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How shall we distinguish between the workings of natural affection, and the real exercise of Grace, in religious duties?
THIS serious question lately came into my hands in these very words; and, upon reading it, I could not but see that it contained a query of the greatest importance, and therefore thought it might be very proper to take it into consideration, and give it as clear a solution as lays in my power.
I confess it to be a very close and interesting inquiry, such as requires some skill to answer it, but much more spiritual skill to apply it to our own hearts and cases. You will easily see both the importance and difficulty of the question, by a free and familiar stating it, after this manner.
There are many that go to, or come from gospel ordinances, entirely stupid, careless, and unaffected, having no real regard for the power or spirit of religion, and aiming at no more than the form of it. To such as these the present query is an indifferent matter; and their very indifference is an evident proof, that the state of their persons, or the frame of their hearts, is really sad and deplorable, though they know it not, are utterly unconcerned about it.
There are others, who, when they attend upon, or engage in religious duties, such as reading, hearing, singing, and praying, have their affections strongly moving; so that these persons can, and do frequently weep under ordinances for grief or joy; they often attend the means of grace with much pleasure in their countenances, and many tears in their eyes. These appearances, I profess, are very pleasing and promising in an assembly, and sometimes indicate that the Spirit of God is at work in their hearts: and many Christians are ready to take it for granted, that those ordinances are truly beneficial, where the passions are thus agitated, and to esteem those lost opportunities, where this is not the case.
But here I must observe, that we have great reason to be suspicious of ourselves, and should not make this the rule to judge of the usefulness of an ordinance by; but make a further inquiry, whether these motions within us, or these impressions upon us, are the workings of natural affection only, as they certainly may be, or the real exercise of spiritual grace.
And this is the very question under consideration. Many, I fear, are awfully deceived with the mere workings of nature, by thinking them sufficient evidences of the presence and blessings of God in his own institutions; while, on the other hand, many are groundlessly discouraged, because they do not feel such strong emotions as others do; thinking that this is an evident token of the barrenness and uselessness of ordinances.
That we may not be either deceived, or unreasonably discouraged, by these means, let me therefore now attempt a serious and plain solution of this query, looking up to the Divine Spirit to make the whole clear to your understandings, and to apply it close to your consciences.
I would offer the following considerations as preparatory to a direct answer, and then proceed to the solution itself:
Observe I. The affections of the mind may be excited in a merely natural way under divine ordinances-The proof of this point will be best introduced by endeavouring to set before you some of those ways, in which mere nature may be impressed or raised tinder the means of grace-1. The affections of the mind may be excited by a natural impression. Thus, when a person is attending upon the ministrations of the word, he may find himself moved only by the beauty of the style, or the propriety of the language, or by the loudness or tuneableness of the preacher's voice, or the apparent fervency of his address. Such circumstances as these may move the affections in a way purely mechanical, without being attended with any spiritual or saving effects; for hereby only animal nature is touched, or the speculative powers employed, in a pleasing or disagreeable way. This seems to have been the case with the hearers of the great prophet Ezekiel, as mentioned Ez. xxxiii. 32. "Lo thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that has a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument; for they hear thy words, but they do them not." Let not any therefore conclude, that ordinances are profitable to them, merely because they are pleasing and delightful to their ears; for the manner of the preacher's address may make a natural impression upon his hearers, without having any spiritual or useful effect.
2. The affections way be sometimes raised by a natural sympathy; which sympathy regards not merely the manner of the preacher, but the matter also, which he delivers. If the preacher himself appears very earnest in his address, and very much affected with what he delivers, this does often effectually work upon the natural affections of his hearers by way of sympathy. If he appears concerned, they feel a sympathetic concern along with him: If he seems raised and delighted, they by sympathy partake of his pleasure to such a degree, as actually to weep and rejoice with him. Again, if the minister be setting forth something, that is in its own nature very affecting, in expressive language, here the power of oratory produces in the minds of the hearers a sympathv with that which he is relating or describing. Thus, if the minister be setting forth, in very mournful strains, the sufferings and agonies of Christ, his relation of these tragical occurrences may move the affections of the people merely in a sympathetic way, without making any saving or spiritual impression on their hearts: and there may be no more in these workings of affection, than what most persons. I believe, are obliged to feel, when attentively reading that memorable history of Joseph and his brethren, whereby the affections of joy and sorrow, resentment and pleasure, are alternately excited in a way purely natural
3. The affections are sometimes raised under ordinances from a purely natural or notional inclination. A person may meet with that in a sermon, which suits his taste, or falls in with its previous sentiments: and, as it is natural for us to be pleased with, and to be fond of, our own opinions; therefore whenever we meet with what corresponds thereto, we are necessarily pleased and delighted. If what is advanced in a sermon strongly confirms or beautifully illustrates what we believe, this will certainly draw forth the pleasure and agreeable affections of the mind. But let us not conclude from thence, that we have received any spiritual advantage, or that there has been any thing more than the natural effect of a natural cause; for in all this satisfaction there may be nothing spiritual or evangelical, even though what we are pleased with, be gospel truth. On the other hand, we may meet with something in a sermon that may disgust or displease us; and this may excite answerable affections; and these affections we may be ready to esteem a true zeal for the truth, in opposition to error: yet, after all these emotions of the mind, there may be nothing spiritual or savoury brought home to our hearts, not any working of true grace in the soul. Once more:
4. The affections being raised more or less, may very much depend upon our natural constitutions. For we know that some are of a more soft, tender, and affectionate disposition than others; and these are more easily touched and moved by what occurs in an ordinance, than others, and are more frequently melted into tears. This therefore must not always be ascribed to a greater degree of the Spirit's operations, since it may be frequently accounted for from a cause that is merely natural. Thus we see how natural impressions, natural sympathy, natural inclination, and natural constitution, may be the sole cause or occasion of raising the affections under an ordinance. But to prevent any discouraging mistake, let me proceed to observe.
This discourse is not designed to engage you to restrain or suppress such natural workings of the affections, since they are what the God of nature has formed in us; but only to teach us how to distinguish them from what is truly spiritual and saving, that we might not mistake nature for grace. For which reason, I would further observe,
But though these things are thus frequently linked together, and co-operate with one another, yet still there is a most important distinction between them. This therefore brings me to collect the whole together, in order to give a direct solution to the question proposed.
What has been said, will a little alter the form of the query. For, since natural and spiritual affection are so connected together, the question is not, whether our natural affections are moved, or only spiritual affections excited, in ordinances; but, how shall we know whether there be any thing more than what is purely natural in the motions of our affections, under divine ordinances? There may be, and generally is, a great deal of what is natural along with that which is spiritual and saving; and there may be nothing of what is spiritual, and saving, where there is much of that which is natural. In order to distinguish things that differ in this case, let us put the following queries seriously to ourselves:
1. Whether that which moves our affections under an ordinance, be what is truly spiritual and evangelical? Sometimes we are affected by the oratory of the language, the tuneableness of the voice, or the suitableness of the phraseology; and, if this be all, here is certainly nothing but nature. Sometimes we are affected by the matter delivered, as well as by the manner of the delivery; but perhaps that which touches and moves us is the mere superficial or historical part of the discourse, without being at all moved by the interesting, important, spiritual part of it: in this case, here is nothing but natural sympathy; as the daughters of Jerusalem (Luke xxiii. 27, 28.) beheld the sufferings of Christ with tears of compassion, without seeing or being impressed by the spiritual end of His sufferings, or attending to the awful consequences of them upon the city and its inhabitants. But, if our affections are wrought upon in a spiritual manner, it is by our regard to the evangelical parts of the discourse. For, so far as true grace works, that which chiefly affects the mind, are those things which respect the method of grace, the salvation of the soul, the suitableness and excellency of Christ, and the like; and if we are made to feel the power of these things upon our minds, so as to be impressed by the thought of the sinfulness of sin, the fulness of the covenant, the riches of grace, and the way of the spirit in convincing, converting, sanctifying, and comforting the soul, here is now something more than nature, because nature will never teach us to regard such spiritual things in a spiritual way.
2. We should inquire, not only whether our affections are moved, but likewise whether our very hearts and consciences are touched. There is a vast difference between the affections and the conscience in subjects of this nature; and it is of the highest importance for us to discern this difference, because, unless the conscience be impressed, all other motions and impressions are of no saving avail. Let us therefore ask ourselves, whether we do see or feel our own concern in the word delivered, and whether the thought of its respecting our own state, frame, or duty, be that which makes the word pleasant or powerful to us? To familiarize this matter to us, let us be concerned to put it home to our souls in particular cases. When we are hearing or thinking upon the doctrine of the depravity of nature, does this affect us in a humbling way, because we see and feel it to be our own case? When we are attending to the doctrine of Christ, in His redemption, atonement, and righteousness, what is it now that affects our minds? Is it merely because we like the doctrine, and are pleased with the manner of handling it? or is it because these important truths are applied to our consciences as the only ground of our hope, and the proper manner of consolation for our souls, under a real sense of the sinfulness and guilt of our own sins? When the nature and necessity of the Spirit's gracious and powerful influences are displayed so as to affect us, is it only because we like the subject, the preacher, or his manner? or is it because we have in our own souls at that time a sight and feeling of our need of them, and because we hope and desire to be made partakers of them? Once more: when we hear a searching discourse, a discourse that plainly sets forth the marks and signs of a safe or dangerous state, of a good or bad frame; now let us observe, if this touches our affections, and if it does, whether the reason is, because we are led hereby to a serious examination of our own hearts, state, and frame, and have our hopes or our fears excited upon this principle? Thus, in all cases, inquire whether that which affects us in leading or hearing the word, be the sight we have of our own concern with, or interest in, the things declared: If so, this is an effect that is more than natural, because nature of itself will never thus apply the word to our own hearts and consciences.
And we may be sure, that a very great point is gained by the word and ordinances of the gospel, if they come in this manner close to our own state or frame. Whereas it is to be feared, that many are pleased with, and in some way impressed by, the word, who are never thus touched to the quick by it.
3. Let us inquire, whether our hearts are so impressed as to stir up the graces of the Spirit into exercise in our souls. This can never be done, without such an application of the word to the conscience as has been just described; and where there is this self-application, it seldom fails of quickening and exciting these graces. But forasmuch as it is possible for the word to be misapplied, so as to promote a false hope, or beget an awful despair, it is therefore needful to add this question to the former: Do the declarations of the word humble us under a sense of our own meanness, unworthiness, guilt, and pollution? Are we by the word emptied of self, made to abhor ourselves, because of our defilement and abominations? Are our desires raised after Christ, His sanctifying grace, and His justifying righteousness? Are we hereby stirred up to flee to Christ, to depend upon Him, to seek after a conformity to Him, and to love Him as one altogether lovely? In a word, are we, by the means of grace, drawn off from self, sense, and sin, unto Christ Jesus for righteousness and strength? If there be such motions as these produced or excited in our hearts, in reading, hearing, or prayer, it is evident, that the graces of the Spirit are exercised. And although under an ordinance, where experiences are felt, there may be much of natural sympathy or impression; yet we have no reason to question the operations of grace, because of the workings of nature; but rather should bless God, that He is pleased to turn the natural affections into a spiritual channel, or to make them a means of promoting what is truly spiritual and evangelical. But in order to prevent all mistakes upon this head, that we might not be deceived with counterfeit, for real graces, it will be needful to make one more inquiry:
4. Whether these motions of affection have any holy tendency, and produce a holy effect upon our hearts and lives? These workings of soul under ordinances, let them be ever so strong, ever so pleasant, or in appearance ever so evangelical, are certainly delusive, if they have not the stamp of holiness upon them. If these pleasing impressions tend to make us less watchful against sin, or less careful to perform our duty; if they fill us with a pleasing imagination, that we need not be so much afraid of sinning, or need not be so diligent in duty, because all is safe; this turn of thought. included in these motions of affection, is an infallible mark, that the experience is delusive, detrimental, and diabolical. But, if these workings of soul tend to increase our hatred of sin, and our watchfulness against it, and to promote our love to Christ and true holiness; if they leave such a savour behind them upon our spirits, as imbitters sin, and gives us a relish for, and delight in, the ways of the Lord; if they promote our reverence for God's name, and our love of His people, His ordinances, and His precepts: we may then be certain that they are of a spiritual and saving nature.
Let us now collect the whole together, and apply it by a few remarks, for instruction and examination.
1. Hence learn, that there is no grace of the Spirit, but has its counterfeit. Nature can mimic a true faith, by a notional belief: can mimic a true hope, by presuming upon the enjoyment of gospel-privileges; can mimic a true love, by a love to the means of grace upon natural principles; can mimic a true godly sorrow, by a sympathetic weeping under an affecting discourse; can mimic a true joy in the Lord, by a delight in gospel-ordinances, upon self-righteous and carnal principles.
2. Hence learn, that to judge of the degree of our profiting under an ordinance by the degree of affection, is a deceitful way of judging. We may be most profited, when least affected, and least profited, when most affected. For it is not the degree, but the nature and kind of the impression, that we are to attend to, when examining whether the word is profitable to us or no. This thought, if properly regarded, will afford matter for the conviction of some, and for the consolation of others. Art thou often delighted with, and melted into tears under an ordinance? Do not immediately conclude, that thou art a thriving Christian; for most, if not the whole of this experience may arise only from a natural softness of temper, or from the natural impressions made upon thee by the liveliness of the preacher, or the beauty of his style. On the contrary, art thou seldom affected in a lively manner, or to any sensible degree, under an ordinance? Do not therefore at once discourage thyself; for, notwithstanding this defect, thou mayest have a solid love to Christ, hatred of sin, and desire after holiness, promoted and confirmed: and, if this be thy case, thou art no forgetful hearer, but a doer of the word, although thou mayest not be so affected as some others are.
3. Hence learn how to put proper questions to yourselves, to know whether you are truly advantaged by any divine ordinances. When you reflect upon any means of grace you have enjoyed, or upon any spiritual duties you have performed, converse with your souls in some such manner as this: "O my soul, thou hast been now engaged in a precious duty, enjoying a spiritual privilege, but how has it been with me under it? Have I been totally stupid, or have I not been, in some measure, affected, impressed, or delighted? If I have been absolutely unaffected in hearing, or prayer, &c. sure I have great reason to be humbled and ashamed, that my heart has been so hard, and the powers of my soul so sadly wandering, or so inactive and unemployed, when things of infinite importance have been transacting. But if I have been melted, pleased, or impressed, have I not still some reason to be jealous over myself, lest what has passed in my soul should be what is merely natural, instead of being truly spiritual? Let me then come to a close and serious examination. What was that which made me weep or rejoice, that pleased me or impressed me? Did those glorious truths that were delivered in preaching, or those important concerns I transacted with God in prayer, affect my mind? Was I enabled, under the ordinance, to apply these things to my own case? Was I affected with my own interest in them, or my own concern with them? And did these impressions stir me up, to go out of myself, and cast my soul upon Christ for righteousness. Were my affections of hope or fear, of joy or sorrow, so excited, as to draw me off from self and sin, to Christ and His grace? And had these experiences any thing of a holy stamp upon them, and have they left a savour behind them to make me more desirous after Christ and holiness, and to be delivered from the power, pollution, and practice of sin? If this be my case, I have great cause to bless God for the presence of His grace, and the influences of His Spirit: and so far as I find my experience defective in these particulars, so far I am called upon to humble myself before God for the barrenness and unfruitfullness of my heart in these spiritual duties."
Thus upon the whole, we may see how to distinguish between the workings of natural affection, and the exercise of spiritual grace. But let me entreat you to be earnest for the teachings of the Holy Spirit, which are absolutely necessary to apply what has been stated to your own hearts, and to enable you to pass a right judgment for yourselves in a case so spiritual and so important.
"Preface to the First Edition"
The following Answer were amongst others, delivered in a weekly Lecture (Little St. Helen's, Bishopsgate Street) during the last winter (1755), with a view to remove the doubts of the timorous Christian, quicken him in his way to Zion, to guard against presumptuous hopes, and promote the life of religion in the soul. That these important ends might be answered, the auditory were desired to supply us with serious Cases of Conscience, arising from the difficulties they met with in the course of their experience, and to conceal their names, that so they might with the greater freedom propose their respective Cases, and that we, in our solution of them, might be kept from the least degree of fear of restraint.
Through the repeated importunities of our friends and from satisfactory evidences of usefullness, we have been prevailed upon to commit to public view a select number of these answers, though somewhat contracted. And we hope, that those, into whose hands they may come, will read them with Christian candour. And may the Spirit of God, without whose peculiar blessing all attempts will be ineffectual to answer any saving purposes, make these a powerful means of bringing them nearer to Christ, and of making them more lively and active in His service! If this happy end is but in the least answered, we shall rejoice, and give God all the glory, disregarding all the little contempt that may be cast upon us and our imperfect labours.
It must be acknowledged to be a very difficult and critical work to distribute to every one their proper portion, and so to divide the word of truth, as to give suitable encouragement to those to whom it belongs, and yet to leave the hypocrite or presumptuous sinner no room to hope. It is equally difficult to attempt to destroy the vain confidence of the sinner, without disturbing the peace, and discouraging the minds, of those who are the real followers of Jesus. Who is sufficient for these things? We readily confess our insufficiency; but yet hope, that the Lord has enabled us to be in some measure faithful, so far as our spiritual knowledge extends: and may He enable you who read to deal faithfully with your own souls, that so neither our labour, nor your perusal, may be in vain!
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