THE FORCE OF TRUTH
(First published in 1779) II (continued)*
At this time Locke’s “Reasonableness of Christianity,” with his “Vindications” of it, became my favourite pieces of divinity. I studied this, and many other of Mr. Locke’s works, with great attention, and a sort of bigoted fondness. But one book which I read at this time, because mentioned with approbation by Mr. Locke, was of singular use to me: this was Bshop Burnet’s “Pastoral Care.” I found little in it that
offended my prejudices, and many things which came home to my conscience respecting my ministerial obligations.
The chief benefit which accrued to me from the perusal was this:Â—I was excited by it to an attentive consideration of those passages of scripture that state the obligations and duties of a minister which hitherto I had not observed, or to which I had very loosely attended. In particular, (it is yet fresh in my memory,) I was greatly affected with considering the charge of precious souls committed to me and the awful account one day to be rendered of them, in meditating on Ezekiel 33.7-9. “So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me. When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die; if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.” For I was fully convinced with Bishop Burnet that every minister is as much concerned in this solemn warning as the prophet himself. Acts 20. 17-35, was another portion of scripture which, by means of this book, was brought home to my conscience; especially verses 26-28, which serve as an illustration of the preceding scripture. “Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”
In short, I was put upon the attentive and repeated perusal of the epistles to Timothy and Titus, as containing the sum of a minister’s duty in all ages. I searched out and carefully considered every text I could find in the whole scripture which referred to this argument. I was greatly impressed by 1 Cor. 9.16, “For necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” Nor was I less struck with Col. 4.17, “Say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it.” This was brought to my conscience with power, as if the apostle had in person spoken the words to me. But especially I was both instructed and encouraged by meditating upon 1 Pet. 5.2-4, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being
ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.”
I hope the reader will excuse my prolixity in speaking on this subject because in itself it is very important: and though I obtained no new views of gospel truth from the Pastoral Care, yet I received such a deep conviction of the difficulty and importance of that work in which I had thoughtlessly engaged, and of the imminent danger to which my soul would be exposed should I neglect to devote myself wholly to it; as laid the foundation of all my subsequent conduct and change of sentiments. I was, indeed, guilty of very criminal procrastination after I had been thus convinced; and, being engaged more than I ought in other matters, I for some time postponed and neglected complying with the dictates of my conscience. But I never lost sight of the instruction I had received, nor ever enjoyed any comfortable reflection, till, having broken off all other engagements, I had given myself up to those studies and duties which pertain to the work of the ministry. And I have cause to bless God that this book ever came in my way.
Still, however, my self-confidence was very little abated and I had made no progress in acquiring the knowledge of the truth. I next read Tillotson’s sermons and Jortin’s works: and, my time being otherwise engaged, I for a while gave in to the indolent custom of transcribing their discourses with some alterations, to preach to my people. This precluded free meditation on the word of God and led me to take up my opinions on trust. My preaching was in general that smooth, palatable mixture of law and gospel, which corrupts both by representing the gospel as a mitigated law, and as accepting sincere instead of perfect obedience. This system, by flattering pride and prejudice and soothing the conscience, pleases the careless sinner and self-righteous formalist, but does real good to none; and is in fact a specious and unsuspected kind of antinomianism.
About this time I foolishly engaged in a course of diversion and visiting, more than I had done since my ordination; this infitted me for secret prayer and close meditation and rendered the scriptures and other religious studies, insipid and rksome to me, a never-failing consequence of every vain compliance with the world. For a season, therefore, my ardour was damped, my anxiety banished, and my inquiries retarded. I was not, however, permitted entirely to drop my religious pursuits: generally I made it a rule to read something in the scriptures every day and to perform a task of daily devotion;
but in both I was very formal and lifeless.
Yet, not long after, I was engaged in earnest meditation on our Lord’s discourse with Nicodemus, John 3.1 felt an anxious desire to understand this interesting portion of scripture;
specially to know what it was to be “born again,” or “born of he Spirit,” which in five verses our Saviour has three times declared absolutely necessary to salvation. I was convinced it was absurd to suppose that such strong expressions implied no more than baptism with water. Tillotson’s controversial sermons on this subject afforded me no satisfaction. Some great and total change I supposed to be intended, not only in the behaviour, but also in the heart. But not having clearly experienced that change, I could not understand in what it consisted. However, having offered some poor prayers for divine teaching, I under took to preach upon it; but I talked very darkly, employed a considerable part of my time in declaiming against visionaries and enthusiasts, and reaped very little benefit from it. Yet I was so well satisfied with my performance, that, in the course of my correspondence with Mr. N. I sent him these sermons for his perusal; and he, in return, sent me some of his own upon the same subject. But, though sincerely desirous to understand our Lord’s meaning in this important point, I was too proud to be taught by him: I cast my eye therefore carelessly over some of them and returned the manuscript, without closely attending to any thing contained in it.
Nothing material occurred after this, till the next spring, 1776; when I was induced, by what I had learned from Bishop Burnet, to establish a lecture once a week in one of my parishes, for expounding the scriptures. This brought many passages, which I had not before observed, under attentive consideration; and afforded my reflecting mind abundance of employment, in attempting to reconcile them with each other and with my scheme of doctrine.
Little progress however had been made, when. May, 1776,I heard a dignified clergyman, in a visitation sermon, recommend Mr. Soame Jennings’s “View of the Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion.” In consequence of this recommendation I perused it, and not without profit. The truth and importance of the gospel revelation appeared with convincing evidence to my understanding and came with efficacy to my heart by reading this book. I received from it more distinct, heart-affecting views of the design of God in this revelation of Himself than I had before; and I was put upon much serious reflection and earnest prayer to be led to, or
established in the truth, concerning the nature and reality of the atonement by the death of Christ: for hitherto I had been, in his respect, a Socinian, or very little better.
But when a man has fallen so low associnianism, not merely for want of information, or by blindly and implicitly adopting the sentiments of other men, but by leaning to his own understanding, and preferring the conclusions of his own reason to the infallible dictates of the Holy Ghost; it is not common for him to return gradually, by the retrograde path, first to arianism, and then to the received doctrine of the Trinity. Yet this was my case.
Nothing further of any consequence occurred till about December 1776, when carelessly taking up Mr. Law’s “Serious Call,” a book I had hitherto treated with contempt, I had no sooner opened it, than I was struck with the originality of the work and the spirit and force of argument with which it is written. I mean merely as to his management of the subjects he treats of: for there are many things in it that I am very far from approving; and it certainly contains as little gospel as any religious work I am acquainted with. But though a very uncomfortable book to a person who is brought under a serious concern for his soul and deep convictions of sins, it is very useful to prepare the way, to show the need we have of a Saviour, and to enforce the practice of that holy diligence in the use of means which the important interests of eternity
reasonably demand. This was its use to me. By the perusal of it, I was convinced that I was guilty of great remissness and negligence; that the duties of secret devotion called for far more of my time and attention than had been hitherto allotted to them; and that, if I hoped to save my own soul, and the souls of those that heard me, I must in this respect greatly alter my conduct and increase my diligence in seeking and serving the Lord. From that time I began to study in what manner my devotions might be rendered more fervent and pertinent; I transcribed, and committed to memory, scriptural petitions; I employed some time in reading manuals of devotion; made attempts to compose prayers myself and became more frequent and earnest, and, I trust more spiritual, than heretofore, in my secret addresses to the Majesty of heaven.
About this time, after many delays, I complied with the admonitions of my conscience, and disengaged myself from all other employments, with a solemn resolution to leave my temporal concerns in the hands of the Lord, and entirely to devote myself to the work of the ministry. Being thus become
master of all my time, I dropped every other study, and turned
the whole current of my reflections and inquiries into another channel; and for several years I scarcely opened a book which treated of any thing besides religion.
The first step I took after this disengagement, was to keep common-place books; one I had for noting down remarkable passages out of other authors; and another for collecting into one view every text I could meet with in scripture respecting the most important and controverted doctrines of the gospel. Though I held this but a shorttime, (for when my engagements multiplied I dropped it,) yet I found it very useful in making me acquainted with many passages of the word of God, to which I had not hitherto much attended; and it prepared the way for writing my sermons on doctrinal subjects, with the scriptural testimonies concerning the point in hand, in one view before me.
To be continued
*Continued from Vol. 8 p.311.