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It is undoubtedly the duty of every wise and good man to be forming schemes for the service of God and his fellow-creatures in future years, if he be continued to them; and it will be his prudence to do it early in life, that he may be gradually preparing to execute them in the most advantageous manner he can. But while A man's heart is thus devising his way, the Lord directeth his steps. And as many such schemes will probably be left unfinished at death, which will quickly come to break off our purposes and the thoughts of our hearts; so it is not improbable that they who humbly and obediently follow the leadings of divine providence and grace, may often find themselves called out on a sudden to services which, but a little before, were quite unthought of by them.
This has been the case with me in most of the sermons I have published, of which very few were composed with any view to the press; and it is most remarkably so with respect to these on Regeneration. Besides many other excellent persons, my much honoured friend Dr. Wright has handled the subject in so judicious and lively a manner, and through the great goodness of God to us, so many thousands of his treatise upon it are dispersed in all parts of our land, that I could hardly have believed any one who had told me I should thus have resumed it; nor had I the least intention of doing it, when I began that course of lectures which I now offer to my reader's perusal.
I did indeed think it necessary last year to treat the subject more largely than I had ever done before, knowing in the general how important it is, and observing that several controversies had about that time been raised concerning it, which (though I do not judge it necessary to mention the particulars of them) I was ready to fear, might have had an ill influence to unsettle men's minds, and either to lead them into some particular errors, or into a general apprehension that it was a mere point of speculation; about which it was not necessary to form any judgment at all*.
That these discourses might be more generally useful, I determined to preach them on Lord's-day evenings, that those of my neighbours who were not my stated hearers might, if they thought proper, have an opportunity of attending them: And accordingly they were attended to the last with uncommon diligence; a great many such persons, of different pursuasions and communions, making up a part of the auditory. As practical instruction and improvement was the main thing I had in view, I knew it was necessary to make my discourses as plain, as free, and as serious as I could. But before I had finished near half of my scheme, several of my hearers earnestly requested that the sermons might be published: And the request grew more extensive and importunate every week, with this additional circumstance (which I much regarded) that some very pious and judicious friends at a distance, being providentially brought to the hearing of some of these lectures, strongly concurred in the desire; expressing a very cheerful hope, that the reading of what they had heard might be useful in distant parts of the land, to which they assured me they would endeavour to spread them as opportunity might offer. As the advice of several of my brethren in the ministry was joined with all this, I thought myself bound in duty at length to comply; which I was the rather encouraged to do from
*See Mr Hebden's Appendix to his late Discourse on Regeneration.
the several instances in which I had reason to believe the divine blessing had in some measure attended these sermons from the pulpit, and had made them the means of producing and advancing the change they described and enforced.
On these considerations, as soon as I returned from that long journey on which I set out the day after these lectures were concluded, I applied myself to recollect the substance of them as well as I could, from the short hints I had written of them, with the assistance of those notes which some of my friends had taken after me in characters. Some things are, perhaps, omitted, though I believe but very few; some contracted, and some enlarged; but my hearers will find them in the main what they heard. It cost me more labour than I was aware, from such materials, to reduce them into their present form; and I hope the multitude of my other business will be allowed as an apology, if I proceeded in them slower than some might expect.
I shall leave it to my reader to observe for himself the manner and method in which I have handled my subject, without giving him a particular view of it here; only must beg leave to tell him, in the general, that I hope he will find I have not presumed so far on the sublimity of my subject, as to talk without determinate ideas; for which reason I have omitted many phrases, used particularly of late by some pious and worthy persons, because I freely own, that as I cannot find them in my bible, so neither can I understand their exact meaning; and it seems very improper to embarrass such plain discourses as these with a language, which, not being thoroughly master of, I may chance to misapply, supposing those phrases to be really more proper than I can at present apprehend they are. I have endeavoured to keep to one idea of Regeneration, which I take to be that which the scripture suggests: By Regeneration I mean "a prevailing disposition of the soul to universal holiness, produced and cherished by the influences of God's Spirit on our hearts, operating in a manner suitable to the constitution of our nature, as rational and accountable creatures." If this be (as I think I have proved at large that it is) the scriptural notion of it, it will follow, that nothing which may be found where this is not, or which may not be found where this is, can be Regeneration in the scripture sense; which is that sense in which we are much more concerned, than we are in that to which any human writers, whether ancient or modern, may think proper to apply it.
If the doctrine which I have endeavoured in the whole course of these sermons to confirm and illustrate by the word of God, be in one form or another generally taught by my brethren in the ministry, of whatever denomination, I rejoice in it for their own sakes, as well as for that of the people under their care. I am very little inclined to contend about technical phrases of human invention, which have with equal frailty been idolized by some, and anathematized by others. We shall, I hope, learn more and more to bear one another's burdens, and to study the kindest interpretations which the words of each other will admit. But I must take the liberty to say, I am in my conscience persuaded that this view of things which is here proposed, though perhaps not very fashionable, is in the general so edifying, and so naturally leads to the frequent review of many other important doctrines of christianity which are closely connected with it, that I am well satisfied it will be our wisdom to adhere to it, and to make it very familiar to our own minds, and to those of our hearers. Nor can I imagine that any variety in the idioms of different languages, or the customs of different ages and nations, can be a sufficient reason for bringing scripture phrases into disuse, while we keep to the original ideas signified by them. There seems to be a peculiar felicity in them to express divine truth; and they will undoubtedly be found the safest vehicle of religious knowledge, and the surest bond of union among christians; while, however we may differ in other matters, we so generally agree in acknowledging that our bibles contain the oracles of God.
Let us therefore, who under different denominations are honoured with the ministry of the Everlasting gospel, agree, for a while at least, to suspend our debates
upon less necessary subjects, that we may with united efforts concur in prosecuting that great design for which the gospel was revealed, the Spirit given, and our office instituted. And since it is so evident that irreligion has grown upon us, while we have been attending to other, and to be sure smaller matters, let us by a plain, serious, and zealous way of preaching the most vital truths of christianity, joined with a diligent inspection of the souls committed to our care, try what can be done towards preventing the progress of this growing apostacy, and recovering the ground we have already lost. Ignorant and prejudiced people may perhaps accuse us of bigotry or enthusiasm; but let us do our best to convince them of their error by the candour of our temper, and the prudence of our conduct; and remember, that as Chrysostom excellently speaks in those lively words which I have inserted in the title page, "It is a sufficient consolation for our labours, and far more than an equivalent for all, if we may have a testimony in our consciences, that we compose and regulate our discourses in such a manner as may be approved by God, in whose name we speak."
After all then, if any argument can be deduced from scripture in favour of the manner of speaking now in debate, it must be from the general tenor of it; according to which it seems that all who are members of the visible church are spoken of as regenerate; from which it may be inferred, with some plausible probability at least, that baptism, by which they are admitted into that society, may be called regeneration: And I am ready to believe, as I hinted above, that this was the chief reason why the ancients so often used the word in the sense I am now opposing.
Now with relation to this, I desire it may be recollected, that when christianity first appeared in the world, it was attended with such discouragements, as made the very profession of it, in a great measure, a test of men's characters. The Apostles therefore, knowing the number of hypocrites to be comparatively very small, generally take no notice of them, but address themselves to whole bodies of christians, as if they were truly what they professed to be. Just as our Lord Jesus Christ, though he knew the wickedness of Judas, often addresses himself to the whole body of his Apostles, as if they were all his faithful servants, and makes gracious declarations and promises to the whole society, which could by no means be applicable to this one corrupt and wretched member of it; telling them, for instance, that they should share in his final triumph, and Sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Mat. xix. 28.
This is therefore the true key to all those passages in which christians are, in the general, said to be adopted, sanctified, justified, &c. as well as regenerated. The apostles had reason, in the judgment of charity, to think thus of by far the greatest part of them; and therefore they speak to them all, as in such a happy state. And agreeably to this, we find not only such privileges, but also such characters, ascribed to christians in general, as were only applicable to such of them as were christians indeed. Thus all the Corinthians are spoken of by the apostle Paul, as Waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, 1 Cor. i. 7. and all the Ephesians, and all the Colossians, as having Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and love to all the saints, Eph. i. 15. Col. i. 4. and all the Philippians, as having a good work begun in them, which Paul was persuaded God would perfect, Phil. i. 6. and all the Thessalonians, as remarkable for their Work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope, 1 Thess. i. 3. though it evidently appears there were persons in several of these churches who behaved much amiss, and to whom, had he been particularly addressing to each of them alone, he could not by any means have used such language. On the like principles Peter, when addressing to all the christians in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, speaks of the whole aggregate of them, 1 Pet. i. 8. as loving an unseen Saviour, and amidst all their tribulations rejoicing in him With joy unspeakable and full of glory; though probably there were some weak and dejected christians among them, and undoubtedly in so large an extent of country, in which there were such a vast number of churches, not a few, who, as our Lord afterwards expresses it of some of them, had only A name to live, while they were dead, Rev. iii. 1. in which passage, by the way, our Lord uses the same figure, and describes the whole body by the character of those who made the greater part of it.
I state the matter thus particularly, because I think this obvious remark is a sufficient answer to what is most peculiar and important in a late discourse, consisting of near 130 quarto pages, and intitled, A Key to the Apostolic Writings, &c. prefixed by the Rev. Mr. Taylor of Norwich to his late
here, will much more effectually answer the end of fixing the true sense of the scripture phrases in question. And I cannot forbear saying, that to determine the sense of the words called, redeemed, sanctified, &c. when applied to the christian church, by that in which they are used in Moses and the Prophets with respect to the whole people of Israel, seems to me as unreasonable, as it would be to maintain, that the dimensions, the strength, and the beauty of a body, are to be most exactly estimated by looking on its shadow.
Yet on this evidently weak and mistaken principle the learned and ingenious author, referred to above, ventures not only to attempt an entire alteration in the generally-received strain of theological discourses, but to throw out a censure, which, considering its extent and its severity, must either be very terrible, or very pitiable. He not only seems to think, if I understand him right, that we were all regenerated (if at all) as well as justified, in those of our parents who were first converted from idolatry to christianity (Key, §. 81, 82. and 246.) as indeed he expressly says, "that we are born in a justified," and therefore undoubtedly, if the word is to be retained, in a regenerate "state:" But he presumes to say, that such doctrines as have been almost universally taught and received among christians, concerning "Justification, regeneration, redemption, &c. have quite taken away the very ground of the christian life, the grace of God, and have left no object for the faith of a sinner to work upon". §. 357. And hereupon, lest it should be forgot, he repeats it in the same section, that to represent it as "the subject of doubtful enquiry, trial, and examination, whether we have an interest in Christ, whether we are in a state of pardon, whether we be adopted" (and by consequence, to be sure, whether we be regenerated) "is" (as the Antinomians I imagine would also say) "to make our justification, as it invests us in those blessings, to be of works, and not by faith alone;" and, as was just before said in the same words, "to take away the very ground of the christian life, the grace of God, and to leave no object for the faith of a sinner to act upon." And this way of stating things, which has so generally prevailed, is joined with the wickedness and contentions of professing christians, as a third cause of that disregard to the gospel which is so common in the present day.
Now as no book can fall more directly under this censure, than this of mine, in which it is the business of the three first sermons to direct professing christians in an enquiry, whether they be or be not in a regenerate state; I thought it not improper in this postscript briefly to acquaint my reader with the principles on which I continue to think the view in which I have put the matter to be rational and scriptural*, and do still in my conscience judge it
* For the full proof of this, that it is the most scriptural sense, I must desire the reader diligently to examine, and seriously to consider, the several texts which are quoted in the following discourses; for it would swell this postscript too much to enumerate them all here, and to give them a critical examination. Let it still be remembered, that to be regenerated, and to be born of God, are equivalent phrases: And with this remark, let any one that can do it paraphrase all the passages referred to, in two different views; first putting the word baptism for regeneration, and baptized persons for born of God; and then substituting our definition of regeneration or of a regenerate person, instead of the words themselves: And I cannot but think he will be struck with that demonstration, which will, as it were, emerge of itself upon such a trial. And I must add, that if he look into the context of many of these passages, he will at the same time see how utterly ungronnded it is to assert, as some have done," that regeneration is only used when applied to Jewish converts to chris