« PreviousContinue »
These are a few, and possibly but a few of the mediums by which we may judge of the fact. Persons of more extensive information may perhaps add to their number, and throw additional light upon the subject. Yet even from these alone, I am strongly inclined to think that the Dissenting Interest, upon the whole, is not on the decline.
DECLINE OF THE DISSENTING INTEREST.
In a former paper I offered a few reasons for doubting whether the Dissenting Interest be upon the whole in a state of decline. I admit however, that some part of it is so; and the design of this paper is to enquire into the reasons or causes of it.
I have carefully looked over a sketch of a sermon on this subject, which appeared in June last, and greatly approve many of the remarks of the worthy author. Indeed there is nothing in his performance but what I do approve, except his passing over matters of a doctrinal nature, and confining his recommendations merely to those of conduct. What I have therefore to offer may be considered as an addition to his remarks.
“I am not such an enemy to innovation," any more than your correspondent, “as to think every principle false which does not exactly accord with the creed of our forefathers, but can easily conceive that in the course of several years, in which this kingdom has been favoured with the use of the sacred writings, some light may have been thrown upon some controverted points.” Neither do I think, that because various points have been disputed since their time, we must need be nearer the truth than they were ; but on the contrary, that it is very possible we may by such blasts as have been suffered to blow upon the church, have been moved in a degree from the purity of the gospel.
Though we have a right to deviate from our ancestors, provided we can prove them to be in the wrong; yet, if the dissenting interest prospered in their hands, and has declined in ours, it affords a presumption at least, that they were not in the wrong, and that a change of principles has been made to a disadvantage. It is a fact sufficiently notorious, that the leading doctrines of the great body of the Puritans and Nonconformists were,the fall and depravity of human nature, the deity and atonement of Christ, justification by faith in his righteousness, and regeneration and sanctification by the agency of the Holy Spirit.-Now it is not for the sake of “retailing the calumnies of our enemies,” but from a serious concern for the welfare of the dissenting interest, that I ask, Is it not a fact equally notorious, that a large proportion of those dissenting congregations which are evidently in a state of declension, have either deserted the foregoing doctrines, or hold communion with those who have? I hope I need not repeat, what has so often been said by others, that there is something in these doctrines which interests the hearts and consciences of men, very differently from a mere harangue on the beauty, excellency, and advantages of virtue; or from any other kind of preaching,
here they are omitted.
What is the reason that the generality of the parish churches are so thinly attended? Is it any violation of christian charity to answer, because the generality of the clergy do not preach the doctrine of the cross. There is nothing in their preaching that interests the hearts, or reaches the consciences of the people. They have 'rejected the knowledge of God, and God hath rejected them from being priests to him.' Hos. iv. 6. They are uncon
cerned about the souls of the people, and the people perceive it, and are not concerned to attend upon their ministry. The same causes will produce the same effects, whether out of the establishment or in it.
If we have rejected the atonement of Christ, it is not difficult to prove that we reject the doctrine of the cross, which is the grand doctrine that God hath blessed, and will bless to the salvation of men. If we reject the deity of Christ besides relinquishing the worship of him, which was manifestly a primitive practice, and withdrawn all well-founded trust in him for the salvation of our souls; we reject the only ground upon which an atonement can be supported, and by resting all its efficacy upon divine appointment, render it possible that the blood of bulls or of goats, or the ashes of a heifer, might have taken away sin.' Heb. x. 4. If we reject the doctrine of justification by faith in the righteousness of Christ, we are on a footing with those jews, who attained not to the law of righteousness, because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law; for they stumbled at that stumbling stone.' And if we reject the doctrine of regeneration and sanctification by the Holy Spirit, we need not expect him to set his seal to our labours.
There are some amongst us who do not reject these doctrines, but who nevertheless hold christian fellowship with those that do; and this, if I mistake not, will tend greatly to undermine their spiritual prosperity. Let no man be persecuted for his religious sentiments, not even an infidel or an atheist :* but persecution is one thing, and declining to hold christian communion with them is another. Socinians are more consistent than some who would be accounted moderate Calvinists. They plead for a separate communion; and a separate communion they ought to have. The ills which arise from a contrary
* The author appears afterwards to have entertained a different opinion, and to have admitted in conversation, that atheism and gross infidelity might be punished by the civil magistrate.
practice are more than a few. If you admit into your communion, say four or five individuals, who reject the foregoing doctrines, you cannot, without appearing to insult those whom you have acknowledged as christian brethren, dwell upon them in the ordinary course of your ministry. Generally speaking, there will be a bar to pulpit freedom; and you must either displease your friends, or hold the leading principles of the gospel as though you held them not.
I have no desire that any doctrine should be insisted upon in a litigious manner, or so as to supersede any other doctrine or duty of christianity. But there are principles which ought to form the prominent feature of, I had almost said, all our discourses. It is a poor excuse for a christian minister to make for his omitting in some way or other to introduce Christ, that his subject did not lead to it.* There is not an important subject in divinity, either doctrinal or practical, but what bears an intimate relation to him. And I must say, if any of these important doctrines are withheld, as being of little importance, or because there are individuals in the congregation who disapprove of them, à blast will assuredly follow our labours.
Much has been said in favour of what is termed liberality, and enlargedness of heart: but perhaps it may not have occurred to some, that the christian doctrine of enlargement differs widely from that which is generally inculcated in the present age. ‘Oh ye Corinthians,' says the apostle, 'our mouth is open to you, our heart is enlarged. Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels. Now for a recompense in the same-be ye also enlarged. And to what means does the apostle direct, for the accomplishment of so desirable an object? Does he desire them to extend their communion? Not so: but to contract it.- Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers : for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness, and what communion hath light with darkness, and what concord hath Christ with Belial, and what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?' 2 Cor, vi. 11-15.
* When this excuse was one day pleaded by a minister whom Mr. Fuller had just been hearing, he asked the preacher whether there was à town or village anywhere in England, that had not a road leading to London.
This direction may to some persons appear highly para: doxical, yet it is founded in the reason and nature of things. For--(1) Christian enlargement depends upon fellowship, communion, concord,' and a mutual participation of spiritual interests. If only a single stranger enter into a society, there is at once a bar to freedom ; and if a number of them be admitted, a general silence, or what is next to silence, ensues. The company may be enlarged, but their communion is 'straitened.'-(2) A union in christian fellowship with improper persons, tends to impede the progress of good men in the divine life. It is, as the apostle supposes, like the 'yoking' of a sprightly horse to a tardy ass: the latter will be certain to obstruct the activity and usefulness of the former.(3) By such unions good men are frequently drawn into a sinful conformity to the world. The company we keep will ever have an influence upon our minds and affections, and will tend to transform us in a measure into the same likeness.
It may be objected, that the apostle does not here forbid them to have fellowship with professed christians of different sentiments, but with avowed unbelievers, or infidels.' This is true : but the general principle upon which he proceeds is applicable, not merely to fellowship with professed unbelievers, but with nominal christians of certain descriptions. This principle is, that christian enlargement is not accomplished by extending our connections, but by confining them to persons with whom we can have fellowship, communion, concord, and a mutual participation of spiritual interests. There are few persons of serious reflection, but who have seen and lamented the effects of a