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ON THE DOCTRINES OF DIVINE ASSISTANCE AND
EPHES. ii. 5.
By grace ye are saved.
THERE is not one question in the whole compass of
controversial divinity that hath caused greater and
longer disputes and quarrels than that about irresistible grace, spiritual assistance, original or rather hereditary sin, absolute predestination, human liberty, and the natural powers of man.
The church for the first four hundred years was happily free from these debates, and Christians were pretty well agreed in believing that man was a free agent, that he was a weak, imperfect, and trespassing creature, and that God for the sake of Christ was ever willing to forgive and assist him, if he was not wanting to himself.
But about thirteen hundred years ago, a dissension arose concerning these points, and two parties were soon formed. The first maintained necessity, fatality, and absolute predestination, election, and reprobation; the second were defenders of conditional decrees, and
of human liberty and human power in the perform ance of moral good and evil; whilst others endeavoured to steer a middle course, and this our Church is thought by several learned persons to have intended in her articles.
The controversy, once roused, hath never gone to sleep since, but hath been carried on more or less in most parts of the Christian world.
Concerning the disputants themselves we may safely affirm that the defenders of the liberty of man and of the conditional decrees of God have been beyond all comparison the more learned, judicious, and moderate men; and that severity and oppression hath most appeared on the other side, which was a very absurd behaviour even upon their own principles: for if a man be a mere machine, to what purpose would you contend with him, or apply violence to him? To make him change his opinion, you will say. That is impossible. Upon your principles, a man hath no opinions, properly speaking; or they are necessary to him, and he cannot avoid them. And in fact it ap pears from history that God did not think fit to annex his irresistible grace to the excommunications, anathe
a If a man never acts, but is always acted upon, it is the mover who is the author of all that the man seems to do. And indeed, upon this system, when a man says, I think or I do this and that, it is an illusion; there is no such thing as I; it is something else, some external agent, good or evil; the mind can exert no act at all, not even that of thinking and reflecting; and there is an end of personality.
mas, fines, banishments, imprisonments, and other such devices used formerly by the predestinarian fatalists to illuminate and convert their adversaries, who only spread themselves the more, the more they were discountenanced and oppressed.
As to the controversy, I would only ask two or three plain questions.
How can it be supposed that God should delude and deceive all mankind by making them believe that they are free agents? For all men think so, till by the help of some mistakes and quibbles they have learned to call it in question, though against their own inward sense and hourly experience.
Why are men encumbered with a conscience, approving, or condemning their past actions? Is it fit that a machine should have such sentiments? Not more than that a clock should be endued with a conscience to reprove and torment it for going wrong.
Why should the Scriptures propose rewards and punishments, promises and threatenings, to those who can do nothing at all? What should we think of a man who should preach to a nursery of trees, and propose rewards to those that should grow up straight, and punishments to those that should grow crooked?
Lastly, Whence comes it to pass that men are good or bad in such a variety of degrees? For if they were all good or bad by necessity, the good would be all equally good, and the bad would be all equally bad. Nature and grace must operate uniformly; even as gravitation operates uniformly upon matter; instinct upon
brutes; and those secret powers upon men by which the blood circulates, the pulse beats, the breath comes and goes, and other functions are continually performed in us without our knowledge and endeavour. From nature entirely corrupted nothing could proceed but evil; from overpowering grace nothing could proceed but good. Whence then this mixture of good and evil, of right and wrong, of defects and amendment, of depravation and improvement? It plainly ariseth from the liberty of man, and from his using or abusing it, and it can arise from nothing else.
How is it then that so many persons have agreed to contradict such plain notions, and, by establishing irresistible influences and unavoidable necessity, to destroy the very nature of moral good and evil, and the wisdom and justice of God's government ?-Many causes concurred to lead them into these errors, namely:
The difficulty of reconciling the foreknowledge of God with the liberty of man:
The nature of human freedom itself, which, though sensibly felt, is not so easy to be accurately described and clearly comprehended:
A fear of ascribing too little to Almighty God, and too much to weak and sinful man in the work of amendment, improvement, perseverance, and salvation :
An abhorrence for the doctrine of the merits of saints, and works of supererogation, by which good men are supposed to have done more for themselves than reason and religion required. A just dis
like of these notions frightened several unwáry persons into the contrary extreme, taught them to look upon good works as a bugbear, and to hate the very sound of the words b £1. 12
An injudicious method of interpreting the sacred writings, of expounding single texts and fragments of Scripture, without considering or understanding the system of Christianity and the scope and intention of the writer, and without giving fair play to human rea> son and natural religion, but ever flying for shelter to mystery and to implicit faith:.
A superstitious deference to human authority, and to the judgement of men who happened to be in high repute and leaders of the multitude. It is actually the bare weight of two or three such names that in troduced and established the doctrine of absolute predestination:
Lastly, The infelicity of the times when these notions came into fashion, times in which philosophy, morality, divinity, and the holy Scriptures were not so well understood as they are at present.
We may reason indeed with this sort of people; but the only answer we are to expect is, that these are profound mysteries; for this is the last refuge and retrenchment of men who are beaten out of the field by fair reasoning. There are three senses of the word mystery.
b Some writers of this sort contracted such a superstitious dread of relying on good works, that they would not make even a good book, or employ the carnal weapon of human reason.