THE FORCE OF TRUTH
(First published in 1779)
About this time a new and unexpected effect was produced by my preaching. I had hitherto been satisfied to see people regularly frequent the church, listen attentively to what was discoursed, and lead moral, decent lives. The way in which I had been led was so smooth, and the progress I had made so gradual; I had lately experienced so little distressing concern for my own soul, and had so little acquaintance with persons conversant in these matters; that while I declared the strictness, spirituality, and sanction of the law of God in an alarming manner, it never occurred to me that my hearers might not proceed in the same easy, gradual way. But I had scarcely begun this new method of preaching, when application was made to me by persons in great distress about their souls; for, their consciences being awakened to a sense of their lost condition by nature and practice, they were anxious in inquiring what they must do to be saved. I knew not ‘
well what to say to them, my views being greatly clouded, and any sentiments concerning justification very much perplexed:
but, being willing to give them the best counsel I could, I exhorted them in a general way to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; though I was incapable of instructing them either concerning the true nature of faith, or in what manner they were to seek it. However, I better understood my own meaning, when I advised them to the study of the scriptures, accompanied with prayer to God to be enabled rightly to understand them, and when I inculcated amendment of life. In this manner the Lord slowly brought them forward: and though, for want of a better instructor, they were a considerable time before they arrived at establishment in the faith; yet some of them, having their minds less leavened with prejudice and the pride of reasoning, were more apt scholars in the school of Christ than I was, and got the start of me in the knowledge both of doctrine and duty; and in their turns became, without intending it, in some respects monitors to one, and I derived important advantage from them.
The singular circumstance, of being an instrument in bringing others earnestly and successfully to inquire after salvation, while I so little understood the true gospel of Jesus Christ, very much increased my perplexity. I became doubly earnest to know the truth, lest I should mislead those who confided their precious souls to me as their spiritual instructor. This added to my diligence in reading and meditating on the word of God;
and made me more fervent in prayer to be guided to the knowledge of the truth. And under every difficulty, I constantly had recourse unto the Lord, to preserve me from ignorance and error, and to enable me to distinguish between the doctrines of his word, and the inventions and traditions of men.
About this time I established a weekly lecture for expounding the scriptures in my other parish, by which I obtained further acquaintance with the various parts of the word of God. It was my general practice, in penning these lectures, to search out all the texts referred to in the margin of the bible, with such as I could recollect upon the subject, and to make use of them in explaining each other. This method enabled me to store my memory with the language of scripture; and made way for a greater exactness in discussing doctrinal subjects, than I had hitherto been acquainted with.
In the course of the winter, 1777, I was engaged in deep meditation upon Luke 11.9-13, concerning the Holy Spirit being given in answer to prayer. And at length, having made a
collection of all the scriptures I could meet with, which related to that important doctrine, diligently comparing them together, and meditating upon them, and earnestly beseeching the Lord to fulfil the promise to my soul, I wrote two sermons upon the subject: one from Luke 11.13. “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children; how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.” The other from James 1.16,17. “Do not err, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.” By this, my views of a Christian’s privileges and duties in this respect, were much enlarged, and my requests were made known unto the Lord in a more full, exact, and believing manner, than before. Though I still remained very ignorant in many important matters respecting the person, offices, and work of the Holy Spirit, yet I had discovered more of what was promised concerning him, and therefore knew better what to ask.
My obligations to Bishop Beveridge must here be acknowledged. When I first began to peruse his sermons, I conceived a mean opinion of him; and it was sometime before I could prevail with myself to examine any further into his writings: but being now more advanced in my inquiry after truth, those singularities which at first offended me became tolerable, and I began to relish the simplicity, spirituality, love of Christ, and affection for souls, which eminently shine forth in many parts of his works. Indeed, I received considerable instruction from him; but especially his sermon on the real satisfaction made by the death of Christ for the sins of believers, was the blessed means of clearing up my views, and confirming my faith, respecting that fundamental doctrine of Christianity. On Good Friday, 1777,I preached a sermon upon that subject, from Isaiah 53.6. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid [hath caused to meet] on him the iniquities of us all.”I endeavoured to prove, (what has ever since been the sole foundation of all my hopes,) that Christ indeed bore the sins of all who should ever truly believe, in all their guilt, condemnation, and deserved punishment, in his own body on the tree. I explicitly avowed my belief, that Christ, as our Surety and Bondsman, stood in our law-place, to answer all our obligations, and to satisfy Divine justice and the demands of the law for our offences: and I publicly renounced, as erroneous and grievous perversions of scripture, all my former explanations and interpretations of these subjects.
This was the first doctrine in which I was clearly and fully brought to acknowledge the truth; though I had, with no little ernestness, for two years been inquiring about it:Â— to so atonishing a degree was my blinded understanding filled with prejudice against the doctrines of the word of God! hitherto they had been foolishness to me; but now, under the divine teaching, I began, though very dimly, to discern the wisdom of God in them.
I say dimly; for I was still under many and great mistakes, and very ignorant in many important points. I knew sin to be the transgression of the Divine law; but I did not perceive its odious deformity, as deliberate rebellion against God’s sovereign authority, and an express contradiction to His holy nature; as charging God foolishly, with the want of either wisdom or goodness, in laying such restraints upon the inclinations of His creatures; and as tending to overturn all subordination in the universe, and to introduce anarchy, confusion, and misery into the whole creation. I had discovered that my best actions were defiled; but I understood not that this was the effect of a depraved nature and a polluted heart. The doctrine of original sin, as the fruitful root of these multiplied evils, was as yet no part of my creed. Inconsistently, I was an Arian, in my sentiments concerning the person of Christ and the divinity of the Holy Ghost. Some faint conception I had formed of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the soul: the beginnings of it I little understood: and I continued to entertain an implacable enmity to the doctrine of election, and the truths more intimately connected with it. But my faith was now fixed upon a crucified Saviour, (though I dishonoured his person, and denied his Deity,) and I had a sincere desire of being devoted to the Lord. He therefore in mercy accepted His own work in my heart, and pardoned all that was mine; and at length extricated me from that labyrinth
of perplexities and inconsistencies in which I was entangled.
About this time, in the course of my lectures, our Lord’s discourse with Nicodemus came again under my consideration. Notwithstanding much meditation and many prayers, I could not satisfy my mind about it. I was convinced some internal change must be implied in the expressions ‘born again,” and “born of the Spirit;” and, according to what had experienced, I endeavoured to explain it; but I was still very confused in my views of that important subject, and had many doubts whether I were right or wrong in what I advanced.
Hitherto, excepting Leland “On the Deistical Writers,” I had not read any book written by a dissenter, with the least degree of candour and attention; but at this crisis I met with the first volume of Dr. Evans’s sermons, entitled, “The Christian Temper.” I was induced to read it by the recommendation of a friend; but (such was my proud foolish heart!), I opened it with great prejudice, because I understood that the author was a dissenter. However, this book came with a blessing: for by perusing it, I at length perceived that fallen man, both body and soul, is indeed carnal and sold under sin; that by nature, in every man living, the reasonable and immortal part is destitute of spirituality, immersed in matter, and, by a dishonourable and miserable prostitution, given up “to make provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lust thereof;” and, that man must be renewed in the spirit of his mind, new created unto good works, born of the Spirit of God, made partaker of a new and divine nature, before he can possibly be made meet for, or admitted into, the kingdom of God. In a very little time all my difficulties about this matter vanished, and the truth became so exceedingly plain and evident, that, until I had made the experiment, I could scarcely be persuaded, but that every person who heard it rightly explained must assent to it. This doctrine I have ever since invariably preached, with good effect, I trust, in opening the eyes of sinners, and turning them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God,” Acts 26.18.**
* Continued from Vol. 9 p.120.
** To be continued.