« PreviousContinue »
so when such practices are condemned and provided against by their own avowed principles, who commit them?
“ 2. Is it not a most irrational thing to rail at religion on account of the scandalous ways of some, whilst, in the mean time, you wholly slight and overlook the holy and heavenly conversation of many others? Are all that profess godliness loose and careless in their lives? No: some are an ornament to their profession, and the glory of Christ. And why must the innocent be condemned with the guilty ? Why the eleven for one Judas?
“3. If you condemn religion because of the scándalous lives of some who profess it, must you not then cast off all religion in the world, and turn downright atheists? Surely this is the natural consequence; for what religion is there, but some that profess it walk contrary to their profession? And then, as Constantine told the Novatian, you must set up a ladder, and go to heaven by yourself.”
Our good author falls a little too much into the fashion of the times, in ascribing to a particular providence the accidental circumstance which, he says, first led to the design of this publication ; but to the objections which he supposes may be raised against it, he gives some general answers not unworthy of observation.
“If any say, the world is even cloyed with books, and therefore though the discourse be necessary, yet the publication is needless, I answer, there are, indeed, multitudes of books, but many of them concern not themselves about fundamental truths and practical godliness, but spend their strength on impractical notions and perilous controversies; many, also, strike at fundamental truths, and endeavour to undermine the power of godliness; and some there are that nourish the root, and tend to clear and confirm, to prepare and apply the great truths of the gospel, that they may be bread for souls to live and feed on. Now, though I could wish that those who have handled the pen of the scribe, had better employed their time and pains, than to obtrude such useless discourses on the world, yet as to books of the latter rank, I will say, that when husbandmen complain of too much corn, then let Christians complain of too many such books. And if you be so highly conceited of your own ability, that such books are needless to you, if you let them alone they will do you no hurt, and other poor hungry souls will be glad of them, and bless God for what you despise and burn.
“If it be said, that several of the cases here handled touch not your condition, I answer, that that which is not your condition may be another's condition. If you are placed in an easy, full, and prosperous state, and so have no need of the helps here offered to support your hearts under pinching wants, others are forced to live by faith for every day's provision. If you are dandled upon the knee of providence, some of your brethren are under its feet, &c.”
Then follows a pleasing allusion to the circumstances in which he is placed, but without a single complaint or murmur
from which we might collect that he was suffering under the injustice of others.
“ The consideration of my constrained absence from you also weighed with me. I would not that personal absence should, by insensible degrees, untwist, as it usually does, the cord of friendship; and therefore I have endeavoured, as absent friends are accustomed to do, to preserve and strengthen it by this small remembrance. It was Vespasian's answer to Apollonius, when he desired access for two philosophers, “My doors are always open to philosophers, but my very breast is open to thee.' I cannot say with him, my doors are open for the free access of friends, being, by a sad providence, shut against myself; but this I can say, my very breast is still open to you; you are as dear to me as ever.-1 was willing to leave this with you as a legacy, as a testimony of sincere love for, and care over you. This may counsel and direct you when I cannot. I may be rendered useless to you by a civil or natural death, but this will outlive me; and O that it may serve your souls, when I am silent in the dust!
“To hasten now to a conclusion; I have only these three requests to you, which I earnestly beseech you not to deny me; 'yea, I charge you, as ever you hope to appear with comfort before the great Shepherd, do not dare to slight these requests.
“ Above all other studies in the world, study your own hearts : waste not a minute more of your .precious time about frivolous controversies. It is reported even of Bellarmine, that he turned with loathing from the study of school-divinity, because it wasted the sweet juice of piety. I had rather it should be said of you, as one said of Swinkfeldius, “He wanted a regular head, but not an honest heart,' than that you should have regular heads and irregular hearts. My dear flock, I have, according to the grace given me, laboured in the course of my ministry among you, to feed you with the heart-strengthening bread of practical doctrine; and I do assure you, it is far better you should have the sweet and saving impressions of gospel-truths feelingly and powerfully conveyed to your hearts, than only to understand them by a bare ratiocination, or dry syllogistical inference. Leave trifling studies to such as have time lying on their hands, and know not how to employ it. Remember, you are at the door of eternity, and have other work to do. Those hours you spend on heart-work in your closets are the golden spots of all your time, and will have the sweetest influence on your last hours, Heart-work is weighty and difficult work; an error there may cost you your souls. I may say of it, as Augustine speaks of the doctrine of the Trinity, 'A man can err in nothing more easily or more dangerously. O, then, study your hearts."
His next request to his hearers, is, “ that they will carefully look to their conversation, and be accurate in all their ways.” The last is more personally affecting and solemn.
“ My third and last request is, that you pray for me. I hope I can say, and I am sure some of you have acknowledged, that I came at first among you as the return and answer of your prayers : and in
deed so it should be: [Luke, x. 2.) I am persuaded also, that I have been carried on in my work by your prayers ; it is sweet when it is so ; [Eph. vi. 18, 19.] and I hope by your prayers to receive yet a farther benefit. [Heb. xii. 18, 19, &c.] And truly it is but just that you should pray for me; I have often prayed for you. Let the pulpit, family, and closet, witness for me; and “ God forbid I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you.”
The impressions which such a pastor as Flavel was calculated to make on the hearts of his congregation may, we think, be sufficiently estimated from the language of this animated and tender exhortation ; nor can we, after reading it, refusè our full credit to the sincerity of that posthumous veneration, which, speaking (as it were) from the tomb, recommends to generations yet to come, the advantages to be derived from a communion with his spirit, in the works which record its excellence. It deserves the particular attention of those who may have been led by some late works of fiction, (the high and deserved popularity of which is founded yet more on the intimate acquaintance which they evince with the secret workings of the human heart, than on their faithful adherence to the leading points of history, or to the brilliant invention which supplies the circumstantiality of the detail,) to a confirmation of the vulgar prejudice which confounds all classes among the opponents of church and state, in one indiscriminate censure as Puritans, and assigns to all Puritans the same ill-favoured set of features, distinguished (if at all) only by the different shades of formality, hypocrisy, and fanaticism. It would be but the measure of strict poetical justice on the part of the artist who has sketched, with such inimitable force and humour, the portraits of Mucklewrath, Kettledrummle, and Solsgrace, if he would adorn his next historical picture with a faithful delineation of so meek, and charitable, and affectionate, and sincere a non-conformist preacher as “ sweet Mr. Flavel,” for so (and with great justice) his contemporaries have styled him. i We have dwelt too long on the introductory epistle, to have left ourselves much space for enlarging on the plan and tendency of the work which follows it, nor would it be an easy or a very useful task, to condense the substance of a book of plain, practical exhortation, 'every word of which has its force, and every sentence its peculiar weight and application. With respect to mere doctrine, how far the author was from entertaining any of those enthusiastic and mystical notions, which we are too fond of ascribing to the separatists of that period in general, may be collected from his thoughts on the hazardous subject of Regeneration.
“ Man, by creation, was of one uniform frame and tenor of spirit; he held one straight and even course: not one thought or faculty re
velled or was disordered; his mind had a perfect illumination to understand and know the will of God; his will, a perfect compliance therewith; his sensitive appetite, and other inferior powers, stood in a most obedient subordination.
“ Man, by degeneration, is become a most rebellious creature, contesting with and opposing his maker, as the first cause, by selfdependence; as the chief good, by self-love; as the highest Lord, by self-will; and as the last end, by self-seeking: and so he is quite disordered, and all his acts are irregular. His illuminated understanding is clouded with ignorance; his complying will, full of rebellion and stubbornness-his subordinate powers, casting off the dominion and government of the superior faculties.
“ But, by regeneration, this disordered soul is set right again, sanctification being the rectifying and due framing, or (as the scripture calls it) the renovation of the soul after the image of God; in which self-dependence is removed by faith, self-love by the love of God, selfwill by subjection and obedience to the will of God, and self-seeking by self-denial. The darkened understanding is again illumined, the refractory will sweetly subdued; the rebellious appetite or concupiscence gradually conquered. And thus the soul, which sin had universally depraved, is again, by grace, restored and rectified.”
The dangerous and unfounded belief in the “ assurance” of a soul through grace regenerated, is combated, and the necessity of continual and unabating watchfulness, even to the most righteous, enforced with an earnestness of persuasion and a frequency of repetition, which would do honour to the most strenuous of our modern champions in arms against the hydrá (or rather, we believe, it is the fashion to call it, fieryflying dragon) of Calvinism ; but all who now declaim, would not know how so happily to illustrate, or mildly to enforce, what seem to them more Christian principles.
“ Though grace has, in a great measure, rectified the soul, and given it an habitual and heavenly temper, yet sin often discomposes it again; so that even a gracious heart is like a musical instrument, which though it be ever so exactly tuned, a small matter brings it out of tune again : yea, hang it aside but a little, and it will need setting again before you can play another lesson on it.”—“ The Heathen could say, the soul is made wise by sitting still in quietness. Though bankrupts wish not to look into their books of account, yet upright hearts will know whether they go backward or forward.”
On the necessity of continual and earnest prayer, and humiliation before God, he says,
“ It is observed of holy Mr. Bradford, that when he was confessing sin, he could never give over confessing until he had felt some brokenness of heart for that sin; and when praying for any spiritual mercy, would never give over that suit, until he had got some relish of that mercy.”—“ It is a constant work; it is with a Christian in this business, as it is with seamen who have sprung a leak at sea : if they labour not constantly at the pump, the water increases on them, and will quickly sink them. No sooner do Moses' hands grow heavy and sink down, than Amalek prevails.”
Speaking of the unreasonableness of the expectations which many pious men have indulged, of some sensible and outward sign or token of the Divine favour and acceptance, he says,
“ I remember that Mr. Roberts tells us, in his treatise on the covenants, that he knew a Christian who, in the infancy of his Christianity, so vehemently panted after the infallible assurance of God's love, that for a long time together he earnestly desired some voice from heaven-yea, sometimes walking in the solitary fields, he earnestly desired some miraculous voice from the trees and stones there, This, after many desires and longings, was denied him; but in time, a better was afforded in the ordinary way of searching the word and his own heart. An instance of the like nature, the learned Gerson gives us, of one who was driven by temptation on the very borders of desperation; at last, being sweetly settled and assured, one asked him, how he attained it ? He answered, not by any extraordinary revelation, but by subjecting my understanding to the scriptures, and comparing my own heart with them.”
The first two chapters, from which we have made the foregoing extracts, treat of “what the keeping of the heart supposes and imports,” and of “ the reasons for keeping the heart.” The third discourses of " the seasons in which the heart must especially be kept”—and first, “ a season of prosperity.” On the passage, “ It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, &c.” and on that other, “Not many mighty, not many noble, are called,” he presents the following illustration :
“ It might justly make us tremble, when the scripture tells us, in general, that few shall be saved; much more, where it tells us, that of that rank and sort of which we are speaking, but few shall be saved. When Joshua called all the tribes of Israel to draw lots for the discovery of Achan, doubtless Achan feared; when the tribe of Judah are taken, his fear increased; but when the family of the Zachites was taken, it was time then to tremble.”—“O how many have been coached to hell in the chariots of earthly pleasures, while others have been whipped to heaven by the rod of affliction !"
He adds example to precept.
What a sad story is that of Pius Quintus, who, dying, cried out despairingly, When I was in a low condition, I had some hopes of salvation; but when I was advanced to be cardinal, I greatly doubted