It will be proper to introduce in this place the substance of the other letter; which runs to this effect:
‘Sir — I have for many years past made it my constant practice to set apart a serious hour for self-examination: and as the word of God is the only unerring rule, whereby to judge spiritual things, I have (after earnest prayer for the assistance of the blessed Spirit) taken some text of Scripture; such as that, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved. In prosecuting the solemn inquiry, I have endeavoured to find out the account of faith, its fruits and effects, as described in the word of God. The effect of this practice as to my comfort has been various, as I could more or less discover the Spirit’s work on my heart. Now, Sir, the question I would humbly propose is this: Whether a believer may not warrantably take comfort from the Spirit’s work on his heart, as an evidence of his interest in Christ.’
This serious letter describes a practice, that I would earnestly recommend to all those who are desirous to go safely and comfortably in the way to heaven. And as for the question here proposed, I would answer, without the least hesitation, that a believer may and ought, upon serious examination and prayer, to take comfort from, be thankful for, and rejoice in, every evidence of true grace, as so many seals of the Spirit, whereby the believer is sealed up until the day of redemption. But then remember, that the comforts arising from hence are of themselves no evidence of the growth or strength of faith; for, if a believer receives the whole of his comfort from the satisfaction he gathers this way, it is a proof that his faith is really very weak; yea, and the comfort itself will prove very wavering and uncertain. This our friend justly acknowledges in his letter, when he says, that the effect of his practice has been very various as to comfort: and no wonder; for, if a person builds his hope upon his evidences, they will be found a very uncertain basis; these evidences being sometimes clear, and sometimes cloudy and dark. But, blessed be God! these are not the ground of our hope; for that does not consist in any thing wrought in us but in the absolute freeness of grace in Christ, for any poor distressed soul to lay hold of, fly to, and rest upon. This freeness of grace is an everlasting and stable foundation, which does not change with our frames. And I am verily persuaded, that many believers are so much attached to comfort drawn from evidences (as if it were the only comfort) that they have very much lost the strength and skill of faith. For the business of faith is, not to live and depend upon a work of grace in us, but humbly and confidently to refer ourselves unto the free and powerful grace of God without us, under a real sight and conviction of our own weakness, emptiness, pollution, guilt and unworthiness.
But, if you would know whether the comforts you obtain by self-examination are attended with the growth and vigour of faith, it is needful you should inquire into the nature and kind of them. Perhaps it may be only a cold, speculative satisfaction. You by the exercise of reason compare your experience with the word of God, and so coldly draw the important conclusion, but feel no endearing, enlivening, sanctifying effect from it. If this be all, here is nothing of the work of faith or exercise of grace in it. Nay, it is possible for the comfort obtained this way to be of a soul-stupefying nature. When you have drawn this conclusion, it is used only to still the anxieties and relieve the distresses of the soul, to make you the more contented under the prevalency of some corruption, under the consciousness of some guilt, or under the power of a carnal frame. If this be the tendency of the satisfaction you gain by examination, it is a sad sort of comfort indeed! and, let the inference be drawn with ever so much justness or clearness, yet it proves the soul to be in a dangerous and declining frame.
Once more: a believer, in performing the duty of self-examination, ought to take special care about the ends he has in it. What is it, that you aim at in searching after evidences of grace within you? is it to obtain an assurance that your state is safe, that you might silence the clamours of a guilty conscience, or that you might remove that uneasiness, which your mind feels because of the power of corruption or carnal security; to soothe your mind with this thought, that all is well, because you have a secure interest in Christ and the covenant? If this be your aim and desire, give me the freedom to say, that this is to continue in sin, because grace abounds. And therefore evidences, thus obtained and thus employed, are exceedingly dangerous and very suspicious.
But, if you seek after and improve the evidences of a work of grace in your soul, to help you forward in farther actings of faith upon Christ, to encourage you to be more frequent, fervent, and confident in your applications to Christ for fresh supplies of soul-sanctifying, sin-subduing, and heart-strengthening grace; then your comfort is of the right kind, and the brightness of your frame proves the strength of your faith. Upon the whole we may gather,
3. How we may know whether our faith be strong or weak, let our frames be what they will. It is not our being in a dark frame, but our being discouraged by it to lay down our weapons against sin and Satan in a kind of despairing way, that proves the weakness of our faith. It is not our being in a bright frame, but our being thereby quickened and encouraged to fly to Christ, and trust in him for farther grace and strength, that proves the strength of our faith. If our frames are dark, gloomy, and distressing; and these distresses quicken our desires after saving grace, and we are excited to earnest prayers and fiducial pleadings for the blessings of grace, and to fight against sin and temptation in the strength of Christ; this proves that our faith is strong, though our comforts may be very low, and our sorrows very great. If our frames are bright and delightful, and our souls take all our comfort from what we feel, and we begin our trust in, or rest satisfied with, grace received; this proves that our faith is weak and unskillful, though our comforts are strong, and our evidences clear to ourselves.
I shall conclude the whole with the following very brief and compendious advice to believers concerning their frames.
- Are your frames comfortable?
- You may make them the matter of your praise, but not of your pride.
- You may make them your pleasure, but not your portion.
- You may make them your the matter of your encouragement, but not the ground of your security.
- Are your frames dark and uncomfortable?
- They should humble you, but not discourage you.
- They should quicken you, and not obstruct you, in your application for necessary and suitable grace.
- They should make you see your own emptiness, but not make you suspect the fullness of Christ.
- They should make you see your own unworthiness, but not make you suspect the willingness of Christ.
- They should make you see your own weakness, but not cause you to suspect the strength of Christ.
- They should make you suspect your own hearts, but not the firmness and freeness of the promises.