THE FORCE OF TRUTH
(First published in 1779)
In January 1777, I met with a very high commendation of Mr. Hooker’s writings, in which the honourable appellation of ‘judicious’ was bestowed upon him. This excited my curiosity to read his works, which accordingly I did with great profit. In his Discourse on Justification, (edit. 1682, p. 496,) I met with the following remarkable passage, which, as well for its excellency as for the effect it had upon my religious views, I shall, though rather long, transcribe. “If our hands did never offer violence to our brethren, a bloody thought doth prove us murderers before him [God]. If we had never opened our mouth to utter any scandalous, offensive, or hurtful word, the cry of our secret cogitations is heard in the ears of God. If we did not commit the sins which, daily and hourly, in deed, word, or thought, we do commit, yet, in the good things which we do, how many defects are there intermingled! God, in that which is done, respecteth the mind and intention of the doer. Cut off then all those things wherein we have regarded our own glory; those things which men do to please men, and to satisfy our own liking; those things which we do by any respect, not sincerely, and purely for the love of God; and a small score will serve for the number of our righteous deeds. Let the holiest and best thing we do be now considered:Â— we are never better affected unto God than when we pray; yet when we pray, how are our affections many times distracted! how little reverence do we show unto the grand Majesty of God, unto whom we speak! how little remorse of our own miseries! how little taste of the sweet influence of his tender mercies do we feel! Are we not as unwilling many times to begin, and as glad to make an end, as if in saying, ‘Call upon me,’ He had set us a very burdensome task?
It may seem somewhat extreme which I will speak;
therefore let every one judge of it, even as his own heart shall tell him, and no otherwise. I will but only make a demand: if God should yield unto us, not, as unto Abraham, if fifty, forty, thirty, twenty, yea, or if ten good persons could be found in a city, for their sakes the city should not be destroyed; but and
if he should make us an offer thus large:Â—Search all the generations of men, since the fall of our father Adam; find one man that hath done one action, which hath passed from him pure, without any stain or blemish at all; and for that one man’s action only, neither men nor angels shall feel the torments which are prepared for both: do you think that this ransom to deliver men and angels could be found to be among the sons of men? The best things which we do, have somewhat in them to be pardoned; how then can we do any thing meritorious or worthy to be rewarded? Indeed, God doth liberally promise whatsoever appertaineth to a blessed life, to as many as sincerely keep his law, though they be not exactly able to keep it. Wherefore we acknowledge a dutiful necessity of doing well, but the meritorious dignity of doing well we utterly renounce. We see how far we are from the perfect righteousness of the law; the little fruit which we have in holiness, it is. God knoweth, corrupt and unsound; we put no confidence at all in it; we challenge nothing in the world for it; we dare not call God to reckoning, as if we had him in our debt-books. Our continual suit to him is, and must be, to bear with our infirmities, and pardon our offences.”
I had no sooner read this passage, than I acquired such an insight into the strictness and spirituality of the Divine law, and the perfection which a just and holy God, according to that law, cannot but require in all the services of his reasonable creatures; that I clearly perceived my very best duties, on which my main dependence had hitherto been placed, to be merely specious sins; and my whole life appeared to be one continued series of transgression. I now understood the apostle’s meaning, when he affirms, that “By the works of the law can no flesh be justified before God.” All my difficulties in this matter vanished; all my distinctions and reasonings about the meaning of the words “law” and “justification,” with all my borrowed criticisms upon them, failed me at once. I could no longer be thus amused; for I was convinced, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that all men were so notoriously transgressors of every law of God, that no man could possibly be justified in his sight by his obedience to any of the Divine commandments. I was sensible that if God should call me into judgment before him, according to the strictness of his perfect law, for the best duty I ever performed, and for nothing else, I must be condemned as a transgressor; for when weighed in these exact balances, it would be found wanting. Thus I was effectually convinced, that if ever I were saved, it must be in some way of unmerited
mercy and grace, though I did not clearly understand in what way till long after. Immediately, therefore, I took for my next text. Gal. 3.22. “But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.” And I preached from it according to Hooker’s doctrine; expressing, as strongly as I could, the defilements of our best actions, and our need of mercy in every thing we do; in order the more evidently to show that salvation is of grace, through faith;Â—not of works, lest any man should boast.
I had not, however, as yet attained to a knowledge of the fulness of that fountain, whence all these polluted streams flow forth so plentifully into our lives and conversation. Neither was I then able to receive the following vigorous passage concerning justification, (Hooker, page 495,) “The righteousness wherein we must be found, if we will be justified, is not our own; therefore we cannot be justified by any inherent quality. Christ hath merited righteousness for as many as are found in Him. In Him God findeth us, if we be faithful; for by faith we are incorporated into Christ. Then, although in ourselves we be altogether sinful and unrighteous, yet even the man which is impious in himself, full of iniquity, full of sin; him, being found in Christ through faith, and having his sin remitted through repentance, him God beholdeth with a gracious eye; putteth away his sin by not imputing it; taketh quite away the punishment due thereunto by pardoning it; and accepteth him in Jesus Christ as perfectly righteous as if he had fulfilled all that was commanded in the law. Shall I say, more perfectly righteous than if himself had fulfilled the whole law? I must take heed what I say; but the apostle saith, ‘God made Him to be sin for US, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.’ Such we are in the sight of God the Father, as the very Son of God himself. Let it be counted folly, or frenzy, or fury, whatsoever, it is our comfort, and our wisdom; we care for no knowledge in the world but this, that man hath sinned, and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the Son of man, and that men are made the righteousness of God.”
Equally determinate and expressive are these words, (page 500,) “As for such as hold, with the church of Rome, that we cannot be saved by Christ alone without works, they do, not only by a circle of consequences, but directly, deny the foundation of faith; they hold it not, no, not so much as by a thread.” If the judicious Hooker’s judgment may, in this
important concern be depended upon, (and I suppose it will not easily be proved erroneous,) I fear the foundation of faith is held by only a small part of that church which has honoured her champion with this distinction.
Had I at this time met with such passages in the writings of the dissenters, or in any of those modern publications which, under the brand of methodistical, are condemned without reading, or perused with invincible prejudice, I should not have thought them worth regard, but should have rejected them as wild enthusiasm. But I knew that Hooker was deemed perfectly orthodox, and a standard writer, by the prelates of the church in his own days. I learned from this dispute with Mr. Travers, that he was put upon his defence, for making concessions in this matter to the church of Rome, which the zealous protestants did not think warrantable; and that he was judged by the more rigid, too lax in his doctrine, by none too rigid. I had never heard it insinuated that he was tinctured with enthusiasm; and the solidity of his judgment, and the acuteness of his reasoning faculties, need no voucher to the attentive reader. His opinion, therefore, carried great weight with it; made me suspect the truth of my former sentiments; and put me upon serious inquiries and deep meditation on this subject, accompanied with earnest prayers for the teaching and direction of the Lord on this important point. The result was, that after many objections and doubts, and much examination of the word of God, in a few months I began to accede to Mr, Hooker’s sentiments. And at the present, my opinion, in this respect, as far as I know, coincides with these passages of this eminent author, and is supported and vindicated by the same arguments: he, therefore, who would prove our doctrine of justification by faith alone to be an error, will do well to answer in the first place these quotations from Mr. Hooker.
Indeed, as far as I can understand him, there is scarcely any doctrine which, with no inconsiderable offence, I now preach, that is not as evidently contained in his writings as in my sermons. Witness particularly his “Sermon of the Certainty and Perpetuity of Faith in the Elect;” in which the doctrine of the final perseverance of true believers, is expressly taught and scripturally maintained: and he closes it with this noble triumph of full assurance, as resulting from that comfortable doctrine in the hearts of confirmed and experienced Christians: “I know in whom I have believed;Â—I am not ignorant whose precious blood has been shed for me; I have a Shepherd full of kindness, full of care, and full of power:
unto Him I commit myself. His own finger hath engraven this sentence on the tables of my heart: ‘Satan hath desired to winnow thee as wheat, but I have prayed that thy faith fail not.’ Therefore, the assurance of my hope I will labour to keep as a jewel unto the end, and by labour, through the gracious mediation of His prayer, I shall keep it.” (Page 532.) With such words in my mouth, and such assurance in my heart, I wish to live, and hope to die.
The insertion of these quotations from this old author will, I hope, need no apology. Many have not his works, and these extracts are worthy of their perusal; others, from these specimens, may be prevailed with to read, what perhaps hath hitherto been unnoticed book in their studies. Especially I recommend to those, who admire him as the champion of external order and discipline of the church, and who willingly allow him the honour of being distinguished by the epithet ‘judicious’, that they would attentively read, and impartially consider his doctrine. This would put an effectual stop to those declamations that, either ignorantly or maliciously, are made against the very doctrines, as novel inventions, which have just now been explained and defended in Mr. Hooker’s own words. For my part, though I acknowledge that he advances many things I should be unwilling to subscribe, yet, I heartily bless God that at this time I read him: the first material alteration that took place in my views of the gospel, being in consequence of it.
One more quotation I shall make, and so take my leave of him. Addressing himself (in his second “Sermon on part of St. Jude’s Epistle”) to the pastors who are appointed to feed the chosen in Israel, he says, (page 552,) “If there be any feeling of Christ, any drop of heavenly dew, or any spark of God’s good Spirit within you, stir it up; be careful to build and edify, first yourselves, and then your flocks in this most holy faith. I say, first yourselves; for he who will set the hearts of other men on fire with the love of Christ, must himself burn with love. It is want of faith in ourselves, my brethren, which makes us retchless (careless) in building others. We forsake the Lord’s inheritance, and feed it not. What is the reason of this? Our own desires are settled where they should not be. We ourselves are like those women who have a longing to eat coals, and lime, and filth: we are fed, some with honour, some with ease. some with wealth: the gospel waxeth loathsome and unpleasant in our taste: how should we then have a care to feed others with that, which we cannot fancy ourselves? If faith wax cold and slender in the heart of the prophet, it will soon perish from the ears of the people.”
It is not needful to add any reflections upon this homely, searching passage; every one will readily make them for himself: we are however reminded of Solomon’s words. There is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing thereof it may be said, See.this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us,” Eccl. 1, 9-10. “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been,” Eccl. 3.15
To my shame be it spoken, though I had twice subscribed the articles, which allow the book of Homilies to be sound and wholesome doctrine, I had never yet seen them, and understood not what that doctrine was. But being at length engaged in a serious inquiry after truth, and Hooker’s works having given me a more favourable opinion of these old authors, I was inclined to examine them, and I read part of the book with some degree of attention. And though many things seemed hard sayings that I could not receive; yet others were made very useful to me, especially concerning justification. In short, I perceived that the very doctrine, which I had hitherto despised as methodistical, was indisputably the standard doctrine of the established church when the homilies were composed; and consequently that it is so still; for they have lost none of their authority (however fallen into disrepute) with those who subscribe the thirty-nine articles. This weakened my prejudice, though it did not prove the doctrine true**
* Continued from Vol. 9 p.31.
**To be continued.