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affections lays a foundation for every person, in all cases, to know what manner of spirit he is of. God has given all men a moral sense, which enables them to distinguish the nature of all their moral exercises, and to know whether they are of a selfish or benevolent kind. If they will only consult conscience, and allow it to do its office, they may in all cases infallibly determine whether they are seeking a selfish or benevolent good. And they have no right to judge of the nature of any of their affections, without consulting conscience; nor to form an opinion in opposition to its infallible dictates. There is no affection of the heart but what may be brought before this tribunal, and have its nature and tendency clearly and justly ascertained. It must be owing to some blamable negligence, inattention or partiality, therefore, if either saints or sinners, in any case, mistake the nature of their moral exercises, and imagine that their affections are holy when they are really sinful. As they are always capable of forming a true judgment of their own hearts, so they have no right, under any circumstances, to think them better or worse than they are in reality.
2. God has given them all proper and necessary means to assist them in knowing their own hearts. He has laid down in his word a great variety of marks of true and false love, by which they may compare and judge of their moral exercises. He has plainly told them how selfishness and benevolence will operate and oppose each other. And he has set before them a great many striking examples of holy and unholy men, which illustrate the nature of holiness and unholiness, in the most plain and instructive manner. In the conduct of Abel and Cain, of Moses and Pharaoh, of Elijah and Ahab, of John and Judas, and of many more mentioned in scripture, the opposite natures of holiness and sin, or benevolence and selfishness, are visibly delineated. Indeed, it is next to impossible, that any should read the history which God has given of mankind, and not perceive the essential difference between right and wrong, holy and unholy affections. The Bible history is a glass, in which all men may clearly discover their own moral features, and easily determine what manner of persons they are. Under so many means of knowing himself, no man has a right to think himself something when he is nothing, or to mistake his selfishness for benevolence.
3. God has expressly forbidden men to mistake the nature of their religious affections, and to deceive themselves in respect to their spiritual state. He says repeatedly, “ Be not deceived." And again he says, “ Let no man deceive himself.” Christ demanded of sinners, “ Yea, and why even of yourselves, judge ye not what is right?" And when his disciples mistook the nature of their zeal, he condemned them for their self deception. “ Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.” After God has given men the power and the means of distinguishing the essential difference between nature and grace, he may very justly forbid them to mistake their natural affections for gracious exercises. The divine prohibitions in regard to self deception are as just and binding as any other prohibitions against any other moral evil, and men have no more right to deceive themselves concerning their own hearts, than they have to practice any other deception or hypocrisy. Besides,
4. They cannot mistake the nature of their moral exercises, unless they are under the influence of some selfish and sinful motive, which they have no right to comply with. True benevolence will naturally lead persons to judge righteous judgment respecting the nature of all their religious exercises and external conduct. It is only while men are under the reigning power of selfishness, that they desire to think too favorably of their own hearts, and mistake sinful for holy exercises. Were they to judge of their views and feelings, only while in the exercise of grace, they would judge impartially, and clearly distinguish their wrong from right exercises. It must, therefore, always be wrong for men to mistake their selfish feelings for benevolent affections, because they can never make this dangerous mistake, unless they are under the blinding influence of that selfishness, which they have no right in any case to indulge.
1. If men may mistake their selfish feelings for benevolent affections, then they may likewise mistake their benevolent affections for selfish feelings. Though they are more liable to mistake nature for grace, than grace for nature, yet there are various ways in which they may run into this less common and less dangerous error. The best of christians are often too inattentive to the exercises of their own minds, by which they are liable to mistake their holy for unholy affections. They are so sensible of the corruption of their hearts, and so often discover wrong motives of conduct, that they are ready to suspect the nature of their good exercises, which are mixed with so many that they know to be evil. Or they may become so dull and stupid, and have so little grace, that they cannot discover it, without more than common attention, which they are indisposed to give. So that when they are awakened to realize their spiritual leanness and languishment, they are surprised, and ready to give up all their past hopes, and to sink down in deep despondency. This is the natural and painful consequence of their mistaking the
few holy exercises they have, for selfish feelings. And whenever they suffer themselves to depart from God and grow cold and formal in the duties of devotion, they may justly expect that their sinful declension will be followed with darkness, doubts, and distressing fears.
There is another way in which gloomy christians may mistake the nature of their pious affections, and that is, by being too much afraid of deceiving themselves. In their dark and gloomy frames, they have an awful apprehension of the danger of self deception, which leads them to ponder on the dark side of things, and to search after all possible evidence against themselves, in order to know the very worst of their case. And while they are doing this, they either overlook or reject all evidence in their favor, because they feel bound in duty to give up their hope. Hence, like David, they refuse to be comforted, by calling in question not only the sincerity of their present feelings, but also the sincerity of all their past exercises of love, faith, repentance, submission, joy and peace, which they once thought were of the right kind, and which afforded them great satisfaction and enjoyment. Under such gloomy circumstances, many real, and some eminent christians, have mistaken grace for nature, and ascribed all their pious affections to selfish motives, which has given them a great deal of needless, and worse than needless, anxiety and distress.
Besides these two, there is a third way in which some good men may mistake the nature of their religious exercises, and conclude that they have never experienced a saving change. It is by comparing themselves with themselves, or with others whom they esteem better than themselves. Though they know, by experience, that they have actually exercised love, faith, repentance, godly sorrow, humility, submission, and self denial; yet they find that they have not been uniform, consistent, and persevering in these exercises, but have often had very different and contradictory views and feelings. And this want of uniformity and consistency in their religious exercises, they consider as a conclusive evidence of their insincerity and graceless state, though it is in reality only an evidence of that imperfection in holiness, which the scripture represents as common to all christians in this life. They may likewise run into the same error respecting their spiritual state, by comparing themselves with others, whom they view as eminently pious. When they hear such persons relate what light they have had in reading the scriptures, what peace and comfort and freedom they have enjoyed in secret devotions, and how little they have been troubled with darkness, doubts, or fears, they are ready to conclude that they themselves are strangers to true religion, because they have never experienced the same high and lively exercises of grace. real christians have a right, in this or any other way, to mistake their real character and condition. They ought to be very thankful for the least spark of saving grace.
2. If men are apt to mistake the nature of their moral exercises, then good men are very liable to think they have more grace than they really possess. This was the case of the disciples, whom Christ rebuked for esteeming themselves better than they were in his impartial eye. They supposed they felt a pure and holy zeal for his honor, while they were indulging a false and selfish zeal for their own reputation. All good men are equally liable to the same species of self deception. Their natural affections often run in the same channel, and towards the same objects, with their gracious exercises; and when this happens, they are apt to think, that they have more love, more faith, more self denial, and more holy joy and gratitude, than they really feel or express. Their good exercises predominate, and give an amiable complexion to all the 'selfish feelings of their hearts. And though they might distinguish their wrong affections from their right ones; yet their self love leads them to think more highly of themselves, than they ought to think, which is the essence of spiritual pride. This is a secret sin, which most insensibly besets good men. How often did God reprove his ancient people for their high and unreasonable opinion of their goodness? How often did Christ rebuke the Scribes and Pharisees for their spiritual pride and self conceit? Yea, how often did he rebuke his own disciples for the same sin? He reproved Peter for his pride and self confidence. He reproved the sons of Zebedee for their ambitious views and claims. And he visited Paul with a thorn in the flesh, to make him think soberly and as he ought to think, of himself. Were men perfectly good, they would never be proud of their goodness; but while they remain imperfect, they are as liable to overrate their goodness, as any other personal quality or excellence. There is reason to fear, that not only pious, but eminently pious men, do often entertain too high an opinion of their piety, by mistaking many of their selfish feelings for pure and disinterested benevolence. And if they would only scrutinize their religious exercises with impartiality, and compare them with the law of love and the spirit of Christ, they would find abundant reason to humble themselves, like Hezekiah, for the pride of their hearts.
3. If men are prone to mistake their selfish feelings for benevolent affections, then we may easily see why they so generally disbelieve the doctrine of total depravity, which is plainly taught in the word of God. None pretend to deny that
mankind are sinners, and very far from being so good as they ought to be. But few, however, are disposed to believe that any of the human race are totally depraved, and entirely destitute of every right exercise of heart. Most men imagine
. that the worst of sinners have some sparks of goodness, and, in their sober intervals, form some good resolutions, and perform some good actions. They form this favorable opinion of human nature, from their own experience. They are conscious that they were never so stupid, so hardened, or so wholly inclined to evil, as to have no desires, nor endeavors, to feel and act right; but, on the other hand, they have often pitied the afflicted, relieved the distressed, and done a great many things on purpose to promote the good of their fellow creatures.
A consciousness of such feelings and conduct, naturally leads them to conclude that there is no such thing as total depravity in any human heart. But if selfishness may put on the appearance of benevolence, it is easy to discover the fallacy of this mode of reasoning. Those who argue in this manner, mistake selfish feelings for benevolent affections. And they will continue to make this mistake, until the divine law is set home upon their conscience. Paul had no apprehension of his total depravity, until the commandment came, and convinced him that there was no good thing in his heart. He thought he was blameless, while he was under the entire dominion of sin; and he thought so from his own experience. And it is very difficult to make any sinners think otherwise of themselves, until their conscience is awakened to distinguish nature from grace, or their selfish feelings from benevolent affections.
4. If men have no right to mistake the nature of any of their moral exercises, then real christians have no right to doubt of their good estate. They have gracious affections, which are diametrically opposite to selfish feelings; and those gracious affections would afford them a satisfying evidence of a saving change, if they would only distinguish them from their unholy exercises. Their holy affections are an infallible evidence of their being born of God and having passed from death unto life, notwithstanding any contrary feelings. Their remaining corruptions do, indeed, prove that ihey are imperfect in holiness, but do not prove that they are in a state of nature, and wholly destitute of grace. There is no man that liveth and sinneth not. The best of men in this world are more or less burdened with sin and guilt. The apostle Paul himself groaned under this burden. He said, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death ?” But notwithstanding this, he could say, "I delight in the law of God after the inward man.” His unholy exercises were no counter evidence VOL. V.