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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 discoursing on these words, that which I was last upon, was to shew, that this metaphor of a new creature doth not import what some would extend it to, and that so as to found doctrines of great consequence upon the single strength of this, and other like metaphors; viz. such doctrines as these three:
First, That as the creation was by an irresistible act of the Divine power, so is this new creation, or the conversion of a sinner.
Secondly, That as creatures were merely passive in their being made, and contributed nothing at all thereto, no more do we to our conversion and regeneration.
Thirdly, That as the creation was in an instant, only by the powerful word of God, so this new creation is in an instant, and admits of no degrees. The two first of these I have spoken to, and shewed, that as they had no necessary foundation in this and the like metaphors of Scripture, so they are contrary to reason and experience, and the plain and constant tenor of Scripture, which is the rule and measure of Christ’s doctrine. I proceed, now, to consider the399
Third doctrine, which is grounded upon this metaphor; namely, that as the creation of the several ranks and orders of creatures was in an instant, and effected by the powerful word of God, saying, let such and such things be, and immediately they were; so this new creation is in an instant, and admits of no steps and degrees. And this doctrine is nothing else but a farther pursuit of the metaphor; and, admitting the two former doctrines to be true, and well-grounded upon this metaphor, this third doctrine follows well enough from them; for it is agreeable enough, that that which is effected by an irresistible act of omni potence, without any concurrence or operation on our part, should be done in an instant, and all at once. Not that this is necessary, but that it is reasonable; for why should Omnipotence use delays, and take time, and proceed by degrees in the doing of that, which, with the same ease, it can do at once, and in an instant; especially considering how well this suits with the other metaphors of Scripture, as well as with this of a new creation; viz. the metaphor of regeneration and resurrection. A child is born at once; and the dead shall be raised in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
But, notwithstanding all this plausible appearance and conspiracy of metaphors, I shall shew that this doctrine of the conversion and regeneration of a sinner being effected in an instant, and all at once, is not well grounded, either upon Scripture or experience. Not but that God can do so if he pleaseth, and works this change in some much sooner and quicker than in others; but there is nothing, either in Scripture or experience, to persuade us that this is the usual, much less the constant and unalterable method of God’s grace in the conversion of a sinner, 400to bring it about in an instant, without any sensible steps and degrees.
But, for the full clearing of this matter, I shall proceed by these steps:
First, I shall shew upon what mistaken grounds and principles this doctrine relies; besides the metaphors already mentioned, which I have shewn to be of no force to prove the thing.
Secondly, I shall plainly shew what regeneration is; by which it will appear, that it is not necessarily effected in an instant, and at once, but admits of degrees.
Thirdly, That it is evidently so in experience of the ordinary method of God’s grace, both in those who are regenerated by a pious and religious education, and in those who are reclaimed from a vicious course of life.
Fourthly, That all this is very consonant and agreeable to what the Scripture plainly and constantly declares concerning it.
First, I shall discover several mistakes upon which this doctrine is grounded, besides the metaphors already mentioned, and which I have shewn to be of no force to prove the thing; viz. That regeneration is in an instant, and admits of no degrees. As,
1. That regeneration and sanctification are not only different expressions, but do signify two things really different. But this is a gross mistake; for regeneration and sanctification are but different expressions of the self-same thing; for regeneration is a metaphor which the Scripture useth to express our translation and change from one state to another; from a state of sin and wickedness to a state of grace and holiness, as if we were born over again, 401and were the children of another father; and, from being the children of the devil, did become the children of God; and sanctification is our being made holy, our being purified and cleansed from sin and impurity. And hence it is, that regeneration and sanctification are attributed to the same causes, principal and instrumental, to the Spirit of God, and to the word of God. We are said to be “born of the Spirit,” and to be “sanctified by the Holy Ghost;” to be begotten of the “word of truth,” and to be “sanctified by the truth,” which is, “the word of God.” So that the Scripture speaks of them as the same thing; and they must needs be so; for if sanctification be the making of us holy, and regeneration maketh us holy, then regeneration is sanctification.
2. It is said that regeneration only signifies our first entrance into this state, and sanctification our progress and continuance in it. But this likewise is a great mistake: for though it be true that regeneration doth signify our first entrance into this state, yet it is not true that it only signifies that; for it is used likewise in Scripture to signify our continuance in that state; for Christians are said to be the “children of God,” and consequently in a regenerate state; not only in the instant of this change, but during their continuance in it. Besides that, our first change is as well called our sanctification, as our progress and continuance in a state of holiness. So that neither in this is there any difference between regeneration and sanctification. They do both of them signify both our first entrance into an holy state, and our continuance; and progress in it; though regeneration do more frequently denote the making of this change, and our first entrance into it.402
3. It is said that one of the main differences between regeneration and sanctification is this—that regeneration is incapable of degrees, and all that are regenerate are equally so, and one regenerate person is not more or less regenerate than another; whereas sanctification is a gradual progress from one degree of holiness to another, and of them that are truly sanctified and holy, one may be more sanctified and more holy than another. But this likewise is a mere fancy and imagination, without any real ground. For as an unregenerate state does plainly admit of degrees, so likewise doth the regenerate, and for the same reason. That an unregenerate state admits of degrees is evident, in that some unregenerate persons are more wicked than others, and thereby more the children of wrath and the devil than others, which are the Scripture expressions concerning the degrees of men’s wickedness and impiety. In like manner, they that are more holy, and more like God, are more the children of God; and to be more a child of God, is surely to be more regenerate; that is, more renewed after the image of God, which consists in righteousness and true holiness. So that it is a mere precarious assertion, and evidently false to affirm, that regeneration doth not admit of degrees, and that one is not more regenerate than another.
Fourthly and lastly, They ground this conceit upon the doctrine of the schools, which teach, that in regeneration and conversion all the habits of grace are infused, simul et semel, together and at once. I confess I have no regard, much less a veneration, for the doctrine of the schools, where it differs from that of the Holy Scriptures, which say not one word of infused habits, which yet are much 403talked of in divinity; and, to speak the truth, these words serve only to obscure the thing. For to say that in conversion the habits of all graces and virtues are infused together and at once, is to say, that, in an instant, men that were vicious before in several kinds are, by an omnipotent act of God’s grace, and by a new principle infused into them, endued with the habits of the contrary graces and virtues, and are as chaste, and temperate, and just, and meek, and humble, as if, by the frequent practice of these virtues, they had become so. That this may be, and sometimes is, I am so far from denying, that I believe it to be so. Some men, by an extraordinary power of God’s grace upon their hearts, are suddenly changed, and strangely reclaimed from a very wicked and vicious, to a very religious and virtuous course of life; and that which others attain to by slower degrees, and great conflicts with themselves, before they can gain the upper hand of their lusts, these arrive at, all on a sudden, by a mighty resolution wrought in them by the power of God’s grace, and as it were a new bias and inclination put upon their souls, equal to an habit gained by long use and custom. This God sometimes does, and when he does this, it may in some sense be called the in fusion of the habits of grace and virtue together, and at once; because the man is hereby endowed with a principle of equal force and power with habits that are acquired by long use and practice. A strong and vigorous faith is the principle and root of all graces and virtues, and may have such a powerful influence upon the resolutions of our minds, and the government of our actions, that from this principle all graces and virtues may spring and grow up by degrees into habits; but then this principle 404is not formally but virtually, in the power and efficacy of it, the infusion of the habits of every grace and virtue; and even in those persons, in whom this change is so suddenly, and as it were at once, I doubt not but that the habits of several graces and virtues are afterwards attained by the frequent practice of them, in the virtue of this powerful principle of the faith of the gospel, as I shall shew in the progress of this discourse. And this, I doubt not, was very frequent and visible in many of the first converts to Christianity; especially of those who, from the abominable idolatry and impiety of heathenism, were gained to the Christian religion. The Spirit of God did then work very miraculously, as well in the cures of spiritual as of bodily diseases. But then, to make this the rule and standard of God’s ordinary proceedings, in the conversion and regeneration of men, is equally unreasonable, as still to expect miracles for the cure of diseases; and it is certain in experience, that this is not God’s ordinary method in the conversion of sinners, as I shall fully shew by and by.
Secondly, I shall shew what regeneration is; by which it will plainly appear, that there is no necessity that it should be effected in an instant, and at once, but that it will admit of degrees. I do not deny that it may be in an instant, and at once. The power of God is able to do this, and sometimes does it very thoroughly and very suddenly. But the question is, whether there be a necessity it should be so, and always be so. Now regeneration is—the change of a man’s state, from a state of sin to a state of holiness; which, because it is an entrance upon a new kind or course of life, it is fitly resembled to regeneration, or a new birth; to a new 405creation; the man being, as it were, quite changed, or made over again, so as not to he, as to the main purpose and design of his life, the same man he was before. This is a plain sensible account of the thing, which every one may easily understand. Now there is nothing in reason, why a man may not gradually be changed and arrive at this state by degrees, as well as after this change is made, and he arrived at this state of a regenerate man, he may by degrees grow and improve in it. But the latter no man doubts of, but that a man that is in a state of grace may grow and improve in grace; and there is as little reason to question why a man may not come to this state by degrees, as well as leap into it at once.
All the difficulty I know of in this matter is a mere nicety, that there is an instant in which every thing begins, and therefore regeneration is in an instant; so that the instant before the man arrived at this state, it could not be said that he was regenerate; and the instant after he is in this state, it cannot be denied that he is so. But this is idle subtilty, just as if a man should prove that a house was built in an instant, because it could not be said to be built till the instant it was finished; though, for all this, nothing is more certain than that it was built by degrees. Or, suppose the time of arriving at man’s estate be at one and twenty, does it from hence follow, that a man does not grow to be a man by degrees, but is made a man in an instant; because just before one and twenty he was not at man’s estate, and just then he was? Not but that God, if he please, can make a man in an instant, as he did Adam; but it is not necessary, from this example, that all men should be made so, much less 406does it follow from this vain subtilty. This is just the case. All the while the man is tending towards a regenerate state, and is struggling with his lusts, till, by the power of God’s grace, and his own resolution, he get the victory; all the while he is under the sense and conviction of his sinful and miserable state, and sorrowing for the folly of his past life, and coming to an effectual purpose and resolution of changing his course; and it may be several times thrown back by the temptations of the devil, and the power of evil habits, and the weakness and in stability of his own purpose, till, at last, by the grace of God following and assisting him, he comes to a firm resolution of a better life, which resolution governs him for the future; I say all this while, which in some persons is longer, in others shorter, according to the power of evil habits, and the different degrees of God’s grace afforded to men: all this time the work of regeneration is going on; and though a man cannot be said to be in a regenerate state till that very instant that the principle of grace and his good resolution have got the upper hand of his lusts, yet it is certain, for all this, that the work of regeneration was not effected in an instant. This is plainly and truly the case, as I shall shew in the
Third particular I propounded; namely, that it is evident from experience of the ordinary methods of God’s grace, both in those who are regenerate by a pious and religious education, and those who are reclaimed from a vicious course of life.
The first sort, namely, those who are brought to goodness by a religious and virtuous education; these (at least, so far as my observation reacheth) make up a very considerable part of the number of the regenerate; that is, of good men. And though 407it be certain, considering the universal corruption and degeneracy of human nature, that there is a real change made in them, by the operation of God’s grace upon their minds, yet it is as certain in experience, that this change is made in very many by very silent and insensible degrees, till at length the seeds of religion, which were planted in them by a good education, do visibly prevail over all the evil inclinations of corrupt nature, so as to sway and govern the actions of their lives; and when the principles of grace and goodness do apparently prevail, we may conclude them to be in a regenerate state, though, perhaps, very few of these can give any account of the particular time and occasion of this change. For things may be seen in their effect, which were never very sensible in their cause. And it is very reasonable, that such persons, who never lived in any evil course, should escape those pangs and terrors which unavoidably happen unto others, from a course of actual sin, and the guilt of a wicked life; and if there be any such persons as I have described, who are, in this gradual and insensible manner, regenerated and made good; this is a demonstration that there is no necessity that this change should be in an instant, it being so frequently found to be otherwise in experience.
And as for others who are visibly reclaimed from a notorious wicked course, in these we likewise frequently see this change gradually made by strong impressions made upon their minds, most frequently by the word of God; sometimes by his providence, whereby they are convinced of the evil and danger of their course, and awakened to consideration, and melted into sorrow and repentance; and, perhaps, exercised with great terrors of conscience, till at 408length, by the grace of God, they come to a fixed purpose and resolution of forsaking their sins, and turning to God; and, after many strugglings and conflicts with their lusts, and the strong bias of evil habits, this resolution, assisted by the grace of God, doth effectually prevail, and make a real change both in the temper of their minds, and the course of their lives; and when this is done, and not before, they are said to be regenerate. But all the while this was doing, the new man was forming, and the work of regeneration was going on; and it was, perhaps, a very considerable time, from the beginning of it, till it came to a fixed and settled state. And this, I doubt not, in experience of most persons who are reclaimed from a vicious course of life, is found to be the usual and ordinary method of God’s grace in their conversion; and, if so, it is in vain to pretend that a thing is done in an instant, which by so manifold experience is found to take up a great deal of time, and to be effected by degrees.
And whereas some men are pleased to call all this the preparatory work to regeneration, but not the regeneration itself; this is an idle contention about words. For if these preparations be a degree of goodness, and a gradual tendency towards it, then the work is begun by them, and, during the continuance of them, is all the while a doing; and though it be hard to fix the point or instant when a man just arrives at this state, and not before, yet it is very sensible when a man is in it; and this change, when it is really made, will soon discover itself by plain and sensible effects.
Fourthly and lastly, All this is very agreeable to the plain and constant tenor of Scripture, (Isa. i. l6.) where the prophet exhorts to this change, he speaks 409of it as a gradual thing, “Wash ye, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do well;” that is, break off evil and vicious habits, and gain the contrary habits of virtue and goodness by the exercise of it. The Scripture speaks of some as farther from a state of grace than others: (Jer. xiii. 23.) “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil;” plainly declaring the great difficulty, equal almost to a natural impossibility, of reclaiming those to goodness, who have been long habituated to an evil course. And the Scripture speaks of some as nearer to a state of grace than others. Our Saviour tells the young man in the gospel, who said he had kept the commands of God from his youth, that he was “not far from the kingdom of God.” But now, if, by an irresistible act of God’s power, this change be made in an instant, and cannot otherwise be made, how is one man nearer to a state of grace, or farther from it than another? If all that are made good, must be made so in an instant, or not at all, then no man is nearer being made good than another; for if he were nearer to it, he might sooner be made so; but that cannot be, if all must be made good in an instant; for sooner than that no man can be made so. If the similitude of our being dead in sins and trespasses be strictly taken, no man is nearer a resurrection to a new life than another: as he that died but a week ago, is as far from being raised to life again, as he that died a thousand years ago; the resurrection of both requires an omnipotent act, and to that both are equally easy.
The two parables of our Saviour, (Matt. xiii. 31. 33.) are by many interpreters understood of the gradual operation of grace upon the hearts of men. That wherein “the kingdom of heaven is likened to a grain of mustard-seed, which being sown was the least of all seeds,” but, by degrees, “grew up to be the greatest of herbs;” and “to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened:” intimating the progress of God’s grace, which by degrees diffuseth itself over the whole temper of a man’s mind, into all the actions of his life. To be sure the parable of “the seed, which fell upon good ground,” does represent the efficacy of the word of God, accompanied by his grace upon the minds of men, and that is said to spring up, and increase, and to bring forth fruit with patience; which surely does express to us the gradual operation of God’s word and grace in the renovation and change of a man’s heart and life.
The New Testament, indeed, speaks of the sudden change of many upon the first preaching of the gospel, which I have told you before is not a standard of the ordinary method of God’s grace; the not considering of which hath been a great cause of all the mistakes in this matter. It is true, those which were thus converted to the belief of the gospel, their faith was a virtual principle of all grace and virtue, though not formerly the habit of every particular grace. St. Paul himself, who was a prime instance of this kind, speaks as if he acquired the grace of contentment by great consideration and diligent care of himself in several conditions; not as if the habit of this grace had been infused into him at once: (Phil. iv. 11, 12.) ‘I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound; every where and in all 411 things I am instructed, both to be full, and to be hungry; both to abound, and to suffer need.” And thus I have done with the first thing I propounded to consider; namely, the true and just importance of this metaphor of the new creation. The two particulars which remain, I shall, by God’s assistance, finish in my next discourse.412
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