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it to the blowing of the wind, which, in its mode of action, is out of the reach of our rules and calculations : “ the wind bloweth where it listeth, and 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.” The effect of this uncertainty is, that we are left at liberty to pray for spiritual assistance ; and we do pray for it, in all stages, and under all circumstances, of our existence. We pray for it in baptism, for those who are baptized; we teach those who are catechised to pray for it in their catechism : parents pray for its aid and efficacy to give effect to their parental instructions, to preserve the objects of their love and care from sin and wickedness, and from every spiritual enemy: we pray for it, particularly in the office of confirmation, for young persons just entering into the temptations of life. Therefore spiritual assistance may be imparted at any time, from the earliest to the latest period of our existence; and whenever it is imparted there is that being born of the Spirit to which our Saviour's words refer. And, considering the subject as a matter of experience, if we cannot ordinarily distinguish the operations of the Spirit from those of our minds, it seems to follow, that neither can we distinguish when they commence: so that spiritual assistance may be imparted, and the thing designated by our Lord's discourse satisfied, without such a sensible conversion that a person can fix his memory upon some great and general change wrought in him at an assignable time.
The consciousness of a great and general change may be the fact with many. It may be essentially necessary to many: I only allege, that it is not so to all, so that every person, who is not conscious of such a change, must set himself down as devoted to perdition.
This, I repeat, is all I contend for; for I by no means intend to say that any one is without sin, and in that sense not to stand in need of conversion ; still less, that any sin is to be allowed, and not, on the
, contrary, strenuously and sincerely resisted and forsaken. I only maintain that there may be Christians who are and have been in such a religious state that no such thorough and radical change as is usually meant by conversion is or was necessary for them; and that they need not be made miserable by the want of consciousness of such a change.
I do not, in the smallest degree, mean to undervalue or speak lightly of such changes, whenever or in whomsoever they take place: nor to deny that they may be sudden, yet lasting (nay, I am rather inclined to think that it is in this manner that they frequently do take place); nor to dispute what is upon good testimony alleged concerning conversion brought about by affecting incidents of life; by striking passages of Scripture ; by impressive discourses from the pulpit ; by what we meet with in books; or even by single touching sentences or expressions in such discourses or books. I am not disposed to question these relations unnecessarily, but rather to bless God for such instances, when I hear of them, and to regard them as merciful ordinations of his providence.
But it will be said that conversion implies a revolution of opinion. Admitting this to be so, such a change or revolution cannot be necessary to all, because there is no system of religious opinions in which some have not been brought up from the beginning. To change from error to truth, in any great and important article of religious belief, deserves, I allow, the name of conversion; but all cannot be educated in error, on whatever side truth be supposed to lie.
To me, then, it appears.--although it cannot be stated with safety, or without leading to consequences which may confound and alarm many good men,—that conversion is necessary to all, and under all circumstances; yet, I think, that there are two topics of exhortation which, together, comprise the whole Christian life, and one or other of which belongs to every man living, and these two topics are conversion and improvement; when conversion is not wanted, improvement is.
Now this respective preaching of conversion or improvement, according to the respective spiritual condition of those who hear us or read what we write, is authorized by the example of Scripture-preaching, as set forth in the New Testament.' It is remarkable, that, in the four Gospels' and the “ Acts of the Apostles,' we read incessantly of the preaching of repentance, which I admit to mean conversion. Saint John the Baptist's preaching set out with it: our Lord's own preaching set out with it. It was the subject which he charged upon his twelve apostles to preach. It was the subject which he sent forth his seventy disciples to preach. It was the subject which the first missionaries of Christianity pronounced and preached in every place which they came to, in the course of their progress through different countries. Whereas, in the epistles written by the same persons, we hear proportionably much less of repentance, and much more of advance, proficiency, progress, and improvement, in holiness of life: and of rules and maxims for the leading of a holy and godly life. These exhortations to continual improvement, to sincere, strenuous, and continual endeavours after improvement, are delivered under a variety of expressions, but with a strength and earnestness sufficient
to show what the apostles thought of the importance of what they were teaching.
Now the reason of the difference is, that the preaching of Christ and his apostles, as recorded in the ‘Gospels' and in the 'Acts of the Apostles,' was addressed to Jews and Gentiles, whom they called upon to become disciples of the new religion. This call evidently implied repentance and conversion. But the epistles, which the apostles, and some of which the same apostles, wrote afterward, were addressed to persons already become Christians; and to some who, like Timothy, had been such from their earliest youth. Speaking to these, you find they dwell upon improvement, proficiency, continued endeavours after higher and greater degrees of holiness and purity, instead of saying so much about repentance and conversion. This conduct was highly rational, and was an adaptation of their instruction to the circumstances of the persons whom they addressed ; and may be an example to us, in modelling our exhortations to the different spiritual conditions of our hearers.
Seeing, then, that two great topics of our preaching must always be conversion and improvement; it remains to be considered who they are to whom we must preach conversion, and who they are to whom we must preach improvement.
First ; Now of the persons in our congregations, to whom we not only may, but must, preach the doctrine of conversion plainly and directly, are those who, with the name indeed of Christians, have hitherto passed their lives without any internal religion whatever; who have not at all thought upon the subject ; who, a few easy and customary forms excepted (and which with them are mere forms), cannot truly say of themselves that they have done one action which they would not have done equally if there had been no such thing as a God in the world; or that they have ever sacrificed any passion, any present enjoyment, or even any inclination of their minds, to the restraints and prohibitions of religion ; with whom indeed religious motives have not weighed a feather in the scale against interest or pleasure. To these it is utterly necessary that we preach conversion. At this day we have not Jews and Gentiles to preach to; but these persons are really in as unconverted a state as any Jew or Gentile could be in our Saviour's time. They are no more Christians, as to any actual benefit of Christianity to their souls, than the most hardened Jew or the most profligate Gentile was in the age of the Gospel. As to any difference in the two cases, the difference is all against them. These must be converted before they can be saved. The course of their thoughts must be changed; the very principles upon which they act must be changed. Considerations, which never, or which hardly ever, entered into their minds, must deeply and perpetually engage them. Views and motives, which did not influence them at all, either as checks from doing evil or as inducements to do good, must become the views and motives which they regularly consult, and by which they are guided : that is to say, there must be a revolution of principle : the visible conduct will follow the change; but there must be a revolution within. A change so entire, so deep, so important, as this, I do allow to be a conversion; and no one, who is in the situation above described, can be saved without undergoing it; and he must necessarily both be sensible of it at the time, and remember it all his life afterward. It is too momentous an event ever to be forgot. A man might as easily forget his escape from a shipwreck. Whether it was sudden, or whether it was