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Objection. An apostle has declared, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; 'for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin because he is born of God.” What, short of sinless perfection, it will be asked,) is taught in this passage ? If the expressions “ doth not commit sin," and “cannot sin,” be understood to mean the same which is now meant by sinless perfection, it would make this text teach what is believed by no one ; no, not by the objector himself. It would teach that every individual, experiencing the new birth, does from the mo. ment of the change become a sinless character, beyond the possibility of ever doing another sinful action, or even indulging another selfish affection: and this would apply to all antecedent conversions, as much as to those which should subsequently take place. There is no inti. mation that it refers to the future, any more than to the past. None will deny that the scriptures represent some men as sinfully imperfect, who had, nevertheless, been truly born of God. We are all, therefore, whatever may be our sentiments on the subject in question, under an absolute necessity of understanding the expression “doth not commit sin,” to mean something less than sinless perfection. Nor are we driven to any unnatural explanation of this phrase, when we consider it as designed simply to teach, that the true convert lives a holy life in distinction from a wicked one; and that this is the natural result of that work of grace, which the Spirit of God stands pledged to sustain in his heart.
Perhaps some objector will say, I grant that, in Bible times, the saints were not sinlessly perfect; but now a new dispensation has commenced, when every one who is born into the kingdom of God, is born a perfect Christian, and is no longer liable to commit sin. We would ask, where is the proof of a new
dispensation with this distinc. Live feature? Is it pretended that there is a new revelation from God, by which we are to learn what is the character of this, in distinction from the former generations of his children?
Having stated some of the leading arguments, which prove that none of the children of God on earth attain to sinless perfection, I proceed to show, :: 2. That such perfection is what they all desire and seek after. It is the mark towards which they are pressing. Some are pressing forward with greater zeal than others; but there is not an individual among them all, who aims at anything less than absolute perfection. That this is their aim, is made evident by the following considerations:
(1.) Perfection is no more than what God requires of them, as appears by such injunctions as these: “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation.” therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.' 1 Pet. i. 15. Matt. v. 48. These commands are to be understood in an unrestricted sense. God is gracious, and bears with his children, notwithstanding their many imperfections : but he is also of purer eyes than to behold evil, and does not sanction, or allow of, the least of their transgressions. If they love his law, (and this they do, for he has written it in their hearts,) they can not do less than to seek an entire conformity to its holy precepts. They are described as those who have respect unto all his commandments, and who esteem his
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precepts concerning all things to be right. They find no fault with God for requiring perfect holiness. So far from this, it is their longing desire and their untiring aim, to be wholly freed from the domin. ion of sin.
(2.) That the children of God aim at perfection, is proved by that repentance which they exercise, in view of their smallest deviations from his perfect law. They repent of all the sins, however small, of which they are conscious. They hate every false way; every vain thought, as well as every wicked action. Ps. cxix. 113, 128. The evil which they do, they allow not; and the good that they fail of doing, they had purposed to do. Rom. vii. 15, 16. The struggle which is going on in the breast of every Christian, proves two things; viz. that he has not attained to perfection, and yet that he greatly desires it.
(3.). Since I have made a distinct mention of the experience of Paul, to help establish the position, that all Christians are imperfect, I will now refer to it for proof, that entire deliverance from sin is what they all desire and aim at. It is evident that Paul longed to be wholly disenthralled from the bondage of sin. His language is very emphat. ic: “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death!” After certifying the Philippians that he had not already attained to perfection, he assures them that this was the mark towards which he was constantly pressing. Phil. iii. 13, 14. Here we have an experience, which is given as a pattern by which to try
If, with Paul, we earnestly desire and seek a perfection of holiness, and feel humbled in view of our great deficiency therein, we may conclude that our religion is genuine. We have now seen that the saints are not wholly exempt from sin, and yet that such exemp. tion is what they all aspire to. I now proceed to show,
3. How the conflicting principles of nature and grace, which coexist in their hearts, unitedly stimulate them to seek after higher at. tainments in holiness. The grace that is in them, gives them a relish for holiness, and a lothing of sin. When they discover the good work which God has begun in their hearts, they can not but long, in view of its amiable nature, to see it perfected: and when they discover those remaining corruptions which defile their souls, and grieve the Spirit of God, they sigh for deliverance. Paul, in his epistle to the Philip. pians, discourses as though a relish for holiness was the exciting cause of his efforts to make advances therein; while in his epistle to the Romans, he seems prompted to those efforts by a restlessness under the burden of indwelling sin. The two representations are entirely har. monious; for in proportion to the intensity of our hunger and thirst after righteousness, will be our uneasiness under our remaining cor. ruptions. When these get the ascendency, they impede our progress and paralyze our efforts; but when the work of grace revives, we have a deeper conviction of the vileness of sin, and this gives a new im. pulse to our zeal in seeking its entire expulsion from the soul.*
* As some suppose that the apostle, in the seventh chapter of Romans, is describing the mental conflict that takes place before regeneration, I shall suggest some reasons against this supposition, and in favor of the more commonly received one, namely, that his languago there, is descriptive of the Christian warfare. It is worthy of
notice, ibal from the 7ih verse to the end of the chapter, the apostle appears to be giving us an &c.
4. That a desire for increasing attainments in holiness belongs to the experience of all true believers, may be learned from those passages, where they, in distinction from the ungodly and hypocrites, are. described as empty, instead of being full; and as having their appetite kept up, and not cloyed. This characteristic of the godly is noticed in Mary's song, when she says, “ He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Luke i. 53. With this agree the words of the psalmist : “ For he satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.” Ps. cvii. 9. The false converts at Laodicea, whose religion was so offensive to Christ, were not empty, but full. In their own estimation, they “were rich
count of his own religious experiences. The spirit of inspiration led him to adopt this method, as the one best calculated to acquaint us with the nature of experimental religion. His experienco was genuine, and is exhibited as a standard by which ours is to be tried. Let us now examine this standard somewhat minutely.
1. Paul begins by giving us a brief account of his conversion, comprehending his unawakened and convicted states. Ver. 7-11. In his unawakened state, sin was dead, and he was alive. But when the commandment came, conviction ensued, sin revived, and this effected his death ;--- not death in sin, (this ho had before,) but death to sin, and to all hopes of being justified by the law.
2. After thus concisely describing the wonderful influence which the law had exerted, in acquainting him with the depravity of his heart, and in effecting his death, he goes on to express the highest approbation of that very law. “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just and good.” What better evidence can be given of conversion, than such approving views of the law of God?
3. In the account the apostle gives of the time when sin was dead, and when, by the coming of the commandment, sin revived, and he died, he uniformly uses the past tense ; but throughout the rest of the chapter, he speaks of the conflict he has, in the present tense. From this we naturally infer, that he is there describing his present er. ercises; in other words, the warfare with indwelling sin, which, during his whole life, the Christian has to wage.
4. That the conflict of which Pául speaks could not be designed to represent his own or any other man's unregenerate exercises, is evident from the consideration, that no unrenewed man ever has such a conflict, or entertains such views in relation to the evel of sin. Paul speaks of sin as what he would not; that is, what he was unwilling to do what he allowed not-and what he even hated. Ver. 15, 16. If there ever was a period in his life, when he supposed that unrenewed minds could have such an aversion to sin as he here describes, that period had gone by long before he wrote this opistle.
5. While this confict is going on, the apostle declares concerning the evil which he commits, "It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me." Ver. 17. Let this declaration be applied to him as a Christian, and it makes good sense; but otherwise, and it is unintelligible. What could be meant, were a creature who has but one moral nature, and that wholly under the dominion of sin, 10 say concerning the evil he commits, It is not I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me? Is there any other than a sinful I, that ever acts in a creature totally depraved ? . 6. The parenthesis in the 18th verse, furnishes another reason for understanding the apostle as giving us the experiences of a converted man, rather than of one that is merely convicted. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing." Had he been describing an unconverted man, he would not have needed this parenthetic clause ; for such a man is all flesh, and nothing else. But when a man, in whose heart the love of God is shed abroad by the Holy Ghost, confesses that in him there is no good thing, there is need of this parenthesis to qualify the confession he makes.
7. The declaration made in the 22d verse, “I delight in the law of God after the in. uard man," furnishes a two-fold argument in favor of that interpretation of the chapter, which I am advocating. If Paul had not spoken of himself as a convert, he could not have described himself as having an inward man. See 2 Cor. iv. 16. Nor could he, consistently with truth, have spoken of himself as delighting in the law: for in the next chapter he expressly says, “ The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God; neither indeed can be.”
8. That the conflict here spoken of by Paul, has reference to his exercises as a Christian, seems evident from what he says respecting the two conflicting laws which co-existed in his mind. It is described as a struggle, not between a båd heart and an enlightened conscience, but between two contrary propensities of the heart, one favoring
and increased with goods, and had need of nothing." Rev. iii. 17, While the hunger of the body is capable of being satiated, it is direct. ly the reverse with that of the soul. In spiritual things, they who gratify their appetite most and oftenest, have the most craving desires after new supplies. They who have made the greatest attainments in holiness, are the most eager in seeking for greater.
Such are repre. sented as being still empty, and as longing for further supplies of grace. They, in distinction from the men of the world, have found a soul-satisfying good; and yet they crave more of this good. Ps. iv. 6, 7. However high their attainments in religion, they do not cease to derive encouragement from those promises, in which God has engaged to regard the prayer of the destitute, and to satisfy Zion's poor with the bread of his house. See Ps. cii. 17, and cxxxii. 15.
5. That the saints have an abiding relish for holiness, and a desire for increasing sanctification, is evident from their being characterized in scripture as a generation that seek after God. It is worthy of no. tice, that such persons as possess a similar character, whether good or bad, are in the scriptures denominated a generation. See Ps. xiv. 5. Prov. xxx. 11–14. One way in which men of piety, in every age of the world, manifest a sameness of character, is by seeking after God: therefore David, in speaking of them, says, “ This is the generation of them that seek him ; that seek thy face, O Jacob ;" that is, O God of Jacob. Ps. xxiv. 6. An opinion has prevailed, that the expression, seeking God, is descriptive of those anxious feelings and efforts which precede the new birth; whereas the truth is, that those who seek after God, are, in the scriptures, distinguished from the unregenerate. The attention which unrenewed men give to the subject of religion, even when their anxiety rises to its highest pitch, is so utterly defective, that the scriptures have never described it as a seeking after God. The godly are the only men whom they recognize as seekers. Who but the godly can be intended in this passage? “The humble shall see this and be glad; your heart shall live that seek God." Ps. Ixix. 32. Here, those who seek God are identified with the humble. Again : “Let all those that seek thee, rejoice and be glad in thee; and let such as love thy salvation, say continually, let God be magnified.” Ps. lxx. 4. In this passage, we learn that ose who seek the Lord, are such as love his salvation. See also Ps. ix. 10; xxvii. 8; lxiii. 1; Ixix. 6; cxir. 2. Sol. Song iii. 2.
But how can it be proper, some may ask, to designate them as seek.
holiness, and the other sin. It is one and the same conflict with that which he describes in his epistle to the Galatians: “For the flesh lasteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit Against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye can not do the things that ye would.".
9. Another proof that the conflict here described, has its seat in the Christian's and not in the sinner's heart, is the assurance which the apostle manifested concerning its happy termination. While the war within was still going on, and he was groaning under the burden of sin, he gives thanks for the sure prospect he had of complete deliv. erance. Now this will apply to the war in the Christian's breast, but not to the trouble of a merely awakened and convinced sinner. The latter does not cry for deliverance from sin. Nor is there any promise made to him, that the dominion of sin shall ever be broken up. However distressed a sinner may be for fear of future punishment, there is no promise to relieve his distresses, so long as he continues in rebellion. But the Christian has a sure promise of victory, to sustain him in carrying on the war with his spiritual enemies.
ers after God, who have actually found him? To this I answer, that, in the first place, this appellation is with propriety applied to renewed men, because, though they have found God, there is a sense in which they are continually losing him ; hence they have occasion to find him again and again. Job, who had no doubt been favored with frequent and intimate communion with God, is nevertheless heard to exclaim, “O that I knew where I might find him!” And David, who at one time could say, “My soul followeth hard after thee,” at another, confesses, “ I have gone astray like a lost sheep.” Ps. Ixiü. 8, and cxix. 176. The spouse (that is, the Church of Christ—the household of faith,) is represented as at one time holding fast her Beloved, and re. fusing to let him go, and at another, as making diligent search to find him. Sul. Song, iii. 4, and v. 6–8. The scriptures furnish abundant proof that there are seasons when, by reason of their departure from him, God's people have to lament his departure from them. They feel that, in a sense, they have lost their heavenly Friend—they are greatly grieved at this loss and they now strive diligently to find God anew. This, then, is one of the reasons why God's children are with propri. ety called a generation that seek his face.
Secondly. It is proper to speak of the saints as seeking after God, because, even in their nearest approaches to him, the intimacy of their communion does not reach the extent either of their obligation or desire. In a sense, they seem not yet to have found him, be. cause their conformity to his image, and their enjoyment of his pres. ence, fall so far short of what they wish and pray for. They feel as if it could not so properly be said of them, that they know the Lord, as that they are following on to know him. Hos. vi. 3.
If, then, they who are born of the Spirit, are the very ones whom the scriptures describe as seeking after God, it establishes the point, that an appetite for holiness must have a place in their religious ex. periences : for surely, they who are seeking to find and enjoy the Foun. tain of holiness, must have a thirst for holiness itself. And this thirst is the thing which distinguishes their seeking after God, from that of mere awakened sinners.
6. That all the godly experience spiritual hunger, and strive to make progress in the divine life, is evident from the fact, that the Bi. ble describes them as having a great desire to enjoy divine ordinances, and the means of grace in general. That inspired volume is itself among the richest of these means. It is not only very pure, but very purifying; therefore the servants of God love it. To them it appears more to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honey-comb. Ps. xix. 10. “My soul,” said the psalmist,“ breaketh for the longing it hath unto thy judgments (writ. ten, rather than executed judgments) at all times.” Ps. cxix. 20.
* If the question be asked, Are not the unregenerate, as well as others, required to seek God ? the answer is, They undoubtedly are required to do this. But
if the ques. tion be, Do they seek God? we answer, It is certain they do not. “ The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God." Should any say, It is an observable fact, that sinners, when awakened to a sense of their danger, do very earnestly seek after God, I would say, that this peculiar attention which they now pay to the subject of religion, is rather an evidence that God is soeking after them, than that they are seeking after him.