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THE TRUE CHARACTER OF GOOD MEN DELINEATED.
For to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good, I find
not. - ROMANS, vii. 18.
HAVING shown in the preceding discourse that it is the desire of saints to be perfect; that notwithstanding this desire they are still imperfect; and that their imperfection consists in positively sinful exercises; it only remains to improve the subject, by drawing a number of inferences from it.
1. If the imperfection of saints consists in the inconstancy of their holy exercises, then it is their duty to become absolutely perfect. It appears from what has been said, that there is nothing to prevent their reaching perfection in this life, but their own free, voluntary, sinful exercises. They would be entirely sinless, if they would only continue to exercise just such holy affections as they sometimes do exercise. If they are able to have one good affection, why not another, and another, without intermission ? And if they are able to have a constant series of good affections, why are they not under moral obligation to have such a series, and to be uniformly holy?
No reason can be given why they should not be perfect, which will not be as good a reason why they should voluntarily commit sin. But who can believe that saints ought to commit the least iniquity? Though no man has been absolutely perfect in this life, and though it is very evident that no man ever will be so in the present state, yet this affords not the least excuse for the least moral imperfection. It is the indispensable duty of all saints to keep themselves always in the love of God, and to be holy as he is holy, and perfect as he is perfect. They cannot fall short of moral perfection, without exercising
positively sinful affections, which must be condemned by the divine law, and by their own enlightened consciences.
2. If the present imperfection of saints consists in the inconstancy of their holy exercises, then it is easy to conceive how they will all be equally perfect in a future state. The scripture assures us that all true believers will be perfectly pure, as soon as they are absent from the body and present with the Lord. We read, that there shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven “any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie." Those who have already reached the mansions of the blessed, are called “the spirits of just men made perfect." And the apostle tells us, “ When
, that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away." But how can all true saints become thus equally perfect, the moment they arrive at the kingdom of glory? They will enter into the regions of light with unequal capacities, with unequal knowledge, and with unequal reasons of gratitude and praise. These inequalities must lay a foundation for an inequality of holiness to all eternity. How then can they all be equally perfect while they are unequally holy? The answer to this is easy, if their imperfection will cease the moment their sinful exercises cease, and if their perfection will commence the moment their holy exercises become constant and uninterrupted. And this will certainly be the case if their present imperfection wholly consists in the inconstancy of their holy exercises. We must suppose that all their positively sinful exercises will cease, before they are admitted into the immediate presence of God; and as soon as these cease, their holy affections will of course become constant; and that constancy of perfectly holy exercises must constitute sinless perfection. In this way the least saint will be as perfect as the greatest; and the greatest will be as perfect the first moment he enters the gates of paradise, as he ever will be in any period of eternity. Though all the inhabitants of heaven will incessantly make advances in holiness, yet none will make advances in perfection, which essentially and necessarily consists in the constant exercise of holy affections.
3. If the imperfection of saints be owing, not to the weakness but to the inconstancy of their holy exercises, then there is a propriety in their being called perfect, notwithstanding they are far from being free from moral corruption. The scripture both directly and indirectly represents all good men as perfect. We read, "Noah was a just man, and perfect in his generations.” It is said of Job, “ That man was perfect and upright.” We are told, “ God will not cast away a perfect man, neither will he help the evil doers.” The Psalmist says, “ Mark the
perfect man, and behold the upright; for the end of that man is peace.” Solomon observes, " The upright shall dwell in the land, and the perfect shall remain in it.” He says again, “ The righteousness of the perfect shall direct his way; but the wicked shall fall by his own wickedness.” That the word perfect is here used in a strict and proper sense, appears from other texts, in which saints are represented as having a perfect heart. We read," Asa's heart was perfect with the Lord all his days." Hezekiah pleads the perfection of his own heart before God. “I beseech thee, O Lord, remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart.” The prophet also said, “ The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.”
Now, if all good men have some holy exercises which are entirely pure and free from sin, there is a strict propriety in calling them perfect, notwithstanding all their remaining impurity and imperfection. Their perfectly holy affections render it as proper to call them perfect, as their totally sinful affections render it proper to call them imperfect
. Since they have some entirely right affections, they may be truly called blameless, harmless, sincere, undefiled, and pure in heart. But if their holy affections were always too low and languid, or were always mixed with moral impurity, then no moral perfection could belong to their character. And if this were true, there could be no propriety in calling them perfect, or in using any expressions which convey this idea. But if all their moral exercises are perfectly holy, except those which are totally sinsul, then it is altogether proper that they should be characterized by their best affections, which constitute their moral beauty and real perfection.
4. If the imperfection of saints consists in the inconstancy of their holy exercises, then it is easy to account for their spiritual declensions. It is no uncommon thing for good men to go backward, instead of going forward in religion. This is generally ascribed to the languor and weakness of their gracious exercises, or to the want of strength and vigor in their gracious principle. But it is extremely difficult to account for such coldness and barrenness in christians, if all their moral exercises are pure and holy, or if they always have a principle of grace, upon which divine objects must always make some good impression. It is, therefore, much more reasonable to suppose that their spiritual declension is owing to the increase of positively sinful exercises.
For, as these increase, gracious exercises must necessarily decrease. They cannot love God, while they are loving the world ; they cannot serve God while they are serving mammon; and they cannot mind spiritual, while they are minding earthly things. Spiritual declension ought, in all cases, to be ascribed entirely to the fewness of gracious exercises. As natural coldness in winter is not owing to the distance of the sun from the earth, but to the fewness and oblique direction of the rays which fall upon it; so spiritual coldness, formality, and deadness in religion is not owing to the languor of holy exercises, but to the fewness and interruption of right affections. Saints know by experience, that, while their attention is fixed on divine objects and not diverted, and while their holy affections continue uniform and uninterrupted, they find the greatest satisfaction and enjoyment in the duties of devotion. But while they mind earthly things, and eagerly pursue worldly objects and enjoyments, they find their graces languish, and they grow cold and dead to every thing of a spiritual and divine nature. As they generally grow warm and lively in religion as fast as their holy exercises increase, so they generally grow cold and dull, as fast as their love to God is interrupted by their love to the world. They never stand still, but always go either forward or backward in their religious course. When they go forward, they go forward of choice; and when they go backward they go backward of choice. Their declension is altogether voluntary, and entirely owing to their positively sinsul exercises. It is true, indeed, spiritual light and comfort do not always keep pace with their growth in grace; nor do spiritual darkness and distress always follow their declension in religion. The reason is, light and darkness, comfort and distress, do not immediately depend upon their will, but upon the nature of those manifestations, which God is pleased to make to their minds. Though they commonly enjoy more light and comfort while they are making progress in holiness, yet they sometimes grow in grace very fast
, while they are denied the peculiar manifestations of the divine favor. And though they are commonly involved in greater darkness while they are declining in grace, yet their declension is sometimes attended with more stupidity, than darkness and distress of mind. Hence they ought to measure their growth in grace by the increase of holy affections, and not by the increase of spiritual light and comfort. And, on the other hand, they ought to measure their declension in religion, by the increase of sinful affections, and not by the increase of spiritual darkness and distress. For, however things may appear to themselves, they actually decline more and more in religion, the more and more they live in the exercise of sinful affections.
5. If saints, in their present imperfect state, are constantly liable to positively sinful exercises, then they are constantly
dependent upon God, to carry on a work of sanctification in their hearts. Their gracious exercises are not necessarily and inseparably connected with each other, and, of consequence, may at any time be interrupted by totally sinful affections. They have no permanent source or fountain of holiness within themselves, from which a constant stream of holy affections will naturally and necessarily flow. As one holy affection will not produce another, so they are immediately dependent upon God for every holy affection. The moment he withdraws his gracious influence, their gracious exercises cease, and sinful exercises instantly succeed. And in this case, they are no more able to renew the train of holy affections, than they were to begin it at first. Their sanctification, therefore, is precisely the same as continued regeneration. Accordingly the apostle Paul represents himself and all other christians, as constantly dependent upon a divine influence for the continuation and growth of grace. He says, “ Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God.” Again : “Now he which establishes us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God, who hath also sealed us, and given us the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.” And again : “ After that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise." Again he says: “ Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption;" and “ As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” But though God has promised to give saints the influences of his Spirit to produce holy affections in their hearts, and prepare them for future and eternal blessedness, yet he has not promised that such divine influences shall be constant, but has reserved the power of withdrawing them, whenever he pleases. This shows that christians are constantly and immediately dependent upon God, to keep up a train of holy exercises in their hearts; and when it is broken by the intervention of sinful affections, to renew it again. The preparations of their heart, as well as the answer of their tongue, is from the Lord. It depends upon God, who has begun a good work in their hearts, to carry it on until the day of Jesus Christ. He only can make them perfect in every good work to do his will, working in them that which is well pleasing in his sight.
6. If saints, in their present state of imperfection, are subjects of both holy and unholy affections, then it is evident that there is a foundation in their minds for what is commonly called the christian warfare. This is peculiar to all real christians. It never takes place in the unregenerate, but always takes place in those who are born again. It is a warfare, not between the heart and conscience, but between holy and unholy affections.