This unpretending little volume forms the commencement of a series of similar works, which it is the author's design, should the Lord permit, to publish upon the important subject of experimental religion, under the general title of "The Inquirer Directed to an Experimental and Practical View of Divine Truth." Various considerations, to one or two of which he may be permitted to allude, suggested the undertaking, and pleaded for its execution. The first that may be mentioned was, the vast and solemn importance of the subject.
The religion of the Lord Jesus is valuable only as its power is experienced in the heart. In this respect, and in this only, it may be compared to the physical sciences, which, however ingenious in structure, or beautiful in theory, yet, if not reduced or reducible to purposes of practical use, are of little worth. It is so with the truth of Jesus. The man of mere taste may applaud its external beauty- the philosopher may admire its ethics, the orator its eloquence, and the poet its sublimity, but if the Spirit of God does not take his own truth, and impress it upon the heart, as to the great design of its revelation, it avails nothing. What numbers there are who rest in the mere 'theory' of Christianity. As a practical principle they know nothing of it. As a thing experienced in the heart, it is a hidden mystery to them. They speak well of it as a religious system; believe its Divinity, and even defend its doctrines and extol its precepts; yet make no approaches towards a personal and practical obedience to its claims. In a word, they know nothing of repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ. It will surely appear to a spiritually-enlightened mind, a subject of vast and solemn moment that this delusion should be exposed- that this foundation of sand should be undermined, and the absolute necessity of experimental religion, as necessary to an admission within the kingdom of glory, be strenuously and scripturally enforced.
Another consideration which had its weight with the author's mind was, the conviction that the state of the church demanded a more spiritual, experimental, and practical exhibition of Divine Truth. To those who have been silent, though sad, spectators of the recent history of the Christian church, it is known that controversies of an alarming character have, for a lengthened period, existed in her bosom. They have seen and deplored the divisions that have rent her- the party feeling that has been engendered, the alienation and distance that have existed among those who, holding one Head, should therefore "love as brethren." To mitigate this alarming evil, to heal these divisions, and to draw the different sections of the church more closely together, various able disquisitions have been written, many ingenious plans have been proposed, and many affecting appeals have been made. But, it is the author's honest conviction, that the first and the chief step towards the accomplishment of an end so earnestly to be sought, and so fervently to be prayed for, is to deepen the spirituality of the churches of each evangelical denomination. Nothing short of this will bring it about. Vain will be all expectation of returning to an apostolic union- fruitless will be every plan for a coalition of sects, while the spirituality of the church is at so low an ebb. But, augment the true piety of the churches- hold up a more elevated standard of holiness- let them be deeply baptized in the reviving and sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit, and these controversies will all terminate, these divisions will all be healed, and the din and the strife of party interests will speedily be hushed. Christians will not hold less firmly, and defend less zealously their conscientious views of truth, but they will hold and speak the truth in love. In order then thus to strengthen the tone of spirituality among the churches, experimental and practical religion must be more frequently and earnestly insisted upon. There cannot possibly exist genuine piety apart from experimental truth, and in proportion to the deep experience of the truth, will be the depth of spirituality.
It will suffice to mention but one other consideration which influenced the author in the preparation of these works, and that was, the demand which the church herself has made for writings of this class. The church is wearied with controversy. There is a restlessness, a growing desire for publications of a less polemical and more spiritual and experimental character, which it is important should be met. There are those, and the number is increasing, who are hungering and thirsting for the simple truth of God, presented to them unmixed with the bitter herbs of controversy and discussion. They want God's truth as it is. They want it so opened and explained as to meet the daily experience of the Christian life. The inward and the outward conflicts- the struggling of inbred sin- the deep affliction- the heavy cross, all of which demand an experimental unfolding of the doctrines and truths of the Bible. And there is a sweetness and preciousness in Divine Truth thus exhibited, which controversy tends much to impair. The father of the inductive philosophy truly and beautifully remarks, "As those wines which flow from the first treading out of the grapes, are sweeter and better than those forced out of the press, which gives the roughness of the husk and of the stone; so are those doctrines best and most wholesome which flow from a gentle crush of the Scriptures, and are not wrung into controversies." (Bacon)
To meet in some degree this demand, has been the humble attempt of the Author. How far he has proved successful, the experienced believer must decide. He has commenced with the doctrine of the Atonement of Christ, it being the central truth of the Bible, on which all others are based, and around which they all entwine. The second volume in the series will embrace "Experimental and Practical Views of the Work of the Holy Spirit," and will appear, should the author's life and health be preserved, early in the ensuing autumn. Should the Lord, in a solitary instance, condescend to bless the perusal of this work, let all the praise and the glory redound to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the triune Jehovah, to whom it alone belongs.
"The Province of Reason in the Investigation of Spiritual and Experimental Truth"
"The world by wisdom knew not God. " -1 Cor. 1:21.
In a few observations, intended mainly as introductory to this series of works, we wish to explain what we believe to be the legitimate province of Natural Reason in the investigation of revealed Scriptural truth. We feel the more impelled to this- perhaps otherwise unnecessary, task, lest in the views we may advance on experimental religion, we shall be suspected of abrogating entirely the exercise of the intellectual faculties in the study and experience of God's truth, thus turning away from a most important instrument which He has given us for the purpose of weighing and sifting the evidence of its validity.
The two extremes towards which writers on Christianity have verged, have been, the opponents of the system on the one hand, descanting upon the power and sufficiency of reason, as though all the light which we possess of the invisible world and its sublime realities were owing to its discoveries, and to no other source: and on the other, the advocates of the system, abdicating almost entirely the employment of our mental faculties- setting aside the use of reason, assigning to it no office, and awarding to it no distinction. Both, we believe to be in error; each extreme of opinion untenable. The one, in elevating reason too high, the other, in depressing it too low. The one, in investing us with the prerogative of God, the other, in robbing us of the dignity of man. We feel it important then, briefly and in simple terms, to state what province should be assigned to human reason in prosecuting our researches in revealed and experimental truth. And that the reader may have the subject clearly before him, we shall first show what is not, and then what is, the proper use of reason in matters of religious faith.
First, It is NOT the province of human reason to discover spiritual truth. This far transcends the power of the highest created reason, unenlighted by the Spirit of God. We do not say that the mind taught of God can discover nothing of the glory of his character, the excellence and loveliness of Jesus, and the spirituality and fitness of his truth. By no means would we assert this. The mind divinely illuminated can penetrate deeply into the vast domain of faith, and discover the glories there revealed. But without this teaching, aside from this divine illumination it cannot advance a step. All is dark- all mysterious. And just what the telescope is to the eye of the astronomer, as when with a glance he sweeps the firmament of nature in search of new and undiscovered worlds, faith is to the eye of reason, as it ranges the firmament of revelation in search of the glorious truths of God. But unenlightened by the Holy Spirit, it can discover nothing. Take, for example, the existence, perfections, and moral government of Jehovah; what can human reason discover here? What light can it throw upon the fundamental article of our belief- the being of a God? Our senses may assure us that we exist: that we form but a moiety of human existence is equally certain. That we have existed but a short time, memory testifies- and that we are not self-created, but that there must be a First Cause, from which all creation originated; is all that we can deduce from these obvious facts. This is the utmost limit to the discoveries of reason. "Who is this First Cause?" "What is He?" "Where is He?" "In what relation does He stand to me?" "How may I propitiate his regard, and be admitted to communion with Him?" are momentous questions on which reason may conjecture, but on which it can pronounce with no authority.
Let the reader glance but for a moment at the results to which reason has come in its investigation of religious truth. What are they? where is the evidence of its mighty powers? where is the scribe? where is the philosopher? where is the disputer of this world?- let them produce the amount of their researches. What discoveries have they made of God?- what light have they reflected upon his moral attributes? How far have they penetrated into the dark and deep abyss of futurity, demonstrating with certainty whether there be any state after this, and if there be, what that state is? How have they accounted for the existence of moral evil; and what balm have they proposed for the mitigation of all its entailed miseries? And how have they solved the problem, that God can be a just God just to his law, just to himself, and yet be the justifier of the ungodly? We ask, and are referred to tradition, while that tradition is derived, we are all assured, from the fountain of divine revelation.
That this is not mere assertion, unsustained by evidence, let us show. No fact is more certain, than that all the knowledge which the ancient philosophers had of morals and of God, was traditionary; revelation being the source of that tradition. We may inquire in the language of Tertullian, "Which of the poets, which of the sophists was there, who did not drink of the prophet's fountain?" To this they came, wearied with their own fruitless researches, and panting for some better guide than reason. Here they drank, Ovid from Moses, and Virgil from Isaiah. Another of the fathers styles Plato the Hebrew Philosopher, while a third asserts that, from the Hebrew writings he derived his pious conceptions of God and his worship. A heathen writer asserts that Pythagoras transferred many things from the Jewish institutions into his own philosophy, and styles himself the imitator of the Jewish dogmas; and it is certain from the testimony of Hermippus, as quoted by Selden and Grotius, that Pythagoras dwelt among the Jews, and must necessarily have been familiar with their religion. Another heathen writer was often heard to ask the question, "What is Plato but Moses atticising?" And who can doubt but the lo on of this philosopher was borrowed from the I AM of Moses? and that his noun logos and psuke cosmo clearly refer to the Word and the Spirit, by whom, as he learned from the Old Testament, the world was made. Thus it is evident from the few examples cited, and these are not all that might be adduced in proof of the position, that in the vast domain of spiritual truth, reason can never assert its claims to the power of discovery. All that it can do, is to seize upon existing facts, and from these facts proceed to argue and establish its conclusions.
Nor is it the province of our intellectual faculties to judge in matters of religious faith with an authoritative power of dictation- rejecting what may be inexplicable to reason, and receiving only what is "perfectly consentaneous with reason." There is much of deep mystery in revelation. God, considered both in himself and in his operations, is a mystery stretching far beyond the most sublime power of finite reason. "Can you by searching find out God? can you find out the Almighty unto perfection?" Job xi. 7. And of his operations, may we not exclaim with the same inspired penman, "Lo! these are parts of his ways: but how little a portion is heard of him!" xxvi. 14. Christ, too is the "great mystery of godliness." Whether his complex person is regarded- the union of the divine and human natures in one; or whether we look at his work- his obedience and death constituting a full Atonement to Divine justice in behalf of the sins of his people, it must be acknowledged a depth too profound for human thought adequately to fathom. What can poor finite reason accomplish here? What beams can its feeble, flickering light cast upon this world of mystery? And if ever it stands forth invested in its own native impotence, it is when it sits in judgment upon the doctrines and facts of revelation, discarding or retaining such only as are intelligible to its dwarfish capacity. "Which things," says the apostle, "the angels desire to look into." Mark his expressions! He represented not these celestial beings of purity and intellect, as scaling the heights and diving into the depths of redemption's mystery- but "which things the angels desire," scarcely dare, but "desire to look into." And yet for fallen and unrenewed mind to sit in judgment upon God's truth, can only be exceeded in its brazenness by the depravity which prompts it.
If the truth of God, in its doctrines and facts, is a mystery incomprehensible to unrenewed reason, what shall we say of the truth as experienced in the heart? If reason cannot understand the vast framework of truth, how can it comprehend the secret power by which it operates? The very fact, that, to be understood it must be experienced, accounts for the difficulty. The transforming operation of the Holy Spirit upon the mind, giving it a new bias, new inclinations; turning its darkness into light, and kindling its enmity into love- the life of God in the soul, creating the man anew in Christ Jesus- that life which is hidden, ever productive of a holy life that is seen- its hopes and its fears; its defeats and its triumphs- the causes which operate to deaden it, and the spiritual nourishment by which it is supported, all, all is incomprehensible to human reason. Truly "the world knows us not."
It will be perceived then, that we readily admit that, in the revelation of God, there is much that towers above human reason, but which is yet perfectly agreeable to the very reason it transcends. Is it then, we ask, the province of our intellectual faculties to pronounce with a dictatorial and authoritative tone, what matters of religious faith shall be received and what rejected? By no means. There are mysteries in the world of mind which philosophy cannot unravel, why not reject them? There are mysteries in the physical world, with which reason cannot cope, why not reject them? Our being too is a mystery; why not, on the same grounds, reject it, and deny our very existence? We assert then, that the proper jurisdiction of our reason in matters of faith and of divine revelation, does not extend so far, as that a doctrine should be rejected, merely because it is interlaced with difficulties which our intellectual faculties cannot unravel.
It is important that we devote a moment to an inquiry into the cause of this incapacity of reason, in its natural state, to comprehend spiritual and experimental truth. The cause is, the corruption and perversion of our reason by sin: sin has impaired our mental faculties, enslaved, clouded, and debased our reason. On this account, and on this only, the door is closed which leads into the great treasury of spiritual and experimental truth. This view perfectly accords with the spiritual delineation of man by nature. We open God's Word, and it declares that since the fall the nature of man has been corrupt, and his reason blind; his understanding darkened, and his heart, the seat of his affections, polluted: "Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart," Eph. iv. 18. "That upon the face of the whole earth there is none that understands and seeks after God," Rom. iii. 11. The natural man, while in that state, so far from being able to explore the wide domain of spiritual truth, hates and flees from it when proposed to his consideration, "receiving not the things of the Spirit of God, they being foolishness unto him," 1 Cor. ii. 14. This being the state of man, God's Word consequently declares it necessary that, before spiritual truth can be understood, he should be "transformed by the renewing of his mind," Rom. xii. 2: that he should be restored to that sound mind, and enlightened understanding, and spiritual discernment, with which his nature was endowed when it came originally from the hands of God: in a word, that he should be born again, created anew in Christ Jesus; that old things should pass away, and that all things should become new. Then, and then only, will he be able to understand the mystery of the truth of God.
From this dark and corrupted state of natural reason, arises the constant and fearful perversion of God's holy truth by ungodly minds. "It is the design of corrupted reason," as Dr. Owen truly observes, "to debase all the glorious mysteries of the Gospel, and all the concernments of them. There is nothing in the whole mystery of godliness, from the highest crown of it, which is the person of Christ, 'God manifested in the flesh,' unto the lowest and nearest effect of his grace, but it labors to deprave, dishonor, and debase. The Lord Christ, it would have in his whole person to be but a mere man, in his obedience and suffering to be but an example, in his doctrine to be confined under the capacity and comprehension of carnal reason, and the holiness which he communicates by the sanctification of his Spirit to be but that moral virtue which is common among men as the fruit of their own endeavors." (John Owen)
We promised to show, and in a few words, what is the legitimate province of reason in the investigation of spiritual truth. That our intellectual faculties are to be laid aside when we come to the study of God's holy Word- that reason must be entirely sacrificed to faith, we believe God has nowhere demanded. "Come, let us reason together," is his own condescending invitation, Isa. i. 18. And when Paul stood before Felix, the Roman governor, he "reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come," Acts xxiv. 25. And in writing to the scattered Christians, the apostle Peter exhorts them to be ready always to "give an answer to every one that asks them a reason of the hope that is in them, with meekness and fear," 1 Pet. iii. 15. The revelation of God asks not the surrender of our reason as a sacrifice on the altar of faith; all it demands is, that reason shall carefully, candidly, and prayerfully examine the evidence of its validity, for, "if she have not satisfactory evidence of this, she cannot, without criminal rashness, surrender her own authority which the Creator had invested her with for the government and guidance of man;" and then bow humbly, reverentially, and obediently to the Word of God. This is the legitimate province of reason, when it comes to the study and examination of God's truth. Beyond this, it dare not, it cannot pass, without sitting in the place of God, and exalting itself above all that is called God. When God speaks plainly, it is the privilege of reason instantly to obey; where he sees proper to throw a veil of mystery over some of his revelations, it is the duty of reason instantly to submit, and believe what God has said, because God has said it. Mistake not then, reader, the true province of your reasoning faculties when God's Word speaks. He has empowered you to investigate well and thoroughly the grounds of your faith, at the same time withholding from you all authority to exalt your reason as a rule of judgment, discarding or retaining doctrines propounded for your belief; as they or may not accord with its taste or capacity of comprehension. The enlightened reader will be gratified, if we once more fortify our position with the testimony of a divine, so spiritual and profound as Dr. Owen. "To say," are his words, "that a man is not to use his reason in finding out the sense and meaning of the propositions wherein the truths of religion are represented unto him, and in judging of their truth and falsehood by the rule of them, which is the Scripture, is to deny that indeed we are men, and to put a reproach upon our mortality, by intimating that men do not, cannot, nor ought to do, that which they not only know they do, but also that they cannot but do. For they do but vainly deceive themselves who suppose, or rather dream, that they make any determination of what is true or false in religion, without the use and exercise of their reason; it is to say they do it as beasts, and not as men; than which nothing can be spoken more to the dishonor of religion, nor more effectual to deter men from the entertainment of it. For our parts we rejoice in this, that we dare avow the religion we profess to be highly rational, and that the most mysterious articles of it are proposed unto our belief on grounds of the most unquestionable reason, and such as cannot be rejected without a contradiction to the most benign dictates of that intellectual nature with which of God we are endued. And it is not a few trifling instances of some men's abuse of their reason in its prejudiciate exercises about the things of God, that shall make us ungrateful to God that he has made us men, or to neglect the laying out of the best that he has entrusted us with by nature, in his service in the work of grace."
The subject we have thus but imperfectly discussed, speaks pointedly and solemnly to those who are setting up their reason in opposition to God's truth. Reader, are you such a one? Pause, before you advance another step, "lest haply you be found to fight against God?" Dare you reject any single doctrine or fact of revelation, because it transcends, in its sublimity and mystery, the finite power of your mind? What astounding brazenness is this! Dare you turn your back upon God's truth- and in rejecting any part of his truth, remember you turn your back upon God himself- dare you withhold the obedience of your faith, the homage of your affections, the entire consecration to his service of your life, because there are parts of his Word which you cannot harmonize, doctrines which you cannot comprehend, and operations of his moral government which accord not with your rule of judgment, and your views of equity and of mercy? What fearful presumption is this! What are you? the infant of a day! and will you oppose your puny intellect to the mind of God? Even were the grasp of your intellect that of an angel, yet, when measured with God's, what is it? What too, are all your literary and scientific attainments the wisdom of ages, which you may have toiled to accumulate; the treasures with which you have enriched and garnished your mind; what is it all, but foolishness with God? Yes, more than this, is not the very intellect God has given you, and which he sustains, turned into a new weapon of attack against his truth? How then can you escape the woe pronounced upon him, who "strives with his Maker?"
The reader, whose eye traces this page, may be longing to know and experience the truth, but to the present, has "stumbled at the word" through a desire to understand what God has not revealed. Is it so? then tear yourself away from every thing that would keep you from the cross of Christ. To that cross you must come as a poor, ignorant, humble sinner. You must stand, as stood the publican; and you must cry, as did he, "God be merciful to me a sinner." That depraved heart of yours must be changed; that proud intellect must be humbled; that rebellious will must be subdued, before you can know "the blessedness of the man, whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered," Psalm. xxxii. 1. Listen to the solemn words of the Son of God- "Except you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven," Matt. viii. 3. Listen to the word of the apostle; "Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seems to be wise in this world, let him become a fool that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God: for it is written, He takes the wise in his own craftiness," 1 Cor. iii. 18, 19. Are you longing to know the truth? then come: the heart of God bids you come; every promise of his Word bids you come; and, taking your place low at the feet of Jesus, receive with the simplicity, docility, and ingenuousness of a child, the precious Word of God. O lay aside your caviling, your false reasoning, which does but keep you back from simply receiving Christ as the Savior of sinners; and, impressed with a deep and abasing sense of your ignorance and vileness, let your ardent prayer be, "That which I know not, teach me. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation," Job xxxiv. 32; Psalm. xxv. 5. The reader is earnestly requested to make this petition his own, and breathe it at the mercy-seat, before he passes to the next chapter, in which the principles enforced in this introduction, are fully carried out, and individually applied.