John Blair (1719-1771): An Essay On The Means Of Grace

An Essay On The Means Of Grace


John Blair (1719-1771)

Copyright: Public Domain

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I. The great God stands in no need of means in order to accomplish his purposes. He could, if he pleased, cause all events he sees meet to effect, to come to pass in the same way he caused the world at first to exist, viz: by the word of his power or sovereign act of his will; yet it does not at all derogate from his efficiency, but rather serves to illustrate his power, to use means, and appoint a connection between them and the end in view, both in the natural and moral world: yet such a connection as always depends upon the divine pleasure. Means are effectual or ineffectual, as he affords or withholds his concurrence—particularly, in the administration of his moral government, he deals with the subjects thereof in a way suited to their rational natures, and uses means of a moral nature in carrying on the interests of religion in our degenerate world. To this purpose, he has given his holy word, appointed a gospel ministry and ordinances of worship, such as the sacraments of the New Testament, praise and prayer.

II. These, divines commonly call means, not of instruction only, but of grace; the reason is, because it is in the use of these means, the Holy Spirit ordinarily communicates or bestows grace on sinners, and builds up his children in holiness, until he brings them safe home to glory. Now, whatever can be considered as a mean in reference to an end, must have some tendency to, and, in its own way, have influence upon, or concur in attaining it; for that which has no such tendency or influence, has no manner of connection with the existence or accomplishment of the end, and, consequently, is no means of it at all. If, therefore, these ordinances are means of grace, they must have a tendency to, and, in the hand of the Holy Spirit, concurrence in, the regeneration and conversion of sinners, and thence forward, in carrying on the work of grace in them. As all ordinances of worship are but various manners of administrating the word of God, it is especially to be considered as a mean for these purposes.

III. That we may see with what propriety these are called means of grace, let us attend to what we find ascribed to, or predicated of, the word in the Bible; which only can be said of it considered as an instrument or means, and not as an efficient cause, which it cannot be. The conviction of sinners is ascribed to it, “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” Rom. 3. 20. Peter’s hearers, upon hearing his discourse, wherein he proved from the scriptures of the Old Testament, that Jesus whom they had crucified was the true Messiah, “were pricked in their hearts.” Acts 2. 37. By this, God distinguishes his word delivered by the true prophets, from that delivered by the false, viz: this, that his “word is like a fire, and like a hammer, that breaketh the rock in pieces.” Jer. 23. 29. “The word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Heb. 4. 12. It kills the legal pride of sinners, “I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.” Gal. 2. 19. I have already taken notice in my Observations on Regeneration, that Christians are said to be “born again,”  begotten,” and “made partakers of the divine nature,”(1 Pet. 1. 23, James 1. 18, 2 Pet. 1. 4,) by the word of God; to which I would add Ps. 19. 7, 8, where the word under the terms “Law,” “Testimony,” “Commandments,” is said “to convert the soul,” “make wise the simple,” and “enlighten the eyes;” all which terms plainly express the saving change wrought in regeneration. This change is an inscription of the divine law upon the heart. Jer. 31. 33. All these expressions signify much more than merely instructing the speculative understanding. They must import the concurrence of the word as a mean or instrument in the hand of the Holy Spirit, both in the preparatory work of conviction, and also in effecting the saving change in regeneration. It is unnecessary to recite the many passages which represent the word and ordinances as means of quickening, supporting, comforting, sanctifying, perfecting and strengthening of God’s people. I would only observe, that the efficacy of the word for these purposes, depends upon the presence and immediate agency of the Holy Spirit in the heart; which as really takes place in these instances, as in the regeneration of a sinner, and the latter as easily admits the use of means as the former.

IV. The efficacy of the means of grace lies not in any intrinsic virtue in themselves, nor depends upon the power or will of those who attend upon them; for the effect to be produced is supernatural, to which sinners are by nature entirely averse, and destitute. of a true discernment of the excellency of the truths and weight of the arguments proposed in the word; but they are rendered effectual to the attainment of the end by the blessing of the Holy Spirit upon them, and his energy in them; they are means in the Spirit’s hand, rather than the creature’s. And sinners are to attend upon them in that view, that they may be in the way in which the Spirit meets with such and works upon them, like the poor impotent people who lay at the pool, waiting for the descent of the angel to trouble the waters. John 3. 4. With respect to creature agents, the application or use of means depends upon them; but the causality itself, or energy of means in order to the end, is not in their power, nor depends upon their will. Hence, they often fail of success in the use of the best adapted means; but when this divine agent condescends to use means, he causes their efficacy, and makes them effectual when, and with respect to whom, he pleases. I say, condescends to use means; for the very circumstance I have mentioned shows he needs them not; he could do immediately whatsoever he pleases; when, therefore, he is pleased to make use of means, it is in order to the more easy discovery of himself to his creatures. Hence it follows, that the great God is not the less an efficient for his using means, nor the less displays his power in accomplishing the end by them.

V. Yet, notwithstanding, there is an aptness and tendency in the means in order to the end in view, otherwise they would not be properly means. Those things which have no aptness or tendency to the attainment of the end can have no sort of influence upon it; the existence of the end has no kind of connection with them, and, consequently, they are no means at all of its existence. Now, the aptness or tendency of the word of God to reduce sinners to the obedience of Christ lies in, 1st. The clearness of representation, whereby divine truths are set before the mind. Divine truths are clothed in the most plain and intelligible language their sublime nature will allow of; they are descriptively expressed, so as not only to declare their nature, but also to describe their true influence, and the impressions they should make upon the heart. They are also illustrated by the most familiar similitudes. 2nd. In the interesting manner in which these sacred truths are urged, or the weight of the arguments with which they are pressed home. 3rd. In the awful authority and great majesty with which they are delivered, whence they bind and affect the conscience; they are set before us with a “thus saith the Lord or Jehovah,” our rightful Sovereign, with whom is terrible majesty, “and your God,” who has a covenant claim upon his professing people. Hence, then, when the Holy Spirit takes the word in his hand, and makes application of it to the heart, it is most apt and fit as a mean to instruct the mind and inform the conscience, and thus to convince and awaken the sinner; to lay restraints upon men, and repress, or in some measure restrain, even the natural enmity of the awakened sinner: and when the Holy Spirit effectually opens the sinner’s eyes, and makes him understand divine truths as they are represented in the word, they have a most apt tendency, by way of argument, to persuade and determine the will, and to promote the life and exercise of all the graces of the Holy Spirit in true Christians.1

I have said that when the word is so effectually applied to the conscience as to convince the sinner, it is a means of repressing or restraining his natural enmity. As this will probably in a particular manner be called in question, I beg leave to offer a few thoughts further upon it. I do not at all suppose the sinner’s enmity is in this case subdued; for then he would be regenerated, which is contrary to the supposition. The wickedness of men may be, yea, in many instances is, restrained, when its governing power is not all broken. Hence, those who were clean escaped from them who live in error, and escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, may be allured through the lusts of the flesh, and much wantonness, and be again entangled; yea, it too often proves to be the case, that, “according to the true proverb, the dog is turned to his own vomit again, and the sow that is washed, to her wallowing in the mire.” 2 Pet. 2. 18-22. The acting of the sinner’s enmity is, indeed, more direct against God and spiritual objects, thus brought near and set in view before him by conviction, and this, no doubt, is a great aggravation of those exercises of enmity; yet it will by no means follow that enmity, as an evil principle in the heart, is more prevalent, or has, in this case, acquired a greater degree of power. The power of this, as well as every other evil habit, lies in the sway and dominion it has in the heart. Enmity reigns in the heart ever while it is destitute of true love to God; but yet the more peaceably it possesses the heart, and the more fully it has its consent, the more powerful it is. While the sinner is in a state of security, though he does not feel so explicit opposition to God in his heart, as being more out of view; yet it is the same principle of enmity that carries him on in casting God’s law behind his back, in neglecting the divine service, and giving a loose rein to his corruptions, while he despises, and perhaps derides, strict religion. His enmity lords it over him without control, and hardens his heart against reproof and conviction. It is unmolested in its sway, and carries the sinner headlong whichever way it directs; and he justifies himself in all this, and refuses to take blame to himself; but the awakened sinner, while conviction is borne home upon the conscience, confesses the just authority over him, that he has most unjustly trampled upon it, and violated his law. Though he has no holy acquiescence in, or choice of, the divine government, yet he has a rational conviction that it is rightful, and that he deserves punishment for contradicting it; that he feels his heart averse, greatly alarms him, and convinces him of the existence of enmity in his heart. Instead of spurning at his convictions, trampling them under foot, and casting them off, which would be the case if enmity acquired strength in proportion to his convictions, he cherishes them, and is afraid of falling back into security again. Though he feels risings of heart, yea, some sinners make some attempts to shake off their convictions, with whom they are too powerful, and are increased till they break their stout spirits, as they give up their struggles to stifle them, and become afraid lest they should leave them again to fall into a hardened state; yet this is so far from proving the increase of enmity as to strength or prevalence, that, in reality, it proves the restraint of it by the authority of God’s law in the conscience, and convincing influences of the Holy Spirit. Upon a discovery of the exceeding depravity and wickedness of his heart, the sinner, upon some principle, wishes his heart was changed. True, he does not choose holiness or turning to God in itself considered, for that he does not, is one main thing that fills his conscience with so much guilt; yet he earnestly desires there was such a heart in him, as did see the beauty of holiness, and truly choose it. He desires this, indeed, upon no higher principle, than a regard to his own happiness. This, where there is no higher, is not a holy principle, nor is this sort of desire of grace such as denotes true grace in the heart; yet it is not, in itself, a wicked principle. That this respect to his own happiness does not regard holiness as an ingredient in it, and is not subordinate to, and under the influence of, a higher and more noble principle, is his crime; but that it is in him, and has influence upon him, is not. Surely, the sinner’s enmity is not as prevalent and unrestrained, when he is thus anxiously solicitous to obtain heart-changing grace, even on this principle, as when he utterly disregarded the matter, and justified himself in refusing to return.

When it is said, that the awakened sinner still continues to reject Christ, and hate God with all his heart, the meaning must either be, that, under all his convictions, the sinner exerts himself to the utmost with all his might in opposition to them; that he the more pours contempt on the gospel, and stoutly resolves to reject Jesus Christ, that he casts about to find out how he may bear himself up in a determined opposition to the gospel overtures of salvation, and the more he is convinced, the more maliciously does he oppose, and impudently justify himself in refusing, Christ and his redemption, like the Scribes and Pharisees of old, which would argue the increase of enmity with a witness; and then, the proposition is not true, yea, notoriously contrary to fact. Or else the meaning must only be, that notwithstanding all his convictions, and increase of light, his enmity is not at all subdued, but if present restraints were removed, it would return to its old stubborn stoutness in the way of sin; and all the faculties and powers of the soul are still under the reigning power of that hateful principle; and then I have no controversy with any man about it. But this is no way inconsistent with what I have said, unless we say, that to lay restraint upon the lusts and corruptions of men, is inconsistent with their dominion in the heart; or else, that they have as great a degree of power under restraints, as when most unrestrained; neither of which will any man in the due use of his reason assert, for that would destroy all ideas of different degrees of wickedness. The sinner’s convictions awaken his attention to those glorious objects, God, and his Son Jesus Christ, and the way of salvation through him; and thereby the actings of his natural enmity are more direct and explicit, which doubtless more aggravates them as particular acts, and exposes the malignity of that hateful principle. Yet that very discovery, and the sinner’s condemning himself for it, and cries to God for deliverance from it, show that it has not as quiet possession of the heart, and as prevalent energy in it as formerly. Now it is from the principles,  good or bad, which have the governing prevalence in the heart, that persons have their character, especially in the eye of the heart searching God; if, then, under solemn convictions by the authority of God’s law, and the convincing influences of the Holy Spirit, the sinner’s natural enmity be restrained, it will follow, that the awakened sinner’s character is not, on the whole, rendered more vile and odious in the sight of God, than it was in the days of his security and contented course of sin against him.2 Can it be imagined, that the sinner’s enmity has as strong an energy in him, when brought to break off from his course of external sins, as when he pursued them with greediness? When he earnestly attends to the duties of religion, as when he neglected them with scorn and contempt, or trifled with them in a listless formality? And when he eagerly seeks the company of God’s people, asking their advice, as when he hated to be near them, could not bear their conversation, but took delight in the company of the profane and ungodly? But to return.

That the means of grace have a tendency to the conviction and conversion of sinners, as well as the edification of God’s people, appears by the expostulations God uses with them in his word, as utterly inexcusable and perverse in continuing impenitents after all the pains he has taken upon them, and means used with them. In the fifth chapter of Isaiah from the beginning, the Lord represents the abundant provision he had made for their fruitfulness, in point of means and advantages which he had afforded them. “What could have been done to my vineyard that I have not done in it? Wherefore when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? ” Isa. 5. 4. “But this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people: and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you; but they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in the counsels and imaginations of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward. Since the day that your fathers came forth of the land of Egypt unto this day, I have even sent you all my servants the prophets, daily rising up early and sending them. Yet they hearkened not unto me, nor inclined their ear, but hardened their neck; they did worse than their fathers. Therefore, thou shalt speak all these words unto them, but they will not hearken unto thee; thou shalt also call unto them, but they will not answer thee; but thou shalt say unto them, This is a nation that obeyeth not the voice of the Lord their God, nor receiveth correction. Truth is perished and cut off from their mouth. Cut off thine hair, O Jerusalem, and cast it away, and take up a lamentation on high places, for the Lord hath rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath.” Jer. 7. 23-29. Here we see their disobedience to, and abuse of, the means he had used with them, was the reason why they were so peculiarly the people of God’s wrath, and of the sad issue of their case. If it be said, the instruction they got from the word is sufficient to render impenitent sinners inexcusable, I answer, either this light and instruction has a tendency to their conversion, (and if this be admitted, the matter is fairly given up,) or it has no such tendency at all; and then how does it at all render them inexcusable in continuing impenitent and unconverted?

The conversion of sinners to God is the great scope of the means of grace; this the word of God calls for at their hands, commands and presses it with the greatest importunity. It is needless to recite authorities for this to such as are acquainted with their Bible, since we might quote a greater part of that sacred book to this purpose. Therefore it is, that the gospel ministry is called the ministry of reconciliation, and it is the business of gospel ministers to pray sinners in Christ’s stead to be reconciled to God. Yet …

VI. There is no certain or infallible connection between the most diligent and earnest attendance on the means of grace that unregenerate sinners are capable of, and their obtaining the saving grace of God. This issue of the matter is entirely from the sovereign mercy of God. If we suppose a certain necessary connection in this case, it must arise either from the nature of the thing, viz: some constitution or law of nature, or from some promise and positive appointment of God to that purpose; but in the case before us, there is no such connection in either way. Not the former; for the means of grace are positive institutions, and don’t fall under the laws of nature; nor do they operate by way of influence upon God to move him to show mercy, but are means whereby the blessed God deals with sinners, and works effectually on whom he pleases; their efficacy depends upon his blessing and energy. In this view he has appointed means, and requires fallen man to attend upon them. Guilty sinners lie at mercy upon which they have no claim, but it lies in the breast of God as a Sovereign, of his own grace, to show mercy or not as he pleases; and, therefore, according to his sovereign pleasure, he renders the means of grace effectual or not; and as to the latter part of connection, viz: by promise or positive appointment, there is not the smallest evidence of it in the word of God; if there be, let any one show it who thinks he can. I must confess I have not met with one such promise in all the book of God. As to such passages as Luke 11. 9 and Matt. 7. 7, “Ask and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you,” there the conduct of God as Father towards his children is plainly spoken of; and, therefore, asking, seeking, and knocking in faith, asking, &c., in a gracious manner is intended; and they are the children of God who are spoken of. So the moral efficacy of the means of grace terminated on God to move him to give grace, (the very mention of which shows the absurdity of the supposition,) or the sinner’s use of them were at all the ground or reason of his showing mercy; then, indeed, the very appointment of means would imply a promise of success, or something equal to it, in the required use of them; but this is so far from being the case, that, on the contrary, the tendency of the means to the end lies in their moral influence upon the consciences and hearts of sinners. Yet whatever aptness to such an influence there is in the means of grace, such is the blindness, deadness, enmity and prejudice of poor sinners, that until the Holy Spirit accompany them with his presence and energy, no such influence will effectually take place in their hearts. Now, he works in or by these means as a Sovereign; hence, he strives with many only in such a way as that he suffers them still to resist, until in just resentment he forsakes them. But with respect to the vessels of mercy, he prosecutes his gracious design, until by the “rod of his strength” (the word of his grace), he irresistibly conquers, “and rules in the midst of his enemies.” Psa. 110. 2.

Therefore sinners are to use the means of grace as creatures lying at mercy, seeking pure grace, which depends on the mighty energy of the Holy Spirit; but they can found no claim to grace on their most diligent use of said means. It is enough to engage sinners to the use of means, that God has appointed them as such, has required their attendance upon them; there is an aptness in the means themselves and a proper tendency, and it is by these means the Holy Spirit works; in this way he meets with perishing creatures in mercy, and they cannot expect the grace of God in the neglect of his institutions. While there is a “may be the Lord will be gracious,” (Amos 5. 15,) or, who knoweth if the Lord will return, and repent, and leave a blessing behind him?” (Joel 2. 14,) sinners will be utterly inexcusable in neglecting them, and justly charged with choosing their own destruction.

VII. From what has been said it will follow, as a conclusion on the whole, that all sinners, when the gospel comes, are under the most indispensable obligations to attend the means of grace. The design of their institution, as mediums of the Spirit’s dealing with their souls about their eternal interests, lays them under bonds of gratitude. For why, shall the offended majesty of heaven thus seek after rebellious sinners? Would it not then be the basest ingratitude to treat him with neglect? The gracious authority of God binds their consciences; he requires their attendance upon his ordinances; their very institution implies such a requisition, and it will be a disobedience, highly criminal, to neglect them.

We also hence see what grounds of encouragement sinners have, for their attendance on the means of grace; they have not the assurance of a promise that they shall be successful; the great God has come under no such engagement; they have no ground of present peace and security from their most diligent and earnest use of them. Such apprehensions would lead to, and support, a self-righteous spirit, and be an abuse of the means of grace. They have great reason of deepest anxiety lest they fail of the grace of God, and provoke the Holy Spirit to forsake them. Yet they have sufficient motives from the aforesaid design of their institution; their moral aptness and tendency, whereby they are adapted to our rational natures and the Spirit’s operations, and suited to affect the hearts of men in a moral way. It is the stated way of the Spirit’s dealing with the souls of men; by his word and ordinances he strives with sinners, and by the same means he accomplishes his special work of grace; and in this way there is the only probability of meeting with mercy. In the continued neglect of God’s ordinances there is certain destruction, but in waiting on God in this way there is a peradventure the Lord may have mercy. The Holy Spirit has rendered the means of grace effectual to multitudes, and how knows each sinner but, of his rich grace, he may effectually reach him?

Hence, also, we may see that ministers of the gospel not only may, with safety and propriety, but are bound, in duty, to urge unregenerate sinners, as well as others, to a diligent use and improvement of the means of grace, and in that way to seek unto God for regenerating grace. If the preceding view of the matter be kept up, such exhortations can have no tendency to settle people in a legal dependence on the means, nor promote security, nor carnal confidence. Yea, it is highly incumbent on the ministers of Christ to give particular directions to poor sinners in order to their improvement of the means, in such a manner as has the most likely tendency, and wherewith it is most probable the Holy Spirit may concur for their conversion to God. Certainly, a mere external attendance upon the administration of ordinances, while the heart is secure and careless, is not likely to answer any good end. Undoubtedly, such have need to be directed so to attend to the word of God as to compare themselves therewith, to examine themselves, and enter into a serious consideration of their own state and character, and lay to heart the danger they are in. Awakened sinners are inclined to seek shelter in the duties of religion, and to expect healing and relief to their consciences from their earnest use of means. These need to be warned of that dangerous rock, and be directed to such a view of God’s law as may more deeply convince them of their utter depravity, and slay them dead to the law. Gal. 2. 19. Their attention to the overtures of the gospel should be urged. Our safe path lies between two dangerous extremes, viz: of those who only try to convince men of their unregenerate state, call upon them to embrace Jesus Christ, and then leave them under all their perplexing exercises and distresses, without any counsel or direction; and thus their various temptations, discouragements, and despondencies are overlooked, and no assistance is administered when they most need it. It is a matter of great consequence into what hands poor, convinced sinners fall; an unskillful treatment of them is vastly injurious. The other extreme is of those who direct sinners to duties and attendance on the means of grace in such a legal manner as to encourage their dependence upon them; such lead poor creatures to think they can do something to recommend themselves to God; their utter insufficiency in themselves is never fairly opened up. On the contrary, they are told if they will do their part, God will do his; and thus they are made to believe there is a certain connection between their own best endeavours and the saving grace of God; that if they do what they can, God will do the rest. Thus the nature and design of the means is misrepresented. They are considered as means which sinners use with God in order to prevail with him, rather than means whereby he deals with them, in order to call them back again to himself, and renders them irresistibly efficacious for that purpose when he pleases. The first of these extremes tends to make sinners neglect all attempts to perform the duties of religion, or if they give their presence at ordinances, yet make no essay to strive with their own hearts, as being altogether in vain, without any tendency to promote their good, and not required of them in their present circumstances. While this doctrine is believed, Satan is not much afraid of damage to his interest from all their convictions of being in an unregenerate state; for the consequence is, they quench the Spirit. If convictions startle them, they, upon this principle, make no attempt to cherish their convictions, easily fall asleep again, and lie still in careless indolence. By the latter extreme, the striving of sinners is turned into a wrong channel, and they are directed to the use of means upon principles entirely wrong. The directions they get, send them to the law for life, and settle them upon a righteousness of their own. Both the extremes are injurious to the interests of religion, and destructive to the souls of men. Both are to be avoided; the ministers of the gospel are to endeavour the conviction and awakening of sinners, and when there are any awakenings they are to attend and cherish them, and by prudent, seasonable and evangelical counsel to direct their way, and point out the method of salvation to them. They have sufficient encouragement to such a conduct upon this principle, that however dead, miserable and helpless sinners are, yet it is by such views and impressions as evangelical counsels and directions tend to, that the Holy Spirit carries on his work in the souls of men; and therefore, when he concurs, they shall be rendered effectual. May the God of all grace teach his servants how to negotiate the treaty of peace and reconciliation, and make them abundantly wise to win souls to Jesus Christ! Amen.

1 I would here refer the reader to what I have said in the sixth Observation on Regeneration, concerning the instrumentality of the word therein.

2 It will by no means follow, that awakened sinners are, in a degree, accepted of God, on account of their being less sinful than they were in the days of their security; for the divine law still condemns them as falling short, infinitely short of its demands; and their less sinfulness makes no atonement for the smallest past transgression. It only follows that, in their present case, they merit a less degree of disapprobation and punishment; i.e., they are less offensive; and this we must admit, or else deny different degrees of wickedness; or assert that the lowest degree of wickedness is as offensive, and disapproved in as high a degree, as the greatest.


John Blair (1719-1771): Observations on Regeneration

Observations on Regeneration


John Blair (1719-1771)

Copyright: Public Domain

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Observations on Regeneration

As no truth is more interesting and important, so none has been more frequently and fully treated in a practical view, by pious writers, than the doctrine of regeneration. Many have, in this way, very excellently and largely described the happy change, which, by virtue of the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, takes place in the whole man. I have therefore no design at present to enter upon a full consideration of the subject, but shall only beg leave to make a few very brief observations; some of which have not been so particularly considered in practical treatises, but yet perhaps, may be of some use to assist in the right apprehension of, and tend to prevent mistakes about a doctrine, which lies so much at the foundation of all true religion.

Observation 1. Regeneration is the communication of a principle of spiritual life to the soul of a sinner, naturally dead in trespasses and sins, by the agency of the Holy Spirit.

I call it a principle, not only because it is a beginning of spiritual life, but especially, because it denotes a settled determination of the mind, to right activity towards spiritual objects, under a moral consideration of them, whence results every right exercise of heart about divine things. It is the determination of the soul to a holy activity about God and divine things, or to such a kind of action, not from the impulsion of an external force, but an internal active principle, and therefore is justly called life—life of the most excellent kind. It is the life of life.*

But as our apostasy from God has fixed in us, by nature, a very contrary determination, to a course of sinful action, therefore, while that continues (which will be till some power subdues it), there can be no tendency in the soul to an holy temper. The power of the soul to any activity lies formally in the will. Hence its whole power, by nature, is to sin, and to reject God. For “the carnal mind is enmity against God.” Rom. viii. 7. Consequently some other power must be exerted in order to break this evil determination, and reduce the rebellious creature to a right temper. And that must be a power that has dominion over the will. This new determination, therefore, is from the almighty agency of the Holy Spirit; it is he that communicates this new principle of life. Accordingly, it is everywhere ascribed to him in scripture. (John iii. 3-5, John vi. 63, Tit. iii. 5).

Observation 2. This principle of spiritual life and the manner of its communication are not immediately in themselves perceptible.

As Adam did not perceive when God breathed into his nostrils the breath of natural life, but perceived its existence and nature from its activity and effects, so the existence and nature of spiritual life are known only by the experience the Christian has of its exercise and efficacy. In this view our Lord observes, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh nor whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” John iii. 8. There are, indeed, those who greatly abuse this passage, thence flattering themselves that they may be the subjects of regeneration, without perceiving any great change in their hearts and lives. But this is not only foreign to the sense of the place, but contradictory to it, for the wind is very sensibly perceived. The design of our Lord seems to be to remove the surprise of Nicodemus at the mysteriousness of the doctrine, by showing him it is a supernatural work performed by the Holy Spirit, as a gracious Sovereign, to which the sinner himself is so far from contributing anything, that he is not so much as sensible of the article of communication, nor perceives the manner of the Holy Spirit’s operation; q. d. there are mysteries in nature which you cannot account for. You cannot immediately perceive the origin of the wind, nor account for its ceasing when once in motion, or perceive the reason why it continually, and often very suddenly, changes its direction. You hear the sound and feel the effects, but it is only by observations on these sensations, either made by yourself, or suggested by others, that you can infer any conclusions about its nature or causes. Why then should you be surprised to find mysteries in the manner of divine operations, when performing works of grace? In this new birth, a man can only perceive the exercises of divine life in his heart, and by scriptural observations on these, infer what sort of life he lives, or form conclusions about its nature and principle. For any one, therefore, to pretend to tell what the principle of divine life is, antecedent to all exercises of life in the heart, and undertake from thence to demonstrate and explain those exercises, is a vain attempt. When he distinguishes this life from all its exercises, and goes about to tell us what it is antecedent to them all, he must talk in the dark about a certain something, of which he has no idea. To give it a name, to call it, for instance, a new temper or taste, is not to tell us what it is. Let any man explain what he means by a new or holy temper, without including some exercises of life in heart, if he can.

Observation 3. Regeneration and conversion, strictly taken, are not distinct things; but these different denominations express the same thing under different views. I say conversion strictly taken; for largely taken, it includes the first exercises of the several graces of the Holy Spirit which are but the various modifications of the same principle of spiritual life, such as a justifying faith, hope, joy, zeal, sorrow for sin, &c. From which, regeneration (though the term is often also used in the same latitude, yet) is so distinct in a strict sense, as to be altogether antecedent, not only in the order of nature, but of time too. But strictly taken, conversion is the actual submission or turning of a soul to God in the most simple motion of it. This may be, perhaps, in the soul’s submitting itself into the hands of divine sovereignty, a most fitly having a right to do with him as he pleases, or in a supreme regard to God as a most glorious Being and rightful Lord. Now this, when considered as the effect of the Holy Spirit’s agency, enabling or causing the soul to turn to God, is called regeneration; but when considered as an activity essential to spiritual life, and formally as the soul’s act, is called conversion; but these are only different views and respects of the same thing. For regeneration undoubtedly denotes a moral effect produced by the Spirit of God. But this effect which he produced, is the soul’s turning to God. Surely, nothing short of this can be called the new birth. Regeneration is the implantation of holiness in the heart. Now, certainly, there can be no real holiness without turning to God; the soul that has not turned to God is still, without controversy, unregenerate. Hence it follows,

Observation 4. That this principle wrought in the soul in regeneration is not something antecedent to every act and exercise of holiness, but includes in it, or is a first act or exercise of holiness, of the same nature with all the exercises of holiness that follow after through the course of life.

To cause life, is to cause action; for activity is essential to the idea of life. When the Holy Spirit regenerates a sinner, he communicates an active principle, otherwise it were not life. But to talk of an active principle existing in the soul absolutely without action, would be a contradiction; now this action must be cleaving to God. Hence arises,

Observation 5. Viz: that this principle of spiritual life consists in, or includes some new view of the mind, and determination or approbation of the will. This must be the case, because it is a moral principle; otherwise it would not be the principle of a course of oral action. When therefore a principle of spiritual life is implanted, a moral effect is produced; but that effect which includes no acts of the understanding and will, but is absolutely antecedent to them, must be a mere physical, and not a moral effect, and then to regenerate would be to create in a physical, not a moral sense.

I think the sacred scriptures set the matter in the same light with the above observations. Sometimes this happy change is expressed by the term “light.” “Ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord.” Eph. v. 8. Sometimes it is represented under the notion of being made willing. “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power.” Ps. cx. 3. Either of these expressions includes the other. Thus when the regenerate are called light, the matter is not confined to the understanding only, but includes the approbation of the will, and to be willing, certainly includes the view of the understanding; for there can be no act of the will without it; sometimes both are set in view together, as: “To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God.” Acts xxvi. 18. Certainly to open the eyes and turn from darkness to light is to enlighten the understanding; and to turn to God is the act of the will. To the same purpose is, “For God hath shined into our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” 2 Cor. iv. 6. To see the glory of God must include both the view of the understanding, and the approbation of the will. It is no objection to this, to say, these scriptures speak of this change largely taken. For admitting that, yet it is not by way of contradistinction from, or exclusive of, the first instance; but the first existence of life comes under the same predicament. Thus they, who were sometimes darkness, are not said to be enlightened only, but to be light. God, in the new creation, shines into the heart, in a manner analogous to his shining in the natural world, when he created light in it. It is very easy to say, that in regeneration, a holy temper is produced whence this knowledge and volition arises; but perhaps it would not be so easy to tell, in that connection, what we are to understand by that temper. Surely we are not to conceive of a moral, in the same manner as of a natural temper. In the latter, we take into the consideration such a certain, yet various construction of the human frame, as is apt to produce such and such passions, and feelings of nature. Now if we have any idea of the former, any thing like this, we must then consider it only as a new faculty created in the soul, which has nothing moral in it, any more than the understanding or will considered as natural faculties. But if we conceive of it as a moral determination of the soul towards God, then we must consider it as including some apprehension of God in the understanding, and an act of the will embracing him, which brings the matter to what I have said. Thus, we are, as it were, insensibly led to some apprehension of what this divine principle is, or wherein it consists, though we cannot comprehend the manner of the Holy Spirit’s operation in producing it, or explain how it exists. It is an experimental, practical knowledge of God, or it is a new view of the infinite perfections of God, with the approbation of them in the will as most excellent; or, which is indeed the same thing under its proper denomination, it is a supreme love to God. Supreme love to God is the very essence of true religion; hence it is called “the fulfilling of the law.” Rom. xiii. 10. Our Lord mentions love to God and our neighbour, as the sum and substance of the whole law. Matt. xxii. 37-40. No action can be called true obedience, if it do not flow from love to God, and every exercise of true grace may be reduced to this as its principle.

Observation 6. The Holy Spirit makes use of the word of God as a means in the work of regeneration, which he renders irresistibly efficacious for that purpose. I am far from thinking with the Arminians, that the only influence of the Holy Spirit in this matter lies in what they call moral suasion; that is, as I understand it, the Holy Spirit having set before us the arguments and motives of the gospel in the word, both by his providence and an influence upon the mind, excites its attention to these things, and assists the natural faculties in weighing those arguments and motives, and thus strives to persuade the sinner to a compliance with gospel overtures, but still leaves it with himself to yield to or reject those arguments by a sovereign act of his own will. According to this, it is only an objective light that is set before the mind, as contained in the word; a representation of objects, as yet at a distance, of which the mind has no knowledge, but by the report and description of the word; and, perhaps, the most, if not all the light, which is usually called common illumination, may be obtained this way.

Nor can I agree with some, even eminent Calvinistic divines, that there is only a gradual difference between common and saving illumination. I believe there is a specific difference; there is in regeneration a subjective light created in the soul, which, though it is the knowledge of a glorious object presented to the mind, yet may fitly be called subjective in respect of the manner of its communication, as contradistinguished from, though not opposed to, the mere objective light of the word before described. It is an immediate intuitive sense or knowledge of the moral perfections and character of God, not gained by way of conclusion from premises, or by argumentation, but arising from the approach of God to the soul by the way of gracious presence. He thus takes possession of the heart, and fills it with a sense of himself by his presence in a peculiar manner. And this is a way of knowing, very different from that received merely by description and report of the word, and, therefore, a different kind of knowledge, viz: by way of spiritual sense and experience. Though we cannot perceive or experience the manner of the divine presence or access to the soul, yet the fact is abundantly witnessed by the experience of God’s people. Notwithstanding they have an habitual spiritual knowledge of God and divine truth, yet, at one season, they are distressed with darkness, and cannot get any proper views of God; at another, they shall be full of light, and astonished with the view of divine glory: now, what is the reason of this last difference? Surely, not from any difference in the objective light of the word, or their capacity to meditate upon it. But the reason of it is, the absence of God in the one case, and his glorious presence in the other; therefore, their first such knowledge of God was from such an approach to the soul, or divine presence in it. And for the reality of the experience of God’s people, I refer to the account the sacred scriptures give us sometimes of their bitter complaints of God’s hiding himself, and panting for him as the hart for the water-brooks; at other times, at their rejoicing in his beauty and glory, with which they are, as it were, transported; and I think these words of Job, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee,” (Job xiii. 5) fully justify this distinction of objective and subjective knowledge. For admit that the design of the word is to represent the very lively views he had of the divine excellency, so that, comparatively speaking, all his former, even experimental views were but like report; yet by a parity of reason, there is a vast difference between experience in the lowest degree and report; and he goes upon this principle, that report, or by the hearing of the ear, is a very languid and imperfect way of knowing, compared with sight and intimate acquaintance. These are very different kinds of knowledge; as different as the knowledge a man has of a country from an historical account and map of it, or the report of travelers, and that he has from travelling through, and seeing it himself. Thus then, by this presence of God in the soul, it has a knowledge of him, which it could not possibly have without it, by the most animated descriptions and representations of the word. It was thus, even innocent Adam knew the moral character and excellency of God, not only by objective evidence from without, but also by subjective evidence from his experience of the divine presence.

But all this does not exclude moral influence by way of argument, the argument contained in the word; but rather accounts for their irresistible efficacy. Though mere moral suasion will not do the business, yet it is not excluded; it is a moral effect that is to be produced; therefore, it is natural enough to expect that the power producing it should be exerted in a moral way; and, consequently, a moral mean with great propriety be admitted.

That this matter may be better apprehended, I beg leave to observe, that the blessed God must be exhibited to the mind as an object of contemplation, in order to any act of the will towards him. The will approves him as most fit and worthy to be chosen, which must be founded upon the contemplation of him in the mind. Length of time is not, indeed, necessary for this purpose. The operations of the mind are very quick. Were we to suppose an adult, who had no opportunity of the word, to be regenerated, no doubt a reflection upon his own intuitive perceptions would exhibit the blessed God to the mind, as an object of contemplation. For it is absurd to suppose a new heart to exist in an adult person without any ideas of God and divine things in the understanding; for that is to suppose a person regenerated, and yet altogether ignorant of God; to turn to God without any knowledge of him, which I think is a contradiction, and the same thing as to say a man is changed without any alteration. The thief on the cross seems to be an instance to the contrary; though he lived in the land of Judea, and had opportunity of the word of God, it is not probable a man of his abandoned character sought any considerable acquaintance with it; yet his speech to his fellow-criminal, and his address to Jesus Christ, showed very considerable discoveries of God, and the character of his Saviour.

But let it be considered, that with respect to sinners who live under the means of grace, and enjoy the word of God, though, by reason of their estrangement from God, they have no proper views of divine truths, yet their understandings are possessed of some general speculative knowledge of them. Yea, convinced sinners have more; they have such an experimental knowledge of the law convincing them of sin, as is effectual to arouse them out of their fatal security, and confute their false notions, and awaken them to a very solemn attention to the word of God. Now in regeneration, the intuitive views impressed on the mind by the divine presence, are exactly the same with the descriptions and delineations of the divine character in the word. The mind therefore, instead of reflecting immediately upon its own perceptions, looks forward to the word. Now the man’s eyes are opened, and he understands the scripture in a manner he never could before. There he sees this glorious object represented as in a glass; from thence the reflection is so strong and lively as irresistibly, though in a moral way, to determine the will; for surely it is very apprehensible that the views of the mind may be so experimental, strong and full of evidence, that it is impossible for a rational being to withold the approbation and consent of the will; and thus this divine temper is formed in the heart. In this point of light, I think the apostle sets the matter, “But we all with open face, beholding, as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” 2 Cor. iii. 18. Though these words comprehend the gradual perfecting the image of God, in the progress of the work of grace; yet, certainly, the first step of the process is in the same way with all the subsequent, in the whole series. Nor does the use of the glass at all derogate from the efficacy of the Spirit, in causing and conducting this whole matter. And indeed there is as really an immediate agency of the Spirit upon the soul, in every progressive perfecting of the image of God, and every instance of the quickening grace in believers, (when yet the concurring instrumentality of the word, notwithstanding, is acknowledged,) as there is in the first begetting of the divine life.

Here I would take notice, how very different this view of divine illumination is from the wild conceits of enthusiasts. Their pretended extraordinary discoveries and inspirations consist in unaccountable impulses without the word, the warm flights of imagination, and agitation of their passions; in all this they either have no reference to the word of God, but rather set light by it in comparison of their own great light; or else in pretending to the word, put inconsistent, ridiculous constructions upon it. But these intuitive views of God, I mentioned as primarily arising from his presence in the soul, are but the impression of such truths as the word of God describes; they lead to the scriptures, and give a rational, consistent view of them; this light is tried and judged by the word of God. “To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” Isa. viii. 20.

I cannot but think the instrumentality of the word in regeneration, in the view I have given of it, is once and again asserted in the sacred scriptures; thus, “being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God which liveth and abideth for ever.” 1 Pet. i. 23. The word, here rendered “born again,” is the same which is used John iii. 3, of which new birth the word is declared to be an instrument or mean. In the same view, the same apostle tells the Christians to whom he wrote, that “by great and precious promises, they were made partakers of the divine nature;” (2 Pet. i. 4) and to be made partakers of the divine nature is to be regenerated. Another passage is, “Of his own will begat he us with (or by) the word of truth.” James i. 18. The word here used cannot with any propriety, I think, be understood of any thing else than the first infusion or begetting of spiritual life. When this is said to be done with or by the word, it must intend that it is used as an instrument or mean: in this view this blessed change is expressed by “putting God’s law in the inward parts, and writing it in the heart.” Jer. xxxi. 33.

Doubtless the Holy Spirit could as easily accomplish this great work without using any means; yet, as it appears very plain he has chosen to do otherwise, we may not only suppose, but readily see, great propriety in his making use of the word in this matter. This change is to be tried and judged of by the word; therefore, must answer to the descriptions and characters there given, as the impression on the wax answers to the characters of the seal. The views of God in the mind must be such as exactly agree to the descriptions and representations of him in the word. It was, consequently, very fit that these characters of the word should be impressed upon the soul, as a medium of determining the will in regeneration.

When the Holy Spirit takes the sinner in hand, in order to bring him home to God, the first step he ordinarily takes is to convince him of sin, confute his false notions, and slay his legal hopes; in this he makes use of the law as a mean, as all acknowledge. Yet in order to this effectual access of the law to the conscience, there is as really an immediate exertion of power and influence upon the soul, as there is also in regeneration; and though this conviction does not make the sinner more worthy of the grace of God, yet the great design of it is to prepare the way for the opening of divine truths upon the mind, with the brighter evidence, in its passing this saving change; which reflects the image of this glory upon the beholding soul, and determines the will. (2 Cor. iii. 18, Ps. cx. 3)

Observation 7. From this new view of the mind, and determination of the will, or supreme regard to God, result the various exercises of heart, which are called the graces of the Holy Spirit, and distinguished by particular names, as their proper principle.

From this view of the divine character in the enlightened mind, naturally arises a discovery of the necessity of Christ’s satisfaction to divine justice, and the fitness and glory of that way of reconciliation with God; hence faith in Christ. The plan of mercy still more illustrates the glory of the divine character, for it shines in the face of Jesus Christ; by these views of faith, spiritual affections are excited, sorrow for, and hatred against sin raised; hence an habitual watchfulness against sin and opposition to it, and delight in the service of God; and all this infers a great and permanent change in the whole course of life and action; but practical writers have abundantly explained and described these things, to whom I refer my readers, and shall insist no further upon them here.

I therefore conclude with this general remark, viz: that it is of vastly more importance and concernment of us, to inquire into the reality of a gracious change, as discovered by the alteration, and holy exercises which the regenerate experience, than spend our time and zeal in disputing about the principle of spiritual life, wherein it consists, or what it is, antecedent to all exercises thereof. While we are warmly interested in deciding the speculative dispute, we are apt to forget the practical consideration of the important subject, and the application of it to ourselves; and these who attend to us, are led to treat the matter in the same manner; by this means, the interests of vital piety languish. While we justly lament the low state of experimental religion, to devote ourselves to these speculative refinements will not be found the way to revive it. Experience will always show, that to keep up a practical view of divine truths, and the solemn application of them in serious, pungent addresses to the conscience, is the best calculated for that purpose. Besides, if we lay down, by way of hypothesis, a certain something, of which we can have no idea, (as of a principle of life, antecedent to all exercises of life, we cannot; nor can we infer any conclusions about its nature from any exercises of the heart, if it include neither idea nor volition, but is something absolutely antecedent to both,) then we shall be in danger of a superstructure as unintelligible as the basis upon which we build. Thus some have wildly dreamed, that the principle of spiritual life may exist in the soul without any act or exercise of life, as a taste, which lies dormant until a proper object be applied to it; and if it may exist one moment, why not two? And if two, why not a minute? And so on, till they bring the supposition to hours, days, months, and years; and so a regenerate person may still continue an unbeliever, and of consequence, in an unjustified state. And I see not why it would not be as easy to continue the supposition till death, and to send him to hell, with his dormant principle along with him. Thus the cause of vital religion is greatly disserved.

But if we attend to the plain, practical views the scriptures give us of this matter, consider the exercises of divine life which discover the happy change produced in regeneration, and trace these to their first principle, which, from the nature of these exercises, we conclude to be something of the same nature with them—to be a first act of the series of acts or exercises that follow after, which the Holy Spirit causes the soul to exert, (i. e., causes it to live,) we are in no danger of any fatal mistake. In this way, the heart will be more likely to feel itself interested; and thus people become more solemn and exercised in examining and judging the state of their own souls. And that this may be more extensively the case among professors, may God of his infinite mercy grant for Christ’s sake! Amen.

* There is some distinction between a natural and a moral principle of action; the former lies in the very essence of the being to which it belongs, or is a determination to some particular kind of action resulting from its frame or constitution. Thus, self-activity, or natural life, which is essential to the soul, is a principle of action in general. A determination to particular kinds of natural action, such as we call instinct in brutes, or reason in man, arises immediately from the existence of natural faculties, or something in the frame or constitution of creatures respectively. But a moral principle is a determination to some particular kind of action, arising from some settled judgment or sentiment, in which the will acquiesces. Thus a principle of holy action is the fixed impression of some spiritual truth or truths upon the heart.