance in some respect sincere, (some moral sincerity,) that is a proper foundation of a right in him to offer himself for forgiveness and restoration; but it is the dictate of his conscience or his best judgment concerning his sincerity, that is the thing which immediately obliges him to offer himself. It is repentance itself, that is the proper qualification fundamental of his right, and without which he cannot have a proper right; for though he may be deceived, and think he has real repentance when he has not, yet he has not properly a right to be deceived; and perhaps deceit in such cases is always owing to something blamable, or the influence of some corrupt principle: but yet his best judgment brings him under obligation. In the same manner, and no otherwise, I suppose that christian grace itself is a qualification requisite in order to a proper solid ground of a right in a person to come to the christian sacraments. But of this I may say something more when I come to answer objections.
When I speak, in the question, of being godly or gracious in the eye of a christian judgment, by christian judgment I intend something further than a kind of mere negative charity, implying that we forbear to censure and condemn a man, because we do not know but that he may be godly, and therefore forbear to proceed on the foot of such a censure or judgment in our treatment of him: as we would kindly entertain a stranger, not knowing but in so doing we entertain an angel or precious saint of God. But I mean a positive judgment, founded on some positive appearance, or visibly, some outward manifestations that ordinarily render the thing probable. There is a difference between suspending our judgment, or forbearing to condemn, or having some hope that possibly the thing may be so, and so hoping the best; and a positive judgment in favour of a person. For having some hope, only implies that a man is not in utter despair of a thing, though his prevailing opinion may be otherwise, or he may suspend his opinion. Though we cannot know a man believes that Jesus is the Messiah, yet we expect some positive manifestation or visibility of it, to be a ground of our charitable judgment: so I suppose the case is here.
When I speak of christian judgment, I mean a judgment wherein men do properly exercise reason, and have their reason under the due influence of love and other christian principles; which do not blind reason, but regulate its exercises; being not contrary to reason, though they be very contrary to censoriousness, or unreasonable niceness and rigidness.
I say in the eye of the Church’s christian judgment, because it is properly a visibility to the eye of the public charity, and not of a private judgment, that gives a person a right to be received as a visible saint by the public. If any are known to be persons of an honest character, and appear to be of good understanding in the doctrines of Christianity, and particularly those doctrines that teach the grand condition of salvation, and the nature of true saving religion, and publicly and seriously profess the great and main things wherein the essence of true religion or godliness consists, and their conversation is agreeable; this justly recommends them to the good opinion of the public, whatever suspicions and fears any particular person, either the minister, or some other, may entertain, from what he in particular has observed, perhaps from the manner of his expressing himself in giving an account of his experiences, or an obscurity in the order and method of his experiences, &c. The minister in receiving him to the communion of the church, is to act as a public officer, and in behalf of the public society, and not merely for himself, and therefore is to be governed, in acting, by a proper visibility of godliness in the eye of the public.
It is not my design, in holding the negative of the foregoing question, to affirm, that all who are regularly admitted as members of the visible church in complete standing, ought to be believed to be godly or gracious persons, when taken collectively, or considered in the gross, by the judgment of any person or society. This may not be, and yet each person taken singly may visibly be a gracious person to the eye of the judgment of Christians in general. These two are not the same thing, but vastly diverse; and the latter maybe, and yet not the former. If we should know so much of a thousand persons one after another, and from what we observed in them should have a prevailing opinion concerning each one of them, singly taken, that they were indeed pious, and think the judgment we passed, when we consider each judgment apart, to be right; it will not follow, when we consider the whole company collectively, that we shall have so high an opinion of our own judgment, as to think it probable, there was not one erroneous judgment in the whole thousand. We all have innumerable judgments about one thing or other, concerning religious, moral, secular, and philosophical affairs, concerning past, present, and future matters, reports, facts, persons, things, &c. And concerning all the many thousand dictates of judgment that we have, we think them every one right, taken singly; for if there was any one that we thought wrong, it would not be our judgment; and yet there is no man, unless he is stupidly foolish, who when he considers all in the gross, will say he thinks that his every opinion he is of, concerning all persons and things whatsoever, important and trifling, is right, without the least error. But the more clearly to illustrate this matter, as it related to visibility, or probable appearances of holiness in professors: supposing it had been found by experience concerning precious stones, that such and such external marks were probable signs of a diamond; and supposing, by putting together a great number of experiments, the probability is as ten to one, that, take one time with another, one in ten 436 of the stones which have these marks (and no visible signs to the contrary) proves to be not a true diamond. Then it will follow, that when I find a particular stone with these marks, and nothing to the contrary, there is a probability of ten to one, concerning that stone, that it is a diamond; and so concerning each stone that I find with these marks: but if we take ten of these together, it is as probable as not, that some one of the ten is spurious; because, if it were not as likely as not, that one to ten is false, or if taking one ten with another, there were not one in ten that was false, then the probability of those, that have these marks, being true diamonds, would be more than ten to one, contrary to the supposition; because that is what we mean by a probability of ten to one, that they are not false, viz. that take one ten with another there will be one false stone among them, and no more. Hence if we take a hundred such stones together, the probability will be just ten to one, that there is one false among them; and as likely as not that there are ten false ones in the whole hundred. And the probability of the individuals must be much greater than ten to one, even a probability of more than a hundred to one in order to its making it probable that every one is true. It is an easy mathematical demonstration. Hence the negative of the foregoing question by no means implies a pretence of any scheme, that shall be effectual to keep all hypocrites out of the church, and for the establishing in that sense a pure church.
When it is said, those who are admitted, &c. ought to be by profession godly or gracious persons; it is not meant, they should merely profess or say that they are converted or are gracious persons, that they know so, or think so; but that they profess the great things wherein christian piety consists, viz. a supreme respect to God, faith in Christ, &c. Indeed it is necessary, as men would keep a good conscience, that they should think that these things are in them, which they profess to be in them; otherwise they are guilty of the horrid wickedness of willfully making a lying profession. Hence it is supposed to be necessary, in order to men’s regularly and with a good conscience coming into communion with the church of Christ in the christian sacraments, that they themselves should suppose the essential things, belonging to christian piety, to be in them.
It does not belong to the present question, to consider and determine what the nature of christian piety is, or wherein it consists: this question may be properly determined, and the determination demonstrated, without entering into any controversies about the nature of conversion, &c. Nor does an asserting the negative of the question determine any thing how particular the profession of godliness ought to be, but only that the more essential things, which belong to it, ought to be professed. Nor is it determined, but that the public professions made on occasion of persons’ admission to the Lord’s supper, in some of our churches, who yet go upon that principle, that persons need not esteem themselves truly gracious in order to a coming conscientiously and properly to the Lord’s supper; I say, it is not determined but that some of these professions are sufficient, if those that made them were taught to use the words, and others to understand them, in no other than their proper meaning, and principle and custom had not established a meaning very diverse from it, or perhaps an use of the words without any distinct and clear determinate meaning.
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