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Since therefore such great privileges are implied in being the children of God, let us now inquire,
II. How far our own spirit is capable of bearing witness, that we are such.
The prophet indeed hath said very truly, the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it * ? But though it be often extremely difficult to find out the dispositions and intentions of other men, when they are bad; and indeed our own, in proportion as we are bad (because in such cases all arts of concealment are used, and we can sometimes conceal things very strangely even from ourselves); yet with a good-will we may discern ourselves tolerably well. Of our own deliberate actions we cannot but be conscious at the time; our intentions, if we examine them, will be no impenetrable secret to
And that uncertain state of mind, in which we have either no formed intention, or several not very consistent, each of us may discover to be just what it is. Then for our past conduct : though many particulars may have been forgotten by us, yet its general turn and complexion we can certainly recollect, if we please. And whoever doth but take some honest pains, after this, to compare what he hath been and is with what his conscience and the word of God informed him he should be, will not fail of being competently acquainted with his own condition. Indeed no one doubts, but he can know himself in other respects: whether, for instance, he honours his parents, and loves his friends, and desires to perform his duty, towards them: and why then should he despair of knowing, whether he honours and loves God, and serves him with sincerity ?
But many have no mind to do his will, and yet a great mind to believe themselves in his favour. Now
* Jer, xvii. 9.
- undoubtedly such may deceive their own hearts *, especially at times, with much ease. But they might also, if they were inclined to it, undeceive them again very soon; by putting proper questions home to themselves; by carrying it in mind, that their interest is to search out the real truth; and by endeavouring to consider their own case, as if it were that of another, for whom they had no partial tenderness. Some again are at a loss concerning their spiritual state, because they are uncertain about such or such points of their duty. But as these will not often be many or important; so if they were, by making proper application they may receive satisfaction. And in the mean time, without knowing which opinion is right, they may know whether personally they are innocent or excusable; by reflecting, whether they have taken such care, as their circumstances permit, to inform themselves and judge as well as they could; whether they violate no plain obligations, for the sake of doubtful ones; and whether in all matters of obscurity they keep to the safer side.
There is yet a third sort of people, and much to be pitied, who labour, with the utmost solicitude, to do every thing they should ; and yet enjoy no manner of comfort. Sometimes they will even deny, that they are at all in earnest about religion: though their concern, at imagining they are not, is a full proof that they are. And this arises generally from a disorder in the body, affecting the mind : of which however it is exceedingly hard to convince them, because, it may be, they are otherwise tolerably in health. But if happily they can be brought, though against their own persuasion, to take medical advice; the relief, which they commonly find, shews by experience, where the defect lay. Sometimes again their uneasiness, though ill-grounded, proceeds from a different cause. They read, in devotional books, confessions of sin, acknowledging such heinous degrees of guilt, as too many have incurred, but they have not : however they repeat the whole inconsiderately, though much of it was intended only for others; and so by accusing themselves of what they have never done, come to fancy themselves what they never were. And a further mistake, too frequent, is, that the pious authors of such treatises expressing for the most part very warmly, in the prayers composed by them, those devout affections, of which they probably felt an unusual share; persons, not liable by nature to such strong emotions, imagine themselves totally destitute of real piety. Or if they were formerly fervent in sacred exercises, and now, as they go on towards the decline of their days, are less so: they grow suspicious, that whatever vigour and life there was once in their profession of religion, it is all gone; and their case become bad, perhaps desperate. And thus, while the general fault of mankind is to have much ground for fear, and yet no fear at all: these poor wretches, often with no ground for any, have more than they are able to support.
* James i. 26.
Now where this proceeds, in any considerable measure, from constitution: their own thinking and reading upon the subject will but make bad worse: and others arguing with them about it, though ever so rightly, will not make things much better. The only effectual way therefore is, to prevail on them, if possible, to have some little regard for the judgment of serious and prudent friends, though in opposition to their own, till they can use it better; and suffer their thoughts to be turned for a time, while other means are using, to things of smaller importance and even of harmless amusement. For the strong exertion either of a mind or body, originally weak, or accidentally over-strained, will only produce a still worse feebleness. Moderate relaxation therefore is in these circumstances a real duty: how apt soever the parties concerned may be to look on it as a sin : for which reason it ought to be recommended with great prudence and caution. But on the other hand, it must not be conceived, that all concern of men about their spiritual state proceeds from bodily indisposition. For this would be a fatal mistake. There may be, and God knows frequently is, but too much foundation for such concern: and then the sole cure is earnest prayer for pardon and grace, and diligent study of better obedience. Or if there be no just foundation; the appearance of the contrary may flow wholly or chiefly from erroneous notions; which can only be overcome by suitable arguments. And these errors indeed are various : but as they principally relate to the articles of repentance, faith and love to God; so the following considerations will go far towards removing them: that whatever faults people heartily wish, from a sense of duty to their Maker, Redeemer and Sanctifier, they had never committed, and take effectual care never to commit again designedly, they have as truly repented of them as possible ; and whether their sorrow were ever so calm or ever so passionate, makes no essential difference: that a true faith in Christ is known by its fruits; and if it purifies the soul and life, however weak, is undoubtedly genuine : that love to God, as well as man, consists, not in ecstasies and transports, of which bad persons may have strange fits, and good ones little or nothing; but in a steady exercise of real regard and right behaviour to the object of our affection.
By these means then we may all be enabled to judge, in a considerable measure, what manner of men we have been and are: for this depends on the proper use of our faculties concerning a point, within our reach. But the further question, how God will deal with such, is one of a quite different sort: to which reason unassisted can return but a very general and indeterminate answer. Blameless creatures indeed are secure of their Creator's kindness : but in what degree, or for what duration, even they of themselves cannot know. Much less then may sinners, as we are, presume to indulge high hopes of our own forming, when we have so much cause for dread and fearful expectation. It is true, repentance and amendment, if they proceed from right principles, do renew in us the image of our heavenly Father, so far as they go : and his goodness will not permit us to despair of his returning children being received by him. But whether our return, after the offences that we have committed, be such as he can accept: or if it be, what correction he may first inflict upon us in a life to come; to what rank in his family he may then vouchsafe to re-admit us, or how long or how little a time he may continue to us the being, which we have forfeited; our own spirit can never teach us with any certainty. And therefore it concerns us beyond expression to inquire,
III. What additional witness the divine Spirit bears, that we are the children of God.
Now having originally borne witness, in the strongest manner, to the truth of the Gospel, by his predictions of it before it appeared, and his miraculous operations attending the delivery of it to the world, he bears irrefragable witness by consequence to every succeeding age, that all, who sincerely believe and obey it, are, notwithstanding their former