Volume 1—Sermon 1
How Necessary and Advantageous the Assurance of our Being
in the State of Grace Is
“Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
The church of Corinth, though it was a garden immediately planted by the apostles, yet quickly was filled with noisome weeds, whereupon the Apostle threatens it with severe discipline, if they repent not; ecclesiastical discipline being in the church, as the sword is in the commonwealth. The Corinthians distaste this severity, and question his apostolical power and authority: Love to men’s lusts, and a desire of security in them, rather than any solid arguments, make men question the jus divinum [divine law] of Christ’s institutions. The Apostle proves his calling by that spiritual success and powerful efficacy which his word had among them, and therefore instead of proving and examining him, he commands them to try their own selves. This very argument may the faithful ministers of God in England use against many who now condemn their calling.
In the words you have 1. A duty enjoined. 2. The object matter of it, which is illustrated from an absurd consequent, if this duty be neglected.
The duty is set home in two emphatical words examine yourselves, and prove yourselves. The former word does in general signify to take an experimental knowledge of anything that is either, uncertain, unknown or hidden. Hence, that knowledge which we have by general arguments and abstracted reasons cannot be called an experimental knowledge. Now because, besides the bare knowledge, there may be also a good end or bad propounded in examination, therefore in an ill sense the word is applied to the devil and his instruments, and in a good sense to God, and here in the text to ourselves. It is further to be observed, that these words do imply that men are great strangers to themselves, and that so much self-love does blind them, that they know not themselves. Again, these words also imply that there are certain marks and signs whereby a man may come certainly to know what he is, otherwise this command would be in vain. To the same purpose is the word also implies a severe and diligent inquisition into ourselves, so as to have a full experience of what is in us.
In the next place you have the object matter, whether ye be in the faith. He does not here speak of fides qua creditur, the doctrine of faith; but the saving grace of faith, as appears by the other particular, know ye not that Christ is in you? The Apostle says, ye in the faith, rather than faith in you, to show the large extent of faith, that we are subjects who do not contain it wholly; as he uses contrary phrases to be in sin, and in the flesh rather than sin, and flesh to be in us; so some observe that, enter thou into thy master’s joy, not thy master’s joy into thee; though that seem to be a fancy, and the true meaning is, enter into the place of thy master’s joy. The Popish commentators to elude this place when brought by the orthodox, to prove, that a man may be certain of true grace in him, do answer, That the Apostle speaks not here of the saving works of the Spirit, but the miraculous works; This is made an argument that they were the apostles of the true Messiah, because of the miracles wrought among them. And in Galatians 3:5 the Apostle proves the true doctrine of Christ to be among them, because of miracles done to them; we may add also in Matthew 11:4 when John’s disciples come to know, whether he were the true Christ, Jesus returneth this answer, The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, etc. As if he should have said, these wonderful works demonstrate me to be the Messiah. Now though it should be granted, that this were part of the meaning, when the Apostle calls them to an experimental proof of his apostleship among them, yet this cannot be all, because Christ is not said to dwell in us, according to the Scripture phrase, or to be in us by a mere miraculous faith only.
The consequent absurdity is in those words, unless ye be reprobates. Piscator takes reprobates here as opposed to those that are predestinated; but I prefer Beza’s judgement, who understands it of a corrupt and unsound mind, thus, they might easily discover the work of Christ to be in them, or among them, unless their understandings were in part depraved; for that he does not suppose a total unsoundness in them; therefore it is rendered by some, unless in something you be unsound. That a reprobate mind is a corrupted mind, appears in 2 Timothy 3:8, Men of corrupt mind, reprobate concerning the faith, and Titus 1:16. Although we do not take reprobates here as opposed to predestinated, yet I see not why we may not well translate it reprobates, not as taking it for such who are out of hope of salvation; but as the Scripture calls reprobate silver, (Jer. 6:30), which has no worth or fitness in it for trade. Though the Apostle writes here to the whole church, yet the duty is to be observed respectively by every believer; Neither is that true of
Estius, who to avoid the orthodox arguments for assurance of grace, says, it may be easier known, Christ is in such a church or congregation, than in the heart of a particular believer: for the text speaks not of Christ’s being in his doctrine and ordinances among them, which indeed is easily discerned; but of his spiritual inhabitation by sanctifying grace in them.
It is a duty of special concernment for the people of God to be assured of such a true and saving work of grace in them, as thereby they shall be differenced from unsound hypocrites.
There are certain notes and signs of grace, whereby a man may discern what he is.
A practical and experimental knowledge of grace does far transcend a mere notional and theoretical knowledge: there is a great difference between him that has heard honey is sweet, and him that has tasted it. It is a rule among the Hebrews, that words of knowledge do sometimes signify the affections in the heart, and the effects thereof in life, how well were it if they did always so signify among Christians. In former times Christians did much labor after an experimental knowledge, now they luxuriate into a mere brain-knowledge; howsoever in physics we call that man by way of contempt an Empiric, who goes by experience only, and has no knowledge of the nature of things, yet to be an Empiric in Christianity may have a good sense. Said Bernard, in reading books let us not so much look for science, as a savouriness of the truth upon our hearts. Now when the apostle commands us to prove and try ourselves, it is to endeavor to feel that in actual working, which we persuade ourselves is in us habitually. As for example, every man thinks he is a believer, he is regenerated; To prove or try ourselves, is to apply those notes and marks which the Scripture makes of such, and thereby to have an experimental feeling of the actual exercise of these things. The Scripture in Philippians 1:9 calls this sense or feeling, where the Apostle distinguishes it from knowledge and judgment, making it to be the inward savory sense and feeling of divine things upon their hearts.
Now that this practical experimental work of grace in ourselves, whereby we are able to discern what is true, and what is imperfect and counterfeit, is very necessary, will be made manifest from several grounds. As
First, Our Saviour did in his sermons much press this point upon his hearers. If that be true which the heathen said, Quando sapiens loquitur, aulea animi aperit, when a wise man speaks he opens the rich treasures and wardrobe as it were of his mind; This is much more true of Christ, in whom are the treasures of wisdom. And of all practical points in divinity our Saviour is most frequently on this, that which is conceived his first parable in Matthew 13, it is mainly to show the difference of true grace from that which is like it only, and as being a matter of great concernment; it is said in Luke 8:8 after the parable was ended, Jesus cried, He that hath ears to hear let him hear. Now that crying is never attributed unto Christ’s speech, but when his affections were very earnest, and the matter of great importance. It is also to be considered that this he speaks to a multitude that thronged after him with great attention, yet to such he declares that few have a good and honest heart to receive the word. When therefore our Saviour himself shall thus preach, that you may in the use of the ordinances find much alteration made in yourselves, you may have joy, faith, some kind of reformation, and yet not be the good and right soil: what a provocation should this be to us never to leave, till we be truly qualified: Our Saviour also spends another parable to this purpose, (Matt. 25), of the ten virgins, where all are virgins, that is, such who had preserved themselves from the idolatries and gross vices of the world; They both had lamps, they both go with confidence to meet the bridegroom, and there is no differencing of one from the other, till the bridegroom come: so that by this parable it should seem, that a professor having no more than a false, imperfect, or counterfeit work of grace, may live and die with a great deal of comfort and confidence, as if his condition were exceeding good, and not find it otherwise till it be too late.
Again Matthew 7:24-26, By two kind of builders, one upon the sand, and the other upon the rock; What is represented, but two kind of believers, one that has the outward profession and way of Christianity, and he is also truly rooted upon Christ; but there is another who builds upon the sand, who digs not deep enough; and this is the greatest part of Christians: your faith, your repentance, your joy are not deep enough, now mark the consequence, the fall thereof was great. Your damnation will be so much the more terrible, when all your religious duties, all your external profession shall fall to the ground. And it is a fall by way of rending, as the word signifies, oh how woeful to be rent from God, and those duties which you trusted in. Therefore our Saviour at verse 22 saith, Many will call to him at that day, have not we prophesied in thy name, eat and drunk in thy presence? that is, offered sacrifices and received sacraments? but for all that Christ knoweth them not. By all this you see, how necessary it is we be not deceived about the work of grace, and that we ought to have both our eyes in our head, lest we take an whole spiritual estate in counterfeit coin.
This experimental knowledge is of consequence, because of the easiness and proneness in us to mistake. What Austin said of the Doctrine of the Trinity, in nihilo facilius & periculosius erratur, in nothing is the error more easy and more dangerous; the same is applicable to this matter; for the words of examining and proving do imply the deceitfulness of our heart, that there are many false shapes and forms upon it. Hence are those phrases of searching our hearts and communing with our hearts; all which argue the difficulty of being fully acquainted with what is in it. The Papists indeed press this too far, as if therefore none could ever tell when they did truly love God, or had a sincere heart; but the falseness of this is in time to be showed, only there is much truth in this, that there is so much self-love and carnal confidence in us, that we easily persuade ourselves that we are indeed such as we ought to be. Ask every man one after another: Who is not confident that he is regenerated, that he has an interest in Christ, that his heart is good? and why are they so? but because they do not faithfully compare the notes and characters of true grace, and diligently apply them to their own selves. The Jews and Pharisees could never be beaten out of those vain hopes and carnal confidences. Hence the Apostle uses an emphatical word of a Jew, (Rom. 2:17), Thou restest in the Law, Thou art secure in the Law, as in some admirable privilege and signal testimony of God’s love; That which Christ promised, viz, Rest to their souls, they found in the Law, so that no load of sin could burden them, because they had rest here. As it is thus of a Jew, so we may say of a Christian, he rests in the doctrine of the gospel, and the outward use of ordinances, not feeling the weight of sin. Insomuch that it were far better to see people pray with fear, and eat their bread with trembling and astonishment, lest they have gone no further yet than hypocrites, than to be so carnally and falsely persuaded of their good condition as they are. How many are indeed but glow-worms, or white rotten trees, of base materials, though some shining there be in their conversation! Therefore this text might be fastened upon the gates of the whole world, upon every door, every post, examine, prove yourselves.
Thirdly, It is very dangerous to miscarry in this matter. Oh the confusion that fell upon the foolish virgins when their want of oil was discovered. How wary are you to take clipped silver, or counterfeit coin? but it is great danger to take counterfeit repentance for true repentance, counterfeit faith for true faith. If that praying, professing of yours, be not good and sound, you are undone forever. When the Apostle in Hebrews 6 had reckoned up several particulars, which many among us do not attain unto, they were enlightened, they tasted of the good word of God, they were partakers of the Holy Ghost, yet, says he, I hope better things of you, and things that accompany salvation. What thunder and lightnings is here? better things than illumination, than participation of the holy things, better things than tasting of the good word of God? What are not these things that do accompany salvation? May we not cry out with the disciples in another case, this is a hard saying, who then can be saved? Yet so it is, we ministers of God’s word may say, except your righteousness exceed that of outward profession, of repeating of sermons, of family-duties, of common works of God’s Spirit, which are in temporary believers, you can never enter into the kingdom of heaven; and therefore we hope and pray for better things of you, even such as will surely accompany salvation.
Fourthly, This practical discerning is of consequence, because of the difficulty to find out the true differences between grace and it’s counterfeit. It is hard doctrinally to lay down the bounds, wherein they differ, insomuch that some divines make the work of grace in the temporary believer to differ from that of the regenerated person, gradually only, not specifically, but that is false. If then it be thus hard by way of doctrine to set the bounds, how much more is it difficult for Christians in their practice to mark out the right way? The hypocrite feels a joy, feels a sorrow, feels a sweetness in the ordinances, and so does the godly, but to show how one is sure he is not deceived, and the other is, this is hard, though indeed they do differ as much as one in a dream, or madness, that is really persuaded of, and affected with such great advantages, does from him that is truly awake, and knows he is not in a dream. Therefore the words to try and prove, do suppose that a man must have knowledge of the rule: and the characters which do describe such a grace, he must also have skillfulness in managing by way of application these notes to himself, and this must be done out of a temptation, with much attending and persevering thereunto. For as in doctrinal controversies, that is the great question, which is the true church, and that which does not err? as also, what are the essential marks that do constitute a church? so in practicals, this is the great doubt, what is the truth of grace? whether I be the man that have it? And what are the notes to decipher it? And as for the former question, we would fain have some visible infallible judge to determine it that there might be no more dispute: So here, we would desire such a peculiar revelation from heaven that should by name say unto us, we are those Christians in whom are no guile.
Fifthly, It is of concernment, because of the manifold advantages that will come to us, when we have attained to such an experimental knowledge of ourselves. As
First, We shall account all our former knowledge of divine things, and all our parts though never so admirable, to have been but like a tinkling cymbal. When you come to have this inward feeling of holy things upon your heart, you will bewail all your duties, and conferences, and religious performances done by you, as a parrot that had no understanding of these things. If a man read in a book, or see in a map such and such countries, he has indeed some confused knowledge, but if he travel himself into those countries, and see the towns and buildings, he will say his former apprehension of them was but lame to what he has now, or as the Queen of Sheba, who had heard rumors of Solomon’s wisdom, when she came to have an experimental knowledge of it, then she was astonished, and said, All that she had heard was nothing to that which she saw; So it is in matter of grace, if God work these savory inward experiments in you, you will be astonished to see the difference between yourself now and once; all that you have heard, read, or preached, is nothing to that you feel; But how is it to be feared, that many have seen godliness but in the map only, they never had experience of the thing itself. How many are there that talk of conversation or repentance, as men do of bringing forth a child, who never had the experience of the throbs and pains that then are endured. Paul, what a long time did he live in a road of religious duties, but when he came to have an experimental work upon him, he died, whereas he was alive before, that is, he became sensible of the damnable and dangerous estate he was in, whereas he had great confidence of his good life and salvation before. And thus it is with every man that has gotten experimental knowledge; Alas (says he) I was alive once, I thought myself some body, when I could pray, write sermons, dispute so understandingly, but now I see I did not know what that faith was, or godliness was, that I did argue so much about, I never knew anything of God, or of his gracious works till now, will that soul say.
Secondly, Where there is this experimental knowledge, that man’s heart is as it were the Bible’s counterpane. The Scripture is the original, and his heart is the copy of it, he can read over the promises, the threatenings, and can say, probatum est [for It has been proved]. David in his Psalms, Paul in his Epistles, speak that man’s heart, feel that man’s temptations, make that man’s objections. Hence you have an excellent expression, (John 3:33), He that receiveth his testimony, setteth to his seal, that God is true. The Scripture speaks of God’s sealing to us, and our sealing to him. In this place it is a metaphor from their civil contracts which were confirmed and solemnly declared to be good by seals, (Jer. 32:10). So he that does indeed receive the testimony of the Scripture, he does solemnly declare by his life and conversation, that God is true; Therefore all those who in the general say, they believe, yet show not a practical conversation accordingly, they set not their seal that God is true.
Thirdly, Where this is, it will powerfully deaden the heart to all human excellencies; That as in man the philosophers say, the vegetative and sensitive life is swallowed up in the rational; so in a Christian his natural and animal life is in great measure turned to his supernatural life. In the thorny ground there did the corn and thorns come up together, but where the life of grace is in the practical exercise of it, all such suckers will be cut off. It is not head-notions, but heart-feelings that will exclude immoderacy of affections to other things. A man that a long while tasted of the wine of brain-knowledge, when he comes to taste of this experimental knowledge, he will say the new is best. Hence Galatians 2:20, Paul denies he liveth, but Christ liveth in him. Omnis vita est propter delectationem, All life is for delight. Till therefore you can take delight and experimental sweetness in holy things, your tongue indeed may be often about good things, but your heart can never be in them. Love of the world may stand with the former kind of knowledge, but not with the latter. Aristotle observes, that dogs cannot hunt where the scent of sweet flowers is, because that diverts the smell; so neither can we run after Christ in the sweetness of his ointments, when the smell of worldly delights and earthly refreshments do interpose.