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Finally; It is our duty to possess this faith. It is also our duty to be perfect. Yet St. John says of himself, and all other Christians, If we say, that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. As therefore, notwithstanding this duty, no man is perfect; so, notwithstanding the duty of obtaining the faith of Assurance, few persons may actually possess it,
The real difficulty is chiefly passed by, in all the observations, made above; and lies in applying the Scriptural evidences of holiness to our own particular cases. This subject, I shall now attempt to examine in several particulars.
The difficulties, which attend the application of these evidences to ourselves, arise from various sources. Among them, the following will be found to possess a very serious influence.
1st. The vast importance of the case.
A case of great moment is, at all times, apt strongly to agitate our minds. Men, deeply interested by any concern, are, there. fore, considered as less capable of discerning clearly, and judging justly, than the same men, when dispassionate. As this is the subject even of proverbial declaration, it cannot need proof. The case in hand is of infinite moment to each individual. Whenever he brings it to view, he is prone to feel a degree, and often not a . small one, of anxiety. It is therefore seen, together with the evidences which attend it, by the mind, through the medium of disturbed feelings. Earnest wishes to find satisfaction, on the one hand, and strong apprehensions, lest it should not be found, on the other, naturally disorder that calm temperament, which is so necessary to clear investigation, and satisfactory conclusions. In this state, the mind is prone to be unsatisfied with its own investigation ; fears, that it has not acted impartially; suspects, that it has not viewed the evidence, possessed by it, in a just light; and, when its judgments are favourable to itself, is prone to tremble, lest they have been too favourable, and the result of biassed inclinations, rather than of clear discernment. A presumptuous decision in its favour it perfectly well knows to be full of danger; and is ready to think almost every favourable judgment presumptuous. In this situation, all such judgments are apt to be regarded with a general suspicion; and the mind chooses rather to continue unsatisfied, and to undergo the distresses of anxiety and alarm, than to hazard the danger of ill-founded conclusions in its own favour. Most Christians are, I believe, so strongly convinced, that a state of anxiety will contribute to make them alive, and awake, to the dan. ger of backsliding, to quicken them in their duty, and to secure them from carelessness and sloth ; and that, therefore, it will have a happy influence toward rendering them safe ; as willingly to judge too unfavourably, rather than too favourably, of their own religious character. An unfavourable judgment, they know, does not render the character itself any worse; but only deprives them of the consolation, which, with more favourable views of it, they might
enjoy : while the contrary opinion might naturally slacken them in their duty; and, perhaps, prevent them finally from obtaining salvation.
2dly. Another source of difficulties is found in the Peculiar Natural Character of those, who are employed in this investigation.
Some of these persons are naturally inclined to hope; others to fear : : some to cheerfulness; others to melancholy. Some are rash : others are cautious. Some are ignorant: others are well informed. But the evidences, which establish, or should establish, a favourable judgment of our Christian character, are, in substance, always the same. As applied to persons of these different characters, they must, however, be seen in very different lights; because, although Religion is the same thing, yet so much of the peculiar natural character of the man remains, after he has become religious, as to render him a very different man from every other religious man. Paul and John were both eminently religious. Their religion was the same thing; but the men were widely different from each other. If Christians, so eminent, and excellent, could differ in this manner; how much more different from each other must be ordinary Christians! How much more must the natural traits of character remain in them : particularly, such as, in a greater or less degree, are sinful! The whole object, therefore, presented to the judgment of the individual, must differ, and often greatly, in different cases.
For example; one person becomes the subject of piety after a wise, careful, religious education ; early and uninterrupted habits of conscientiousness; in the possession of a naturally sweet and amiable temper; in an original and regular course of filial duty, fraternal kindness, and exemplary conduct to those around him; and in the midst of a life, generally commendable and lovely. Another, scarcely educated at all, possessed of a rough, gross, and violent disposition; and shamefully vicious from early life, is sanctified in the midst of scandalous indulgencies, and rank habits of sin.
It is perfectly obvious, that these two persons will differ mightily from each other in the visible degree of that change of conduct, which flows from their Religion. The former will perhaps be scarcely changed at all even to an observing eye: for he has heretofore done, and in a certain sense loved to do, in many particulars, the very things, which Religion requires, and to which it prompts : and thus the tenour of his life will seem to those around him much the same, after, as before, his Conversion. The latter, sanctified in the same degree, will, it is plain, change almost the whole course of his conduct; and assume a life, entirely new, and directly opposite to that which he led before.
Nor will the difference be small in the internal state of these individuals. The sanctified affections, and purposes, of the former will, in many instances, so blend themselves with those, which he
has derived from nature and habit, as to be often distinguished with difficulty, and not unfrequently to be entirely undistinguishable. Those of the latter, on the contrary, will be wholly opposite, in most instances, to all that he has heretofore thought, felt, and designed.
As the internal and external conduct of these individuals is the sole ground, on which each must judge of himself, as well as be judged of, by others; it is perfectly obvious, that the objects, concerning which they are respectively to judge, are widely different from each other. But this is not all. The optics, with which these persons judge concerning their religious state, will plainly be widely different. Our dispositions naturally influence our judgment; and usually enter much more largely into the opinions which we form, than we are aware. Thus a person, strongly inclined to hope, will, almost of course, judge favourably; when a person, equally inclined to fear, would, in the very same case, judge unfavourably; concerning himself. Cheerful persons naturally entertain comfortable views concerning themselves; those, who are melancholy, such, and often such only, as are uncomfortble, discouraging, and distressing. The rash, form bold and presumptuous opinions without hesitation : the cautious, admit opinions, favourable to themselves, slowly; even when they are admitted upon acknowledged evidence. The ignorant must be very imperfectly fitted to consider the various means of evidence, all of which ought to be consulted, in forming our opinions concerning this important subject: while the enlightened Christian must be much more competent to draw up a well-founded determination.
3dly. The similar nature of those, which we call Natural views and affections, to those which are Evangelical, furnishes another source of these difficulties.
Love and hatred, hope and fear, joy and sorrow, confidence and shame, together with various other affections, and views of the mind, really exist, and operate in the Christian, as Natural views and affections; and not merely Evangelical. The objects, which excite these affections in both senses, are often the same. The emotions themselves are, also, so much alike, as perceived by the mind, that mankind universally, and the Scriptural writers as well as others, call them by the same names. When both are described by those, who are the subjects of them, the description, to a great extent, is commonly the same. It will, therefore, be easily believed, that they are so similar in their nature, as, when they arise from the same objects, to render it difficult for the Christian in whom they exist, and at times impossible, to distinguish them from each other. It will be also easily seen, that when he, who is not a Christian, has these affections and views excited in his mind by the objects, which excite the corresponding Evangelical affections in the mind of a Christian, he may, in many instances, find it
very difficult to discern, that they are not Evangelical.
To illustrate this subject, clearly, to the view of my audience, I will consider it more particularly,
A Christian loves God, his Son, his Spirit, his Law, his Gospel, his Sabbath, his Worship, and his Children. Why does he love them? For two reasons. One is; their nature is agreeable to the relish of his mind. The other is; they are useful, and therefore pleasing to himself. For both these reasons he is bound to love them. But, when he regards all the objects with this affection, it will be often difficult, and sometimes impossible, for him to determine whether his emotions are merely natural, wholly Evangelical, or mixed. He knows, that he exercises a love to God, but may be unable to determine whether he loves the character of God, considered by itself; whether he loves the divine perfections for what they are; or whether he loves God, because he regards him as a friend to himself; and delights in his perfections, because he considers them as engaged, and operating, to promote his present and eternal good. It would be difficult for most persons to determine, precisely, what views they would form of this glorious Being, if it were revealed to them, that He was their Enemy.
As it is often difficult for the Christian to distinguish his natural affections, which, so long as he is a man, he will always continue to exercise, from the corresponding Evangelical ones, which he exercises as a Christian : so it must, evidently, be more difficult for an unrenewed man, who has never had any other beside natural affections, to discern, that these are not Evangelical. When he loves God, and other divine objects, in what manner shall he determine, that he loves him, only because he believes him reconciled to himself? When he delights in the divine perfections; it will not be easy for him to see, that it is only because he supposes them to be engaged to promote his welfare. When he loves the Scriptures; it will be difficult for him to perceive, that it is only because of their sublimity and beauty; the good sense, which they contain; the happy influence, which they have on mankind; and the comforting promises, which he considers them as speaking to himself. When he loves Christians; it will often be beyond his power to determine, that it is not because of their natural amiableness of character; the agreeableness of their manners ; their friendship, or kind offices, to himself; and their general usefulness to others, with whom he is connected.
A person is quiet under provocations. This may arise from meekness. It may also arise from a sense of the wisdom, the dignity, and the usefulness, of this spirit. He is kind to enemies. This may arise from the desire of obtaining the peculiar evidence, that he is a good man, furnished by this exercise of Christian benevolence; from a sense of the nobleness of forgiveness; or from the danger of not finding himself forgiven.
I might extend this course of thought through all the objects of self-examination; and show, that similar difficulties attend them
all. Every Christian must, I think, have experienced them in his own case ; and every person, accustomed to converse much with others on the grounds of their hope concerning themselves, must have perceived them continually occurring in the progress of every such conversation.
4thly. Another source of this difficulty is found in the transient nature of all our Emotions.
By this I intend, that every exercise of our affections has only a momentary existence in the mind. It rises ; is indulged; and is gone. All our knowledge of its nature, in the mean time, exists in the Consciousness of it, while it is passing ; in our Remembrance of that consciousness, known to be imperfect; and in our Acquaintance with its effects, often of a character more or less doubtful.Few words can be necessary to show, that our knowledge of these exercises, gained in this manner, must be attended by many imperfections. Our opportunity for viewing it, while it is passing, is so short, and often so carelessly employed ; our remembrance of it, when it is past, is so far removed from certain accuracy; and its effects may be so easily, and, for aught that appears, so justly, attributed to various causes ; that the whole view, taken of them by the mind, will frequently be obscure, and its decision unsatisfactory.
Hence appears the wisdom of fastening upon a course of such exercises ; as furnishing far better means of determining our religious character, rather than resting it upon a few. A character may be successfully discerned in many exercises of a similar kind, which, usually, we shall attempt in vain to discover, to our satisfaction, in a small number. A thousand blades of grass will, in the Spring, give a green and living aspect to that field, which, with a hundred, would still retain the russet appearance of absolute death.
5thly. Another fruitful source of the same difficulties is furnished by the Imperfect state of Religion in the mind.
This, indeed, may, in an extensive sense, be considered as the general source of them all. I have heretofore observed, that Angels cannot but know, that they are holy; and fiends, that they are sinful. Were we perfectly holy, then, we should certainly know this to be our character.
But there are particular difficulties, attending this subject, which deserve to be marked.
The mind of every Christian experiences many alternations of holiness and sin. Temptations often, and unexpectedly, intrude. The objects, which engross the whole heart of the sinner, unhappily engage at times, in greater or less degrees, that of the Christian. Nor. is their influence always transient. David, Solomon, and other Saints mentioned in the Scriptures, sinned for a length of time. Not a small number of sins are committed in thought, word, and action, in the brighter and better seasons; nay, in the bright