Robert Burns (1789–1869)
The Works of the Rev. Thomas Halyburton
Introductory Essay, pp. 9-21.
There are two extremes into which professing Christians of the present day are very apt to fall. While one class adopts a system of doctrinal sentiments without any practical regard to their influence on the heart and on the life; others satisfy themselves with the simple performance of social duties. Into the religious scheme of the former, there enter few, if any, of those holy affections, and little of that sublime practical virtue which the gospel requires. Into the scheme of the latter, there enter few of the leading principles of the Christian revelation, and a very small portion of that spirituality of sentiment and of feeling, which constitutes the very essence of vital godliness. The religion of both is alike cold and inefficient.
Doctrinal truth must indeed lie at the very foundation of all true piety; and no man can cultivate the spirit and practice the duties of religion, without a clear and scriptural knowledge of the truths of God. But it ought never to be forgotten, that the doctrines of the gospel are all highly practical in their tendency, and that we cannot be said to hold them at all, if we “hold them in unrighteousness.” We lose sight of their great original design. We pervert them to our own selfish and unholy purposes; and in so doing, we evince an alienation from the love of the truth as it is in Jesus.
The religion which terminates in theory, and that which satisfies itself with the performance of social duties, are alike remote from the holy system of the Bible. The one fills the mind with notions, and inflates it with intellectual pride; the other gratifies the selfish conceit of personal virtue, while it sets aside all the great principles of real godliness. The one lays hold of those truths which are designed and fitted to operate as incentives to holiness, but it fails to carry them out to their legitimate applications: the other satisfies itself with a part of religion in place of the whole, and separates the love of our neighbor from the love of God. In both, the grand features of true godliness are overlooked. Cold mental abstractions are substituted in place of vital practical principles; and the morality of a Seneca and an Epictetus is set forth as a counterpart to that of Christ and his apostles.
The Need for Experimental Religion Today.
There is reason to fear lest the style of public instruction, which many preachers of the gospel have of late years adopted, should tend to encourage these low and defective views of real religion. We allude to that species of pulpit address which speaks to the understanding alone; which exhibits religious truth in the form of logical discussion and well-arranged argument; and which sacrifices unction and pathetic appeal for the sake of minute accuracy and elegant diction. Popular discourses are thus made to assume the form of philosophical dissertations; and the aim of the preacher seems to be to convince rather than to persuade.
Now, it is perfectly true, that the man whose province it is to plead for God and for truth, ought to address the judgment and the rational powers; and if he fails to do so, he is in danger of substituting empty declamation in place of solid and scriptural instruction. Let it, however, be remembered, that in the present day we have more to do with practical infidelity than with absolute ignorance; and that the reason why religion is at so low an ebb amongst us, may be traced rather to disinclination of heart than to skeptical heterodoxy. The preacher of truth must state, illustrate, and vindicate its claims on the understanding and the judgment; but he has only accomplished one half of his office if he seeks not to secure for it a safe and permanent lodgment in the conscience and the heart. With this twofold end in view, he must unite warmth of address with clearness of statement; impassioned appeals to the conscience, with sound arguments to the understanding; and the direct application of motives, with their perspicuous exhibition in theory.
We cannot conceive of a greater danger to which the souls of men are exposed, than when the hearers of the gospel are left to infer the safety of their state from the soundness of their creed. The doctrinal articles of a theological system are one thing; the vital principles of the same system applied to the heart and to the habits, are quite another. It is the part of abstract discussion to analyze and establish the doctrinal articles; it belongs to hortatory and pastoral theology to unfold and apply the practical principles. If we confine ourselves to the work of analysis and explanation, we are in extreme hazard of tempting men to measure their progress in the Christian life by the clearness of their apprehensions, rather than by the moral amelioration of their habits. Theory may thus take the place of solid and steady principle. A barren orthodoxy of sentiment may thus be confounded with practical submission to the entire and undivided scheme of grace. The doctrine of regeneration may thus be readily embraced as scriptural and true, while the very men who thus embrace it as an article in their creed, may practically shrink from the solemn decision of the Saviour—“Ye must be born again.”
We apprehend that the difference between evangelical preaching, and that which is called moderate or legal, does not, when fairly and fully brought out, resolve itself into the mere technical distinctions which are marked by the terms orthodoxy and heterodoxy. It is perfectly possible to construct a scheme of doctrine in all respects scriptural, while there may be nothing in it that is calculated to give offense to the carnal mind or to rouse the sleeping conscience. The fashion of the present day is rather favorable than otherwise to such orthodox exhibitions of Christianity; and hence it is, that few, comparatively, propound from our pulpits the dogmas of Pelagian or Socinian heresy.
Only allow to religion the province of the understanding alone, and it makes little difference whether it shall be regaled with the realities of truth, or with the figments of error. If speculation is all that is aimed at, the love of it may be gratified by statements that are substantially sound, as well as by the creations of mere fancy. Abstracted from the practical tendency of the doctrines of evangelical truth, there is nothing in their theoretical exhibition that is peculiarly calculated to excite the determined opposition of the carnal mind; and so long as nothing is designed beyond a simple exposé of them as materials of thinking, “the offense of the cross” will neither be very violent nor very long continued.
The real cause of that enmity which the “natural man” cherishes and expresses towards the things of God, is to be found in the holy, humbling, heart-searching, and self-annihilating tendency of the gospel of the grace of God; and the essential difference between evangelical and moderate preaching, consists in the prominence which is given by the one to the scriptural doctrine of conversion, compared with the absolute reticence of the other on this cardinal principle of Christianity. Even the self-denying doctrine of imputed righteousness will not excite very virulent hostility on the part of corrupted men, so long as it is not exhibited in connection with the absolute necessity of a radical and universal change of sentiment and of character, before we can “enter into the kingdom of heaven.” It is the doctrine of free, sovereign, and regenerating grace, enlightening the mental eye, and changing the current of the heart’s affections, convincing the man of his absolute nothingness in the sight of God, and of his utter destitution of all godliness—awakening him to a sense of his sin and danger, and prompting him to cry out with holy anxiety of spirit, “What shall I do to be saved?” It is this spiritual and practical view of the Christian remedy for man’s moral diseases, together with the tone of deep seriousness and impassioned fervor with which it is proclaimed, that rouses the hostility of men, and leads them to characterize evangelical preaching as wild and enthusiastic.
We may preach orthodox doctrine according to our standards, as long and as clearly as we please; and provided we only discuss and reason with the calm composure of the intellectual philosopher, no offense will be given or taken. It is not so much the mere statement of truth that gives offense, as the manner in which the truth is applied. It is not the appeal to the understanding that will irritate; it is rather the attempt to probe the conscience. It is not the general exhibition of certain peculiar opinions that rouses indignation; it is rather the minute and searching application of principles to insulated individuals. This it is that constitutes the life and soul of practical experimental preaching; and to this the “hard” and “desperately wicked heart” of unrenewed man will aver be sternly opposed.
Bishop Maltby, a very learned, but very heterodox divine of the church of England, has told us in one of his sermons, that “the offense of the cross” is a thing totally unknown in these halcyon days. “Since,” says he, “it is no longer discreditable to profess our faith in Christ, we cannot incur the hazard of opposing or offending our nearest and dearest connections. A man no longer encounters foes among his own household: he is not obliged to renounce the regard and affection of his family because he believes in Christ; and therefore the warning which our Lord found it necessary to give in those days and in that country, has no meaning, if applied literally in our own.”
The “warning” alluded to by the preacher is contained in these affecting words of him who “spake as never man spake:” —“Whosoever doth not bear his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” Of this warning the reverend divine has been pleased to affirm that “it has no meaning” if applied to modern times. In other words, the believer has in these days and in this beloved land, nothing in the way of a “cross” or trial to bear, arising out of the profession he makes as a follower of Jesus. It is worthy of remark, that the terms of the statement, even as made originally by our blessed Lord himself, were figurative. It was not literally true of every individual believer in those times, that he had to bear the cross in the same manner as his blessed Lord did bear it, when he went up to the scene of his ignominious and cruel death. The expression was obviously designed to forewarn the followers of Jesus of the trials they might be called to endure, in consequence of their embracing the gospel; and the test of their sincerity is, the readiness with which they “denied themselves,” and submitted to the persecutions which awaited them.
True it is, that the profession of the gospel does not now expose to trials of precisely the same kind, or the same degree of severity. The arm of secular persecution is not now stretched out against the humble followers of the Lamb. We dwell under the fostering wing of a mild and tolerant administration. Christianity is “part and parcel” of the constitution of the country. Its institutes have been incorporated with the civil statutes of the realm; and while legal provision has been made for the due celebration of its ordinances throughout the length and the breadth of the land, every man, whether availing himself of that provision or not, is permitted “to sit under his vine and fig-tree, none daring to make him afraid.”
Still we demur to the assertion that the Christian believer has now “no cross” to bear. “The carnal mind” is still “enmity against God;” and “he that would be the friend of the world must be the enemy of God.” A cold and formal profession of the faith of Christ may indeed consist with perfect immunity from everything approaching to persecution; and the piety which never obtrudes itself on spectators, and which operates no change whatever on the customs and manners of its professors, may be allowed to pass along with perfect security.
Popular Ridicule for Vital Godliness.
But what shall we say of the contempt and ridicule with which vital godliness is so frequently met, both in the higher and in the inferior walks of life? And what shall we say of the bitterness of that zeal which, in the bosom of a worldly-minded family, is strenuously directed against the humble and modest but ardent piety of one or more of its members, who, by the grace of God, may have begun to manifest “another spirit?” And what shall we say of the frigid indifference or the determined hostility with which any direct allusion to the God who made us, or the Saviour who redeemed us by his blood, is met in the senate house of our country, or in the high places of the land? And what shall we say of the spirit of reckless animosity with which the public journals and the daily vehicles of intelligence are in the habit of assailing those worthy men, who stand up boldly for the purity of the Sabbath and the freedom of the slave? Is there no persecution here? Nothing of the nature of a “cross” which the generous mind must bear? No practical demonstration of the fact that real godliness and strict morality are still the objects of scorn and ridicule to the men of this present world?
The world knows and “loves its own;” and the religion which is pleased with things as they are, and which ventures not beyond the magic circle of this world’s occupations, and pleasures, and interests, will run no very imminent risk of incurring the “world’s dread laugh.” Such a religion may suit the meridian of Dr. Maltby, and his accommodating followers; but such a religion will do little to make head against the growing vices of the age. It may be “peaceable,” but it is not “pure.”
In such books as those of professor Halyburton we meet with much of that which has been denominated, not unaptly, experimental religion. Enlightened and judicious Christians whose views have not been perverted by modern philosophy, and who have not yet forsaken the “old land-marks” nor the “old paths,” know very well what is designated by the terms. Experimental religion they consider as the only true practical religion— well grounded in principle, and sturdy in its opposition to all that is unholy; and they are inclined to look upon whatever falls short of it in the light of frivolous speculation or concealed infidelity.
There are others, however, and these, there is too good reason to believe, by far the majority amongst us, who confound experimental religion with fanaticism and mental delusion. Hence, we need not be surprised at finding it made the butt of an unsparing and relentless ridicule. Those who venture to defend it, as well as those who are considered as its hapless subjects or victims, are held up to public scorn, either as designing hypocrites, or as beings removed by a very few degrees from the region of the fatuous. But as “ridicule is not” always “the test of truth,” and as the Almighty has been pleased to give us a perfect standard by which every opinion as well as every habit and practice may be tried, let us endeavor to ascertain what may be the claims of this phenomenon called experimental religion, to be held up to the cruelty and scorn of the “rationalist.”
1. What is Experimental Religion?
I. We would enquire, then, in the outset—What may be meant by experimental religion? Is it not frequently misunderstood? Are not the terms often grievously misapplied? And is it not of vast moment in every such inquiry, to attempt at least a careful separation between the chaff and the wheat?
As there is no subject either in religion or in morals, on which erroneous ideas have not been held under the guise of truth, we need not be surprised if such ideas have been at different periods entertained with respect to the nature of experimental religion. Some there are who suppose it to consist in a certain supernatural intercourse with Deity; the perception at the moment of a celestial influx of grace into the soul; sensible illapses of the spirit; and spiritual exercises of soul, altogether inconsistent with the ordinary rules which regulate the government of heaven. Others suppose it to consist in certain agitations of the animal frame, hastily mistaken for the touches of seraphic influence; in the changes which take place in the state of the feelings and passions, occasioned, it is supposed, by causes approaching to the miraculous; and in the observation of common occurrences, mistaken for extraordinary interpositions of Providence. Again, the terms have been applied to designate the feelings and habits which may have been acquired by profound speculations on matters which lie far beyond the range of the human intellect; and a peculiar species of sensations of which no one except the actual participant can form any idea.
While such false conceptions as these are entertained on this subject, need we wonder that it should be made the butt of ridicule; and that the elevated experiences of enlightened Christian believers should be thus exposed to the imminent danger of ranking with the flights of Madame Guyon, and the dreams of Emanuel Swedenborg?
But what is really experimental religion? It is neither more nor less than the practical application of the great truths of religion to the particular cases of individuals. It is, in other words, the practical efficacy of Christian doctrine exemplified in the heart and on the life. It is Christianity brought home to “men’s business and bosoms.” For example, religion calls on us to acknowledge, as founded on plain matter of fact, the doctrine of human depravity in general: it becomes experimental religion, when this doctrine is felt to be true, from our own personal experience. We may believe that there is salvation only through the merits of the Redeemer; and we may rejoice in the assurance that all who come unto God through him shall obtain everlasting life: we believe it experimentally, when we are individually humbled under a heartfelt sense of our utter inability to save ourselves; and when our own convictions of the absolute nothingness of our own resources respond to the dictates of God’s infallible word. Christ hath promised the aid of his grace to renew, to sanctify, to comfort, and to guide; it is the province of experimental religion to cherish the sense of our need of grace, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, and to be earnest and persevering in prayer for the influences of the Holy Spirit.
We descant on the infinite value of Christianity as a source of pure and satisfying spiritual comfort; experimental religion consists in the personal enjoyment of this spiritual comfort. The Scriptures describe the Christian life as a “race” in which we must run so as to obtain; as a “fight,” in which we must strenuously contend against spiritual enemies; in short, as a course of unceasing moral and spiritual exertion: sincerely and perseveringly to “run the race set before us;” to enter on the spiritual combat and to continue in it; to discharge the duties of personal and relative obligation in the spirit of humble dependence on God, and ardent attachment to his service;—this is experimental religion.
To speculate on religion as a system of sublime truths, and as a powerful means of intellectual and spiritual improvement, is to know it as a science: we reduce it to experiment, only when we bring it into contact with our habitual conceptions of things, and when we adopt it as the supreme guide of ordinary conduct. In one word, the principle on which experimental religion rests, is simply this, that Christianity should not only be known, and understood, and believed, but also felt, and enjoyed, and practically applied.
2. Experimental Religion and Right Reason.
II. There is nothing in experimental religion, as thus viewed, which is at variance with the unbiased dictates of right reason. If the doctrines and principles of Christianity be reasonable in themselves, their application to the great and salutary purposes of real life cannot surely be unreasonable.
If human nature be really depraved, is it irrational to feel and to lament, that we, individually, and as forming part of the common corrupted mass, are indeed partakers of the common depravity, and that therefore we ought, in the language of the prophet, to “mourn, each family apart, and each soul apart?” If religious truth be indeed a source of consolation; is it unreasonable to expect, and actually to realize this consolation? If Christ permits and cordially invites us to hope in the mercy of his Father, through the atonement and gracious intercession of himself, as our great High Priest; is it unreasonable that we should “rejoice” in this hope? And that under its influence we should seek to “purify ourselves, even as he is pure?” If the life of the Christian be indeed a race—a pilgrimage journey through the wilderness of this world—a moral campaign from which death only can release us—where is the absurdity of supposing that Christians may occasionally faint on their journey, or be wounded by their spiritual enemies? And that, in consequence of these casualties, much of what is known by the name of Christian experience should be acquired and treasured up for future and efficient service?
The principles of a science are generally supposed to acquire additional evidence and illustration, from their being able to stand the test of rigid and repeated experiment; why should religion be the only science in which experiment shall be exploded? Can it be on any ground irrational and unphilosophical to seek for proofs of the truth, and excellence, and suitableness of Christian doctrine, from the actual experience of men, and from its well authenticated results on human character and life? The irrationality is all on the other side.
The opponents of experimental religion do not avowedly explode the claims of religious truth to a cool and successful vindication; they rather boast of their having taken it out of the hands of unskillful defenders. But then they defend its claims simply as truth, and they estimate its merits by a standard exclusively intellectual. They maintain the importance of religion—but it is religion in the abstract sense—religion considered as a matter of scientific discussion. Religion, as held to be too ethereal in its essence, and too recondite in its speculative researches, to be trusted for common and everyday usage, in the hands of such creatures as the mass of mankind are found to be. They occasionally, and when the humor serves, introduce us into a paradise of delicious products; but when we venture to put forth our hands to grasp the fascinating sweets, a voice of stern prohibition is heard—“touch not, taste not, handle not.”
Can anything be more unreasonable than thus to acknowledge and to applaud the general truths of religion, but to reject their practical efficiency and their personal application? To defend religion as a science, but to deny to it all intercourse with the feelings, and the prospects, and the ordinary pursuits of men? On this principle, the shadow is indeed retained, but the substance is irretrievably gone. An altar is reared, and the sacrifice may be spread out upon its summit; but where is the sacred fire, and where is the hallowed incense that ascends in silent majesty to heaven?
3. Experimental Religion and the Character of God.
III. Is there anything in experimental religion that is inconsistent with the holy, and gracious, and all-perfect character of Jehovah?
That Jehovah should reveal to his creatures, rational, immortal, and accountable, truths which possess a certain degree of moral efficacy; which are intended to operate powerfully on the feelings and the affections of men; to excite certain agreeable emotions; and to produce certain valuable practical effects—is surely not inconsistent either with his natural or his moral attributes. Indeed, it would be far more difficult to vindicate the Divine character from the charge of inconsistency, on the supposition that truths had been revealed which possess no moral efficacy; which address themselves exclusively to the intellect of men; and which are designed to terminate in speculation. Truths of this abstract and refined character adapt themselves full well to beings endowed with intelligence alone, but they will not suit the nature of such a complex being as man. Where, on this supposition, would be the argument in favour of Christianity from its admirable adaptation to man’s original constitution, and to the place which he holds in the universe of God?
But it may be supposed not so easy to reconcile with our best conceptions of the Divine character, that acknowledged principle in experimental religion, which implies a certain kind of spiritual intercourse between God and the soul of the believer. The advocates of experimental religion do maintain that God communicates his grace to men; that he inspires them with the enraptured feeling of spiritual consolation; that he condescends to hold fellowship with them in the holy exercises of sanctified affection; that believers are constantly under the gracious superintendence of Jehovah; and are, by the discipline of his providence and grace, gradually attuned to the temper and the bliss of heaven.
If any objection can be made to this view of the case, the force of the objection bears not against experimental religion in particular, but against the doctrine of divine influence in general. If, in the world of nature, a present Deity is “ever seen and ever felt,” in conducting, by a mysterious but real efficiency, the hidden processes of vegetable and animal life, shall we deem it the part of reason and of wisdom to place the moral and the spiritual worlds beyond the range of an influence similar in power, but wisely adapted to the very different subjects on which it is found to operate? And if we allow that a certain spiritual influence is exerted by God on the minds of men, through the medium of religious truth addressed to the understanding and the heart, shall we hesitate to allow that this influence is exerted for the purpose of implanting and cherishing holy principles, of animating virtuous feelings, and of inspiring spiritual joy?
It must be granted that the doctrine of divine influence in general, and this specific modification of it, do alike imply the doctrine of a special Providence. But is there anything inconsistent with the moral character of God in the supposition, that, while he exercises a general and a particular Providence over the world, he should exercise a special Providence towards the church which he hath chosen as his “resting place?” That while he confers temporal blessings on all men indiscriminately, in the course of his holy and gracious Providence, he should confer spiritual blessings of a peculiar kind on his own people in particular? That while he holds a condescending intercourse with all creatures in the way of preservation and protection, he should hold with good men and with the denizens of immortality, an intercourse of a nobler and more heavenly character, for the purpose of preserving alive the spark of spiritual life, of administering consolation, and defending from invisible foes?
It is of importance to remark, that prior to, and independent of, revelation and experience, it is quite beyond our power to tell what it may or may not be consistent with the Divine character to do, in regard to these modes of communication with our world and its inhabitants. We may traverse the wide fields of the intellectual world, but we shall not find one decisive argument to prove it inconsistent with the attributes of God, that he should hold special intercourse with good men, through the medium of the truths and ordinances of religion. The subject is confessedly one that lies far beyond our reach. All our information regarding it arises from the written Word. And if the voice of nature, even among the blinded heathen, is for one moment to be listened to for a response, that response will be in perfect unison with the dictates of inspiration: for, by the teachers of virtue among the ancients, all real excellence of character was ascribed to the influence of Deity, and the virtues which were inscribed on characters of ideal greatness were linked with the dignities and the bliss of a celestial fellowship.
I should question much the title of that system of theology to be reckoned either philosophically just, or practically influential, which would go to destroy that beautiful analogy which obtains between the doctrine of Divine influence and the constitution and course of nature. God hath constructed the grand machine of the material universe; hath arranged in beautiful harmony its varied parts; and hath subjected the whole to the control of certain laws. But God hath not seen meet to withdraw himself from the works of his hands, or to resign the beautiful machine of things to a general and undefined legislative control.
Our God is not like the deity of Epicurus, or the Brahma of Hinduism; removed at an awful distance from the productions of his own hand, and dwelling in a state of absolute quiescence and sublime indifference to all that is. “Our God is in the heavens; and he doeth what pleaseth him in the heavens, and in the earth, and in all deep places.” All is under his control. The revolutions of the seasons, and the rise and fall of empires, are alike the subjects of his regard; and without him “not even a sparrow can fall to the ground.” Analogy leads us to expect the same presence and the same agency in the operations of the spiritual kingdom; and this analogy, the scheme which excludes Divine influence on the soul of man, tends directly to interrupt and to destroy. It deprives man of the noblest of all motives to sacred diligence in duty, that, namely, which an apostle derives from God’s ability and willingness to “work in us both to will and to do.” It restrains us within the limits of a region comparatively cold and uninviting. It places an impassable barrier in the way of our access to that “temple of the living God” on earth, whose mansions are blessed with the residence of the “eternal Spirit,” and whose worshippers are gladdened with his hallowed inspirations.
4. Experimental Religion and other spheres of life.
IV. There is nothing in experimental religion that is inconsistent with plain and real facts as illustrative of the moral government of God in other instances.
Every pursuit, mental or moral, has a particular tendency. Every truth which the mind perceives, every event which happens in the course of Providence, has some influence, in a greater or in a less degree beneficial or hurtful. Is this analogy disturbed by supposing that the truths of religion, the facts which Christianity records, and the holy views which it presents, should also possess and exercise a potent influence over the mind? The experience of all those who have been accustomed to intellectual and moral pursuits, bears witness to the same truth; and supports, by analogy, the reasonableness of experimental religion.
In searching for truth, the philosopher enjoys a high mental satisfaction. Every new discovery gives delight to his mind; and the difficulties with which he is called to struggle, only quicken his ardor in pursuit. Who can tell the delight which the astronomer feels in counting the heavenly bodies, calculating their distances, exploring the orbits in which they move, and pointing out the laws by which they are regulated? What rapture, approaching to enthusiasm, on the discovery of a new star; on the observation of a comet in its first approach to our globe; or even on a fortunate conjecture respecting the matter of which its shining train is composed? What emotions, think you, fill the soul of a mathematician, while occupied in solving a difficult problem, or in constructing a beautiful proposition? The feelings of all these men, if disclosed, would appear altogether ridiculous to those who cannot enter into them. Shall we then confine all mental and moral pleasures, all high wrought pulsations of soul, all enthusiastic ardor, (if enthusiasm must needs be supposed,) to the breasts of the speculative few?
Is there no portion to be dealt out to the humble Christian in the retired walks of life, whose secular views, perhaps, rise not above the village where his first breath was drawn, but whose spiritual prospects expand with the immensity of the universe? Shall Archimedes, when he had accidentally discovered the method of calculating the quantity of alloy in a golden crown, be permitted with impunity, and without any question as to his understanding, to run through the streets of Syracuse, exclaiming, in all the wantonness of philosophic joy, εὕρηκα, εὕρηκα, “I have found it! I have found it!”—And shall the Christian be branded with the insignia of enthusiasm and madness, because he speaks of a “joy that is unspeakable and full of glory;” because, for a season, he seems to be overpowered with the sublime raptures of a pure and an elevated devotion; and because he lays claim to a happiness with which a “stranger intermeddleth not.”
To change the scene. If there be particular occasions on which even the lover of science is filled with melancholy forebodings, when he beholds the clouds of ignorance and of error which encircle or surcharge the intellectual horizon; need we wonder, if, in the Christian life, there should be seasons when, amid the perplexing influences of an evil heart within, and the “abounding of iniquity” without, good men may walk in sadness, and go mourning without the sun? The truth is, those only oppose and ridicule experimental religion, who have no spiritual discernment, no spiritual taste, no spiritual desires. “The way of peace is above to the righteous.” “The life of a believer is hid with Christ in God.” “The world knoweth not the sons of God, because it knew not him,” who is emphatically and in a distinctive and peculiar sense—“God’s own son.”
5. Experimental Religion in History.
V. The reality of experimental religion is attested beyond all question, by the testimony and example of the greatest and best of men in all ages. Look to the character of the saints of God as exhibited in the unerring page of God’s own Word. Were they strangers to experimental religion? Did they rest satisfied with cold and barren abstractions? Were they kept at an awful distance from the region of feeling, because they trembled at the charge of enthusiasm, or were afraid of being “righteous overmuch?”
What a variety of emotions agitated the soul of David! What elevation of spirit at one time, and depression at another! What hallowed delight in communion with God! What earnest desires after loftier spiritual attainments! “There be many that say, Who will show us any good? Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon me. Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased.” “Why art thou cast down, O my soul! and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance.” “O my God, my soul is cast down within me; therefore will I remember thee from the land of Jordan, and of the Ammonites, and from the hill Mizar. Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me. Yet the Lord will command his loving-kindness in the daytime, and in the night his song shall be with me; and my prayer unto the God of my life.” “O send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me; let them bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy tabernacles: then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy.” “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God!” “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee; my soul thirsteth for thee; my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is ; to see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary.” “My soul breaketh for the longing it hath for thy commandments at all times.”
Is there nothing of the language and the feeling of experience in all this? and do the writers of the New Testament adopt a different strain? Read the history and the writings of the apostle Paul. Through these channels enter his breast, and contemplate the features of spiritual religion, as exemplified in him. Did he know nothing experimentally of the “peace which passeth all understanding,” and the “joy which is unspeakable and full of glory?” Did he remain in the posture of a stoic, and the victim of all the apathy and deadness of “simple intellect,” when he contemplated the “height and the depth, the breadth and the length,” of the love of the Redeemer, “which passeth all knowledge?” And did the “great mystery of godliness,” “God manifest in the flesh,” excite no higher emotion in his soul than the examination of a problem in mathematics, or a theory of pure abstraction? We have only to read his Epistles, and those of his fellow-apostles Peter and John, to mark the striking contrast between their holy illustrations of divine truth, and the cold speculations and barren generalities of some modern theologians.
Moreover, we might search the history of the church, and bring forward from its closely-studded pages a “great cloud of witnesses” to the reality and importance of experimental religion. Men of talents very various, and of sentiments on lesser matters not less various, and men of very different temperament in regard to animal constitution, combine in asserting, that religion is an internal thing; that it is a matter of personal experience; that it is alike removed from the ravings of the visionary on the one hand, and the frigid speculations of the mere moralist on the other. We appeal to the Fathers of the Protestant churches, and we ask, if there was nothing experimental in that system of faith, of hope, and of holiness, which enabled them to brave death in its most awful forms, and to sing even in the midst of flames?
We appeal to the Christian world, as it is even in these degenerate days, and we ask the really religious of every country and of every clime, if there be nothing experimental in that religion which enables its votaries to stand erect in the flood of tribulation, and to smile even in the vale of death?
We appeal to the church-triumphant in heaven, and we ask, if there is nothing experimental in those feelings which express themselves in such ascriptions as these: “Worthy the Lamb that was slain, to receive power, and riches, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb for ever and ever?”
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[…] as to what is truth, then have as little to do with religious controversy as you can. Seek a practical religion, rather than a polemical religion. Treat it as a something rather to be done than to be talked […]