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That steadfastness in the Christian religion, and in its peculiar doctrines, which is the result of an experimental knowledge, is quite a different thing from that unyielding adherence to the religion of an. cestors, which is seen among pagans, Mahometans, Jews, papists, and (not unfrequently) different sects of protestants. The steadfastness of which we speak, is not the effect of ignorance, or of blind and servile imitation; but is the fruit of knowledge, even that which has been gained by our own happy experience. If our fathers before us have believed the gospel, and our teachers have instructed us into the divine mission of the Redeemer, still we can say with truth, “ Now we be. lieve, not because of your sayings; for we have seen him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world." The Spirit so takes of the things of Christ and shows them to us, that we seem to have a sight of his glory. While unstable minds are ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth, they whose hearts are under the teaching of the Spirit, are ever growing in the knowledge of the truth, and becoming more and more established therein.
V. The importance of experimental religion renders self-examina. tion indispensably requisite.If our religion want the experimental part, we shall have no meetness for the inheritance of the saints in light; and if our experience be radically deficient, it will profit us nothing. This part of religion, as distinguished from doctrine and practice, is confined to the heart, and can therefore be directly seen and examined by none save God and ourselves. “ What man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man that is in him ?” 1 Cor. ii. 11. By this the apostle meant, not that every man forms a correct opinion of himself, but that, through the medium of self-examination, he is capable of doing so. No doubt there are innumerable cases, where others decide more correctly concerning a man's character, especially in relation to the subject of religion, than he himself does. His sins go beforehand to judgment, and his neighbors can perceive that he is in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity, while he is flattering himself that he enjoys the liberty wherewith Christ makes free. His religious opinions may be so erroneous, or his experiences so hol. low-hearted, or his practices so vicious, as to make it manifest to all that he is an unchanged man. Admitting, however, that in all these particulars he seems blameless, still his fellow men can not know that he has passed from death unto life; for they can not discern the state of his heart. A man has power to ascertain his own sincerity, or his own hypocrisy, so as his neighbors have not. Peter could say con. cerning himself, Lord thou knowest that I love thee; while concerning Silvanus, an eminent minister whose piety he had probably never ques. tioned, he could only say, “ a faithful brother, as I suppose." 1 Pet. v. 12.
In self-examination, we have a right, and it is our duty, to avail ourselves of all the helps within our reach ; but we ourselves must use them, or they will do us no good. To aid us in the difficult task, we have the word of God, and a preached gospel, and valuable books de: signed expressly for the purpose. In addition to all other helps, we have liberty to invoke His aid, who has an intuitive knowledge of our
hearts; and this privilege is very great.
Convinced as we are that our hearts lie concealed from the view of all men, and well nigh dis. heartened in our attempts to ascertain our true character, it must afford us great relief to be permitted to say, in the language of David, “ Search me, O God, and know my heart." They who apply them. selves to this duty aright, make their ultimate dependence on the omniscience and mercy of God, to guide them in the examination of their own hearts, and to prevent their
being ruined by self-deception. VI. In view of ihe clear exhibitions which the word of God has made, of the substantial and pure nature of this department of religion, it is truly affecting to see what unsubstantial things are relied on as Christian experiences. Affections, caused
Affections, caused by imaginary discoveries, and which have the appearance of mere animal sensations, are consid. ered by many as those holy affections which are peculiar to the regenerata. One has perceived a sweet smell, which he could not account for by the presence of any odorous substance; unless it should be that mystical “spikenard that sendeth forth the smell thereof." This odor has been supposed to be a fruit and evidence of the new birth. Another has had a light or some other imaginary object, sud. denly burst upon his view; and this he has narrated for a Christian experience. Another's conversion consists in hearing angelic music, or some particular words addressed to him, A pleasant sensation in the breast, or in some other part of the animal system, has relieved the anxieties of many, and made them imagine they had received the joys of the Holy Ghost. Some have been relieved by a remarkable dream; and some, by the presentation of a promise to their eye, on their first opening the Bible. Others, without opening the Bible, have had a promise, and perhaps a multitude of them, made suddenly to pass through their minds; and from this circumstance, have inferred that those promises were applicable to them.
If such things as these be the experimental religion of the Bible, Yet them be trusted in ; but if they are the imaginations of our own hearts, and the delusions of the adversary, let them no more be digni. fied with the name of Christian experiences. Dreams, visions, and voices, never constituted the religion of the heart; nor can they be any evidence of its existence. The dreams of Pharaoh were from God, but were no proof that he was a child of God. Balaam had visions of the Almighty; but he was no saint. In the thirteenth chapter of Paul's 1st epistle to the Corinthians, we are taught to make a perfect distinction between all miraculous gifts, and that charity, or love, which constitutes the essence of true religion. And we are cautioned against considering these gifts any proof of the existence of holy love.
If visionary appearances are viewed as an evidence of a change of heart, it is because they are supposed to be a direct revelation from God to prove the fact; for surely it can not be on account of any. thing morally excellent in their nature. Holiness of heart is not necessarily implied in having a vision of Christ, any more than in seeing the person of Christ; and this last was seen by thousands of those who lived and died his enemies. The children of Israel all 'heard the voice of God, when he spake to them out of the burning
mount; but it did not transform their hearts. Why then should we make dependence on any voice which may now be heard, even though it should seem to break from the clouds? And is there any more holiness in dreaming of heaven, than in dreaming of hell? A mind, en. tirely destitute of the grace of God, may retain in memory many or all of the promises of scripture. And may not such promises be suddenly thrown into the mind, without producing any transforming effect?
These things are not that kind of evidence of moral renovation, which is afforded by repentance, faith, a spirit of forgiveness, and other holy affections: it is that kind, rather, which Daniel had, when the angel Gabriel was sent from heaven to inform him that his prayer was accepted. These visionary appearances are considered as a direct revelation; and because they are so considered, they give peace and joy to those who were before distressed. But what right have we to believe that God does, in such a direct way, assure us that we are pardoned and justified? Where, in all his word, has he promised that he will make a special revelation to such as pass from death to life, to give them assurance of the fact? Some may think there is no way to account for such manifestations, except by ascribing them to the agency of the Holy Spirit. But is it forgotten, that there is à spirit of a very different character, who walketh about seeking whom he may devour ? and that his most successful way of destroying the souls of men, is by employing subtle wiles—by transforming himself into an angel of light ? Surely, we can not have forgotten, that he made use of a precious promise of the scriptures, when he tempted the Son of God to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple. From this we learn, that the promises of God's word are familiar to that deceiver, and that a misapplication of them is one of his most subtle wiles. And all those visionary appearances which have been mentioned, are things which come within his power. They do not require the power of the Almighty to produce them; nor do they leave the divine image impressed on the heart. Men who are entirely under the dominion of self-love, may be greatly pleased with such experiences; and may feel strong emotions of selfish gratitude to God, for what they consider to be tokens of his special regard to them. But is it not perfectly evident, that such things as these consti. tute no part of the experimental religion of the gospel ? The experiences sanctioned by the word of God, are as different from them, as wheat is from chaff; and are as much superior to them, as holiness is to sin.
I am aware that some readers may think, that cautions against making dependence on things so foolish and unscriptural, can hardly be necessary: but had they known as many instances of dependence being made on such things, as the writer has, they would think very differently.* I am far from believing that visionary experiences are the only kind
On such visionary appearances, the author of this work once made dependence, and was, as he has ever since fully believed, actually taken in one of these snares of the devil. And if there be any particular class of sinners towards whom he feels a pecul. iar compassion, and under obligation to make efforts for their rescue, it is such as are taken in these ruinous snares. He longs to have such deceived ones see and feel, that they are feeding on ashes and husks, instead of the bread of life.
which are unsound. There have doubtless been many false converts, whose experience consisted in apparent submission to God. All ex. periences are spurious, where the selfish principle has not been changed. Falsc religion, however specious, is still an empty vine, inasmuch as it always brings forth fruit unto itself. The love of the false convert, in whatever way he obtains his hope, has nothing in it of a disinterested nature. His love to God (if love it may be called) is elicited, not by the holy character he possesses, but by the blessings he has bestowed, or is expected to bestow, on him. If he repents of sin, it is not on account of its evil nature or contrariety to God, but its contrariety to his own interest. If he admires the Savior, it is not because he abhorred sin, and died to rescue men from its direful bond. age ; but because he is viewed as rescuing them from its awful punishment. If he loves the brethren, it is not because they are "holy brethren” and love Christ; but because they love him, and belong to the same church or denomination with himself. His religious comforts are not joy in the Holy Ghost ; but in his own supposed good. ness and safety. Should such a one hold out in his religion to the end of life, it will not be because he delights in the service of God; it will be because he deems it a necessary means of preserving his reputation in this world, or of securing his happiness in the world to come.
VII. It is worthy of particular remark, that the inward experience of the power of religion, is the cause of all that pure and elevated en. joyment, which the scriptures attribute to the godly. They delight themselves in the Lord, and their spirit rejoices in God their Savior. They affirm that he has put gladness in their heart, more than what is enjoyed by the lovers of wealth, even when their corn and wine are increased. Ps. xxxvii. 4. Luke i. 47. The apostles and primitive Christians, though sorrowful, were always rejoicing. 2 Cor. vi. 10. Surely, it must have been from their religion that they derived their happiness; but the religion of the gospel does not become the source of happiness, until it is experimentally known. They whose knowledge of gospel doctrines is that of mere scholars, and whose obedience to gospel precepts is that of heartless formalists, do not know what is meant by that joy which is the fruit of the Spirit. We must experimentally “ taste,” to “ see that the Lord is good.” Ps. xxxiv. 8. Until we do this, we can not know that Christ is the chiefest among ten thousand, and altogether lovely: nor can we sit down under his shadow with great delight, and have his fruit sweet to our taste. Until we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we are not prepared to be feasted with those discoveries of righteousness, which are made in the word of truth. But when the Holy Spirit has given us appetite, if we find God's word, we eat it, and it is the joy and rejoic. ing of our heart. Jer. xv. 16.
While destitute of an experimental acquaintance with the gospel, we may be puffed up, and think we are rich, and increased in goods, and have need of nothing; we may flatter ourselves that we have made great attainments in divine knowledge, and that we have kept all the commandments from our youth up; but unless we are renewed in our mind, and made partakers of the divine nature, we are never made
happy by beholding displays of the divine character, whether in the law or the gospel. And as the holy enjoyment of Christians commences with their experimental knowledge of the truth, so, by the continuance and increase of such experience, their religious enjoy. ment is continued and increased. It can not be perpetuated by the mere soundness of their creed, or the regularity of their lives. It is only by their being sanctified through the truth, that they enjoy their religion. When the work of sanctification is retrograde, their com. forts decay ; and it is only when this work becomes again progressive, that their comforts are restored. In accordance with this sentiment, we hear the church, in a time of declension, making this prayer: “ Wilt thou not revive us again, that we may rejoice in thee ?” There are times when the work of the Spirit is so powerful in the hearts of the children of God, that they are filled with joy, even “joy un. speakable, and full of glory.".
Here is a motive for the cultivation of experimental religion, which we should suppose would reach the heart of every Christian ;-its cultivation is absolutely essential to his happiness as a Christian. The more he has of it, the more is he prepared to enjoy God, and to drink at the fountain of living waters ;-—to have intimate fellowship with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. Were the Christian to keep his heart with all diligence, so as to keep himself in the love of God, his joy in God, which is pure in its nature, would be like a con. tinual feast; and such pure and uninterrupted enjoyment, would be a foretaste and earnest of his future blessedness in heaven.
But let us not imagine that all religious joy is a certain evidence of regeneration. False experiences produce selfish joys: “But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it.” Matt. xiii. 20. Here was joy, not secular, but religious ; and yet the religion which pro. duced it, had no root, and therefore endured but for a while. There were some of the hearers of John, the forerunner of Christ, who were willing for a season to rejoice in his light; who nevertheless rejected Him who was the light of the world. There is a sense in which men may " taste the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come,” and yet fall away, and thus prove their religion to be without foundation. That joy which is the fruit of the Spirit
, not only relates to holy things, but is a holy joy, or a delight in such things. The holiness which is seen in God and divine things, is the ground of it; and sanctification in our hearts, is essentially requisite to a delightful contemplation of the beauty of holiness. The Christian's enjoy. ment in religion could not be preserved by having a holy angel sent from heaven every day, to assure him of the certainty of his future blessedness ; unless the Holy Spirit were also sent every day, to give him a foretaste of that blessedness. The mission of the angel might be enough to keep up the enjoyment of one whose religion is bottomed on selfishness; but it would be far from satisfying the true convert. Selfish joys promote pride; but holy joys are of a humble character.
VIII. It is important to be understood, that instruction on the subject of experimental religion, can be given to the unregenerate. While they continue in unregeneracy, they must of necessity remain desti.