UPON every view which can be taken of the circumstances that preceded the conversion of St. Paul, we must be satisfied that they can be ascribed neither to falsehood, imposture, nor self-deception; but that a supernatural agency was really exerted in producing them; and therefore that the apostle was fully justified in calling the appearance which was exhibited to him, a "heavenly vision." Not that by this term we are to understand a mere inward illusion of the mind, or such a show of seeming circumstances as is often presented to the fancy in the dreams of night. On the contrary, all the circumstances here referred to were real and actual; for the whole scene is described as happening in [157/158] midday; to waking men, while they were pursuing their journey.
In the former sense of the word vision, it is usually accompanied with the words "by night," or "in a dream," to show expressly that such was its nature. Still as there is room for confusion of thought, it had been better in this place to give the words their more correct translation, "a heavenly sight," or "an appearance from heaven;" the Greek word "optasia," here employed, being used to express an actual appearance to a waking person, in opposition to "orama," which has reference to the vision of one who sleeps.
In the present discourse I shall consider the nature of the conversion of St. Paul, particularly in reference to two doctrines which are maintained by some denominations of Christians--the doctrine of conversion by irresistible grace, and that of the final perseverance of the saints. But as these doctrines have their origin in another, which annihilates free agency in man, and limits free grace in God, I mean the doctrine of personal unconditional election, it is necessary to give to that also a brief attention.
I am aware, my brethren, how unprofitable, as well as unacceptable, the discussion of abstract and controverted questions generally is; and it is, therefore, not without reluctance that I approach these topics; which I shall pursue no farther than [158/159] a regard to truth, and our practical benefit, not to say to our caution and safety, warrants and demands. To a sincere and candid reader of the Scriptures, intent upon learning his own duty, father than upon penetrating the secret things which belong to God, it would be sufficient to know that the offering of Jesus Christ is represented as intended for all, and sufficient for all the individuals of our race; for he is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world; that God who, by virtue of that sacrifice, can be just and yet justify the sinner, would have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth; that while the perversity of our nature is such that every man is of himself inclined to evil, the Holy Spirit, the grace of God which bringeth salvation, hath appeared to all men, teaching them their duty, urging, exciting, and enabling them to perform it, so that the high reward of eternal life is offered and assured to all, who by patient continuance in well doing, seek for glory, honour, and immortality; that this grace, which strives in every bosom, is sufficient for all men, so that whosoever will may, by God's help, secure his salvation; that they who improve this grace, fearing God, and working righteousness, are accepted of him, and may rely upon his continued favour, so long as they continue to seek it; but if they choose to go back to the world, or to resist his Holy Spirit, they must necessarily lose his [159/160] approbation and their reward, and their last state be worse than the first. Thus, while they who, persevering to the end, are finally saved, owe all the praise to God, who gave his Son for their redemption; to Jesus Christ, who died to procure their pardon; and to the Holy Ghost, by whose cherished influences they were raised above the corruptions of their nature, and made meet for the inheritance of the saints in light; they who are lost, owe all the misery and the shame to themselves, for disobeying God, who gave his Son to die in their behalf; for rejecting Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life; and for resisting, grieving, and quenching, the Holy Spirit, of whose influences they were sensible, and who, if obeyed, would have led them to holiness, to happiness, and to immortal joy. Why some come to Christ by faith and obedience, and why others do not, where grace sufficient is given to all, is a question, hidden deep from our view, and involving the darkest inquiry into the motives of human action. But while taken abstractly, it is one which it is perhaps impossible to settle; yet when referred to the bosom of every individual for answer in his particular case, it would doubtless be replied to in such a way as to absolve the Most High from all blame for what must arise only from man's perversity, indifference, rejection, or neglect.
Instead of impressing upon every man his [160/161] awful responsibility in this his most momentous concern, and instead of urging every individual to work out his salvation with fear and trembling, while the reasons of his conduct or of his neglect are left to be inquired into by God, who shall be his Judge; those against whose opinions I contend have, though at the hazard of making men despair on the one hand, or presume on the other, imagined an irresistible influence of God to be exerted, electing certain individuals in the first case, without reference to their character, or to any perceivable mark of distinction, irresistibly controlling them afterwards, and causing them so finally to persevere, that nothing can defeat their salvation; while they who are not the subjects of this influence, having neither power nor will of their own, are necessarily left to perish. That men are said to be elected or chosen is certainly true; but it would be absurd to suppose that with an intelligent agent this would be an indiscriminating act. It would seem reasonable, on the contrary, that this choice or election, like every other that deserves the name, must have reference to the dispositions, motives, and qualifications, of those upon whom it falls. The righteous are the excellent of the earth. The saints are the light of the world. Nor is it strange that the Scriptures declare that God looks down from heaven, and regards with approbation, and with a promise of deliverance and of assistance, those [160/161] who set their love upon him, and strive to obey his will. The character to which they aspire, and the dispositions which they cherish, are those to which all men are called; but because they who are inattentive and disobedient are a very large number compared with those who hear and obey, therefore it is said that many are called, but few are chosen, or elected. Still, my brethren, God is no respecter of persons. It is not the individual but the qualifications which he regards, and when true piety, faith, and a constant desire to do his will, are found in any person, these form the character of those whom he chooses. They are elected of God, and precious in his sight. All those who are thus conformed to the image of his Son, God has predestinated and justified; and if they continue in the faith grounded and settled, their everlasting salvation will be sure. To save such as these is declared to be an eternal purpose, which God purposed in Jesus Christ our Lord. Grace sufficient to support them to the end is promised, and it is declared, that if they are faithful unto death they shall receive a crown of life.
This covenant on God's part is everlasting and unchangeable; for, saith he, "I am Jehovah; I change not." All that is said in Scripture, therefore, of the certainty of salvation to the elect, has reference to the truth of God, who has promised, "He that endureth to the end shall be [162/163] saved." But though God's promise is sure, Christians are not without danger arising from themselves; for they may make shipwreck of their faith, and draw back unto perdition; and therefore, while they are assured of salvation if they persevere; they are also warned, if any man draw back, "My soul shall have no pleasure in him."
Thus clearly does it appear that the election of God, in its personal efficacy, has reference to the moral qualifications of his creatures, as wrought in those who cherish his grace and Holy Spirit, and is an assurance that these moral dispositions, if maintained, will receive the promised reward; "for the Lord loveth the righteous, but the ungodly, and him that delighteth in wickedness, doth his soul abhor."
The doctrine of election, if thus considered, while it violates not the free agency of man, exhibits most strikingly and affectionately the goodness of God, and his desire for our salvation. On the one hand it produces prayer for continual help, watchfulness against continual danger, and an increasing desire to be conformed to the image of his Son; and on the other it encourages confidence and perseverance, by placing full before us the merciful intentions of God, And our assurance of safety, while we continue to love and obey him, "For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end." The election of the [163/164] Scriptures, therefore, is such an assurance of God's oversight, approbation, and help, as must encourage faithfulness and perseverance; but not such a certainty of salvation as to induce vainglory, boasting, or neglect. But while they, whose opinions I am opposing, deny that God chooses men for any qualities in themselves, (though we grant that such can only be wrought in them by obeying his Holy Spirit,) they think that they more exalt the grace of God, by representing that these qualities are not found in any except they are produced by certain irresistible influences, accompanying or following the election which they maintain.
But how God's glory is promoted by ascribing these qualifications to extraordinary or irresistible supplies of grace, does not clearly appear. On the contrary, since all goodness in man is acknowledged to flow from grace in God, it would seem to be more to his glory that those ordinary influences of his Holy Spirit, which he vouchsafes to every man, and which he requires every man to improve, should be competent to form in every one that character, and those dispositions, which he will regard with approbation, than to say that they were insufficient for the only purpose for which they are desirable, and that irresistible and extraordinary grace, somewhat more than he gives to all men, is necessary to their holiness and salvation. If the ordinary influences of grace are [164/165] sufficient, no other can be required in any case, If ordinary grace is insufficient, then irresistible grace must be necessary, and should be dispensed to all. For if the latter be necessary to secure the salvation of men, they who do not receive it can in no wise be saved, and the loss of their salvation lies not with themselves, who could do nothing effectual, but with him who withheld the needful aid. On this supposition, they who continue in sin should, instead of blame, be entitled to compassion; and to all the invitations and the threatenings of God, to all the declarations of favour, and of anxiety to save and reclaim mankind, this unanswerable objection might be urged, that he had never given them the necessary power and help. They who maintain the necessity of irresistible grace, perceiving that it is not given to all, assert that the whole race of mankind being sinners, God has a right to pass by whom he pleases. But to say nothing of his inherent goodness and mercy, which they seem to forget, how can his passing by any be reconciled with his repeated declarations of his desire to save all. He might, it is granted, have left all men exposed to condemnation; and had he maintained silence respecting them, his justice had remained unimpeached. But having expressed his willingness, his earnest desire to reclaim them, he cannot withhold the means without violating his truth. And if nothing short of irresistible grace can be [165/166] effectual to impart the necessary ability, irresistible grace must be vouchsafed. Such seems to be the necessity in which God is placed, on the presumption that the ordinary measures of grace are not sufficient to save men; and if it be the truth that they are not, how worse than useless is the call which is made upon them to repent and be saved! Where irresistible grace is not received, the individual is only mocked when he is addressed with argument, reason, persuasion, entreaty, to be converted; and where it is received, these appeals and expostulations are quite as much out of place, since, if the grace be irresistible, the effect must follow as a thing of necessary consequence. And supposing this to be the case, it might well be asked, What kind of virtue that must be which is the result of necessity and constraint, in which all the powers are overruled, and deprived either of the capacity of resistance on the one hand, or of co-operation on the other? And if such a virtue be a qualification for heaven, it may again be asked, What prevents its being communicated to all?
But if we believe that the ordinary assistances of God's grace are sufficient for the salvation of every individual, and only require to be cherished and improved, our entreaty, our appeal, our persuasion, are consistent. God's truth, and goodness, and moral government, are sustained; and while man's success is still to be ascribed only [166/167] to God, his loss and condemnation must be owing to himself.
As to the doctrine of final perseverance, resting upon that of irresistible grace, it must be abandoned with the latter; for if the grace given be such that man can refuse its influence, he may, in the language of our 16th Article, "Depart from it, and fall into sin;" which, if not repented of, and forsaken, must terminate in his destruction. The belief of the final perseverance of the elect, opens the door to great abuses and great delusions. Since they who know that they have once been sensible to their religious duties, and made it their study to please God, may be induced to neglect watchfulness, to cease from prayer, to abandon their Christian obligations, to become unprofitable servants, and at last, after unholy and irreligious lives, console themselves, on their dying bed, (as the English Protector is alleged to have done,) that the elect can never fall, or suffer final reprobation; but they who are once in grace, are always in grace, the evident sinfulness of their subsequent course forming no obstacle to the vain and presumptuous hopes.
Upon the whole, as it is evident that irresistible grace could not be given to all men without destroying the free agency of our nature, and of consequence that system of moral government vender which we are placed; and as by dispensing grace, our freedom and responsibility, [167/168] and God's goodness, justice, and truth, are all sustained; we must believe that the opinions of irresistible influence, and of necessary perseverance, like that of unconditional personal election, are neither calculated to promote the honour of God, nor the safety of man. The ordinary grace of God, of which all men are partakers, is, therefore, to be believed, as sufficient for their salvation, though not necessarily decisive of their destiny; and therefore, with the utmost propriety, they may be called on to work out their salvation, and to give all diligence to make their calling and election sure.
If ever there were any of our race upon whom it was desirable that such an irresistible influence as has been supposed should be exerted, and whose final perseverance it was important to maintain, it was our first parents. But sin, and death, and sorrow, and the manifold evils and disorders of this blighted earth, bear evidence that to them it was not granted. Sufficient grace, and sufficient warning of their danger, they undoubtedly had; for no complaint of the want of either is heard from their lips. They were conscious that in their transgression they had offended against both, and they confessed the sense of their fault in their confusion and their shame, and therefore they accused not God, but concealed themselves. And if when the glory and the beauty of the whole new-born creation, and [168/169] the happiness of countless millions depended upon their retaining their first estate, God did not vouchsafe supernatural influence to make them persevere; but giving them sufficient power to resist, still left them at liberty to act according-to their own free-will, notwithstanding the consequences of their decision were so wide spread and so lasting; doubtless none of us, their successors, can expect that such an influence should be imparted to us, to make us secure of our individual salvation. In opposition to this reasoning and this evidence, those against whom I am contending, may, perhaps, point to St. Paul for the proof of such an overpowering influence as we disclaim. And as I have just said of our first parents, that if ever there were any upon whom irresistible grace should have been expected to be poured out, it must have been upon them; so now I am free to confess of St. Paul, that if in all the Scripture there is one who appears to have been actually its subject, he was that one; and further, we must allow that if in his case it was necessary or proper, it may be so in ten thousand others.
To this question, then, after so long preparation, let us now come; and let us briefly consider, first, whether the conversion of St. Paul was effected by irresistible grace; secondly, what was the nature of his election, and on what it was founded; and thirdly, whether in consequence of [169/170] such grace, or such election, his final salvation was regarded by him as certain beyond all chance or danger of loss.
First, then, as to his conversion. This is generally said to have been miraculous. And if nothing more is meant than that it was produced by a miracle, no objection should be taken against the expression. But more commonly it is used to imply that Saul was so overpowered, and his mind so supernaturally influenced, that without his own consent, he was compelled to become a Christian. In other words, that his free-will, or moral agency, was suspended by the immediate act of God, and the powers of his mind so controlled, that no exercise of them on his part could either prevent or promote his conversion. That a great miracle was exerted previous to his conversion, I readily allow; but that his conversion must necessarily have been the consequence of any miracle whatever, I entirely deny. Miracles were constantly wrought both by our Saviour and his apostles, and yet we do not find that conversions necessarily followed; but in almost every case some believed and some believed not. The effect of a miracle was to satisfy the understanding that Christianity was true, but though the understanding was convinced, the will was not always necessarily converted, nor, of consequence, the faith embraced. Many in our day believe Christianity to be true, and on this point it is impossible that [170/171] miracles could make them more certain; but still they are not Christians; they are not willing to lead Christian lives, to cherish Christian tempers and desires, nor to pursue exclusively Christian rewards. There must be a disposition to receive Christianity in the heart, a readiness of the will exclusive of the understanding; and where this is found, there the truth need only be made known, and it is at once embraced and pursued. This position is recognised in the passage, "As many as were ordained to eternal life believed," where the true reading is, as many as were disposed, prepared by their habits of thinking and acting, to embrace eternal life, believed. They who have not this disposition of heart and will, which is indeed a result of moral training, and is a true criterion of the character, find little difficulty in excusing their rejection of the truth, and in compromising with their understanding by suggesting to themselves doubts and objections. Thus the Jews, who could not resist the truths uttered by Christ, called him a blasphemer, and resorted to violence instead of argument. And they who could not resist his miracles, attributed them to Beelzebub, the prince of devils. In the case of Saul, the tendency and object of the miracle was only to convince his understanding that Christianity was true. His will was left in his own keeping, and he still had it in his power to obey or disobey the vision, to embrace or to reject [171/172] the truth, according to the honesty of his intention, and the piety of his disposition. If it be said that extraordinary proof was given, I answer, that it was not greater than others had resisted. And if it were, he had great need of extraordinary proof. His prejudices were strong. His attachment to his own religion excessive. All his bias was against the new religion, while he had none in its favour. And besides, his pride, his ardent temper, his consistency of character, all were such as to resist conviction from common means. The goodness of God, and the nature of his ordinary moral dealing, are evinced in his offering to the mind of Saul, light enough to break through all these difficulties. Still he was not overpowered. Even his understanding itself was not necessarily constrained; and if it had not been his will to submit to the truth, when it was made evident before him, he could have ascribed all he saw to the arts of the prince of the power of the air, to the influence of that invisible agent of deceit, or, like many others, he might even, when left without any reasonable excuse, have still refused to believe. But this was not his conduct; he loved the truth though he had mistaken and opposed it; and no sooner did its beams shine clearly around him, than he said, in the language of willing obedience, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" He submits his will entirely to God, prays for knowledge and instruction in his duty, [172/173] and as he declared in the words of the text, "was not disobedient to the heavenly vision." It is worthy of remark, that though his conversion was thus preceded by a miracle, he is directed to resort to the ministry of the Gospel (Ananias being one of the seventy,) and to the ordinances of grace. He is bid to arise, to go to Damascus, and to be baptized; and in all these acts the readiness of his obedience showed his title to be accepted of God, and to be admitted among the number of his faithful people. Being in this state of mind, we need not wonder that he was favourably regarded by the Most High, was the object of his affection, was in fact elect and precious in his sight. I shall, therefore, seek no farther for that which was our second inquiry, the grounds of his election; nor do I think it necessary to show that such an election is both natural and unobjectionable. But though it was said to Ananias, "he is a chosen vessel unto me," yet it was not so much in reference to his own salvation, as to the service which it was intended he should perform. "He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel." His fitness for this dangerous work had been evidenced by his zeal against the truth; and even before he knew his error, there was that about his character which might have entitled his injurious zeal to greater commendation than belongs to the indifferent [173/174] and the careless. He was even then intent upon serving God. He declares that he verily thought that he did God service. And he asserts, that on this account his conduct was not attributed to him as a crime; but he obtained mercy because he did it ignorantly in unbelief. So strict had been his practical observance of his duty, that he says, "Touching the righteousness which is by the law, he was blameless." So pure had been his motive, that he did not hesitate to assert before the Jewish council, "Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day;" and to Timothy he declares, "That Jesus Christ, whom he thanks, had put him into the ministry, for that he counted him faithful." And indeed, in that interest which he manifested in support of what he believed to be the true religion, and in his disposition to obey and honour God, we may perceive the very elements of a true faith. But with all this evidence in his former uprightness of motive, and in his present enlightened obedience, that he was chosen of God, and admitted to his favour, did he regard his final salvation as certain beyond all chance or danger of loss? This is the last thing I proposed to consider.
And here, my brethren, I refer the question back to yourselves. I ask you to listen to him when he says, "I count not myself to have attained, but I follow after, if that I may apprehend [174/175] that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I not as one that beateth the air; but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; lest that by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away." Brethren, these were not vain and empty words. His life bare witness to their sincerity. All those things that were gain to him, these he counted loss for Christ; and surrounded by persecution and perils, tribulation and distress, he counted not his life dear to himself, so that he might finish his course with joy; and being found in Christ, at the last, might attain unto the power of his resurrection. Confident only for the present moment, and sure of God's favour only so long as he continued to walk in his fear, he was ever striving, labouring, reaching forward; agonizing for the prize; and it was only as his end approached, and when the time of his departure was at hand, only when he had fought a good fight, and had finished his course, and had kept the faith, it was only then that he could be certain of his reward, and say, "Henceforth" (not heretofore, while the race was not finished, for then the result was uncertain,) but henceforth," now that it is won, "henceforth, [175/176] there is laid up for me a crown of glory, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day."
My brethren, let us confess that in the case of St. Paul we see nothing of unconditional election, nothing of irresistible grace, nothing of necessary perseverance. He lived, he thought, he acted, as if he believed the saying of his Master,--"The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force;" and therefore he reposed not in cold indifference, in tame inaction, in false inoperative and feeble hope. And if St. Paul found it necessary, in order to secure his salvation, to watch, to pray, to labour, with such diligence, permit me to bring the question home to you, and to ask, Whether you expect, without similar pains, to make your calling and election sure? Shall I ask you whether you esteem the salvation of your immortal souls of less value than he thought his? Or do you expect to acquire everlasting happiness on easier terms? Sufficient grace is yours, and that duly improved will give you the victory. But if any are, day after day, and year after year, neglecting that, it well behoves them to recollect, that for irresistible impulses they will look in vain; nay, more, that their continued indifference must result hi their ruin; for while to him who, employs that grace shall more be given, from him that neglects it shall be taken away, even that which he hath. [176/177] And let us all remember, my brethren, that our everlasting happiness is not a thing of course, nor of necessity. It is offered to our hardy exertion, and to our persevering endeavour; but will not be given to our indolent desire, and our ineffectual wish. "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way," said our Saviour, "that leadeth unto life; and few there be that find it." And if the fears, the struggles, and the untiring efforts of St. Paul, be allowed to stand as the commentary of our Saviour's words, we may well repeat the declaration, "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way." Brethren, the righteous scarcely are saved. This is the truth which I would affectionately impress upon your consciences and your hearts. And in this holy season, dedicated by the Church to thoughtful recollection of our danger, to diligent self-examination and prayer, to an investigation of our religious character and hopes; at this holy season, I pray you to reflect whether you are leaving any thing at hazard which it becomes you to secure; whether you are omitting duties which God requires you to perform; whether you are yielding to indulgences which he requires you to renounce. In your own hands, by God's appointment, is your destiny placed; and if you are not faithful to your duty, how awful as well as irreversible must be the result. No personal election, on the part of God, will secure your immortal interest, if you are inattentive to it [177/178] yourselves. No overpowering influence from on high will fit you for eternal happiness, if you neglect the necessary means of grace. No necessary perseverance will carry you to heaven, unless you continually cherish and maintain that character which will make you welcome there. And if any are not merely living in negligence of their duty, but in opposition and enmity to God, to them I would repeat, "The righteous scarcely are saved;" and let them ponder upon the answer, when I ask, If the righteous scarcely are saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?
Most earnestly do I pray, that from the consideration of the subject before us1, we may all be instructed not to trust for everlasting happiness to vain expectations and delusive hopes; but regarding our danger and our duty, we may reflect upon what exertions God and our safety demand; and having placed before you the example of St. Paul, and the energy with which he strove to lay hold on eternal life, I would now, in his own language, "desire that every one of you do show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end; that ye be not slothful, but followers of them, who, through faith and patience, inherit the promises."