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EXAMINED AND EXPLAINED
By Timothy Dwight
Volume Three Sermon LXXXVII.
CONSEQUENCES OF REGENERATION.—PERSEVERANCE.
“But the path of the just [is] as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” Proverbs 4:18
In the preceding discourse I observed that the text naturally teaches us the following doctrines:
That the holiness of the Christian is a beautiful object;
That it increases as he advances in life;
That it continues to the end.
The two first of these doctrines I have already examined. I will now proceed to a consideration of the third.
As this doctrine has been, and still is, vigorously disputed; it will be necessary to make it the subject of a particular examination. In doing this I shall first adduce several arguments as a direct proof of the doctrine; and shall then answer the principal objections.
1st. It is irrational to suppose, that God would leave a work, towards which so much has been done, unaccomplished.
To effectuate the salvation of such as believe in Christ, God has sent him, to become incarnate, to live a life of humiliation and suffering, and to die upon the cross. He has raised him from the dead, exalted him at his own right hand, and constituted him, at once, an Intercessor for his children, and the Head over all things unto the Church. He has also sent the Spirit of grace, to complete, by his almighty energy, this work of infinite mercy, in sanctifying, enlightening, and quickening, the soul, and conducting it to heaven. Now, let me ask; Is it not in the nature of the case incredible, that Jehovah should commence, and carry on, this work, with such an amazing apparatus of labor and splendor, and leave it unfinished? Is it not incredible, that an Omniscient and Omnipotent Being should form a purpose of this nature; should discover in this wonderful manner, that he had it so much at heart; and should yet suffer himself to be frustrated in the end? Who can reconcile this supposition with the perfections of God?
2dly. The continuance of saints in holiness follows irresistibly from their Election.
It is unnecessary for the purposes of this discourse, that I should inquire into the metaphysical nature of Election. It is sufficient for my design, that saints are declared, abundantly throughout the Scriptures, to be chosen of God. Thus, (Rev. 17:14), the Angel declares to John concerning the followers of the Lamb, that they are called, chosen, and faithful. Thus, (Luke 18:7), Christ, speaking of his followers, says, And shall not God avenge his own elect, or chosen? Thus St. Paul, (Rom. 8:33), Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? Thus St. Peter, in his first Epistle, (2 Pet. 2:9), Ye are a chosen generation: and thus, throughout the Scriptures.
It is to be remembered, that this appellation is given to Christians universally. In the passages, already quoted, it is plain, that the names elect and chosen, which, you know, are the same in the Greek, are equivalent to Saints or Christians; and accordingly are addressed to them without distinction. The same observation is, with the same truth, applicable to the numerous passages of Scripture, in which this language is adopted.
Of all these persons it is often said, that they were chosen from the beginning; or from before the foundation of the world. Thus St. Paul, (2 Thess. 2:13), addressing the members of that Church, says, God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation, through sanctification of the Spirit, and belief of the truth. Thus also, (Eph. 1:4), the same Apostle, addressing the Christians at Ephesus, says, According as he hath chosen us in him; that is, Christ; before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy, and without blame, before him in love; Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children, by Jesus Christ, to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will. From these passages, and from many others of similar import, it is clear, that Christians are chosen by God unto salvation from the beginning; or from before the foundation of the world. But can it be supposed, that a purpose of God, thus formed, will be frustrated? As this is declared of Christians, as such; it is evident, that it is alike applicable to all Christians. If, therefore, any Christian ceases to be holy; this purpose of God, solemnly adopted, and declared, will in one instance be frustrated; and in every instance, in which this event takes place. Thus far, then, God will be finally disappointed of one end of his government, really proposed by him, and expressly announced to the Universe. Who can believe this concerning the Creator?
3dly. If Christians continue not in holiness unto the end, the Intercession of Christ will be frustrated.
In John 17:20, Christ, after having prayed for his Apostles, says, (v. 20), Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also, who no shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee: that they also may be one in us. In this petition, Christ prays the Father, that all those, (v. 11.4a) should believe on him through the word of the Apostles; that is, all Christians; may become partakers of that divine union, which, in the heavens, is the most perfect created resemblance of the ineffable union of the Father and the Son. If, then, any Christian fails of sharing in this union, the prayer of Christ, here recited, will not be answered.
4thly. If the holiness of Christians does not continue unto the end, the joy of Heaven over their conversion is groundless, and in vain.
Our Saviour informs us, that there is joy over one, that is, over every, sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, who need no repentance. No error exists in heaven. All the perceptions of its inhabitants are accordant with truth: all their emotions are founded in truth. The joy, excited there by the continuance of ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance, (that is, persons perfectly Just) in their holiness, is a joy, founded on the everlasting holiness of these persons, and the everlasting happiness, by which it is inseparably attended. The joy, excited by the repentance of a sinner, is, however, greater than even this. As this is unconditionally asserted by Christ; it is unnecessary for me, in the present case, to inquire into the reasons of the fact. But a joy, excited by the repentance of a sinner, whose everlasting holiness, and consequent everlasting happiness, is uncertain; nay, who may never be holy, or happy, at all, beyond the first and feeblest efforts and enjoyments of a Christian in his infantine state; cannot be founded in truth, nor dictated by wisdom. Nay, it cannot be accordant with common sense. Upon the plan here adopted, the object, on which this joy is founded, although a penitent today, may be a reprobate tomorrow; may thus finally lose both his holiness and his happiness; and, becoming a more guilty, may of course become a more miserable wretch, than if he had never repented. In this case, there would be, upon the whole, no foundation for joy at all; and the inhabitants of heaven would, in many instances, instead of rejoicing rationally, and on solid grounds, be merely tantalized by the expectation of good, which they were never to realize.
What, in this case, would be the conduct of rational men in the present world? We have instances enough of their conduct, in cases substantially of a similar nature, to furnish us with an unerring answer to this question. They would, as in all cases of such uncertainty they actually do, indulge a timorous, trembling hope, that the case might end well; that the penitent might persevere, and finally become safe. They would experience a degree of satisfaction, that this first step had been taken, because it was indispensible to the rest, and would feel a continual, anxious suspense, lest others, equally indispensable, should not follow. What wise and good men in this world would feel on such an occasion, wiser and better men in the world to come must of necessity also feel; and feel much more intensely; because they comprehend the subject in a manner so much clearer, juster, and more perfect. Of course their suspense, their anxiety, must exist in a far higher degree. Such a suspense, such an anxiety, must, one would think, embitter even the happiness of heaven.
Frustrated expectations of great good, also, are, in this world, sources of extreme sorrow. The same fact must in that benevolent world be a source of the same sorrow. But how often, according to this scheme, must such expectations be there frustrated! Can this be reconcilable with a state of unmingled happiness?
5thly. That the holiness of Christians should not continue to the end, is inconsistent with many Scriptural declarations.
We know, saith St. John, that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren, (1 John 3:14). It is impossible for any person to know, that he has passed from death unto life, unless he has actually thus passed. But St. John declares, that himself, and such other Christians as love the brethren, have this knowledge; or, perhaps more conformably with the Apostle’s real design, all Christians know this, who know, that they love the brethren. The love of the brethren is certain, absolute proof that all those, in whom it exists, have passed from death unto life. And this proof exists, whether perceived by him, who is the subject of this love, or not perceived. But every Christian loves the brethren; and that, from the moment in which he becomes a Christian. Every Christian, therefore, has actually passed from death unto life. This, however, cannot be true, unless every Christian perseveres in holiness unto the end. Every Christian does, therefore, persevere.
Being confident, says St. Paul, of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.
The word here rendered perform signifies to finish, or complete. St. Paul was confident, therefore, that the Spirit of God, who had begun a good work, viz. the work of sanctification, in the Philippian Christians, would continue to complete it by various steps, until it was brought to perfection. But St. Paul, under the influence of inspiration, could not mistake concerning this subject. His confidence was founded in truth. The work, begun in the Philippian Christians, was completed. Of course it will be completed in all other Christians.
Verily, verily, hay unto you, says our Saviour, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is (hath) passed from death unto life, (John 5:24). In this passage it is declared, that he that heareth the word of Christ, and believeth on him, by whom he was sent, has passed from death unto life. What is meant by this phrase is also decisively explained, when it is said, “Every such person hath everlasting life;” and when it is further said, “He shall not come into condemnation.” But every Christian, when he becomes a Christian, hears the words of Christ, and believes on him that sent him. Therefore every Christian has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but has already passed from death unto life.
Declarations of the same import abound in the Scriptures. It cannot be necessary to multiply quotations any farther. If these are not believed, none will be believed.
6thly. The doctrine, against which I contend, is inconsistent with many Scriptural promises.
Such a promise is contained in the passage last recited. He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, shall not come into condemnation.
Another is contained in the following words, (John 6:37), Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out. Every Christian has come to Christ, in the very sense of this passage. Should he, then, be rejected afterward, he would be as really cast out, as if rejected at first; and the promise would not be performed.
Another example of the same nature is found in Mark 16:16, He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved. Every Christian has believed: every Christian will therefore be saved.
Another is found in John 10:27-28, My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow one: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish; neither shall any pluck them out of my hand.
Another in the 9th verse of the same chapter: I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved.
All these are promises, uttered by Christ himself; and it will not be denied, that he understood the import of his own promise, nor that he will faithfully perform it to the uttermost.
Finally; St. Paul has declared his views concerning this subject in a manner, which one would expect to terminate the controversy. Moreover, says this Apostle, whom he did predestinate, them he also called; and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified. This is both a declaration, and a promise; and in both respects is unconditional and universal. In the most express language it asserts, that everyone, who is effectually called, is justified, and will in the end be glorified also. But every Christian is thus called.
I shall now proceed to consider the principal objections against the perseverance of Christians.
1st. It is objected, that this doctrine is inconsistent with Free agency.
This objection, as to its real import, I have had occasion to consider in several preceding discourses. If the answers, made to it then, were just and sufficient; they must admit of a satisfactory application to this subject. The drift of the objection in every case is against the doctrine, that God can create a free agent, who shall yet be a holy being. If he can create such an agent, and make him holy from the beginning; he can, undoubtedly, with equal ease, and equal consistency, render such an agent holy after he is created. But it cannot be Scripturally denied, that our first parents, or the angels, were created holy; nor that the man, Jesus Christ, was created holy. Nor can it be denied, that all these were in the fullest sense free agents. The very acknowledgment, that they were holy, is an acknowledgment that they were free agents; for holiness is an attribute of free agents only. It is certain then, that God can render such agents holy, at any time after they are created, without infringing at all the freedom of their agency. In other words, he can regenerate them; can sanctify them afterwards, at successive periods; and can, of course, continually increase their holiness to the end of their lives.
Further; Angels, and glorified Saints, will persevere in holiness throughout eternity; and their perseverance is rendered absolutely certain by the unchangeable promise of God. Yet neither this perseverance, nor the certainty of it, will at all diminish the freedom of their agency. The perseverance of Saints in this world may, therefore, exist to the end of life, and may be absolutely certain, without any diminution of the freedom of their agency.
2dly. It is alleged, that the Scriptures promise eternal life to Christians conditionally; and that this is inconsistent with the supposition, that every Christian will certainly persevere in holiness. For example; He, that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved: and again; For we are made partakers with Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end.
There are many passages of this nature in the New Testament. As the import of them all is exactly the same, it will be unnecessary to quote any more. Their universal tenor, whether given in the form of promises, cautions, exhortations, or commands, is this: that eternal life will not be allotted to any of mankind, except those who continue in obedience unto the end. Hence it is argued, that a discrimination is here intentionally made between such Christians as do, and such as do not, thus continue in their obedience. Otherwise, it is observed, the condition would be useless, and without any foundation in fact.
To this I answer, first, that a conditional promise, collateral to an absolute one, can never affect, much less make void, the absolute promise. The promises, which I have recited, of eternal life to every Christian, are all absolute; as are also many others, of the same nature. They cannot, therefore, be made void by these conditional ones.
Secondly; it is still true, that none, but those who endure to the end, will be saved; and equally true, that every Christian will endure to the end.
It is elsewhere said in the Scriptures, that, if we do not believe, we shall be damned; that, if we do not repent, we shall perish; that if we do not love the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be anathema; that without holiness no man shall see the Lord; that he who hateth his brother abideth in death; and that without love we are nothing. From these passages it might with the same force be concluded, that some persons believe who do not repent; that some repent, who are not nosy; and that some are holy, who yet hate their brethren; and that, thus, a discrimination was intended to be made between believing Christians and penitent ones, and between both these and such as are holy. The truth is: every Christian does all these things. These several descriptions were given, partly to show us the whole nature of Christianity; partly to teach us all our duty; partly to show us, that all of it is indispensable; and partly to furnish us with useful and necessary evidence of our Christian character.
At the same time, all these conditional promises, and exhortations, are, and were intended to be, powerful means of the very perseverance, which is the principal subject of them. We are not constrained, or forced, to persevere; nor should we, on the other hand, persevere, were we wholly left to ourselves. Our perseverance is owing to two great causes: the influence of the Spirit of God on our hearts; and the various means furnished in the word, ordinances, and providence, of God, accompanied with the divine blessing upon the use of them. Among these means, the very condition, here suggested in so many impressive forms, is of high importance; and has contributed to the perseverance of Christians in holiness ever since the Scriptures were published. Although, therefore, all Christians actually thus persevere; yet it is not improbable, that without the aid of those passages of Scripture, here alluded to, multitudes might have fallen away. Christians have no other satisfactory knowledge of their Christianity, except their continuance in obedience. The earnest desire of possessing this knowledge on the one hand, and the fear of being found destitute of the Christian character on the other, cannot but serve as powerful motives, (motives too powerful, in my view, to be safely omitted in the Scriptural system) to produce in the Christian perseverance in holiness.
3dly. It is objected, that this doctrine naturally contributes to lessen the diligence of the Christian in his duty.
For an answer to this objection I must refer you to the observations, made in a former discourse on the same Objection to the doctrine of Justification by faith. In that discourse, the objection was applied to the doctrine now under consideration; and, if I mistake not, was satisfactorily obviated.
4thly. It is objected, that several passages of Scripture teach the contrary doctrine.
Among these is Hebrews 2:4-8, For it is impossible for those, who were once enlightened; and have tasted of the heavenly gift; and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost; and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come; if they shall fall away, to renew them unto repentance: seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. For the earth, which drinketh in the rain that cometh upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God; but that, which beareth thorns and briers, is refected; and is nigh unto cursing, whose end is to be burned.
It will be unnecessary for me to determine, here, who are the persons, meant by the Apostle in this passage. He himself has decided that they are not Christians. Their character is fully expressed in the 8th verse, under the image of the earth, which beareth thorns and briers; while that of Christians is expressed in the 7th verse, under the image of the earth, which bringeth forth herbs, meet for them by whom it is dressed. These are here studiously contrasted. The character of the former is, therefore, exhibited by the Apostle as a direct contrast to that of Christians; who, it is to be remembered, are represented everywhere in the Scriptures as bringing forth good fruit. This passage, then, teaches nothing, opposed to the doctrine which I am endeavoring to support.
Secondly. It is not asserted by the apostle, that those, of whom he speaks, ever actually fall away. The case is stated only in the form of a supposition, and he declares only, that, should they fall away, there is no possibility of renewing them unto repentance. Whether such persons do in fact fall away is, therefore, left uncertain.
Should it be thought, that the expressions in this passage amount to a description of Christianity; and that, therefore, Christians are meant in it: I answer; that neither of the expressions taken separately, nor all of them together, involve any necessary description of Christianity. It is true, that Christians sustain all these characteristics, except two; viz. partaking of the Holy Ghost, and the powers of the world to come: mellontoV aiwnoV,
the future age that is, the period of the Christian dispensation, thus denominated. These phrases indicate the miraculous powers, possessed by many Christians, when this passage was written, but never belonging to Christians as such. They, therefore, denote no part of Christianity. Judas possessed these characteristics. The remaining expressions are all indefinite; and as truly applicable to men, who, still continuing to be sinners, have enjoyed peculiar Christian advantages, as they can be to Christians. The whole drift of this passage, therefore, even when construed most favorably for those whom I oppose, is only ambiguously in favor of their doctrine; and is, in my view, decided against them by the Apostle himself. But it cannot be rationally believed, that a doctrine of this importance would, in opposition to so many clear, decisive declarations, have been left to expressions merely ambiguous.
Another passage pleaded for the same purpose, is the declaration of Christ, John 17:12, Those whom thou gayest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition. To discover the true meaning of this passage, we need only recur to other declarations of the same glorious Person. Many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias; but unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. The widow of Sarepta is here, by the very same phraseology, included among the widows of Israel; as Judas was included among those that were given to Christ. Yet we know, and this passage declares, that she was not an Israelitish, but a Sidonian widow: and we know, equally well, that Judas was never given to Christ, as a Christian.
Again, There were many lepers in Israel, in the time of Eliæus the prophet; and none of them were cleansed, saving Naaman, the Syrian. Naaman, the Syrian, was not an Israelitish leper; though, in the first apparent meaning of the passage, mentioned as such. Judas was not given to Christ, although apparently mentioned as thus given. The whole meaning of this phrase would be completely expressed thus: Those whom thou gayest me have I kept; and none of them is lost: but the son of perdition is lost.
That Judas was never given to Christ we know from his whole history, and the repeated declarations of his Master. This passage, therefore, has not even a remote reference to the subject in debate.
Another passage of the same nature is that, (1 Tim. 1:19), Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away, concerning faith, have made shipwreck. The meaning of this passage may be easily learned from a correct translation. Holding fast faith, faithfulness or fidelity, and a good conscience; which some, that is, some teachers, having cast away, concerning the faith, thn pistin, that is, the doctrines of the Gospel, have made shipwreck.
Generally, it may be observed, that the doctrine, against which I contend, is not supported in a single, unequivocal declaration of the Scriptures. I know of none, in which it is asserted in terms so favorable to it, as those which I have considered. Whatever is said concerning the apostasy of any Christian professors is decisively explained by St. John. They went out from us, but they were not of us: for, if they had been of us, they would have continued with, us.
1st. The faithfulness of God is highly conspicuous in the truths, which have been now discussed.
Christians provoke God daily; and awaken his anger against themselves more and more continually. By every sin, they persuade him, if I may be allowed the expression, to desert them, and to give them up to themselves. Still he preserves them from destruction. He has promised them life. He has established his covenant with them for an everlasting covenant; and it shall never be forgotten. On his Immutability their safety stands immoveable. In this manner, is it exhibited by himself. For I, saith he, am Jehovah: I change not: therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed. This attribute is the seal, the certainty, of every promise: and sooner shall heaven and earth pass away, than one jot or one tittle of that, which is promised, shall fail.
2dly. From these observations we learn, that the promises of the Gospel are absolutely necessary for the hope, and support, of Christians.
Christians, in their very best estate, possess such a character, as to say the most, furnishes a very feeble and distant hope of their perseverance in holiness, and their final success in obtaining salvation. In better language, if left to themselves there is no rational hope, that they would ever arrive at the kingdom of heaven. If God did not preserve them, they would fall daily, certainly, and finally. Without the promises of God, prone as Christians are to backslide, they would feel no confidence in their own success; but would sink into despondency and despair. To preserve them from this despondency, and the ruin which would result from it, God has filled his Word with promises, which yield solid and sufficient support, consolation, hope, and joy. On these they rest safely, and cannot be moved.
3dly. We here learn, that the Christian life is a life far removed from gloom.
Many persons hearing often of the self-denial, repentance, and mortification of sin, connected with Christianity, have supposed a life of Religion to be only gloomy and discouraging; and have thus dreaded it, as destitute of all present enjoyment. In this opinion they have been confirmed by the sad countenances, demure behavior, and cheerless lives, of some who have professed themselves Christians. All this, however, is remote from the true character of Religion. Real Christianity furnishes the fairest and most abundant enjoyment. It is delightful in itself; and, when not the immediate object of persecution, finds everywhere comforts, friends, and blessings. In God the Christian finds a sure, an ever-present, an everlasting friend; in Christ, a Saviour from sin and sorrow; in the divine promises, an indefeasible inheritance of unceasing and eternal good.
Let none, therefore, particularly let not those who are young, and who are easily deterred from approaching that, which wears a forbidding aspect, be hindered from becoming religious by any apprehended gloominess in Religion, or any sorrowful deportment of those, who profess to be Christians. Christianity is but another name for joy. It can spread a smile even over this melancholy world, and lend delightful consolation to suffering and to sorrow, All its dictates, all its emotions, all its views, are cheerful, serene, and supporting. Here it is safe; hereafter it will triumph. Sin only is misery. Sinners, in this world, have a thousand sufferings of which the good man is ignor
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