From what has been said we may deduce the following summary.
1. Regeneration is the commencement of spiritual life in a soul before dead in sin, by the omnipotent agency of God; and the exercises of this life are specifically different from all the exercises of an unregenerate heart.
2. The strength of the principle of life in the new birth, as in the natural birth, is exceedingly various; for while some are brought into the world of grace in the clear light of day, and are from the first active and vigorous, and enjoy much comfort in their pious exercises; others give very obscure evidence of being in possession of life, and remain long in a state of feebleness. Indeed, some are like children who seem at birth to be dead, but afterwards revive, and by degrees acquire vigor and maturity. But it by no means is a uniform fact that the children who are most healthy and vigorous at birth, continue to be so throughout life. Disease or other disasters may check their growth, and debilitate their constitution; while those who commence life in extreme weakness may acquire strength, and grow prosperously from year to year; so that, in mature age, they may have greatly surpassed many who were much more healthy and vigorous in the earliest stage of existence. Analogous to this are the facts observable in the spiritual life.
3. While some may experience this change so remarkably that they never can doubt of its reality, and can refer to the very day when they emerged from darkness to life, others, who nevertheless are truly regenerated, remain long in doubt about their spiritual state; and even when the evidence of their conversion becomes satisfactory, they are utterly unable to fix the precise time when they began to live. And it is probable that many who speak with confidence of the time and place of their new birth, mistake entirely respecting this point: the time to which they refer the commencement of their spiritual life, is more probably the season of some clear manifestation of the divine favor, when darkness and sorrow were succeeded by joy and peace; and yet the principle of life may have existed long before. There is good reason to think that the exercises of a soul under conviction are often those of the sincere penitent.
4. Spiritual life is progressive in its nature. Habitual growth in grace is the best evidence of its reality. Those affections and joys which are temporary, however high they may arise, are not the exercises of a new creature. Under the influence of a strong love of happiness and dread of misery, and the convictions of an awakened conscience, many are greatly concerned about their salvation, and are induced to attend diligently and earnestly on the means of grace, and often are deeply impressed and shed many tears; and from some latent principle in the human constitution an oppressive burden of misery may suddenly be succeeded by a feeling of pleasure and lightness, accompanied by the persuasion that sin is pardoned and God appeased. This change of feeling may have its origin merely in the animal frame or nervous system, and may be illustrated by the effects produced by physical causes, such as opiates, carminatives, nitrous-oxide, etc. Or these sudden joys may originate in some suggestion to the mind, as that our sins are pardoned, or that God loves us, and the delusion is more complete if this sudden suggestion comes clothed in the language of Scripture, as son or daughter ‘thy sins are forgiven thee.’ These false conversions soon die away, and like the seed on stony ground, bring no fruit to maturity. But genuine piety is a growing principle, and proves that it has deep root by its regular advancement towards perfection. This gradual process in piety is beautifully represented by our Lord under the figure of seed vegetating and going on to maturity. ‘So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself, first the blade, then the ear; after that the full corn in the ear.’ Growth in piety resembles the growth of the human body from childhood to manhood. No progress is visible from one day to another, but in months and years the increase is manifest. And as the body, while rising to maturity, may for a season be retarded or thrown back by disease, so also the health of the soul is sometimes deeply impaired, and the exercises of piety in such a state of declension, become extremely feeble. But from these diseases the Great Physician knows how to recover the souls which he has redeemed.
5. Genuine piety is a permanent and undying principle, and thus it may be distinguished from transient impressions, however powerful; yet we should not suppose that the exercises of the real Christian are uniform, or that all experience equal fluctuations of feeling. We cannot ascertain, much less describe, all the causes which may singly, or in combination, give complexion to the frames and exercises of a child of God; nor can we determine, in many cases, why one believer enjoys so much more tranquillity and cheerful hope than another, who may be equally sincere, and equally fervent in spirit.
A melancholy temperament, or a disposition to anticipate the worse in all matters, and to contemplate the dark side of the picture, has doubtless a great effect in modifying the exercises of many pious people. They are naturally gloomy and desponding, and they bring this temper with them into religion. They are always full of doubts and fears, and though they do really possess the characteristics of piety, they will not be encouraged to hope with confidence. They hang their heads daily like the bulrush, and are of a sorrowful spirit, and refuse to be comforted. On the other hand, persons of a sanguine temperament, as in other things, so in religion, are disposed to view every thing in the most favorable light; and although their evidences may really be no clearer than his who is forever in doubt and distress; yet they cherish a favorable opinion of their spiritual state. That, however, which we wish to inculcate is, that true piety is an abiding principle, which, however the feelings may fluctuate, never becomes extinct.
6. One of the certain effects of divine illumination is an increasing knowledge of the sinfulness of our own hearts. These views of inbred corruption are indeed most appalling and discouraging; they are also unexpected; but they are among the most salutary with which we are favored; and they furnish the best evidence of the genuineness of a work of grace. Hypocrites may talk much of the wickedness of their hearts, and even exceed all bounds in the accusations which they bring against themselves; but their words are like the parrot’s, without meaning; they would be offended if any one believed only a small part of their self-accusations. Their object is not to be thought corrupt and sinful, but humble and holy. True humility, however, arises out of this knowledge of our own hearts, and is proportioned to the degree of self-knowledge which we possess. These spiritual views also cut up by the root self-righteousness and self-dependence. The man who knows the corruption of his own heart, and the secret defects of his holiest emotions and best affections, will never be disposed to place the least dependence on his own works. This knowledge also stirs him up to prayer, by showing him his urgent necessities.
7. The truly regenerated man hates, opposes, and endeavors to extirpate all sin. He can say with David, ‘I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right, and I hate every false way.’ Although on certain occasions sinful propensities may gain a temporary dominion, and he may fall, like Noah, David, and Peter, into grievous transgressions; yet is not a sinful life the choice of his heart, nor is it his purpose to indulge in sin: and when overcome by its power, like an elastic body bent out of its usual position, he quickly returns to his habitual state of feeling and acting. He soon finds the pleasure of sin turned into wormwood and gall; he weeps like Peter when he reflects upon his shameful ingratitude; and like David in the fifty-first Psalm, he makes penitent confession of his sin, and earnestly prays for pardon, cleansing, the restoration of divine favor and spiritual joy. These falls are like broken bones or dislocated joints; they are apt to give pain in the retrospect as long as life endures; but God over-rules even our faults sometimes for good, by making them the occasion of teaching us more thoroughly our own weakness and the depth of our corruption, and by rendering us more watchful and more sensible of our dependence on divine aid for continuance in a state of grace.
8. As the word of God furnishes both the motive and the object of all spiritual affections, it cannot but be very dear to the renewed heart, especially as it reveals Christ in all his offices as the Redeemer of his people. As naturally and instinctively as the new born babe thirsts after the nutriment which flows from the mother’s breast, so the young child of grace desires the sincere or unadulterated milk of the word, that it may grow thereby. ‘O how love I thy law’ is the language of his heart. His estimation of the word is above all the most precious treasures of earth. ‘More to be desired than gold, yea than much fine gold.’ And pleasant as well as precious. ‘Sweeter also than honey or the honeycomb.’ Therefore, ‘he delights in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he meditate day and night.’ A lively relish for divine truth, and a cordial approbation of all God’s word is one mark of a renovation of heart. Every true convert is a student of the Bible, a disciple at the feet of Jesus whom alone he acknowledges to be an infallible Teacher. The longer he lives the more highly does he appreciate the sacred Scriptures and he finds in them a well spring of life, a never failing source of consolation.
9. A regenerated man loves the people of God. ‘Hereby,’ says the apostle John, ‘we know that we are passed from death to life because we love the brethren.’ This, in the religion of Christ, is considered to be a principle of vital importance. Our Lord himself inculcated no duty more frequently or more urgently. This he calls ‘a new commandment;’ and, indeed, makes it the badge by which his disciples should be known by the world. ‘Hereby shall all men know that ye are my disciples by the love which ye have for one another.’ The apostles also, in their writings, exhibited the obligation of Christians to exercise this holy affection, with great clearness and frequency. Brotherly love, when genuine, is excited by the consideration that Christians are the redeemed, adopted, and acknowledged brethren of their Lord. They are loved for the Master’s sake. And again, they are loved because they bear the image of Christ. Love to the brethren is a vital branch springing out of the root of love to God himself. ‘Every one that loveth him that begat, loveth him also that is begotten of him. By this we know that we love the children of God when we love God and keep his commandments.’
10. A soul that is born of God ardently and habitually desires to glorify God by all practicable means. This is the highest end, as it is the daily end of all the real children of God. They do not wish to live for themselves, but for him who gave himself for them. They endeavor to ascertain, from a consideration of their own talents and circumstances, and from the aspects of Providence, in what occupation, station, or profession, they can serve God most effectually. And they gladly seize opportunities of advancing the interests of Christ’s kingdom. Their faculties, their learning, their influence, power, and property, are all consecrated to God; and they consider themselves as stewards of these several talents, which they are under the most sacred obligation to improve for his advantage. This aim is not confined to actions comparatively important, but is extended to all the common concerns of this life. In eating, drinking, plowing, sowing, and in whatever they do, they study to glorify God. He who is born of God has his mind directed to God. He sets his affections on things above, and not on things on the earth.
11. A regenerated man has his will swallowed up in the will of God. ‘Thy will be done,’ is his daily prayer from his inmost soul. This acquiescence in the divine will is complete just so far as his heart is renewed, and every feeling of discontent, reluctance or opposition which he feels, in relation to God’s administration, he condemns as sinful rebellion. When called to suffer, he bears the rod with filial submission, and though he may beg to be released from the pressure of heavy affliction, yet he asks this in submission to the will of God. If these chastisements, however grievous, can be for the glory of God, or so sanctified to him as to promote his faith and patience, he is willing to endure them, and even to have them increased. True piety never appears more genuine, and never more attractive, than when the people of God are suffering in deep affliction. Trials are to grace what the furnace is to metals: they prove its genuineness and purify it from its dross. Believers cannot know their own sincerity, nor the strength of their own faith, until they are tried.
12. The only other effect of regeneration which we shall mention is a grateful sense of the love and goodness of God. Gratitude is the soul of heart-religion. Unregenerate men may and often do experience a sensation of natural gratitude; and on some occasions it may come upon them with a gush of feeling. Such emotions are amiable and salutary, but they are transient, and involve no perception of the moral excellence of God. But the renewed man cherishes this lively sense of God’s goodness continually. It is the most frequent emotion of the heart, and has the most powerful and practical influence upon his life. He is constrained by the love of Christ who died for him. He sees in the manifestation of that love, moral excellence beyond expression. It is the brightest point in his horizon. And the more he contemplates this glory, the more is he fired with the love of gratitude. His only wish to live, is for Christ: his strongest motive for wishing to depart, is to be with Christ. Heaven appears infinitely desirable because there, an eternity will be spent in praising the Redeemer.