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THE DOCTRINE OF EFFICACIOUS GRACE,
ASSERTED AND VINDICATED:
IN TWO SERMONS.
MR. SAMUEL WILSON.
MINISTER OF THE GOSPEL.
It is God who worketh in you, both to will and to do,
of his own good pleasure. Philippians 2:13.
In the beginning of this chapter, the apostle recommends to the saints, at Philippi, mutual forbearance, affection, humility, and condescension, as the great ornament of the Christian character. To this end, he reminds them of their common fellowship of the Spirit; and their joint relation to, and interest in, the blessed Jesus; who, as he observes, in the days of his flesh, exemplified these graces, in a very distinguishing manner: so entirely was his heart set upon advancing his Father’s honor, and so prevailing the affection which he bore for his people, that, “Though he was in the form of God, and thought it not robbery to be equal with God, yet he made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and, being found in fashion as a man, humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Now, says the apostle, you profess to be the disciples of this Jesus, you call him Lord; keep in view then his temper and conduct, and copy after him: “Let the same mind be in you that was in him;” and so much the rather give diligence herein, as I, who when present with you, was serviceable, as an healer of your breaches, and an helper of your faith and joy, am now providentially removed from among you: “Wherefore; my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but how much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” God is calling you to duty, diligence, and circumspection; give no occasion for the reproach that your zeal declined upon my leaving you; but remember what is before you, a crown of immortal glory, and run with patience and constancy the race that is appointed you; and, in your way to the prize, let there be no other contention, but who shall soonest reach the goal, and first lay hold of eternal life. And lest they should, conscious of their own spiritual impotence, be discouraged, he adds, “For it is God that worketh, in you,” &c. Your work, indeed, is great, your difficulties many; but if God is with you, he will give you a will, and furnish you with power to perform what is acceptable to him.
Perhaps it will be said, that the words under consideration, relate to saints already renewed in the spirit of their mind, and so cannot, with propriety, be produced as an argument for the necessity of a divine agency, in the conversion of a sinner. To this it might be answered, that it is no unusual thing, in theological inquiries, to borrow a passage of Scripture, as an illustration, where it is not insisted on as a direct proof; but the instance before us, admitting it primarily may belong to believers, the consequence will be this, that either the sinner has more will to, and power for, that which is good, than the saint, or the same God, who works in the one, must also in the other, both to will and to do of his good pleasure. If a good man, who knows so much of his duty, who has been so long accustomed to the discharge of it, and so often tasted the sweets of communion with God, whilst engaged in his service; if in the midst of all his advantages, experience, and hope, he cannot of himself will or perform any thing that is spiritually good; much less the sinner whose heart is carnal, who is a slave to his lusts, and under the tyranny of the god of this world.
The word which we translate worketh, is expressive of power, yea, of mighty power; it supposes a difficulty in the performance, and perfection of superior strength in the agent. It is not barely our setting our hand to a work, but the doing of it thoroughly, or to purpose. Accordingly, when the arm of the Lord is revealed, the sinner is born again, by the exceeding greatness of that power, whereby he subdues all things to himself. There is an energy on God’s part, and a change on ours.
This working of the Almighty is further described to us as internal: He worketh in us, and that both to will, as well as to do. Ministers preach to us, but God worketh in us. The best of means, applied with the utmost skill, will not of themselves soften the hard, or cleanse the impure heart: God only has access to the spirits of men, so as to secure this desirable event, and he can do it on whom and when he pleases; For “he worketh in us, of his own good pleasure;” a phrase which has in it the ideas of sovereignty and of kindness. God gives his grace at pleasure, to whom, and in what degree, he thinks fit, dividing to every man as he will: and as this grace is his own image, and leads on to the glorious enjoyment of himself, it must needs be a favor of inestimable value.
The words being explained, give us an occasion to observe,
“That when a sinner is born again, there is a change wrought in his soul, by the mighty power of God.”
By this change I do not understand an alteration of profession or character barely; for as the apostle tells us, circumcision avails no more than uncircumcision, where the new creature is wanting. The change we intend is real, not nominal; a change of the subject not of the name only. A man may professedly renounce idolatry, submit to baptism, as a badge of Christianity, and attend the worship of God, in the assemblies of the saints; call himself, and be deemed by others, a believer; and yet be a stranger to the change we are treating of. Again, we distinguish the grace of God in the renewing of a sinner, from reason, or the improvements of it, when its dictates are supposed to be duly attended to. Reason belongs to us as men, and is common to our nature, as raised above the beasts that perish: but this is not sufficient to make us wise unto salvation. Where is the person of whom it may be said, that, after a course of sin and impiety, he brought himself by bare reasoning, to forsake the evil of his way, to love the Lord his God with all his heart, to believe on the Lord Jesus, to worship God in the Spirit and to persevere in these things unto the end? Experience tells us, that sin and Satan so entirely possess the sinner’s heart, that there must be something more than the care and improvement of our reason to make room for Christ and holiness. Nor further, do we mean by this change that which is merely the result of presenting certain truths to the understanding, in a strong and engaging light; so that whereas formerly they were either not at all, or very little, attended to by us, now we are brought, with proper application, to reflect and meditate on them, and so are by deductions from them, engaged in the choice of virtue, and the hatred of vice. This, indeed, we allow to follow upon this change, as a fruit of it; but till the soul is spiritually enlightened, we suppose it to be incapable of judging aright of spiritual truths, or of forming practical conclusions from them.
In contradistinction to these accounts of regeneration, we assert that it is the implanting of a principle of spiritual life, or the forming of the divine image in the soul, in which the soul itself, as to the substance of it, remains the same, but the qualities of it are altered; the understanding, from being darkened, becomes light in the Lord; the will, which before was rebellious against God, is now brought into subjection to him; and the affections, which before were wholly carnal, and determined on sensual objects are now purified and refined, and fixed on heavenly things. In a word the change is real and universal the power which effects it is divine, the fruits many and discernible, and the great efficient Jehovah the Spirit.
A particular account of the exact way in which the Spirit accomplishes this great work is not to be expected, after our Lord has told us, that as “the wind bloweth where it listeth, and we hear the sound thereof, but cannot tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth, so is every one that is born of the Spirit,” (John 3:8), so that we are to attend only to the proof of the fact: that what the Scripture calls the new creature, or a principle of grace, is formed or wrought in the soul by the power of God, in a way of efficacious grace. I choose to call it the new creature, as distinguishing between regeneration and conversion, the one being previous to, though necessarily connected with the other. In regeneration, we are passive, and receive from God; in conversion, we are active, and turn to him; we repent, believe, and obey: but this supposes we have been his workmanship; and, by his power, have been renewed in the spirit of our mind.
Here I shall in some measure, pursue the very same method which a late celebrated writer, on the other side of the question, admits to be just, and which he therefore keeps in view, in all his reasoning on the subject; and so begin,
I. With those arguments which may be taken from the Scripture account of the work itself which is represented to us in such terms, as lead us necessarily to conclude, that the soul is passive in it, and that it is brought about by the arm of the Almighty. Thus
1. The apostle tells us, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature,” (2 Cor. 5:17). And again, “Neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature,” (Gal. 6:15). And so we are said to be God’s workmanship created: and yet more expressly, the new man is said to be “created after God in righteousness and true holiness,” (Eph. 4:24). I do not find it disputed whether these passages refer to the subject before us; and if they do, it must be allowed that either the metaphor is ill chosen, and wrongly applied, or it must be expressive of the same power in the new birth, with that which was exerted in creation, or the making of something out of nothing.
To this it is objected, that the term, create, does not always suppose the persons or things said to be created, to be wholly passive, or the power to be so great as we pretend; for God is said to create and form the church of the Jews, (Isa. 43:1), which must be understood of their stipulating with God, as well as of his engagements to them; in which their covenanting with him they were active. To this we answer, It is certain, whether the phrase is to be understood in a natural or political sense, it stands connected with two other instances of God’s goodness, (viz. redeeming them, and calling them by their name) in which they had no concern but what was purely passive: and, if we consider how often God upbraids that people with their breach of covenant, it will not so well agree with the design of the place, which is evidently their encouragement, that this circumstance should be introduced, which must necessarily affect them with shame and fear. I cannot but think there was so much sovereignty in God’s choosing Abraham, and so much power in his raising his family, from so small a beginning, to be so great a people, as might abundantly justify the prophet in the use of the terms create and form, without having any regard to their promissory or covenant engagements.
It is further objected, against this argument, that God is said to create that which he brings into a new and better state: thus David prays, Create in me a clean heart, (Ps. 51:10), and God is said to create new heavens, and a new earth, and to create Jerusalem a rejoicing, (Isa. 65:17, 19). As to the case of David, it is plain, his fall had so far convinced him of the plague of his own heart that he despairs of healing it himself, and therefore cries to God, Create in me a clean heart. It might be a doubt with him; very probably, after so dreadful a backsliding, whether he had ever been truly converted; and if so much power, as would justify the expression, was necessary for his recovery, we may easily conclude what is needful for the renewing of a sinner, wholly dead in trespasses and sins. As for the other passage mentioned, what difficulty soever may attend settling the exact meaning of it, the following expressions in the chapter, abundantly warrant the use of the metaphor; for, according to the prophet, “There is then to be no more an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days, for the child shall die an hundred years old; the wolf and the lamb are to feed together, and the lion to eat straw like a bullock;” events altogether supernatural and miraculous. As to the Greek fathers speaking of the new creature as a change for the better only, if it should be allowed that this is their sentiment, I do not see how it affects the argument; for the question is not, whether the change is for the better, but what power is necessary to it, and to whom it is to be referred, to God or the creature.
2. Another Scripture representation of regeneration is that of our being quickened by the great God, when dead in sins, (Eph. 2:1-5). And what the power is, whereby we are quickened, the apostle tells us, (Eph. 1:18-19). “That ye may know what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead.” Whatever may be the fact the apostle had in view, the terms are as strong and expressive, as language will admit. Great pains are taken by our opponents, in expounding this place of the resurrection of the body, in the last day, which they allow to be a work of almighty power; but it is impossible to prove this to be the meaning of it, because there is not a word of the resurrection of the saints in the text. The natural meaning of the place is evidently this: the apostle prays that God would enlighten them into that mystery of mercy, the work of faith in their souls, begun and carried on by the same power, which raised his Son from the dead; and whereas he speaks of those who did believe, it is to acquaint them, that faith, in the exercise and increase, is from the divine power, as well as in the first principle.
How far this power is consistent with Scripture exhortations and persuasions will be considered in its place.
3. We are said, in Scripture, to be born from above, to be born of God, and not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. In regeneration, the agency is removed from the creature, and ascribed to the great Creator.
To this it is objected, that we are said to be “begotten by the word of the living God, and that faith comes by hearing,” and the apostle tells the Corinthians, “he begot them by his gospel;” which must, say our opponents, be understood in a way of moral suasion, and not in that supernatural, all-powerful way we contend for. To this we reply, that though “faith comes by hearing, yet it is not of ourselves; it is the gift of God.” Ministers preach, and whilst they preach, and with their preaching, God works, and so it is that men are turned unto him; otherwise even a Paul may plant, and an Apollos water, but there will be no increase; for, as the apostle observes, they are only ministers, by whom we believe: “Neither is he that planteth any thing, nor he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase.” So that we conclude, the metaphors, which the Scripture makes use of, in representing the renewing of a sinner, carry in them plain marks of a divine interposure, and that in a way of infinite and almighty power. And to understand them otherwise, is to charge the Holy Spirit with what is allowed to be a blemish in all writers, the using of words without meaning, or of figures widely distant from, and disproportionate to the subject.
II. If we consider the Scripture account of the sinner before this change passes upon him, it will serve as a further proof of the necessity of efficacious grace, in our being born again.
1. We are said to be “dead in trespasses and sins,” (Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13); that is, by reason of sin, to be altogether impotent to that which is good. As the organs of the body at death cease to perform their usual functions, so the unrenewed sinner is without God and without Christ in the world; he is lost to his duty, and estranged from everything that is spiritually good.
To this it is objected, that common convictions, especially where they are strong, prove that the sinner, even before conversion, is not void of all sense, as a dead body is; so that the argument, according to us, if it proves anything, proves, say they, too much. To this we answer that all convictions are originally from God, and the sinner, under the greatest fear of punishment, may have no apprehension of the excellency of his duty, nor any spiritual desire after communion with God; witness Judas, who, though he had a hell in his conscience, was utterly a stranger to the grace of God.
It is further objected, that the places cited concern only the Gentile world, held under the government of Satan, but have no relation to the proselytes of justice, much less to the Jew, and least of all to the baptized Christian. To this it is sufficient to reply, that the apostle was quite of another mind, or he would not have said, “Among whom we all had our conversation in times past;” and, in another epistle, where he is professedly considering the difference between Jew and Gentile, he says: “What then, are we better than they? no, in no wise; for we have before proved both Jew and Gentile, that they are all under sin,” (Rom. 3:9); and therefore he uses that phrase to the church of Corinth, after an enumeration of the greatest sinners, “Such were some of you,” (1 Cor. 6:20). And he puts himself into the number, in what he says to Titus: “For we ourselves also were some time foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts.” Now, it will easily be granted, that the apostle, before his conversion, was restrained from grosser sins; none suppose that he ran into all excess of riot, but had escaped the pollutions which were in the world through lust; and if that is allowed, it will be difficult to assign a reason why he should thus put himself into the number of the chief of sinners, if there had not been something common to them all; I mean, an impotence to good, and a propensity to evil.
2. A further account, which the Scripture gives us, of our condition before conversion, is, that our understanding is darkened; that we are alienated from the life of God, through the ignorance that is in us, because of the blindness of our hearts, (Eph. 4:18); yea, we are said to be darkness, (v. 8). And the apostle tells us: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned,” (1 Cor. 2: 14); so that if we are made wise unto salvation, “God, who commanded light to shine out of darkness,” must, in the same way, and by the same power, “enlighten our understandings, to give us the knowledge of his glory, as it shines in the Person of his Son,” (2 Cor. 4:6). Till this is the case, the gospel, though in itself the wisdom of God, will be accounted foolishness, (1 Cor. 1:23-24).
As to what is objected, that these passages only describe the case of the willfully blind, who love darkness rather than light, we answer, they are evidently delivered in too general terms to admit of such an interpretation; yea, we are expressly told, “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none that understands; there is none that seeks after God,” (Rom. 3:10-11).
3. Another argument may be taken from our Lord’s words: “No man can come unto me, except the Father, who hath sent me, draw him,” (John 6:44). By coming to Christ, we understand receiving him, or believing in him: by the Father’s drawing, his work of power upon the heart of a sinner, when he is brought to Christ. Now, without this, says our Lord, no man can come unto me; not the wise and prudent, the learned or ingenious, any more than the ignorant and illiterate, the obstinate and rebellious: the event is alike impossible to them all; “no man can come except the Father draw him.”
To this it is objected, that, if this is the case, there is nothing praiseworthy in our faith, or blameworthy in our unbelief; since when God draws, there is no resisting; and where he is not pleased to do it, we cannot move, in a spiritual sense. To this we answer: it is as true, that before conversion, we will not, as that we cannot come to Christ: though we may not be condemned for a mere impossibility of believing, yet we may very justly, for strengthening ourselves in our prejudices against Christ, and the way of salvation by him. That the Scripture expressly tells us, faith is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God; and yet we are required to believe. Nor do I see any such contradiction is some men’s being judicially, as a punishment for their sins, shut up in unbelief and their condemnation for loving darkness, rather than light.
Again, it is objected, that this drawing of the Father is to be understood only or principally of God’s persuading, and prevailing upon us to come to Christ, by the consideration of the miracles, or mighty works, which were done by him? as an evidence of his being the Messiah, and by the promise of eternal life upon our coming. To this we answer, that supposing (though we can by no means allow it) this were the genuine sense of the place, we might urge it as an argument in the case before us; for if we cannot, but as taught of God, consider the nature and evidence of Christ’s miracles, which are barely facts, supposed to be done by him, in confirmation of his mission, much less can we, without a divine interposure, renounce our darling corruptions, quit our most beloved iniquities, and heartily embrace Jesus, as our Saviour and our King. In short, the tree must first be made good, before it can produce any good fruit; for “the carnal mind,” whilst it continues so, “is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be,” (Rom. 8:7).
III. Our next general head of argument is taken from God’s challenging this work as his own, speaking of it as performed by him, and in such terms, as manifestly exclude the creature’s agency: thus we read, “The Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul,” (Deut. 30:6). This is thus explained by the prophet Ezekiel: “I will give them one heart, and I will put a new Spirit within you, and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes,” (Ezek. 11:19-20). A like promise we have in these words: “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean. From all your idols will I cleanse you; a new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh; and I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes,” (Ezek. 36:26-28). And so the prophet Jeremiah, giving an account of the new covenant, does it in these terms: “This shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” (Jer. 31:33). And more fully in the following words: “I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear for ever,” (Jer. 32:39). Now, can it be thought that, by all these expressions, God intends no more than that he will assist and succeed our endeavors to renew and convert ourselves? Is this the meaning of his putting his Spirit within us? of his taking the stone out of the heart, and giving a heart of flesh? Why does he promise so often, I will do this for you, if the work were divided between him and us? So that, according to the language of the Old Testament, we are to expect renewing grace from God, as his own proper work.
To this it is objected, that the passages mentioned out of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, refer to the Jews in the end of the world, and therefore are wrongly produced in the question before us. To this we answer, that if that be the case, it proves, however, their conversion will be of God. Besides, these promises contain blessings, which are inseparable from salvation, and what every saint is in the experience of.
The apostle, in his epistle to the Hebrews, (8:8), &c., quotes them, and applies them to Christ, as the surety of this covenant, and so uses this as an argument of the superior excellency of the gospel, above the Jewish dispensation. That the covenant is better, established upon better promises, would have been foreign to this design, if it relates only to the recovery of the Jews, in the end of the world.
In the New Testament we read, that God opened the heart of Lydia, (Acts 16:14); that faith is not of ourselves, it is his gift, (Eph. 2:8). He gives it to some to believe; he must draw, or there will be no coming to Christ, (John 6:44). Paul preaches and prays, but God opened Lydia’s heart. He must prepare the heart for the seed, and cause the seed to take root, and to bring forth fruit to his glory: and therefore the apostle distinguishes between the gospel, and the power that renders it successful; “Our gospel came to you, not in word only, but also in power, (1 Thess. 1:5). Life and immortality are, indeed, brought to light by the gospel; but God only can make it unto us a savor of life unto life; and this he does, when he makes it his power unto salvation. But to proceed,
IV. Another argument for the efficacy of the grace of God in regeneration, may be taken from this consideration: that supposing infants are polluted and defiled, in consequence of what we call original sin, as many of these as die before the actual exercise of reason, must either be renewed by the immediate hand of God, or be excluded from salvation, since our Lord has told us, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” (John 3:3); nor will it be disputed, that without habitual holiness, at least, no man can see the Lord. As for infants, we take it for granted, in the present argument, that they are conceived in sin, and shapen in iniquity; that which is born of the flesh, is flesh; that they are, by reason of the disobedience of the first man, sinners, and so unworthy of and unmeet for the heavenly glory, and must be excluded from it, unless washed in the blood of Jesus, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. To suppose them all, or indeed any of them, to perish, is to be cruelly wise above what is written; and to imagine they are so holy, as to need no cleansing, or that anything defiled can enter into heaven, is directly flying in the face of Scripture; so that though we are not told positively what is their portion, yet we may safely determine that they are made meet, if in heaven, for that inheritance, which is incorruptible and undefiled. And, if this is the case, we cannot suppose they contribute anything to it themselves; it must be from the abundant mercy and powerful grace of a compassionate God Now, can it be thought that persons grown to years of maturity, who have for a great while accustomed themselves to do evil, and whose vicious habits are hereby confirmed and enlarged, will be more easily wrought upon? It is true, they have some degrees of reason and conscience; but as these are in the service of sin, the bias will be ever to evil, till it is altered by the grace of God. If it should be said, Secret things belong to God; and, as he has not expressly told us what will be the final state of infants, no argument can be fairly drawn from premises, which are in themselves uncertain: we answer, no more is intended by it, than what will be easily granted by those who allow the doctrine of original sin: and where this is denied, we agree it is of no force.
We might now produce some eminent instances of the grace of God, in the renewing of sinners, as they stand recorded in Scripture; from which we may conclude, that in their case, however, the happy change was from God, and the immediate effect of his almighty power. Thus, in the story of Zaccheus, it does not appear that our Lord said any more to him than this, “Make haste and come down; to-day I must abide at thine house,” Luke xix. Yet presently a change was wrought in his soul, and the fruits of it appeared in an ingenuous confession of his former iniquities, and, in an humble resolution to pursue the contrary paths of justice and mercy. Now, what can this, so great and sudden an alteration, be attributed to, but the powerful influence which the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ had upon his mind? We cannot suppose there was an opportunity for a great deal of discourse or reasoning with him; but if there was, we may easily judge how far words alone are sufficient to engage a rigorous oppressor in acts of righteousness and mercy; so that, from the effects, we may judge of the cause, and conclude, that so great a change could not have been made at once upon such a heart, but by the same power whereby God is able to subdue all things to himself. Another instance, which might be mentioned, is that of Saul, who was not proselyted to Christianity under a sermon, or at a religious conference, Acts ix., but when his mind was under the strongest and most settled prejudice against it; when his zeal in persecuting the church was heightened into a kind of fury or madness: under these unpromising circumstances, he is made to hear the voice of the Son of God, and live: and, in the humble language of a disciple, to say, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” instead of going on, as he had designed, in making havoc of the church. We might add the ease of the thief on the cross, who either went to heaven without holiness, or received it immediately from that Jesus, who said to him, “This day thou shalt be with me in paradise,” (Luke 22:39), &c. If it is said, These are extraordinary cases; we answer, Whatever difference there may be in the circumstances of sinners, the power is the same in the renewing of them all; for the enmity, which is in every sinner’s heart against Christ and holiness, can only be removed by an act of omnipotence.
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