Thoughts on Religious Experience

by Archibald Alexander

 

Erroneous views of regeneration—The correct view—The operation of faith—Exercises of mind, as illustrated in Jonathan Edwards’s narrative—The operations of faith still further explained

It is proper now to inquire, what are the precise effects of regeneration, or the exercises of a newly converted soul? As the restoration of depraved man to the image of God, lost by the fall, is the grand object aimed at in the whole economy of salvation, it can easily be said, in the general, that by this change—a principle of holiness is implanted, spiritual life is communicated, the mind is enlightened, the will renewed, and the affections purified and elevated to heavenly objects. Such general descriptions do not afford full satisfaction to the inquiring mind; and as we have taken into view many of those circumstances which diversify the exercises of grace in different subjects, let us now endeavor to ascertain, with as much precision as we can, what are those things which are essential to the genuineness of this work and which, therefore, will be found in every sincere Christian.

But in this attempt, great difficulty will be met in conveying our ideas with precision. Even those terms which are most used in the Holy Scriptures to designate the essential exercises of piety are differently understood, and when used, convey different ideas to different people. I will endeavor, however, to avoid this difficulty as much as possible, by defining the terms which I employ. I have all along admitted that the mode of the Spirit’s operation in regeneration is altogether inscrutable: and an attempt to explain it is worse than folly. We may, however, without intruding into things unseen, or attempting to dive into the unsearchable nature of the divine operations, say that God operates on the human mind in a way perfectly consistent with its nature, as a spirit, and a creature of understanding and will. On this principle some suppose that there can be no other method of influencing a rational mind but by the exhibition of truth, or the presentment of motives: any physical operation, they allege, would be unsuitable. Their theory of regeneration, therefore, is that it is produced by the moral operation of the truth, contemplated by the understanding, and influencing the affections and the will, according to the known principles of our rational nature. But respecting what is necessary to bring the truth fairly before the mind, the abettors of this theory divide into several parts.

The Pelagian, believing human nature to be uncontaminated, and needing nothing but a correct knowledge of the truth, rejects all supernatural aid, and maintains that every man has full ability to perform all good actions, and to reform what is amiss, by simply attending to the instructions of the Word, and exercising his own free will, by which he is able to choose and pursue what course he pleases.

The semi-Pelagian agrees with this view, except in one particular. He believes that the truth, if seriously contemplated, will produce the effects stated—but that mankind are so immersed in the world of sensible objects, and so occupied and filled with earthly thoughts and cares, that no man will, or ever does, contemplate the truth so impartially and steadily as to produce a change in his affections and purposes, until he is influenced by the Holy Spirit; and, according to him, the only need of divine agency in regeneration is to direct and fix the attention on divine things. This being done, the truth as contained in the divine Word, and as apprehended by the natural understanding, is adequate to produce all the desired effects on the active principles of our nature.

There is still a third party who attribute regeneration to the simple operation of the truth on the mind, whose views are neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian. They hold that the natural man cannot discern the things of the Spirit of God, and that if a man should ever so long contemplate the truth with such views as natural reason takes of it, it would never transform him into the divine likeness; but that, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the sinner must obtain new and spiritual views of divine things, by which he is renovated or regenerated. Yet these deny that any operation on the mind itself is necessary, as they allege that these spiritual views of truth will certainly draw after them the exercise of those affections in which holiness essentially consists.

Now, in my judgment, this theory is defective in one point only, and that is, it supposes the mind, which is already in possession of doctrinal knowledge of the truth, to have this same truth presented to it in an entirely new light, without any operation on the soul itself. Just as if a man was blind—but standing in the clear shining of the sun’s rays. These he feels, and can talk philosophically about the sensation of light and colors; while he has not in his mind the first simple perception of any object of sight. Could this man be made to perceive the visible objects around him, without an operation on the eyes to remove the obstruction, or to rectify the organ?

The case of the soul is entirely analogous. Here is light enough; the truth is viewed by the intellect of unregenerate man—but has no transforming efficacy. The fault is not in the truth, which is perfect—but the blindness is in the mind, which can only be removed by an influence on the soul itself; that is, by the power of God creating “a new heart”, (Ezek 18:31; Ezek 36:26) to use the language of Scripture. The apostle Paul was sent to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light”. (Acts 26:18) Two things are always necessary to distinct vision, the medium of light, and a sound organ; either of these without the other, would be useless; but combined, the beauties of nature, and the glory of God in the visible world, are seen with delight.

It is so in the spiritual world. The truth is necessary—but until the mind is brought into a state in which it can perceive it in its beauty and glory, it is heard and read and contemplated without any transforming effect—without drawing the affections to God, or subduing the power of selfish and sensual desires. The fault existing in the person, there must be such an exertion of divine power as will remove it, and this is regeneration. Then all the effects of the truth will take place, as according to the former theory.

But I seem to hear the common objection, that if the soul be the subject of any operation, this must be ‘physical’, and what is this but to make man a mere machine, or to deal with him as if he were a block? I believe that a more ambiguous, unhappy word could not be used than physical. The best way to get clear of the mists which surround it, is to drop its use altogether in this connection. Indeed, it is a term which properly belongs to another science—to natural philosophy. If the operation must have a name, let it receive it from the nature of the effect produced; this being spiritual, let it be called a ‘spiritual’ operation; or as the effect produced is confessedly above the powers of unassisted nature, let us call it supernatural, which is the precise technical term used by the most accurate theologians. Can the Almighty, who made the soul, operate upon it in no other way than by a mechanical force? Cannot He restore its lost power of spiritual perception and susceptibility of holy feeling, without doing any violence to its free and spiritual nature?

But I shall be told, that there neither is, nor can be, any moral or spiritual nature, or disposition prior to volition, in the mind—for morality consists essentially in choice; and to suppose morality to have any other existence than in the transient act is an absurdity. If this be sound moral philosophy, then my theory must fall. This is a question not requiring or admitting of much reasoning. It is a subject for the intuitive judgment of the moral faculty. If there are minds so constituted that they cannot conceive of permanent, latent dispositions in the soul, both good and evil, I can do no more than express my strong dissent from their opinion, and appeal to the common sense of mankind.

Some of my most serious readers, I know, will object to my theory of the mind’s operations, in one important particular. They are so far from thinking that any illumination of the mind will produce holy affections, that it is a radical principle in their philosophy of religion, that light always increases or stirs up the enmity of an unregenerate heart; that the more unholy beings know of God, the more they will hate Him, as is supposed to be proved by the experience of thousands under conviction of sin; and by the case of the devils who believe and tremble—but never love. The difference between me and these people is not so great as at first view it seems. Their error consists, if I am right, in making too wide a severance between the understanding and the will; between the intellect and the affections. I am ready to admit that all the knowledge which you can communicate to a man remaining unregenerate, may have the tendency of increasing or stirring up his enmity to God and His law; but observe that I make illumination the first effect of regeneration. And I hold that no unregenerate man is, while in that state, any more capable of spiritual perception than a blind man is of a perception of colors. The blind man, however, has his own ideas about colors, and may understand their various relations to each other, and all the laws which regulate the reflection and refraction of light, as well as those who see. This was remarkably exemplified in the case of Dr. Sanderson, who, though blind from his early infancy, delivered an accurate course of lectures on light and colors, in the University of Oxford. Just so, an unregenerate man may be able to deliver able lectures on all the points of theology, and yet not have one glimpse of the beauty and glory of the truth with which he is conversant.

The sacred Scriptures represent all unconverted men as destitute of the true knowledge of God. If there be a clear truth in the laws of mental operation, it is that the affections are in exact accordance with the views of the understanding. If men are unaffected with the truth known, it must be because they do not know it aright: neither can they perceive it in its true nature until they are regenerated. Did any man ever see an object to be lovely and not feel an emotion corresponding with that quality? And what unconverted man ever beheld in Christ, as represented in Scripture, the beauty and glory of God? Hence that doctrine is not true which confines depravity or holiness to the will, and which considers the understanding as a natural and the will as a moral faculty. The soul is not depraved or holy by departments; the disease affects it, as a soul; and of course all faculties employed in moral exercises must partake of their moral qualities. There is, however, no propriety in calling either of them a moral faculty; for although both understanding and will are concerned in every moral act, yet not one hundredth part of the acts of either partakes of a moral nature. The will is just as much a natural faculty as the understanding, and the understanding is as much a moral faculty as the will. But in strict propriety of speech, the only faculty which deserves to be called a moral faculty is conscience, because by it only are we capable of moral perceptions or feelings.

I am afraid that I have gone too far into abstruse distinctions for most of my readers; but there are thousands of plain, private Christians in our country, who not only can enter into such disquisitions—but will relish them.

I come now to what I intended, when I began this subject, to describe as exactly as I can, what are the exercises of the new heart, or the regenerate man. And here my appeal is to no theories—but to experience, combined with the Word of God.

Every man on whom this divine operation has passed, experiences new views of divine truth. The soul sees in these things that which it never saw before. It discerns in the truth of God a beauty and excellence of which it had no conception until now. Whatever may be the diversity in the clearness of the views of different people, or in the particular truths brought before the mind, they all agree in this, that there is a new perception of truth; whether you ascribe it to the head or the heart, I care not. It is a blessed reality, and there are many witnesses of sound mind and unquestionable veracity, who are ready to attest it as a verity, known in their own delightful experience. But as the field of truth is very wide, and divine things may be perceived under innumerable aspects and relations, and as there is no uniformity in the particular objects which may first occupy the attention of the enlightened mind, it is impossible to lay down any particular order of exercises which take place.

The case may be illustrated by supposing a great multitude of blind people restored to sight by an act of divine power. Some of them would be so situated, that the first object seen would be the glorious luminary of day; another might receive the gift of sight in the night, and the moon and stars would absorb his wondering attention; a third might direct his opened eyes to a beautiful landscape; and a fourth might have but a ray of light shining into a dark dungeon without his knowing whence it came. Of necessity, there must be the same endless variety in the particular views of new converts; but still they all partake of new views of divine truth; and the same truths will generally be contemplated, sooner or later—but not in the same order, nor exhibited to all with the same degree of clearness.

Now, according to the views which I entertain, this spiritual knowledge granted to the regenerated soul is nothing else but saving faith; for knowledge and belief involve each other. To know a thing and not believe it is a contradiction; and to believe a thing and not know it is impossible. Faith is simply a belief of the truth, when viewed as distinct, and discriminated from all other mental acts. Some will be startled at this nakedness of faith; and many will be ready to object, that it is to make faith to be no more than a bare assent of the understanding to the truth: well, if it be uniformly accompanied by all holy affections and emotions, what is the difference? But I deny that, as described, it is a naked assent of the understanding, as those words are commonly understood. The wide distinction between the understanding and will, which has very much confounded our mental philosophy, has come down to us from the schoolmen. But in making the distinction, they made simple verity the object of the understanding. And that is what we commonly mean by bare assent; it relates to the simple truth; but the will has respect, they said, to good—every species of good.

Now the faith of which I have spoken, at the same time contemplates the truth, and the beauty, excellency, and goodness of the object, and also its adaptedness to our necessities: all these things are comprehended in the views which the Holy Spirit gives to the mind. Therefore, though faith be a simple uncompounded act, a firm belief or persuasion, it comprehends the objects ascribed both to the understanding and the will.

Here I shall be met by a definition of faith, which makes the act simple also—but considers that act to be trust or confidence. This the reader will remember is Dr. Dwight’s definition of faith. And the only objection to it is, that it is too narrow to comprehend all that belongs to the subject. Trust is nothing else than the firm belief or persuasion of the truth of a promise. When we say that we trust or have confidence in a person, it relates to some promise. This definition comprehends all acts of faith which have a promise of God for their object, and these are certainly the most important acts, and accompanied with the most sensible emotions. But all divine truth is not in the form of a promise. The whole Word of God is the proper object of a true faith; and a large part of divine revelation is taken up with histories, prophecies, doctrines, and precepts. The Christian believes all these, as well as the promises.

Here faith is the first act of the regenerated soul; and the most important act, for it draws all holy affections and emotions in its train. But though it sweetly mingles with every other grace, it is distinct from them all. All its diversified acts arise from the nature of the truths believed, and men may enumerate and name as many of these acts as they please; still the nature of faith remains simple. It is a firm persuasion or belief of the truth, apprehended under the illumination of the Holy Spirit. It necessarily works by love and purifies the heart, for divine things thus discerned cannot but excite the affections to holy objects, by which sinful desires and appetites will be subdued; and when we are persuaded of the truth of God’s gracious promises, there will always be a sweet repose of soul, because the promises contain the very blessings which we need; and to be assured that there are such blessings for all who will receive them, and especially if the soul is conscious that it is exercising faith, will produce sweet consolation—There is “joy and peace in believing”. (Rom 15:13)

According to the view of faith now given, there is nothing mysterious about it. To believe in divine truth is an act of the mind, precisely the same as to believe in other truth; and the difference between a saving faith and a historical or merely speculative faith consists not in the truths believed, for in both they are the same; nor in the degree of assent given to the proposition—but in the evidence on which they are respectively founded. A saving faith is produced by the manifestation of the truth in its true nature to the mind, which now apprehends it, according to the degree of faith, in its spiritual qualities, its beauty, and glory, and sweetness; whereas a historical or speculative faith may rest on the prejudices of education, or the deductions of reason; but in its exercise there is no conception of the true qualities of divine things. The humblest, weakest believer possesses a knowledge of God, hidden from the wisest of unenlightened men; according to that saying of Christ, “I thank you, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and have revealed them to babes.” (Luke 10:21)

On the subject of experimental religion our dependence must not be on the theories of men—but on the unerring Word of God, and on the facts which have been observed in the experience of true Christians. In the exercises of new converts there is, in some respects, a remarkable similarity, and in others a remarkable variety. All are convinced of sin, not only of life but of heart. All are brought to acknowledge the justice of God in their condemnation, and to feel that they might be left to perish, without any derogation from the perfections of God; and that they have no ability to bring God under any obligations to save them, by their prayers, tears, or other religious duties. All true Christians, moreover, love the truth which has been revealed to their minds, and are led to trust in Christ alone for salvation; and they all hunger and thirst after righteousness, and resolve to devote themselves to the service of God, and prefer His glory above their chief joy. But besides those varieties already described, as arising from several causes, there is often much difference in their exercises, arising from the particular truths which they are led to contemplate when their eyes are first opened.

I do not mean to go over the ground which we have already passed, otherwise than by a statement of facts from authentic sources, which may serve to corroborate and illustrate the statements already given. Perhaps no man who has lived in modern times has had a better opportunity to form an accurate judgment of facts of this kind than Jonathan Edwards; and few men who ever lived were better qualified to discriminate between true and false religion. It is a thing much to be prized, that this great and good man has left a record of that most remarkable revival which took place in Northampton, New England, in the year 1734 and onwards. This narrative was written soon afterwards, and was communicated to Dr. Watts and Dr. Guyse, who united in a preface which accompanied the narrative, when published in London. In this account, carefully drawn up, we have a satisfactory account of the exercises of the subjects of the work, with the varieties which were observed in the experience of different people. The leading facts have here been selected from the narrative, so as to occupy the least possible room. To any who take an interest in this subject these facts cannot but be gratifying; and however the narrative may have been perused by some, yet it will not be disagreeable to them to have some of the prominent traits of the religious exercises at that time presented to them in a condensed form.

Edwards informs us,

that there was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world”; and although he does not pretend to know the precise number of converts, he is of opinion that it could not be less, in the judgment of charity, than three hundred. Our object is not to abridge the narrative—but merely to select the account of the variety of exercises experienced, as there given. “There is a great variety,” says he, “as to the degree of trouble and fear that people are exercised with before they attain any comfortable evidence of pardon and acceptance with God. Some are from the beginning carried on with abundantly more hope and encouragement than others. Some have had ten times less trouble than others, in whom the work yet appears the same in the outcome. ... The solemn apprehensions people have had of their misery have, for the most part, been increasing, the nearer they have approached to deliverance. Sometimes they think themselves wholly senseless, and fear that the Spirit of God has left them, and that they are given up to judicial hardness, yet they appear very deeply exercised with that fear, and in great earnestness to obtain conviction again. Many times, people under great awakenings were concerned because they thought they were not awakened—but miserably hardhearted, senseless, sottish creatures still, and sleeping on the brink of hell. ... People are sometimes brought to the borders of despair, and it looks as black as midnight to them, a little before the day dawns on their souls.

The depravity of the heart has revealed itself in various exercises, in the time of legal convictions. Sometimes it appears as in a great struggle, like something roused by an enemy. Many in such circumstances have felt a great spirit of envy towards the godly, especially towards those thought to have been recently converted. As they are gradually more and more convinced of the corruption and wickedness of their hearts, they seem to themselves to grow worse and worse, harder and blinder, more desperately wicked, instead of growing better. ... When awakenings first begin, their consciences are commonly more exercised about their outward wicked courses—but afterwards are much more burdened with a sense of heart sins, the dreadful corruption of their nature, their enmity against God, the pride of their hearts, their unbelief, their rejection of Christ, the stubbornness of their will, and the like. ... Very often, under first awakenings, they set themselves to walk more strictly, confess their sins, and perform many religious duties, with a secret hope of appeasing God’s anger. And sometimes, at first setting out, their affections are so moved that they are full of tears in their confessions and prayers, which they are ready to make much of, as if they were some atonement, and conceive that they grow better apace, and shall soon be converted; but their affections and hopes are short-lived, for they quickly find that they fail, and then they think themselves to be grown worse again. When they reflect on the wicked working of their hearts against God, they have more distressing apprehensions of His anger, and have great fears that God will never show mercy to them; or perhaps, that they have committed the unpardonable sin, and are often tempted to leave off in despair. ...

When they begin to seek salvation, they are commonly profoundly ignorant of themselves. They are not sensible how blind they are, and how little they can do, to bring themselves to see spiritual things aright, and towards putting forth gracious exercises in their own souls. When they see unexpected pollution in themselves, they go about to wash their own defilements and make themselves clean; and they weary themselves in vain, until God shows them that it is in vain; and that their help is not where they have sought it. But some people continue to wander in such a labyrinth ten times as long as others, before their own experience will convince them of their own insufficiency—so that it is not their own experience at last that convinces them—but the Spirit of God.

There have been some who have not had great terrors—but yet have had a very quick work. Some, who have not had very deep conviction before their conversion, have much more of it afterwards. God has appeared far from limiting Himself to any certain method in His proceedings with sinners under legal convictions. There is in nothing a greater difference in different people, than with respect to the time of their being under trouble: some but a few days, and others for months and years. As to those in whom legal convictions seem to have a saving outcome, the first thing that appears after their trouble is a conviction of the justice of God in their condemnation, from a sense of their exceeding sinfulness. Commonly, their minds, immediately before the discovery of God’s justice, are exceedingly restless—in a kind of struggle or tumult; and sometimes in mere anguish; but commonly, as soon as they have this conviction, it immediately brings their minds to a calm and unexpected quietness and composure; and most frequently then, though not always, the pressing weight upon their spirits is taken off; or a general hope arises that some time God will be gracious, even before any distinct, particular discoveries of mercy. Commonly, they come to a conclusion that they will lie at God’s feet and wait His time. ...

That calm of spirit which follows legal conviction, in some instances continues some time before any special and delightful manifestation is made to the soul of the grace of God as revealed in the Gospel. But very often some comfortable and sweet views of a merciful God, of a sufficient Redeemer, or of some great and joyful things of the gospel, immediately follow, or in a very little time. And in some, the first sight of their desert of hell, of God’s sovereignty in regard to their salvation, and a discovery of all-sufficient grace, are so near that they seem to go together. The gracious discoveries whence the first special comforts are derived, are in many respects very various. More frequently, Christ is distinctly made the object of the mind, in His all-sufficiency and willingness to save sinners; but some have their thoughts more especially fixed on God, in some of His sweet and glorious attributes manifested in the Gospel and shining forth of Jesus Christ. Some view the all-sufficiency of the grace of God—some chiefly, the infinite power of God and His ability to save them, and to do all things for them—and some look most to the truth and faithfulness of God. In some, the truth and certainty of the Gospel in general is the first joyful discovery they have: in others, the certain proof of some particular promise. In some, the grace and sincerity of God in His invitations, very commonly in some particular invitation, is before the mind. Some are struck with the glory and wonderfulness of the dying love of Christ; and others with the sufficiency of His blood, as offered to make an atonement for sin; and others again, with the value and glory of His obedience and righteousness. In many, the excellency and loveliness of Christ chiefly engage their thoughts, while in some, His divinity; being filled with the idea that He is indeed the Son of the living God; and in others, the excellency of the way of salvation by Christ, and the suitableness of it to their necessities. ... There is often in the mind some particular text of Scripture, holding forth some particular ground of consolation; at other times, a multitude of texts, gracious invitations, and promises, flowing in one after another, filling the soul more and more with comfort and satisfaction. Comfort is first given to some while reading some portion of Scripture; but in others it is attended with no particular Scripture at all. In some instances many divine things seem to be discovered to the soul at once, while others have their minds fixed on some one thing, and afterwards a sense of others is given; in some, with a slower, in others, a swifter succession.

It must be confessed, that Christ is not always distinctly and explicitly thought of in the first sensible act of grace—though most commonly He is—but sometimes He is the object of the mind only implicitly. Thus when people have evidently appeared stripped of their own righteousness, and have stood condemned, as guilty of death, they have been comforted with a joyful and satisfactory evidence that the mercy and grace of God is sufficient for them—that their sins, though ever so great, shall be no hindrance to their being accepted—that there is mercy enough in God for the whole world, etc.—while they give no account of any particular or distinct thought of Christ; but yet it appears that the revelation of mercy in the Gospel is the ground of their encouragement and hope; yet such people afterwards obtain distinct and clear discoveries of Christ, accompanied with lively and special actings of faith and love towards Him. Frequently, when people have had the Gospel ground of relief opened to them, and have been entertaining their minds with the sweet prospect, they have thought nothing at that time of their being converted. The view is joyful to them as it is in its own nature glorious; gives them quite new and delightful ideas of God and Christ, and greatly encourages them to seek conversion, and begets in them a strong resolution to devote themselves to God and His Son. There is wrought in them a holy repose of soul in God through Christ, with a secret disposition to fear and love Him, and to hope for blessings from Him in this way, yet they have no conception that they are now converted; it does not so much as come into their minds. They know not that the sweet complacence they feel in the mercy and complete salvation of God, as it includes pardon and sanctification and is held forth to them through Christ, is a true receiving of this mercy, or a plain evidence of their receiving it. Many continue a long time in a course of gracious exercises and experiences, and do not think themselves to be converted—but conclude otherwise; and none knows how long they would continue so, were they not helped by particular instructions. There are undoubted instances of some who lived in this way for many years together. Those who, while under legal convictions, have had the greatest terrors, have not always obtained the greatest light and comfort; nor has the light always been most speedily communicated; but yet I think the time of conversion has been most sensible in such people. Converting influences commonly bring an extraordinary conviction of the certainty and reality of the great things of religion; though in some this is much greater, some time after conversion, than at first.

The religious exercises contained in the preceding statement will not be new to those who have been at all conversant with revivals. Such will recognize, in the account, what they have observed, and will be gratified to find the same facts which they have observed, recorded and published by such a master in Israel. Almost the only remark which I feel disposed to make is, that it is too commonly supposed that the time of receiving comfort is always the time of regeneration; whereas this might rather be termed the time of conversion; for then the exercises of the renewed soul come to a crisis, and faith, which was before weak and obscure, shines forth with vigor. Perhaps it is the prevalent opinion among orthodox writers that the first views of the renovated soul are views of Christ; and when mere legal convictions are immediately followed by such views and their attendant consolations, this opinion may be correct; but in many cases it is reasonable to believe that the convictions experienced are those of the true penitent. And as, in almost all cases here recorded and observed by others, there is a distinct view and approbation of God’s justice in the condemnation of the sinner, I cannot but think, agreeably to what was stated in a former chapter, that the soul has passed from death unto life before these feelings are experienced; and that may help to account for the remarkable calm which now follows the dark and stormy night. This revelation of Jesus Christ in the believer may be compared to the birth of a child into the light of this world; but its conception was long before. And so this interesting point in experience is the new birth—but the principle of spiritual life commonly exists before. Besides, comfort is no sure evidence of a genuine birth; some who become strong men in the Lord are born in sorrow. They weep before they are able to smile; but in the spiritual birth, joy and sorrow often sweetly mingle their streams.

There are two reasons why faith, though one of the simplest exercises of the mind, is represented as having so many different acts; the one is the great variety in the truths believed; and the other that, commonly, various exercises are included in the account of faith, which do always accompany or follow a true faith—but do not appertain to its essence. As faith has all revealed truth for its object, the feelings produced in the mind correspond with the particular nature of the truth which is at any time in the contemplation of the mind. If, by the soul under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the law is viewed in its spirituality and moral excellence, while there will be experienced an approbation of the will of God thus expressed, yet a lively sense of the sinfulness of our hearts and lives must be the predominant feeling. This discovery of the purity of the law, and this deep feeling of the evil of sin, commonly precede any clear view of Christ and the plan of salvation; and this has given rise to the prevalent opinion that repentance goes before faith in the natural order of pious exercises. But, according to our idea of faith, as given above, it must necessarily precede and be the cause of every other gracious exercise. Commonly, indeed, when we speak of faith, we describe its maturity; but there are often many obscure but real acts of faith, before the soul apprehends the fullness and excellency and suitableness of Christ. And in many cases, when some view of the plan of salvation is obtained, the single truth believed is the ability of Christ to save; and even the full persuasion of this gives rise to joy, when the soul has been long cast down with gloomy forebodings of everlasting misery, and with the apprehension that, for such a sinner, there was no salvation.

As faith does no more than bring the truth before the mind in its true nature, every act of faith must, of course, be characterized by the qualities of the truth thus presented, and by its adaptation to the circumstances and convictions of the sinner. All those acts of faith which bring the extent and spirituality of the law of God fully into view must be accompanied with painful emotions, on account of the deep conviction of lack of conformity to that perfect rule, which cannot but be experienced when that object is before the mind. But all those invitations, promises, and declarations which exhibit a Savior and the method of recovery, when truly believed under a just apprehension of their nature, must be accompanied, not only with love—but joy and hope, and a free consent to be saved in God’s appointed way; and when the previous distress and discouragement have been great, and the views of Gospel truth clear, the joy is overflowing, and as long as these views are unclouded, peace flows like a river.

But even in the discoveries which faith makes of Christ, there is a great variety in the extent and combination of divine truth which comes before the mind at any one time. Probably no two people, in believing, have precisely the same truths in all their relations, presented to them; and not only so—but it is hardly credible that the same believer, in his various contemplations of divine truth, takes in exactly the same field of view at different times. Hence it appears that the whole power of faith is derived from the importance, excellence, amiableness, and suitableness of the truths believed. And when faith is “imputed for righteousness”, (Rom 4:22) it is not the simple act of faith which forms a righteousness. If any exercise of the renewed mind could constitute a righteousness, it would be love, which, according to its strength, is “the fulfilling of the law”; (Rom 13:10) but when the soul by faith is fully persuaded that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, this righteousness of the Surety, when received by faith, is imputed; and by this alone, which is perfect, can God be just in justifying the ungodly. “Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the solitary instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified—but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith—but works by love.” (WCF 11.2)

“By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.” (WCF 14.2) This quotation; taken from a formulary known to many of my readers, contains as just and comprehensive a view of the nature of saving faith as could be given in words.

But another reason why so many divine acts are attributed to faith is, because other exercises are included in the description of faith, which though they always accompany it, ought not to be confounded with it. It was, two hundred years ago, a question much agitated among the divines of Holland, whether love entered into the essence of faith. And in our own country, faith and love have not been kept distinct. A very prevalent system of theology makes the essence of faith to be love. Much evil arises from confounding what are so clearly distinguished in the Word of God. If faith and love were identical, how could it be said that “faith works by love”? (Gal 5:6) The apostle Paul speaks of faith, hope, and love, as so distinct, that, although they are all necessary, they may be compared as to excellency—”The greatest of these is charity”. (1 Cor 13:13) The celebrated Witsius, in his Economy of the Covenants, in describing faith, among the various acts which he attributes to this divine principle, reckons “love of the truth”, (2 Thess 2:10) and “hungering and thirsting after Christ”. (Matt 5:6) Now, it is an abuse of language to say that faith loves or desires; faith works by love, and excites hungering and thirsting desires after Christ.

But, it may be asked, if these graces are inseparably connected, why be so solicitous to distinguish them? First, because in so doing we follow the sacred writers; secondly, because it has a bad effect to use a Scriptural word to express what it was never designed to express; and, thirdly, because of the special office of faith in a sinner’s justification; in which neither love nor any other grace has any part, although they are the effects of faith. When love is confounded with a justifying faith, it is very easy to slide into the opinion that as love is the substance of evangelical obedience, when we are said to be justified by faith, the meaning is, that we are justified by our own obedience. And accordingly, in a certain system of divinity valued by many, the matter is thus stated: faith is considered a comprehensive term for all evangelical obedience. The next step is—and it has already been taken by some—that our obedience is meritorious, and when its defects are purged by atoning blood it is sufficient to procure for us a title to eternal life. Thus have some, boasting of the name of Protestants, worked around, until they have fallen upon one of the most offensive tenets of Popery. But it would be difficult to bring a true penitent to entertain the opinion that his own works were meritorious, or could in the least recommend him to God. The whole of God’s dealings with the souls of His own people effectually dispel from their minds every feeling of this kind. The very idea of claiming merit is most abhorrent to their feelings.

But while it is of importance to distinguish faith from every other grace, yet it is necessary to insist on the fact that that faith which does not produce love and other holy affections is not a genuine faith. In the apostles’ days a set of libertines arose who boasted of their faith—but they performed no good works to evince the truth of their faith. Against such the apostle James writes, and proves that such a faith was no better than that of devils, and would justify no man; that the faith of Abraham and other believers, which did justify, was not a dead faith—but living; not a barren faith—but productive of good works, and proved itself to be genuine by the acts of duty which it induced the believer to perform.

While then faith stands foremost in the order of gracious exercises because it is necessary to the existence of every other, love may be said to be the center around which all the virtues of the Christian revolve, and from which they derive their nature. Love of some kind is familiar to the experience of all people; and all love is attended with some pleasure in its exercise; but it varies on account of the difference of the objects of affection. Divine love is itself a delightful and soul-satisfying exercise. The soul which has tasted the goodness of God is convinced that nothing more is necessary to complete felicity than the perfection of love. This supposes, however, that our love to God is ever accompanied with some sense of His love to us. Love, unless reciprocated, would not fill up the cup of human happiness. But to love God, and be loved by Him—this is heaven! And “we love Him because he first loved us”. (1 John 4:19) In the first exercises of a renewed mind, love to God and love to man are both brought into action; but often the prospect of deliverance from eternal misery which threatened may absorb the attention. It is indeed a marvelous deliverance, to be snatched from the verge of hell and assured of everlasting life; what a tumult of feeling must it create? But notwithstanding this, it frequently happens that in the first discoveries of the plan of salvation, the soul loses sight of its own interest, and is completely occupied in contemplating and admiring the wisdom, love, and justice of God, as exhibited in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, the believer, when these spiritual discoveries are afforded, thinks nothing of the nature of those acts which he is exercising; and it may not be until long afterwards that he recognizes these outgoings of soul to be true love to the Savior.

There are two affections, distinct from each other in their objects, which are included under the term love; the one terminates on the goodness or moral excellence of its object, and varies according to the particular view, at any time enjoyed, of the divine attributes. This comprehends all pious affections and emotions arising from the contemplation of the perfections of God; and some of them, such as reverence and humility, would not fall under the name of love, when taken in a strict sense; but when used as a general term for our whole obedience, it must comprehend them all. This may, for convenience, be called the love of delight, in which the rational soul delights in the character of God as revealed in His word.

The other affection called love has not the character of the person beloved for its object—but his happiness. It may be intensely exercised towards those in whose moral qualities there can be no delight, and is called the love of benevolence. God’s love to sinners is of this kind; and this is the kind of love which Christians are bound to exercise to all men in the world, even to those that hate and persecute them. Though the love of benevolence may exist without the love of delight, yet the converse cannot be asserted. No one ever felt love to the character of another without desiring his happiness. Before conversion, the soul is sordidly selfish—but no sooner does this change take place than the heart begins to be enlarged with an expansive benevolence. The whole world is embraced in its charity. “Good will to man” (Luke 2:14) is a remarkable characteristic of the “new creature”; (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15) and this intense desire for the salvation of our fellow men, and ardent wish that they may all become interested in that Savior whom we have found to be so precious, is the true source of the missionary spirit, and is the foundation, often, of laborious and long continued exertions to prepare for the holy ministry; and prompts and inclines delicate females to consent to leave all the endearments of home, for arduous labor in a foreign and sometimes a savage land.

But however lively the affection of love in the exercises of the real Christian, he never can lose sight of his own unworthiness. Indeed, the brighter his discoveries of the divine glory, and the stronger his love, the deeper are his views of the turpitude of sin. The more he is elevated in affection and assured hope, the deeper is he dismayed in humility and self-abasement. His penitential feelings, from the nature of the case, keep pace with his love and joy; and when his tears flow in copious showers, he would be at a loss to tell whether he was weeping for joy or for sorrow. He might say, for both; for in these pious exercises, these opposite emotions sweetly mingle their streams; and so delightful is this mingling of affections naturally opposite, that the person could hardly be persuaded that the sweet would be as agreeable without, as with, the bitter. One hour spent under the cross, while the soul is thus elevated, thus abased—thus joyful, and thus sorrowful—is better than a thousand of earthly delights.

Observe, Bunyan does not make the burden of Christian fall off instantly on his entering in at the strait gate; but when, as he traveled, he came in sight of the cross. Then, in a moment, those cords which had bound it to his back, and which none could loose, were burst asunder, and his burden fell off and never was fastened on him again, although he lay so long in the prison of Giant Despair. The feelings of a renewed heart are never afterwards the same as under legal conviction. There are scenes, in the experience of the lively Christian, of which the wise men of the world never dream; and which, if they were told of them, they would not believe; and these things, while they are hidden from the wise and prudent, are revealed unto babes. The secret of the Lord is with those who fear him. The soul which has thus returned from its wanderings to its Bishop and Shepherd feels under the strongest obligations to live for God—to deny itself—to forsake the world—to do anything—be anything—or suffer anything, which may be for the honor of its divine Master. Hence a new life commences—a new spirit is manifested—and the new man, in spite of all his remaining ignorance and imperfection, gives lucid evidence to all who carefully observe him that he has been with Jesus, and has been baptized with the Holy Spirit; and the more frequently these views and exercises are reiterated, the more spiritual and heavenly is his conversation. This is a light which cannot be hid, and which ought to shine more and more unto the perfect day. Hear then the exhortation of the apostle Jude, “But you, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.” (Jude 20-21)


Author

Archibald Alexander was a Presbyterian clergyman and first professor in the Princeton Theological Seminary. He was born about 7 miles east of Lexington, in Augusta (later Rockbridge) County, Virginia, on April 17, 1772. He received as good an education as the place and time afforded, including attendance from the age of ten at the Liberty Hall Academy of the Rev. William Graham, near Lexington. He was converted in the great revival of 1789, studied theology with Mr. Graham, was licensed in 1791 and ordained to the ministry in 1794. Two years later he became president of Hampden Sydney College. In 1806 he began serving as the pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church (Pine Street), Philadelphia. And in 1812 he was entrusted by the General Assembly with the organization of the Princeton Theological Seminary. For the first year he taught all departments, but as other professors were added he confined himself to pastoral and polemic theology. He died at Princeton on October 22, 1851.

This article is Chapter 6 in Alexander’s, Thoughts on Religious Experience, published by Banner of Truth. Banner of Truth


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