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Spirit on the soul are often, and perhaps generally, of such a nature, that it is difficult exactly to distinguish them from the rational exercise of our own thoughts; because the Spirit operates / by suggesting rational views of things, and awakening rational affections. For whatever some have vainly and dangerously insinuated, nothing is so rational as the sentiments and temper which prevail in renewed souls, and to which it is the work of God's regenerating Spirit to bring them.
These operations, where there is a religious education, often begin very early; but then, in some degree, the impressions wear off from the weak and flexible mind ; and perhaps there are various instances in which they alternately revive and decay again. And this vicissitude of affectionate applications to religion, under moving ordinances, afflictions, or deliverances, and of backslidings and remissness in it, may be permitted, with respect to many, to continue for a long time. At length, under the various methods of providence and grace, the soul arrives to greater steadiness, and a more habitual victory over the remainders of indwelling sin : But it may be exceeding hard, and perhaps absolutely impossible, to determine concerning some remarkable scenes through which it has passed, wherber such a one in particular, perhaps the last which strikes the memory, were the season of its new birth, or whether it were merely a recovery from such a degree of negligence and remissness, as may possibly be consistent with real religion, and be found in a regenerate soul.
These balancings of backsliding and recovery often occasion very great perplexity; and such sort of converts are frequently much discouraged, because they cannot give the history of their religious experiences in so clear and distinct a manner as others; and particularly, because they have not passed through such violent terrors and agitations of mind as many, who were perhaps once sunk into much deeper degeneracy, have done. Nevertheless, where there is a consciousness of an undissembled love to God, an unreserved devotedness to his service, a cordial trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and a sincere affection to mankind in general, and especially to those of the household of faith, a man ought not to perplex himself on this account. For as every man knows he was born into the world, by a consciousness that he now lives and acts here, though it is impossible he should remember any thing of the time or circumstances in which he was first produced into it: So may a christian be assured that some way or another he was born of the Spirit, if he
can trace its genuine fruits and efficacious influences, in a renewed heart and life.
I have thus laid down several particulars, which appeared to me important, in order to illustrate that diversity which is observable in the methods of the divine operation on the heart: And they will naturally lead us to these three reflections, with which I shall conclude my present discourse. Let us not make our own experiences a standard for others ;-nor the experiences of others a standard for ourselves ;-nor let us be unwilling, in a prudent manner, to communicate our spiritual experiences to each other. [1.] Let us not make our own experiences a standard for others.
Let us remember that there is, as we have heard, a diversity of operations; and that many a person may be a dear child of God, who was not born just with those circumstances which attended our own regeneration. Others may not so particularly have discerned the time, the occasion, the progress of the change: They may not have felt all that we felt, either in a way of extraordinary terror or extraordinary comfort ; and yet perhaps may equal or even exceed us in that holy temper to which it was the great intention of our heavenly Father, by one method or another, to bring all his children. Nay I will add, that christians of a very amiable and honourable character may espress themselves but in a dark, and something of an improper manner, concerning the doctrine of regeneration, and may, in conscience, scruple the use of some phrases relating to it, which we judge to be exceeding suitable; and yet, that very scruple which displeases us may proceed from a reverence for God and truth, and from such a tenderness of heart as is the effect of his renewing grace. We should therefore be very cautious how we judge each other, and take upon us to reject those whom perhaps God has received.
I remember good Dr. Owen, whose candour was in many respects very remarkable, carries this so far, as somewhere to say, “ that some may perhaps have experienced the saving influences of the holy Spirit on their hearts, who do not in words acknowledge the necessity, or even the reality of those influences.” Judging men's hearts, and judging their states, is a work for which we are so ill qualified, that we have reason to be exceeding thankful it is not assigned to us. And when we are entering into such an examination of their character, as our duty may in some particular circumstances seem to require, we should be very solicitous that we do not lay down arbitrary and
precarious rules. It seems indeed, that so far as we can learn it, we may more safely judge by their present temper and conduct, than by the history of any thing which has formerly passed in their minds.
And let me add it as a necessary caution here, that they who never felt any of the extraordinary emotions of mind which have been described under some former heads, but have been brought to religion by less observable methods, perhaps by calm rational views of it, of whom I believe there are great numbers, should be very cautious that they do not rashly censure such things as I have now been representing, as if they were mere enthusiasm. I cannot but think this a criminal Limiting the Holy One of Israel*, and fear it will be found a boldness higbly displeasing to him, and very injurious to the souls of those who allow themselves in it, and of others too, if they be such as are employed in the ministerial work : Not now to insist on what in comparison of this is but a small matter, the apparent rudeness and petulancy of contradicting facts so well attested as many of this kind have been, and running counter to the solid effects which such impressions have produced. The rashness which prevails under different forms among men of the most opposite sentiments, is too obvious ; but if we would give ourselves leave calmly to weigh and consider matters, our spirits would be rendered on all sides more moderate, and many harsh and hasty censures would be suspended, which at present prove very little more, than the ignorance, pride, and folly of those that pass them. [2.] Let us not make the experiences of others a standard for
This is frequently the case, and especially with those who are naturally of a humble and tender temper; for whose peace and comfort therefore one cannot but be peculiarly solicitous. Having heard of some extraordinary experiences of others, they are ready to imagine, because they can trace nothing correspondent to these in their own minds, that they are utter strangers to real regeneration, and have nothing more than such religious notions and forms, as natural men may easily learn of each other.
But what I have now been saying of the variety of the divine operations on the heart, affords a solid, answer to such
scruples when they arise in a pious mind. Reflect, on this occasion, how it is in the works of nature: There we know that God works in all, so that he is the life and existence of the whole creation; and yet, as an excellent writer expresses it, “ He alone seems not to work :" His agency is so invisible and secret, that did not reason and scripture join to teach it, one might live a great many years in the world without knowing any thing more, than that such and such effects are produced by correspondent second causes: though in strict propriety of speech they are no causes at all, but owe all their efficacy to the divine presence and operation. Sense tells us that the sun enlightens the earth, and warms it ; that the rain waters it, the seeds produce vegetables, and the animals continue their proper race: But that God is The Father of lights*, that he Has prepared the light and the sunt; that he Visits the earth, and causes rain to descend into the furrows thereoft, so as to make The grass to grow for cattle, and corn and herb for the service of mans; that he Sends forth his Spirit, and the animal race is created, and the face of the earth renewed|| ; this I say, is what multitudes of the human race are not aware of; because in all these things he acts in a gentle, stated, and regular manner, and employs inferior agents as the instruments of his providence. And just thus gentle, silent, and regular are the influences of his Spirit upon men's souls ; and it is often impossible exactly to distinguish them from the teachings of parents and ministers, and from those reflections which seem to spring from our own minds, though it is he That gives us counsel, while our reins instruct us in our secret musings, and that teaches us to profit by the lessons which others give us.
Be not therefore surprised, and be not dejected, though you cannot assign the place, the time, the manner, in which your conversion began; and though you are strangers to the terrors, the sorrows, or the transports of joy, which you have heard one and another express. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and the Spirit dispenses his influences where and when, and in what measure and degree he pleases: But while the way and manner of his operation may be secret and unknown, the effects of it are sensible and evident; and as with regard to The wind, thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth ; so is every one that is born of the Spirit**. You may not certainly know when to fix the
Jam. i. 17. + Psal. Ixxiv. 16.
Psal. Ixv. 9, 10. that John iii. 8.
§ Psal. civ. 14.
precise time of your conversion, or how to trace the particular steps by which it has been brought to pass ; for As thou knowest not what is the way of the Spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all*. But though you cannot trace the process of the operation, the effects of it are such as you may feel within you, and By its fruits it will be knownt. It is indeed desirable, to be able to give an account of the beginning and the progress of the work of God upon your souls, as some that are regenerate can do ; but this is not necessary to evidence the truth of grace. Happy is he who in this case can say, as the blind man in the gospel, One thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I seet. For as you know that there is fire when you see the flame, though you know not how or when it began: So also it may be discerned, that you have really undergone a saving change, though you know not how or when it was wrought in your hearts. If you answer the characters I laid down in the preceding discourses, as essential to the truly regenerate, which are all comprehended in repentance and faith, producing an unfeigned love and uniform obedience, you may trace the cause from the effect with far greater certainty than you could have traced such an effect, as what would infallibly follow from any cause, which you could have perceived in your mind previous to it. There may be great awakenings, violent terrors, and ecstatic joys, where there is no saving work of God on the soul : But where the divine image is produced, and the soul is actually renewed, we are sure, as was before observed, that grace has been working, though we know not when, or where, or how. And therefore on the whole, guarding against both these extremes, and to cure them both.
[3.] Let christians, in a prudent and humble manner, be ready to communicate their religious experiences to each other.
God undoubtedly intended that the variety of his operations should be observed and owned in the world of grace, as well as in that of nature ; and as these things pass in the secret recesses of men's hearts, how should they be known, unless they will themselves communicate and declare them ? And let me caution you against that strange averseness to all freedoms of this kind which, especially in persons of a reserved temper, is so
* Eccl. xi. 5.
John ix, 25.
+ Matt. vij 20.