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OF THE NATURE OF REGENERATION, AND ITS NECESSITY, IN ORDER TO JUSTIFICATION AND SALVATION.
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.—Galat. vi. 15.
IN these words are contained these two things:—
First, That the gospel hath taken away the obligation of the law, having taken away the sign of that covenant, which was circumcision.
Secondly, That, according to the terms of the gospel, and the Christian religion, nothing will avail to our justification and acceptance with God, but the real renovation of our hearts and lives. For the full explication of this, I propounded to do these three things:
I. To shew what is implied in this phrase of “a new creature.”
II. That this is the great condition of our justification and acceptance with God, and that it is the same in sense and substance with those other expressions, in the two parallel texts, of “faith perfected by charity,” and “keeping the commandments of God.”
III. That it is very reasonable that this should be the condition of our justification, and acceptance to the favour of God.
I began with the first of these; viz. To shew what is implied in this phrase of “a new creature;” as to which I shewed,370
First, What this metaphor doth certainly import, so as to be undeniably evident from other more clear and full texts of Scripture; namely, the greatness of this change, and that it is effected by a Divine power. I now proceed,
Secondly, To shew, that it doth not import what some would extend it to, and that so as to found doctrines of great consequence upon the mere and single strength of this and other like metaphors of Scripture, without any manner of countenance and confirmation from plain texts: such doctrines as these three.
1. That as the creation was by an irresistible act of the Divine power, so is this new creation, or conversion of a sinner.
2. That as creatures were merely passive in their being made, and contributed nothing at all to it, no more do we to our conversion and regeneration.
3. That as the creation of the several ranks and kinds of creatures was in an instant, and effected by the powerful word of God, only saying, let such and such things be, and immediately they were; so this new creation, or the work of regeneration, is in an instant, and admits of no degrees.
Concerning these three doctrines, of great moment and consequence in divinity, I shall shew, with all the clearness and brevity I can, that they are built solely upon metaphors of Scripture, tortured and strained too far, without any real ground or foundation from Scripture or reason; nay, contrary to the tenor of the one and the dictates of the other; nay, indeed, contrary to the general experience of the operation of God’s grace upon the minds of men in their conversion.
First, It is pretended, that as the creation was 371by an irresistible act of the Divine power, so is the new creation, or the conversion of a sinner; and this is solely argued from the metaphorical expressions of Scripture concerning conversion; such as being “called out of darkness into light,” alluding to that powerful word of God, which in the first creation “commanded the light to shine out of darkness; being quickened, and raised to a new life;” and from this metaphor here in the text of a new creation.
But surely it is a dangerous thing in divinity, to build doctrines upon metaphors, especially if we strain them to all the similitudes which a quick and lively imagination can find out; whereas some one obvious thing is commonly intended in the metaphor, and the meaning is absolved and acquitted in that, and it is folly to pursue it into all those similitudes which a good fancy may suggest. When our Saviour says, that “he will come as a thief in the night,” it is plain what he means; that the day of judgment will surprise the careless world, when they least look for it, that “he will come at an hour when they are not aware;” and though ho resemble his coming to that of “a thief in the night,” yet here is nothing of robbery in the case. So here, when the change which Christianity makes in men is called a new creation, this only imports the greatness of the change, which by the power of God’s grace is made upon the hearts and lives of men; and the metaphor is sufficiently absolved in this plain sense and meaning of it, agreeable to the literal expressions of Scripture concerning this thing; and there is no need that this change should in all other respects answer the work of creation; and consequently, there is no necessity that it should be 372effected in an irresistible manner, or that we should he altogether passive in this change, and that we should no ways concur to it by any act of our own, or that this work should be done in an instant, and admit of no steps and degrees.
It is not necessary that this change should be effected in an irresistible manner. God may do so, when he pleaseth, without any injury to his creatures; for it is certainly no wrong to any man to be made good and happy against his will; and I do not deny, but that God sometimes does so. The call of the disciples to follow Christ, seems to have been a very sudden and forcible impression upon their minds, without any appearing reason for it; for it is not reasonable for any man to leave his calling, and follow every one that bids him do so. The conversion of Saul, from a persecutor of Christianity to a zealous preacher of it, was certainly effected, if not in an irresistible, yet in a very forcible and violent manner. The conversion of three thousand at one sermon, when the Holy Ghost descended in a visible manner upon the apostles, was certainly the effect of a mighty and overpowering degree of God’s grace. And the like may be said of the sudden conversion of so many persons from heathenism, and great wickedness and impiety of life, to the sincere profession of Christianity, by the preaching of the apostles afterwards.
But that this is not of absolute necessity, nor the ordinary method of God’s grace, to work upon the minds of men in so overpowering, much less in an irresistible manner, is as plain as any thing of that nature can be, both from experience, and the reason of the thing, and the constant tenor of the Scripture. We find that many (perhaps the greatest part) of 373those that are good are made so by the insensible steps and degrees of a religious education, and having been never vicious, can give no great account of any sensible change, only that, when they came to years of understanding, they considered things more; and the principles that were instilled into them in their younger years did put forth themselves more vigorously at that time, as seeds sprout out of the ground after they have a good while been buried and laid hid in the earth.
And it is contrary to reason, to make an irresistible act of Divine power necessary to our repentance and conversion; because this necessarily involves in it two things which seem very unreasonable.
First, That no man repents upon consideration and choice, but upon mere force and violent necessity, which quite takes away the virtue of repentance, whatever virtue there may be in the consequent acts of a regenerate state.
Secondly, It implies that the conversion and repentance of those upon whom God doth not work irresistibly is impossible, which is the utmost can be said to excuse the impenitency of men, by taking it off from their own choice, and laying it upon the impossibility of the thing, and an utter disability in them to choose and do otherwise.
And it is, likewise, contrary to the constant tenor of the Bible, which supposeth that men do very frequently resist the grace and Holy Spirit of God. It is said of the pharisees, by our Saviour, (Luke vii. 30.) that “they rejected the counsel of God against themselves;” that is, the merciful design of God for their salvation. And of the Jews, (Acts vii. 51.) that “they always resisted the Holy Ghost. So that some operations of God’s grace and Holy Spirit 374are resistible, and such as, if men did not resist them, would be effectual to bring them to faith and repentance, else why are the pharisees said to reject “the counsel of God against themselves,” that is, to their own ruin? implying, that if they had not rejected it, they might have been saved; and if they had, it had been without irresistible grace; for that which was offered to them, was actually resisted by them. Other texts plainly shew, that the reason of men’s impenitency and unbelief is not any thing wanting on God’s part, but on theirs; as those known texts, wherein our Saviour laments the case of Jerusalem, because they obstinately brought destruction upon themselves: (Luke xix. 42.) “Jf thou hadst known in this thy day, the things that belong to thy peace:” intimating, that they might have known them, so as to have prevented that desolation which was coming upon them, and was a forerunner of their eternal ruin: “but now they are hid from thine eyes;” intimating, that then God gave them up to their own blindness and obstinacy; but the time was, when they might have “known the things of their peace;” which cannot be upon the supposition of the necessity of an irresistible act of God’s grace to their conversion and repentance; because then without that they could not have repented, and if that had been afforded to them, they had infallibly repented. So likewise, in that other text, (Matt. xxiii. 37.) “Oh! Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thee, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and you would not.” And, in John, v. 40. “Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life.” He “would have gathered them,” and they “would not;” he would have given them life, but they would not come to 375him. Are these serious and compassionate expostulations and declarations of our Saviour’s gracious intention towards them, any ways consistent with an impossibility of their repentance? which yet must be said, if irresistible grace be necessary thereto; for then repentance is impossible without it, and that it was not afforded to them is plain, because they did not repent. The same may be said of that solemn declaration of God, (Ezek. xxxiii. 11.) “As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Can it be said that God hath no pleasure in the death of sinners, and yet be true, that he denies, to the greatest part of them, that grace which is necessary to their repentance? Upon this supposition, how can it be true, that, “if the mighty works that were done in Chorazin and Bethsaida had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented,” (Matt. xi. 21.) since irresistible grace did not accompany those miracles? for if it had, Chorazin and Bethsaida had repented, and without it Tyre and Sidon could not repent.
The same difficulty is in those texts, wherein God is represented as expecting the repentance and conversion of sinners; and our Saviour wondering at their unbelief and hardness of heart, and upbraiding them with it, (Isa. v. 4.) “What could I have done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes! Mark vi. 6, it is said, our Saviour marvelled at the unbelief of the Jews; and, (chap. xvi. 14.) that he “upbraided his disciples with their unbelief and hardness of heart.” But why should the repentance of sinners be expected, or their unbelief marvelled at, or indeed 376be upbraided to them, by him who knew it impossible to them, without an irresistible power and grace, which he knew likewise was not afforded to them? neither God nor man have reason to wonder that any man does not do that, which, at the same time, they certainly know he cannot do.
The bottom of all that is said to avoid this pressing difficulty is this,—that this impotence and disability of sinners is their sin, and therefore cannot be pleaded in their excuse, for their impenitency; but God may still justly require that of them which they had once a natural power to do, but wilfully forfeited and lost it; they had this power in Adam, and forfeited it by his disobedience.—To shew how slight this evasion is, I need not run into that argument, how far we are guilty of the sin of our first parents. That by that first transgression and disobedience all mankind suffers, and our natures are extremely corrupted and depraved, cannot be denied; but the corruption of our natures is a thing very different from personal guilt, strictly and properly so called. I will take the business much shorter; and granting that mankind had in Adam a natural power to have continued obedient to the laws of God, yet, since “by one man sin entered into the world,” and “all are now sinners,” here is an obligation to repentance as well as to obedience, and men shall be condemned for their impenitency. I ask now, whether in Adam we had a power to repent? It is certain Adam had not this power, and therefore I cannot see how we could lose it, and forfeit it in him. Adam, indeed, had a natural power not to have sinned, and so not to have needed repentance; but no power to repent in the state of innocency; because, in that state, repentance was 377impossible, because there could be no occasion for it. He had it not after his fall, because by that he forfeited all his power to that which is spiritually good. It is said, indeed, he had it in innocency, but forfeited it by his fall; so that he had it when there was no occasion or possibility for the exercise of it, and lost it when there was occasion for it: or if he did not lose it by his fall, we have it still, and then there is no need of any supernatural, much less irresistible, grace to repentance; so that our impotency, as to the particular duty of repentance, can not be charged upon us as our fault, not so much as upon the account of original sin.
But the want of this power is the consequent and just punishment of our first transgression. Be it so; but if this impotency still remain in all those to whom God doth not afford his irresistible grace, how comes the grace offered in the gospel to aggravate the impenitency of men, and increase their condemnation? for if it be no remedy against this impotency, how comes it to inflame the guilt of impenitency? or how is it grace to offer mercy to those upon their repentance, who are out of a possibility of repenting; and yet, to punish them more severely for their impenitency after this offer made to them, which they cannot accept without that grace which God is resolved not to afford them? If this be the case, the greatest favour had been to have had no such offer made to them; and it had been happier for mankind, that the grace of God had not appeared to all men, but only to those who shall irresistibly be made partakers of the benefit of it.
Secondly, Another doctrine grounded upon this metaphor of a new creation, is, that we are merely passive in the work of conversion and regeneration, 378and contribute nothing to it; that God does all, and we do nothing at all; and this follows from the former, especially if we allow the metaphor as far as it will carry us. For as the first creation of things was by an irresistible act of the Divine power, so the things that were made were only passive in their creation; and, as they could make no resistance, so neither could they contribute any thing to their being what they are. And this doctrine is not only argued from the metaphor of a new creation, but from several other metaphors used in Scripture, to describe our natural state; as, namely, darkness, blindness, and our being dead in trespasses and sins; from whence it is inferred, that we contribute no more to our renovation, than darkness doth to the introduction of light, than a blind man can do to the recovery of his sight, or a dead man to his own resurrection; but are wholly passive in this work. And to countenance this notion, they make great advantage of the character which is given in Scripture of the most degenerate heathen, taking it for granted, that their condition is the true standard of a natural and unregenerate state; and to this purpose they insist particularly upon that description of the gentile idolaters, (Eph. iv. 18, 19.) “Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their hearts; who being past feeling, had given themselves over to lasciviousness; to work all uncleanness with greediness.” Which is, indeed, a description of men in their natural state, but not of all; but of such as by the worst sort of vicious practices of the grossest idolatry, and most abominable lewdness, were degenerated to the utmost, so that their condition 379seemed desperate, without a miraculous and extraordinary grace of God, which was probably afforded to many of these. In like manner they argue the common condition of mankind, from the description which is given of the wickedness of men, before God brought the flood upon them: (Gen. vi. 5.) “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” This they make the character of all men, in their natural state, whereas this is a description of an extraordinary degeneracy of men, signifying that the world was then extremely bad, and depraved to the highest degree; for God gives this as a reason why he was resolved to drown the world, and “to destroy man from the face of the earth,” because “their wickedness was grown to so great a height.” But if this were a description of the natural state of mankind, this could be no particular reason for bringing a flood upon the world at that time, there being the same reason for it, for fifteen hundred years before, and ever will be the same reason to the end of the world; that is, that men are naturally corrupted and depraved. Surely they consider the Scripture very superficially, that interpret it at this rate!
It is true, that the nature of man is sadly corrupted and depraved; but not so bad as, by vicious practices and habits, it may be made; all men are not equally at the same distance from the grace of God; some are nearer to the kingdom of God than others, and less force and violence will serve to rescue them from the power of Satan, and to transplant them into the kingdom of Christ. The prevalency and dominion of sin makes an unregenerate state, as 380the prevalency of grace puts a man into a regenerate state. An unregenerate man is not necessarily as bad as is possible, no more than it is necessary to a regenerate state, that a man be perfectly good; so that it is a great mistake to argue the common condition of all mankind, from the descriptions that are given in the Scripture of the worst of men; and therefore, if it were granted that irresistible grace were necessary for the conversion of such, it will not follow that the same is necessary to all.
All unregenerate men are not equally devoid of a sense of God, and spiritual things; they have many convictions of what they ought to be and do, and under those convictions are very capable of persuasion, which dead men are not. The grace of God is necessary to the conversion of a sinner; but it is not necessary that he should be only passive in this work. Experience tells us the contrary, that we can do something, that we can co operate with the grace of God; and the Scripture tells us the same, and makes it an argument and encouragement to us “to work out our own salvation, because God works in us both to will and to do of his own goodness;” (Phil. ii. 12, 13.) Besides that, it is the greatest and justest discouragement in the world, to all endeavours of repentance and reformation, to tell men that they can do nothing in it. He that is sure of this, that he can do nothing in this work, is a fool if he make any attempt to be come better, because he struggles with an impossibility; and if the work will be done at all, it will be done without him, and he neither can nor ought to have any hand in it. But will any metaphor bear men out against so palpable an absurdity as this?381
And yet, after all, there is no force in these metaphors, to prove what they aim at by them. For if to be dead in sin signifies an utter impotency to goodness, then to be dead to sin must, on the contrary, signify an impossibility of sinning; for just as the unregenerate man is dead in sin, so he that is regenerate is said in Scripture to be dead to sin: but yet the best of regenerate men, notwithstanding they are dead to sin, and alive to God, do offend in many things, and too frequently fall into sin. Why then should the metaphor be so strong on the one side, that a man, who is said to be dead in sin, should not be able so much as to co-operate with the grace of God in the work of repentance and conversion?
In short, if this be true, that men in an unregenerate and unconverted state are perfectly dead, and have no more sense of spiritual things than a dead man hath of natural objects, then all precepts and exhortations to repentance, and all promises and threatenings to argue and persuade men thereto are vain, and to no purpose; and it would be every whit as proper and reasonable for us to preach in the churchyard, over the graves of dead men, as in the church to the unregenerate; because they can no more act and move towards their own recovery, out of a state of sin and death, than the dead bodies can rise out of their graves.
But it is said, that the end of exhortations and promises is not to declare to men their power, but their duty. But if they be insensible, it is to as little purpose to declare to them their duty, as their power. Besides, it will be a hard thing to convince men that any thing is their duty, which at the same time we declare to them to be out of their power.382
But this is Pelagianism, to say that of ourselves we can repent and turn to God. And who says we can of ourselves do this, besides the Pelagians? we affirm the necessity of God’s grace hereto, and withal the necessity of our co-operating with the grace of God. We say that without the powerful excitation and aid of God’s grace, no man can repent and turn to God; but we say likewise, that God can not be properly said to aid and assist those who do nothing themselves.
But men can do more than they do, and therefore are justly condemned: not in the work of conversion sure; if they can do nothing at all. But they can do more by way of preparation towards it. Suppose they do all they can towards it, will this save them, or will God upon this irresistibly work their conversion? No, they say, notwithstanding any preparatory work that we can do, conversion may not follow; how then does this mend the matter?
But still they say the fault is in men’s want of will, and not of power; “you will not come unto me, that ye might have life.” But can they will to come? no, that they cannot neither. Why then it is still want of power that hinders them. The offer of life is a very gracious offer to them that are guilty, and liable to death, as we all are; but not if the condition be utterly impossible to us, though the impossibility springs from our own fault, as I will plainly shew by a fair instance. A prince offers a pardon to a traitor fast locked in chains, if he will come to him and submit himself; but if he be still detained in chains, and the prince do not some way or other help him to his liberty, it is so far from being a favour to offer him a pardon upon 383these terms, that it is a cruel derision of his misery, to say to him, You will not come to me that you may be pardoned; and this notwithstanding that his being cast into chains was the effect of his own crime and fault; the application is obvious. I should now proceed to answer an objection or two, and then to give a clear state of this matter, so as is most agreeable to Scripture, and the attributes and perfections of God; but this I shall reserve for another discourse.384
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