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Usurpation of the church of Rome with reference unto the interpretation of the Scripture, or right understanding of the mind of God therein — Right and ability of all believers as to their own duty herein asserted — Importance of the truth proposed — The main question stated — The principal efficient cause of the understanding which believers have in the mind and will of God as revealed in the Scriptures, the Spirit of God himself — General assertions to be proved — Declared in sundry particulars — Inferences from them.
Our belief of the Scriptures to be the word of God, or a divine revelation, and our understanding of the mind and will of God as revealed in them, are the two springs of all our interest in Christian religion. From them are all those streams of light and truth derived whereby our souls are watered, refreshed, and made fruitful unto God. It therefore concerneth us greatly to look well to those springs, that they be neither stopped nor defiled, and so rendered useless unto us. Though a man may have pleasant streams running by his habitation and watering his inheritance, yet if the springs of them be in the power of others, who can either divert their course or poison their waters, on their pleasure he must always depend for the benefit of them.
Thus hath it fallen out in the world in this matter; so hath the church of Rome endeavoured to deal with all Christians. Their main endeavour is, to seize those springs of religion into their own power. The Scripture itself, they tell us, cannot be believed to be the word of God with faith divine but upon the proposal and testimony of their church; thereby is one spring secured. And when it is believed so to be, it ought not to be interpreted, it cannot be understood, but according to the mind, judgment, and exposition of the same church; which in like manner secures the other. And having of old possessed these springs of Christian religion, they have dealt with them according as might be expected from unjust invaders of other men’s rights and malæ fidei possesoribus. So when the Philistines contended for the wells which Abraham and Isaac had digged, when they had got possession of them they stopped 122them up; and when the scribes and Pharisees had gotten the key of knowledge, they would neither enter into the kingdom of God themselves, nor suffer those that would, so to do, as our Saviour tells us. For the one of these springs, which is the letter of the Scripture itself, when it ought to have gone forth like the waters of the sanctuary, to refresh the church and make it fruitful unto God, they partly stopped it up and partly diverted its course, by shutting it up in an unknown tongue and debarring the people from the use of it. And in the exercise of their pretended right unto the other spring, or the sole interpretation of the Scripture, they have poisoned the streams with all manner of errors and delusions, so as that they became not only useless, but noxious and pernicious unto the souls of men; for under the pretence hereof, — namely, that their church hath the sole power of interpreting the Scriptures, and cannot err therein, — have they obtruded all their errors, with all their abominations in worship and practice, on the minds and consciences of men.
The first of these springs I have in a former discourse on this subject taken out of their hand, so far as we ourselves are concerned therein, or I have vindicated the just right of all Christians thereunto, and given them possession thereof. This I did by declaring the true grounds and reasons whereon we do, and whereon any can, truly believe the Scripture to be the word of God with faith divine and supernatural; for besides other advantages wherewith the knowledge of that truth is accompanied, it dispossesseth the Romanists of their claim unto this fountain of religion, by evidencing that we do and ought thus to believe the divine original of the Scripture, without any regard to the testimony or authority of their church.
That which now lieth before us is, the vindication of the right of all believers unto the other spring also, or a right understanding of the mind and will of God as revealed in the Scripture, suitably unto the duty that God requireth of them in their several capacities and conditions.
What is necessary unto the interpretation of difficult places and passages in the Scripture, and what measure of understanding of the mind and will of God as revealed therein is required of persons in their various conditions, as they are teachers of others or among the number of them that are to be taught, shall, among other things, be afterward spoken unto. My principal design is, to manifest that every believer may, in the due use of the means appointed of God for that end, attain unto such a full assurance of understanding in the truth, or all that knowledge of the mind and will of God revealed in the Scripture, which is sufficient to direct him in the life of God, to deliver him from the dangers of ignorance, darkness, 123and error, and to conduct him unto blessedness. Wherefore, as unto the belief of the Scripture itself, so as unto the understanding, knowledge, and faith of the things contained therein, we do not depend on the authoritative interpretation of any church or person whatever. And although ordinary believers are obliged to make diligent and conscientious use of the ministry of the church, among other things, as a means appointed of God to lead, guide, and instruct them in the knowledge of his mind and will revealed in the Scripture, which is the principal end of that ordinance; yet is not their understanding of the truth, their apprehension of it and faith in it, to rest upon or to be resolved into their authority, who are not appointed of God to be lords of their faith, but helpers of their joy. And thereon depends all our interest in that great promise, that we shall be all taught of God; for we are not so unless we do learn from him and by him the things which he hath revealed in his word.
And there is not any truth of greater importance for men to be established in; for unless they have a full assurance of understanding in themselves, unless they hold their persuasion of the sense of Scripture revelations from God alone, if their spiritual judgment of truth and falsehood depend on the authority of men, they will never be able to undergo any suffering for the truth or to perform any duty unto God in a right manner. The truths of the gospel and the ways of religious worship, for which any believer may be called to suffer in this world, are such as about whose sense and revelation in the Scripture there is great difference and controversy among men; and if there be not an assured, yea, infallible way and means of communicating unto all believers a knowledge of the mind and will of God in the Scripture concerning those things so controverted, the grounds whereof are fixed in their own minds, but that they do wholly depend on the expositions and interpretations of other men: be they who they will, they cannot suffer for them either cheerfully or honourably, so as to give glory to God, or to obtain any solid peace and comfort in their own souls; for if a man under his sufferings for his profession can give himself no other account but this, that what he suffers for is the truth of God revealed in the Scripture, because such or such whom he hath in veneration or esteem do so affirm and have so instructed him, or because this is the doctrine of this or that church, the papal or the reformed church, which it hath prescribed unto him, he will have little joy of his suffering in the end. Yea, there is that which is yet worse in this matter, as things are stated at this day in the world. Truth and error are promiscuously persecuted, according unto the judgment, interest, and inclinations of them that are in power; yea, sometimes both truth 124and error are persecuted in the same place and at the same time, upon errors differing from both. Dissent is grown almost all that is criminal in Christian religion all the world over. But in this state of things, unless we grant men an immediate understanding of their own in the mind and will of God, yea, a full assurance therein, there will be nothing whereby a man who suffers for the most important truths of the gospel can in his own soul and conscience distinguish himself from those who suffer in giving testimony unto the most pernicious errors; for all outward means of confidence which he hath, they may have also.
It therefore behoveth all those who may possibly be called to suffer for the truth in any season, or on any occasion, to assure their minds in this fundamental truth, that they may have in themselves a certain undeceiving understanding of the mind and will of God as revealed in the Scripture, independent on the authority of any church or persons whatsoever; the use of whose ministry herein we do yet freely and fully allow.
Nor, indeed, without a supposition hereof, can any man perform any duty to God in an acceptable manner, so as that his obedience may be the obedience of faith, nor can upon good grounds die in peace, since the just shall live by his own faith alone.
Wherefore, our present inquiry is, —
How believers, or any men whatever, may attain a right understanding in their own minds of the meaning and sense of the Scriptures, as to the doctrine or truths contained in them, in answer unto the design of God, as unto what he would have us know or believe; or, —
How they may attain a right perception of the mind of God in the Scripture, and what he intends in the revelation of it, in opposition unto ignorance, errors, mistakes, and all false apprehensions, and so in a right manner to perform the duties which by it we are instructed in.
In answer unto the inquiry proposed concerning the knowledge and understanding of believers in the mind of God as revealed in the Scriptures, I shall consider, —
First, The principal efficient cause; and, secondly, All the means, internal and external, which are appointed of God thereunto.
As to the first of these, or the principal efficient cause of the due knowledge and understanding of the will of God in the Scripture, it is the Holy Spirit of God himself alone; for, —
There is an especial work of the Spirit of God on the minds of men, communicating spiritual wisdom, light, and understanding unto them, necessary unto their discerning and apprehending aright the mind of God in his word, and the understanding of the 125mysteries of heavenly truth contained therein. And I shall add hereunto, that among all the false and foolish imaginations that ever Christian religion was attacked or disturbed withal, there never was any, there is none more pernicious than this, that the mysteries of the gospel are so exposed unto the common reason and understanding of men as that they may know them and comprehend them in a useful manner, and according to their duty, without the effectual aid and assistance of the Spirit of God.
It is the fondest thing in the world to imagine that the Holy Ghost doth any way teach us but in and by our own reasons and understandings. We renounce all enthusiasms in this matter, and plead not for any immediate prophetical inspirations. Those who would prohibit us the use of our reason in the things of religion would deal with us as the Philistines did with Samson, — first put out our eyes, and then make us grind in their mill. Whatever we know, be it of what sort it will, we know it in and by the use of our reason; and what we conceive, we do it by our own understanding: only the inquiry is, whether there be not an especial work of the Holy Spirit of God, enlightening our minds and enabling our understandings to perceive and apprehend his mind and will as revealed in the Scripture, and without which we cannot so do. The substance, therefore, of the ensuing discourse may be reduced unto these heads:—
I. That we stand not in need of any new divine afflations, or immediate prophetical inspirations, to enable us to understand the Scripture, or the mind and will of God as revealed therein; neither did the prophets or holy penmen of the Scripture learn the mind of God in the revelations made unto them, and by them unto the church, merely from the divine inspiration of them. Those immediate inspirations unto them were in the stead and place of the written word, and no otherwise. After they did receive them, they were by the same means to inquire into the mind and will of God in them as we do it in and by the written word, 1 Pet. i. 10, 11.
II. That as to the right understanding of the mind of God in the Scripture, or our coming unto the riches of the full assurance of understanding in the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, we do not, nor need to depend on the authoritative instruction or interpretation of the Scripture by any church whatever, or all of them in the world, though there be great use of the true ministry of the church unto that end.
III. That in the mere exercise of our own natural reason and understanding, with the help of external means, we cannot attain that knowledge of the mind and will of God in the Scripture, of the sense and meaning of the Holy Ghost therein, which is required of 126us in a way of duty, without the special aid and assistance of the Holy Spirit of God. Wherefore, principally, it is asserted, —
IV. That there is an especial work of the Holy Spirit, in the supernatural illumination of our minds, needful unto the end proposed, — namely, that we may aright, and according unto our duty, understand the mind of God in the Scripture ourselves, or interpret it unto others.
V. That hereby alone is that full assurance of understanding in the knowledge of the mystery of God, his truth and grace, to be obtained, whereby any man may answer the mind and will of God, or comply with his own duty in all that he may be called to do or suffer in this world in his especial circumstances. Wherefore, —
VI. The certainty and assurance that we may have and ought to have of our right understanding the mind of God in the Scripture, either in general or as to any especial doctrine, doth not depend upon, is not resolved into, any immediate inspiration or enthusiasm; it doth not depend upon nor is resolved into the authority of any church in the world; nor is it the result of our reason and understanding merely in their natural actings, but as they are elevated, enlightened, guided, conducted, by an internal efficacious work of the Spirit of God upon them.
VII. That whereas the means of the right interpretation of the Scripture, and understanding of the mind of God therein, are of two sorts, — first, such as are prescribed unto us in a way of duty, as prayer, meditation on the word itself, and the like; and, secondly, disciplinary, in the accommodation of arts and sciences, with all kind of learning, unto that work, — the first sort of them doth entirely depend on a supposition of the spiritual aids mentioned, without which they are of no use; and the latter is not only consistent therewith, but singularly subservient thereunto. Wherefore, the nature and use of all these means shall be afterward declared.
This being the substance of what is designed in the ensuing discourse, it is evident that the positions before laid down concerning the especial work of the Spirit on the minds of men, in communicating spiritual wisdom, light, and knowledge unto them, is in the first place and principally to be confirmed, as that whereon all the other assertions do absolutely depend.
It is the Scripture itself alone from whence the truth in this matter can be learned, and by which alone what is proposed concerning it must be tried; therefore, as unto this first part of this work, I shall do little more than plead the express testimonies thereof. When we come to consider the way and manner of the communication of these spiritual aids unto us, the whole matter will be more fully stated, and such objections as may be laid against our assertion removed out of the way.
127And there are two ends designed in this undertaking:—
First, That which the evangelist Luke proposed in his writing the Gospel unto Theophilus, — namely, “That he might know the certainty of the things wherein he had been instructed,” Luke i. 4. When we have been instructed in the truth of the gospel, and do give our assent thereunto, yet it is needful that we should examine the grounds and reasons of what we do believe thereon, that we may have a certainty or full assurance of them. This, therefore, we shall direct, — namely, how a man may come to an undeceiving persuasion and full assurance that the things wherein he hath been instructed, and which he knows, are true and according to the mind of God, so as that he may thereon be “no more tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.”
Secondly, We design to inquire what conduct unto this end a man that takes care of his salvation, and who is convinced that he must give an account of himself unto God, ought in this matter, as to the right understanding of the mind and will of God in the Scripture, to betake himself unto. And as I shall show that there is no safety in depending on enthusiasms, or immediate pretended infallible inspirations, nor on the pretended infallibility of any church, so the Holy Spirit of God, enlightening our minds in the exercise of our own reason or understanding, and in use of the means appointed of God unto that end, is the only safe guide to bring us unto the full assurance of the mind and will of God as revealed in the Scripture.
Wherefore, the whole foundation of this work lies in these two things:—
1. That there is such an especial work of the Holy Spirit on our minds, enabling them to understand the Scriptures in a right manner, or to know the mind of God in them;
2. In showing what is the especial nature of this work, what are the effects of it upon our minds, and how it differs from all enthusiastical inspirations, and what is the true exercise of our minds in compliance therewith. And these things we shall first inquire into.
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