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16 August, 2013
Faith - Spiritual Knowledge - Part 1
My Dear Friend,
Are you willing I should still call you so, or are you quite weary of me? Your silence makes me suspect the latter. However, it is my part to fulfil my promise, and then leave the event to God. As I have but an imperfect remembrance of what I have already written, I may be liable to some repetitions. I cannot stay to comment upon every line in your letter, but I proceed to notice such passages as seem most to affect the subject in debate. When you speak of the Scriptures maintaining one consistent sense, which, if the Word of God, it certainly must do, you say you read and understand it in this one consistent sense; nay, you cannot remember the time when you did not. It is otherwise with me and with multitudes; we remember when it was a sealed book, and we are sure it would have been so still, had not the Holy Spirit opened our understandings.
But when you add, though I pretend not to understand the whole, yet what I do understand appears perfectly consistent. I know not how far this exception may extend; for perhaps the reason why you allow you do not understand some parts, is because you cannot make them consistent with the sense you put upon other parts. You quote my words, "That when we are conscious of our depravity, reasoning stands us in no stead." Undoubtedly reason always will stand rational creatures in some stead; but my meaning is, that when we are deeply convinced of sin, all our former reasonings upon the ways of God, while we make our conceptions the standard by which we judge what is befitting Him to do, as if He were altogether such an one as ourselves- all those cobweb reasonings are swept away, and we submit to His autoV efh (authority) without reasoning, though not without reason. For we have the strongest reason imaginable to acknowledge ourselves vile and lost, without righteousness and strength, when we actually feel ourselves to be so.
You speak of the Gospel term of justification. This term is faith, Mark xvi. I6; Acts xiii. 39. The Gospel propounds, admits no other term. But this faith, as I endeavoured to show in my former letter, is very different from rational assent. You speak likewise of the law of faith, by which if you mean what some call the remedial law, which we are to obey as well as we can, and such obedience, together with our faith, will entitle us to acceptance with God, I am persuaded the Scripture speaks of no such thing. Grace and works of any kind, in the point of acceptance with God, are mentioned by the apostle not only as opposites or contraries, but as absolutely contradictory to each other, like fire and water, light and darkness; so that the affirmation of one is the denial of the other, Rom. iv. 5, and xi. 6. God justifies freely, justifies the ungodly, and him that worketh not.
Though justifying faith be indeed an active principle, it worketh by love, yet not for acceptance. Those whom the apostle exhorts to work out their own salvation with "fear and trembling," he considers as justified already; for he considers them as believers, in whom he supposed God had already begun a good work, and if so, was confident he would accomplish it (Phil. i. 6). To them, the consideration that God (who dwells in the hearts of believers) wrought in them to will and to do, was a powerful motive and encouragement to them to work, that is, to give all diligence to His appointed means; as a right sense of the sin that dwelleth in us, and the snares and temptations around us, will teach us still to work with fear and trembling.
You suppose a difference between Christians (so called) who are devoted to God in baptism, and those who in the first ages were converted from abominable superstitions and idolatrous vices.-It is true, in Christian countries we do not worship heathen divinities eo nomine (by those names). And this is the principal difference I can find. Neither reason nor observation will allow me to think that human nature is a whit better now than it was in the apostle's time. I know no kinds or degrees of wickedness which prevailed among heathens, which are not prevalent among nominal Christians, who have perhaps been baptized in their infancy; and, therefore, as the streams in the life are equally worldly, sensual, devilish, I doubt not but the fountain of the heart is equally polluted and poisonous; and that it is as true as it was in the days of Christ and His apostles, that unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.