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EVIDENCES, & ADVANTAGES,
CH A P. I.
The Nature of Religious Experience in general.
The religion of Jesus Christ forms a most beautiful and complete system, worthy the investigation of the wise, the admiration of the righteous, and the reverence of all. It is not, however, a system formed for the mere purpose of speculation. There are many grand objects in nature which strike us with wonder, many specious schemes in philosophy which court our attention, and many productions of art which gratify our curiosity : but which, after all, leave us without that aid which our present imperfect state requires. But this divine scheme not only claims our regard, as consisting of every thing great and sublime, but is admirably adapted to our wants and circumstances as fallen, helpless creatures. It is not, therefore, an object, the beauty of which merely presents itself to the mind, but contains blessings, promises, and prospects, suited to the heart: hencé arises the necessity and propriety of experience. The report of these blessings, or the intelligence that provision is made for guilty man, can be of no avail, without a real participation of them. We must not perceive only, but we must feel; and, feeling, of course we experi
Nothing, however, is more common than to despise what is termed religious experience. Infidels sneer, the cold-hearted condemn, and the ungodly ridicule it. Being unacquainted with it themselves, they suppose it is all the work of imagination, or the heat of enthusiasm, in others. But it seems not a little remarkable, that, while the term is admitted when applied to those parts of science which are founded on sensible trial, it should be rejected when applied to religion ! Why should not experimental divinity be equally as reasonable as experimental philosophy?' Indeed, we must be at a loss to conceive what real religion is without experience ; for, however excellent it may be as a theory, we know it is nothing except it engage the affections and regulate the conduct. It is true, it does not refuse the exercise of the understanding; it does not discard investigation : but it calls with more ardent motives to purity of principle, devotedness of mind, lively emotions, and useful exertions, than
it insists on a pursuit of mere speculative notions, or knowledge which does not at all interest the feelings or impress the heart. And, indeed, what is the intelligent mind, the acute reasoner, the learned critic, the man that can collect, judge, review, arrange, and repeat, if he be without ex perience, when compared to him, who, with a common understanding, enters with all the ener, gies of his soul into the very spirit and enjoyment of divine truth? The former beholds the beauti, ful object, discerns its different features, and admires its just proportions; but the latter does more :-he actually possesses it as his own, lives under its influence, and is transformed into its de.. lightful image.
It must not, however, be understood, that there can be genuine experience without knowledge, although there may be knowledge without experience. The truly religious are not left in a state of ignorance : they are said " to be called out of darkness into God's marvellous light;"> “ to have the eyes of their understanding enlightened, that they may know what is the hope of their calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance of the saints." 2 ch. 1 Pet. 9. 1 Eph. 18.
Before there can be any experience, therefore, spiritual life and light must be communicated; for a dead man might as well be suppo, sed to feel, as for any one to have a gracious experience without being regenerated by the power
of divine grace.
Here, then, we may furm some idea of the mind and character of the christian, whose diversified experience we are about to describe. He is one who is illuminated by the Divine Spirit;
his heart is renovated, and deeply impressed with a sense of the importance of divine things : he rests not in the cold assent of the understanding, neither is he carried away by strange and enthusiastic notions. He is a happy example of light and love : he perceives the excellency and suitability of spiritual objects, possesses an ardent attachment to them, and feels their divine energy on his soul: and hence it is that his religion is of an experimental nature.
Now, to prove that this is not the effect of a weak mind or a disordered fancy, as many suppose, we need only appeal to the following scriptures, all which have a reference to religion, as something to be experienced as well as to be known. “ Taste and see that the Lord is good. Eat, О friends; drink abundantly, o beloved. Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come ye, buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk, without money and without price. Christ in you the hope of glory. He effectually worketh in them that believe. Ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshly tables of the heart.” Ps. xxxiv. 8. Cant. y. l. Is. lv. l. Col. i. 27, 1st Thes. ii. 13, 2 Cor. iii. 3.
But, before we proceed, it is necessary to remark, that we shall not confine the term experience to the enjoyment only of the blessings of the gospel, but shall take it in a more enlarged sense, as referring to all that knowledge which the christian derives from his various trials or circumstan. ces, and all those feelings occasioned by his being in a state of warfare with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
And, first, we shall begin with what he feels from the view he has of his own heart. This he finds to be, as the scripture represents, “ deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” Jer. xvii. 9. He does not boast, as he once did, of an innocent nature, a sincere intention, a good heart; but confesses himself a sinful creature, unworthy of the Divine favour, and, without the interposition of sovereign mercy, exposed to endless ruin. He now takes cognizance of the secret workings of his mind; he views with self abasement the pride, envy, vanity, worldly-mindedness, and folly, of his corrupt nature.
He laments over the sinful desires, cold affections, wandering thoughts, and evil passions of his soul, and with the apostle exclaims, “ O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death ?" Rom. vii. 24. He clearly perceives that the picture of fallen humanity, as drawn by the divine hand, " that every imagination of the thought of the heart is only evil, and that continually,” Gen. vi. 5. is as true as it is awful and affecting. Nor does the regenerating influence of divine grace entirely destroy these corruptions. On the contrary, in proportion as he receives light, and increases in divine knowledge, the more he is led to see his own sinfulness. Indeed, the all-wise God does not discover to him all the depravity of his heart at once, as this would sink him into despair. He feels, however, more and more of it as he proceeds. He is still deceived by its vain pretensions, bewildered by its perpetual inconstancy, and distressed by its evil propensities. "Woe is me,”!