The doctrine of the influences of the Holy Spirit upon the human soul, is a fundamental doctrine of the Gospel. The most superficial observer of human nature must acknowledge and deplore its frailty and corruption. The understanding is liable to error, the affections tend to excessive indulgence, the will is averse to that which is good, and numerous are the temptations to which, thus weak and corrupt in his understanding, his will, and his affections, man is exposed in this evil world. Hence results the necessity of divine agency in his restoration to truth and virtue, and his victory over temptation. What this divine agency shall be, is a point purely of revelation, resting on the determination of the Almighty Being who made us, and on whom we are entirely dependent. In the sacred writings we find this divine agency, so essential to us in our present fallen and weak condition, revealed in the influences of the Holy Spirit, the gift of which, the purchase of Christ's merits, and the consequence of his ascent into heaven, the church this day commemorates. And it is the language of inspired apostles, that we are not sufficient of [374/375] ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves, but that our sufficiency is of God; and that, through the sanctification of the Spirit, we are established in holiness, and prepared for heaven.
In accordance with Scripture, the agency of the Divine Spirit is a prominent doctrine of our church. "We have no power to do good works, pleasant and acceptable unto God," (this is her language in one of her articles,) "but by the grace of God giving us a good will, and working with us when we have that good will." Accordingly she prays to God, that as, "by his special grace preventing us," (going before us,) "he puts into our minds good desires, so by his continual help we may bring the same to good effect." And she directs us to offer earnest supplication to God to "cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of his Holy Spirit."
On the subject of the influences of the Divine Spirit many erroneous and dangerous opinions prevail, against which it is essential that Christians should be put on their guard.
Since, then, the operations of the Holy Spirit are thus essential, it is of importance that we correctly understand the nature of these operations on our hearts.
1. The operations of the Divine Spirit on our minds are in accordance with our intellectual and moral powers; and therefore are not violent, but gentle and persuasive.
It is an error to suppose that the operations of the Divine Spirit are overpowering and violent.
When, indeed, men were endowed with miraculous powers, over which they had no control, and [375/376] in which they acted as they were impelled, the operations of the Spirit were sometimes violent; denoted by "a rushing mighty wind," and by "tongues of fire." But when men, as moral agents, are to be reclaimed from sin and restored to holiness, then the mild influences of the Holy Spirit may be aptly denoted by the gentleness of the dove, under which emblem he descended on our blessed Lord. Violent impulses upon the mind would be incompatible with its freedom, with man's condition as a moral agent, and with the character of God as a moral Governor. The gentle influx of divine illumination and grace on the soul, preserves it i;i the possession of that freedom which is essential to man as a moral agent, and which might be impaired by any violent impressions. God will not, by the operations of the Spirit, violate that constitution of our nature which he hath established; and every man's consciousness assures him that he is free in all his volitions and determinations.
In his character as a moral Governor, the Almighty, therefore, deals with men by the force of motives, by the hopes of reward and the fears of punishment, addressed to their understanding and to their affections. This is the mode, and the only mode, by which free agents can be governed. But if these motives were violently applied to the mind by the influences of the Holy Spirit, they would no longer resemble motives operating on free agents, but physical forces impelling machines. In the process of conversion from sin to holiness, doubtless strong emotions often fill the breast of the sinner. Remorse for his sins, and holy apprehension of God's judgments, often agitate his [376/377] conscience. The enormity of his transgressions, the greatness of his ingratitude to his gracious Maker and Benefactor, and his presumption in so long defying divine justice impressed upon his conscience, he finds himself under the sentence of perdition, and terror convulses his soul. Miserable man! guilty sinner, thou hast cause to mourn. Thy God, thy Sovereign, thy Benefactor, thy Judge offended; the mercy, the grace, and the love of thy Saviour contemned; thy immortal soul polluted, and in danger of eternal perdition--thou hast indeed cause to mourn. But when thy terrors become the terrors of despair, they are the result of thine own weak and disordered nature; they are not the necessary attendants on genuine conviction of sin; they are not the operations of the Spirit of God. For while it is the office of this Spirit to convince of sin, it is also his gracious office to direct the troubled soul to that blood of atonement, faith in which allays its fears, and sooths it with the peaceful emotions of humble hope.
Be not distressed, Christians, if your penitence has not been accompanied with violent agitations of mind and terrors of conscience. Sorrow for your sins, deep and unfeigned sorrow, you must indeed have felt, or you have no pretensions to the character of a true penitent. But violence is no characteristic of genuine grief. If, under a sense of your guilt and unworthiness, you have had recourse, in humble confession and prayer, to the throne of your heavenly Father, and found consolation and peace in reliance on his mercy through Jesus Christ, you may rest satisfied that your sorrow for sin, destitute as it may have been of violent agitations of soul, has yet been quickened by divine [377/378] grace. Not in the strong wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still small voice, does the Spirit of God, gentle as the dove, speak to the soul.
Another error on this subject is, that the operations of the Divine Spirit are sudden and complete in their effects.
2. The operations of the Divine Spirit, in our sanctification and renovation, are not sudden, but gradual and progressive.
The heart of the impenitent sinner may indeed be suddenly struck with conviction; some providential dispensation, nay, even some trivial occurrence, may be the instrument, under the agency of the Divine Spirit, of the sudden awakening of the sinner. So far it is true that the operations of the Spirit are sometimes sudden; for where the confirmed sinner is awakened, the period may be distinctly marked. But all the subsequent operations of the Holy Spirit, in the work of renovation, are gradual and progressive. The disclosure to the mind, of the evil and guilt of sin, of the all-sufficiency of the merits and grace of Christ, of the excellence of the plan of salvation through this divine Mediator; the love of the Christian to his God and Saviour; his humble trust in the merits and atonement of his divine, and compassionate, and all-sufficient Redeemer; his victory over his sinful passions; his advance in the attainment of the Christian virtues, humility, meekness, patience, righteousness--all which are produced by the agency of the Holy Spirit, and must be gradual and progressive. If indeed man's conversion from sin to holiness be instantaneous; if divine grace, [378/379] by one powerful operation, sanctified his soul and established it in holiness, how unnecessary and absurd appear the numerous exhortations of Scripture! "See that ye receive not the grace of God in vain," is an apostolic exhortation. But this result is impossible, if, at its first operation, the dominion of divine grace be fully established in the soul. "Grow in grace" is another apostolic exhortation; but if the dominion of grace in the soul be instantaneous and complete, the exhortation is destitute of meaning. In fine, the whole system of exhortations, of threats find promises, implies that our progress in the change from sin to holiness, in acquiring the virtues and habits of the new man in Christ Jesus, is gradual, and dependent, under the blessing of the Holy Spirit, on our own diligence and watchfulness, on our faithful use of the appointed means. Let us beware, then, of the delusion, that our renovation, our establishment in the Christian graces and virtues, is a sudden and instantaneous operation. What then can be the necessity of circumspection and diligence, in order to advance in all holy dispositions, and in all good works? This notion of the sole and instantaneous operation of the Divine Spirit is calculated to excite self-confidence and presumption. If the great work of sanctifying our corrupt nature, and establishing in our souls holy principles and dispositions, at once effected by the sole and powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, what necessity is there for our own exertions'? Then the warfare with our sinful passions, the constant struggle against temptation, the earnest endeavour to obtain the mastery over every evil thought and propensity--the essential duties of the Christian, which so [379/380] many exhortations of the sacred writings urge and enforce--must appear unnecessary. No, my brethren, our victory over our sinful passions, our warfare with temptation, our establishment in holiness, gradually advancing, will never be complete during the course of our mortal pilgrimage. In every stage of it, the world will assail us by its temptations, will allure us by its corrupting pleasures. Our great adversary will be on the watch to seize some unwary moment to seduce us into sin, and our treacherous hearts will too often yield. Our only refuge is in prayer and watchfulness--prayer to God, from whom only cometh our help, to nourish and strengthen the good desires which his grace has excited, to quicken and advance our progress in holiness and virtue--and watchfulness, lest temptation, in some of its various and seductive forms, lead us into sin, and retard our progress in the Christian life, if not finally frustrate our salvation.
For, my brethren, it is of the utmost importance to recollect that the influences of the Holy Spirit are not irresistible.
The contrary opinion cannot be reconciled with that character of man, as free to choose the evil and refuse the good, which constitutes him a moral agent, and renders him the just subject of commendation or censure, of reward or punishment. If the grace which puts into his mind good desires, which purifies his affections, which stirs up his will, and enables him to bring his good desires and resolutions to good effect, be irresistible, not in any degree subject to his control, it is evident that man is not, in any sense, the master of his own actions. He then differs from an ingenious piece of [380/381] mechanism only in the circumstance that the irresistible force which impels this is physical, while the omnipotent power which controls him is moral. The effect, however, in both cases, is certain and unavoidable--the power, in both cases, supreme, and irresistibly impelling. There is no difference between natural and moral inability, between physical and moral necessity, but in name: they both effectually preclude freedom of choice, and are incompatible with free agency. But this exalted characteristic of our nature our own consciousness will never permit us to doubt; no metaphysical reasoning can ever persuade him who attends to the movements of his own mind, to believe that any secret and irresistible power controls the determination of his will and impels his actions. The Author of our nature, therefore, can never be the Author of a doctrine which plainly and directly contradicts one of its essential principles--free agency.
This strong presumptive argument against the doctrine of irresistible grace derives conclusive force from the sacred oracles; for there we find the doctrine opposed by the essential characteristics of the plan of salvation, which freely offers unmerited blessings to sinful man on certain conditions or qualifications, to perform or acquire which divine aids are offered to him, everlasting rewards promised him, and never-ending punishments threatened him. Operate on man irresistibly--maintain that, in the great work of his spiritual renovation, divine grace acts with certainty and with resistless force, and you not only change the operations of the intellect into the movements of matter, but you stamp with inconsistency and [381/382] absurdity the urgent exhortations, the interesting promises, and the alarming threatenings of the word of God. No; the doctrine which leads to these impious conclusions is explicitly disclaimed by the oracles of truth: in them we are directed to "make our calling and election sure;" our election, therefore, is not absolute--we are not irresistibly called. We are exhorted "not to resist the Spirit of God;" the Spirit of God may therefore be resisted. We are warned "not to quench the Spirit;" the Spirit, therefore, may be quenched. Does this scriptural doctrine, that we may finally fall from grace, fill us with apprehensions and fears that, through the frailty and corruption of our nature, this may be our lamentable condition I But God, who bestows on us his grace, is as compassionate as he is omnipotent. He will not leave us, till we wilfully tear ourselves from his paternal arms. He will cherish and revive the spark of divine grace in our souls, till we wholly extinguish it by our obstinate and long-continued transgressions. He will not forsake us, till, hardening our hearts under his repeated warnings and expostulations, we prove that we deserve the sentence which his infinite justice will pronounce, and we are left to eat of the fruit of our own way, and to be filled with our own devices.
As the influences of the Divine Spirit are not irresistible, neither are they sensible--they are not to be distinguished from the acts of our own minds--we know them only by their fruits.
The Holy Spirit enlightens the understanding, regulates the will, and purifies the affections. All this holy change in our souls is produced by a powerful indeed, but, except as to its effects, [382/383] imperceptible agency. "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and we hear the sound thereof, but cannot tell whence it cometh, nor whither it goeth." We know the operation of the wind only by its effects. In like manner, according to this analogy, which our blessed Lord employed, the operations of the Holy Spirit are inscrutable, and to be known only by their fruits. This is a standard of judgment which cannot deceive us. The possession of the fruits of the Spirit is an infallible evidence of his sanctifying presence in our souls. By no other criterion can we determine whether we are led by the Spirit. No fervour of feeling is to be trusted but that which animates our love, our confidence, our hope in our God and Saviour; and these are among the principal fruits of the Spirit. The Scriptures of truth lay down the infallible standard--"The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance." Let us test ourselves by this standard. Are our hearts animated and enlivened by supreme love to God and by love to mankind, by holy joy in the divine mercy and favour? Redeemed from all wrathful passions, are our souls the seat of peace? Are we long-suffering under the evils and provocations of the world, gentle and easy to be entreated? Does the principle of goodness inspire and animate all our actions? Is our intercourse with our fellow-men regulated by fidelity? In our tempers, in our conversation, and in our conduct, are we meek and lowly? And does temperance regulate the indulgence of our lawful appetites and passions? The soul, where these graces reign, must be the seat of that Divine Spirit whose agency alone can produce them. We are not then [383/384] to expect any sensible demonstration of his presence, any overwhelming illumination or display of his power. When we crucify the flesh, with its affections and lusts--when we are transformed by the renewing of our minds--when love to our God and Saviour, and love to our fellow-men, are the ruling principles of our hearts--when we study in all things to keep a conscience void of offence, and in simplicity and godly sincerity to have our conversation in the world--then we may be assured that we are led by the Spirit of God; and then we may rejoice in his holy comfort, in his all-powerful guidance and protection.
Lastly. It is an error to suppose that the influences of the Divine Spirit are not regular and uniform.
They are not capriciously and arbitrarily bestowed; given at one time or place, and withheld at other times and from other places--given to one individual, and withheld from others, according to the unknown and sovereign decree of God. In the Old Testament, indeed, there are predictions made of special "outpourings" of God's Holy Spirit; but these predictions were fulfilled when, under the Gospel dispensation, the Holy Spirit was given, with his miraculous as well as ordinary graces, to the church. So far as is necessary to enable them to work out their salvation, divine grace flows from the gracious Parent of the universe to all the fallen race of men. But the influences of the Holy Spirit, in a more abundant and particular manner, are enjoyed by all the members of the Christian church, that body of Christ for which he purchased this Spirit; and on which he [384/385] abundantly bestows it, and which it powerfully animates. All who by baptism are admitted into this church, enjoy the privilege of the Holy Spirit to raise them from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, to enable them to walk worthy of their Christian calling, to excite, and cherish, and strengthen the spiritual life, to sanctify them in soul and body. Exercising penitence and faith, they receive further supplies of the Divine Spirit in the "laying on of hands," (the apostolic ordinance of confirmation,) and in the sacrament of the Lord's supper; and in the worship of the church, as well as in private meditation and prayer, does God fulfil his gracious promise, and give his Holy Spirit to those who thus humbly ask it. In proportion to the sincerity and constancy with which we wait upon the Lord in humble prayer and in the ordinances of his church, will be the measure of the grace which he bestows. But if we fail diligently and faithfully to use the appointed means, God will withhold the quickening and renovating influences of his grace. On the theory, that God bestows his Spirit, not according to the diligence and fidelity with which we ask for, and seek it in the use of the appointed means, but according to his sovereign pleasure, we should impute to him a caprice unworthy of his goodness--we should attribute to him all that blindness, and insensibility, and sin in man, which result from the absence of that divine Monitor, and Sanctifier, and Guide; and we should destroy the most powerful motives to use those means which he has enjoined.
My brethren, the doctrine of the agency of that divine Sanctifier, whose descent upon the church [385/386] we this day celebrate, in the view which has been exhibited to you, so far from being visionary and enthusiastic, does not present any thing which our sober judgment will condemn. That the omnipotent Being who made us, does exercise a powerful but invisible influence over our minds, without violating our free agency, presents no difficulty to those who acknowledge his supreme and almighty dominion. That the frailty and corruption of our nature, in its aversion to good, and its liability to temptation, render this divine and holy agency necessary for us, no person acquainted with his own heart, and with the world, will deny; and that this divine agency is exerted by the Holy Ghost, one of the persons of the Godhead, is a truth of revelation which, however incomprehensible, our knowledge of the divine nature, and of our own minds, does not enable us to disprove. The administration of the grace of the Spirit is entirely rational, orderly, and sober. This grace is to be obtained by the diligent use of appointed means; and it produces in the soul that yields to its celestial sway, those virtues which are the ornament of our nature, which reason approves and honours, and which will constitute the never-ending bliss of our future existence.
Seek then, brethren, these influences of the Divine Spirit with diligence, with constancy, with supreme solicitude: seek them in humble prayer, in the worship and ordinances of Christ's church; especially in that holy supper where the church now calls you to celebrate the great event when the Holy Spirit was conferred. Unless we are the subjects of their renovating power, we are [386/387] estranged from God, the source of holiness and felicity; we are in bondage to sin, and under the sentence of condemnation. "If any man be m Christ, he is a new creature," is an inspired declaration; and the only sure evidence of this renovation is our exhibition, in their purity and power* of the fruits of the Spirit.