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and though others, whom they have no reason to think inferior to themselves either in judgment or integrity, are compelled to differ from them :
If not so frequent, would not this be strange?
Be assured, dear sir, that in thus apologizing for my brethren, I write, not only without their desire, but without their knowledge. I think I have now finished all my preambles, and I proceed immediately to acquaint you with my reasons for conforming to the established church, and continuing in it.
My first and principal reason is, THE REGARD I OWE TO THE HONOUR AND AUTHORITY OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST, AS HEAD AND LAWGIVER OF HIS CHURCH. I do not mean that this consideration obliges me absolutely to prefer the form of the Church of England to any other form, but only that it will not permit me to join with those who make dissenting from it necessary in point of conscience.
I cannot suppose that any true Christian, in our land of light and liberty, will hesitate a moment to acknowledge that Christ is the one infallible, authoritative Legislator and Governor of his church; that he is the Lord, and the only Lord of conscience; that nothing inconsistent with his revealed will should be practised, nothing that he has enjoined be omitted, by those who profess allegiance to him. But, however generally acknowledged these principles are, I believe the misconstruction and misapplication of them have contributed more to divide the people of God, and to alienate their affections from each other, than any other cause that can be assigned. It seems reasonable to expect that they whose hopes are built upon the same foundation, who are led by the same Spirit, who are opposed by the same enemies, and interested in the same promises, would look upon each other with mutual complacence, would love as brethren, would bear each other's burdens, and so fulfil their Master's law, and copy his example. But, alas! a mistaken zeal for his honour fills them on all sides with animosity against their fellow-disciples, splits them into a thousand parties, gives rise to fierce and endless contentions, and makes them so earnest for and against their respective peculiarities, that the love, which is the discriminating characteristic of His religion, is scarcely to be found amongst them in such a degree of exercise, as to satisfy even candid observers whether they bear his mark or not.
The visible church of Christ comprises all who call themselves by his name, and who profess to receive his Gospel as a divine
revelation. It is a floor on which the grain and the chaff are promiscuously mingled, a field in which the wheat and the tares grow together, a net inclosing a multitude of fishes both good and bad. But the visible church of Christ, taken in this large extent, is not the proper subject of his government, as He is the King of saints. For his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, which none can understand, and his rule a spiritual rule, which none can receive or obey, until born from above, and made new creatures by the power of the Holy Spirit. If these regenerated persons, who it is to be feared are seldom the largest number in any denomination, be considered as detached from the visible church, the remainder is a mere caput mortuum, differenced from the world which lies in wickedness, in nothing but a name, and in the privilege of having the oracles of God committed to it. But nominal Christians, though they have, or may have, in their hands, the Scriptures, which are able to make sinners wise unto salvation, are no less distant and alienated from the life of God, (until he is pleased to reveal his power in their hearts,) than Mahomedans or Heathens. And with respect to these, the honour of the Lord Jesus Christ is but little concerned with the different ways in which they may think proper to constitute themselves into national or particular churches, and please themselves with a lifeless form of worship, while their hearts are in a state of enmity to his grace. Admitting that the plan of a Gospel-church was described with the same precision in the New Testament, as the institutions of the Levitical worship in the Old, and punctually complied with to the minutest circumstance; though the worshippers might applaud and admire their own exactness, and censure and despise all who differed a hair's breadth from them, yet, if they did not serve God in spirit and in truth, their boasted church order would avail them nothing. All that related to the worship of God under the law was confessedly of divine appointment; and the people, in the time of the prophets, were not so much charged with neglecting the prescribed forms, as with resting in them. When this evil became general, and they thought to compensate for their want of spirituality, by their feasts, fasts, and sacrifices, the Lord expresses himself as displeased with his own institutions. Isa. i. 11-15. ; lxvi. 3, 4.; Jer. vii. 8-14. 22, 23. They could plead his prescription for their observances; but in vain they trusted to the temple, and said, "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are we," when the Lord of the temple was departed from them. And certainly he will be no more pleased with a form without the heart now than he was then.
I must therefore, confine my inquiry to the church of Christ in
a more limited and proper sense; as expressive of his mystical body, composed of all who by faith are united to him as their foundation and root, of all to whom he is the head of vital influence, who have fellowship with him in his death, and are partakers of the power of his resurrection. These are infallibly known only to himself. They are scattered far and wide, separated from each other by seas and mountains; they are a people of many nations and languages. But wherever their lot is cast, they hear his voice, are under his gracious eye, and the life which they live in the flesh is by faith in his name. They have not all equal degrees of light, or measures of grace; nor are they all favoured with equal advantages for knowing or enjoying the full extent of the liberty of the Gospel; but they are all accepted in the Beloved and approved of God. They are spiritual worshippers, joint partakers of grace, and will hereafter appear together at their Saviour's right hand in glory.
At present they are in an imperfect state. Though created anew in Christ Jesus, they are not freed from a principle of indwelling sin. Their knowledge is clouded by much remaining ignorance; and their zeal, though right in its aim, is often warped and misguided by the corrupt influence of self. For they still have many corruptions, and they live in a world which furnishes frequent occasions of exciting them; and Satan, their subtle and powerful enemy, is always upon his watch to mislead and ensnare them. They are born, educated, and called, under a great variety of circumstances. Habits of life, local customs, early connexions, and even bodily constitution, have more or less influence in forming their characters, and in giving a tincture and turn to their manner of thinking; so that though, in whatever is essensial to their peace and holiness, they are all led by the same spirit, and mind the same things; in others of a secondary nature their sentiments may, and often do, differ as much as the features of their faces. A uniformity of judgment among them is not to be expected, while the wisest are defective in knowledge, the best are defiled with sin, and while the weaknesses of human nature, which are common to them all, are so differently affected by a thousand impression which arise from their various situations. They might, however, maintain a unity of spirit, and live in the exercise of mutual love, were it not that every party, and almost every individual, unhappily conceives that they are bound in conscience to prescribe their own line of conduct as a standard to which all their brethren ought to conform. They are comparatively but few who consider this requisition to be as unnecessary, unreasonable, and impracticable, as it would be to insist, or expect, that every man's shoes should be exactly of one size.
Thus, though all agree in asserting the authority and right of the Lord Jesus, as King and Head of his church, the various apprehensions they frame of the rule to which he requires them to conform, and their pertinacious attachment to their own expositions of it, separate them almost as much from each other, as if they were not united to him by a principle of living faith. Their little differences form them into so many separate interests; and the heat with which they defend their own plans, and oppose all who cannot agree with them to a tittle, makes them forget that they are children in the same family and servants of the same master. And while they vex and worry each other with disputations and censures, the world wonders and laughs at them all. The spirit of love is restrained, offences are multiplied, and Satan is gratified by beholding the extensive effects of his pernicious and long practised maxim, Divide et empera.
I am far from supposing that all the various modes of churchgovernment under which spiritual worshippers are cast, are equally agreeable to the spirit and genius of the Gospel, or equally suited to the purposes of edification. Perhaps there is no considerable body of people who profess themselves Christians, however erroneous in their plans of doctrine or worship, among whom the Saviour has not some hidden ones, known to himself, though lost to human observation in the crowd of pretenders which surround them. The power of his grace can break through all disadvantages, and make a few individuals wiser than their teachers, by revealing his truth to their hearts, sooner or later, so far as is necessary to salvation. But it must be owned, that some communities which bear the name of Christian, have departed so very far from the simplicity of the Gospel, that if we reason a priori, we are ready to conclude it is almost impossible for a converted person to continue a single day in such a communion. But hypothesis cannot be maintained against plain facts. Thus the church of Rome, not merely by adopting an unmeaning burdensome train of ceremonies, but by her doctrines of papal infallibility, invocation of saints and angels, purgatory, absolution, the mass, and others of the like stamp, is become so exceedingly adulterated, that possibly some persons who may read these letters will form an unfavourable opinion of me, for declaring that I have not the least doubt but the Lord Jesus has had, from age to age, a succession of chosen and faithful witnesses within the pale of that corrupt church. Yet I should hope that they who, having themselves tasted that the Lord is gracious, know the language of a heart under the influence of his Spirit, would, in defiance of Protestant prejudices, be of my mind, if they had opportunity of perusing the writings of some Papists. If such perVOL. III.
sons as De Fenelon, Paschall, Quenell, and Nicole, (to mention no more,) were not true Christians, where shall we find any who deserve the name? In the writings of these great men, notwithstanding incidental errors, I meet with such strains of experimental godliness, such deep knowledge of the workings of the Spirit of God and of the heart of man, and such masterly explications of many important passages of Scripture, as might do honour to the most enlightened Protestant. And yet these men lived and died in the Popish communion, and to their latest hours, (for any thing that appears to the contrary,) thought they could not separate from it without sin. And, though I have not equal means of information, I can as little doubt that the Lord has a people likewise in the Greek church, which, as to its external frame, seems to be little less unscriptural than the church of Rome itself.
However, I desire to be thankful that I am not a Papist. I am at least one step nearer to the true and acceptable worship of God. For I believe the most rigid of our dissenting brethren will allow, that the church of England, if almost, yet is not altogether so depraved and corrupt in its constitution as the church of Rome. I am now in my track, and shall trouble you with fewer digressions in the sequel. My next point will be to examine the different claims of Protestant churches to the honour they all assume, that their respective institutions are most conformable to the rules the apostles have laid down on the subject of churchgovernment, and express the greatest regard to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, the undoubted Head and Lawgiver of his church. And to avoid, as much as I can, encumbering what I write in an epistolary way to a friend, with the stiffness of argumentation, I shall content myself with giving you a simple account of what occurred to me upon this head, when I made the inquiry for my own direction. But it is time to conclude this letter by assuring you that I am
Your affectionate Friend.
MY DEAR FRIEND AND BROther,
Ir the authority of men truly respectable for learning, judgment, and grace, were sufficient to determine the question, which of the various forms of church-government now obtaining among Christians is most agreeable to the letter and spirit of the New Testament? a modest inquirer, who wishes the sanction of those whom he esteems wiser and better than himself, would probably