A Treatise on Christian Faith by Herman WitsiusHerman Witsius' Treatise on How Faith is to be Scripturally Understood
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A Treatise on Christian Faith by Herman Witsius
Extracted and translated from the Latin of HERMANNUS WITSIUS By the Rev. Mr. MADAN
“Without Faith, it is impossible to please GOD” – Hebrews. 11:6
OF all enquiries, which employ the minds of men, I know not any that can be reckoned important, in comparison of that which was once made by a trembling jailor at Philippi, viz. What Shall I do to be saved? And I suppose there can hardly be found one thinking Man, let his sentiments in other respects be what they may, but will join with me in saying, that the salvation of the soul, is the most awful of all concerns. This being the case, I need an apology for laying extract before the be for the homely dress I have put upon my author: it must be remembered that I have changed his language in order to bring the unlearned to an acquaintance with him, and the better to carry on this design, have made him speak as plain as I possibly could.
As for the subject matter of this little treatise, I think I may venture to recommend it, because the book from whence it was taken has met with the approbation of many learned and excellent divines, who mention the name of Witsius with peculiar and distinguished reverence; but even this ought to have but little weight with the reader, did not our author’s sentiments exactly comport with the divine mind and will, as revealed in the word of God, the only infallible standard of all saving truth.
It is clear from the answer Paul gave the trembling querist above-mentioned, that the only mean of salvation is faith: surely then it must be an acceptable thing, at least to every serious mind, to meet with a plain and truly scriptural account of the only way of deliverance for a sinful soul; especially as we live in a time, when it is much misunderstood, or wholly unknown, when presumption on the one hand, and despair on the other, are spreading their nets for the feet of the ignorant and unwary: but this ever was, and will be the case, whenever God is pleased to revive his work: the grand desire of our ghostly enemy is to keep us in sin and ignorance, therefore when truth puts forth its lovely face, and shines with its native heavenly luster, as Satan cannot eclipse its brightness by outward and direct opposition, he will endeavor to set up false lights, in order to mislead the unwary traveler; yea, rather than fail, will transform himself into an angel of light, 2 Cor. 11:14.
Hence is that many are deceived in their notions of faith, are led to think it something which it is not; the legalist is for mixing the impure leaven of his own imperfect works, with the bread of God, and must have something in himself to recommend him to the favor of God, in order to merit, in a measure at least, the forgiveness of his sins.—The Antinomians, who are most vile and wicked perverters of the right ways of the Lord, are resting in something they call faith, which hath nothing of salvation, but the sorest condemnation in it, to which, saith the apostle, they were of old ordained, Jude 4. Add to these the number of well-meaning serious people, who by taking the marks of faith too high, are labouring under the most fearful apprehensions of their state before God, and by thinking the essence of faith consisteth in frames and feelings, are blind to that happiness, which, the real work of God within them, would otherwise put them in possession of.
Let all such read and mark the plain simple account of faith which (I doubt not in exact conformity to the scriptures) is exhibited to view in this book, and the more they compare their own experience with it, the more clearly will they be enabled to discern the true state of their souls. But the clearest light is nothing to the blind; therefore let every reader go to the throne of Grace, for the seeing eye, and the understanding heart, and then they may expect a blessing from what they read.
That blessings suitable to the several wants of every reader, may accompany their perusal of this small, but sincere endeavour, after the Redeemer’s glory, and the good of my fellow-creatures, is the earnest prayer of,
Theirs, for Christ’s sake,
A True faith in God through Jesus Christ is the principal act of that spiritual life, which is begun in the elect by regeneration, as well as the fountain head, from whence, all those living works which follow after regeneration, proceed: the nature of this faith we are now about to explain. It is not any one single habit or act of the soul, nor ought it to be restrained to one faculty thereof only; but it is something made up of various acts, which, though not in a confused manner, may interfere one with the other, and in a kind of delightful fellowship and union, promote and help each other, and this constantly. It imports a change of the whole man, is the spring of the whole spiritual life; and lastly, it denotes a holy diligence and energy of the whole soul towards God in Christ, so that its full compass can scarcely be comprehended in a distinct manner under any one single idea.
Let not any one wonder, that we include so many things under the name of one Christian virtue; for as a person speaking of life, designs to express by that word, something, that diffusing itself throughout the whole soul, and all its faculties, is communicated also to the body, and extends itself to all the actions of a living person; so, when we speak of faith, which is the fruitful fountain of the whole, spiritual life, we would have that understood to be signified, which pervades all the faculties, and is exactly calculated to unite them with Christ, and thus enliven, sanctify and make them blessed.
We must observe by the way, that amongst those acts which we are about to describe, there is one in particular, in which we think the formal reason and essence of faith, so far as it unites us with Christ and justifies us, consists. And this is to be carefully observed in the business of justification, left any one should look upon those acts of charity which in different ways are connected with the practice of faith, as the causes of justification.
Moreover we must premise, that those things which we are going to explain with greater accuracy, are connected with each other by diverse ways in the practice and exercise of faith. While the whole soul is intent on this work of God, very many actions may tend towards God in Christ, which observe no certain method, and which the faithful soul hath neither leisure nor inclination to digest into their proper rank and order, nor would it always be possible so to do. But it is expedient for us to attend to the natural and ordinary process of faith, that we may the better understand the whole manner thereof.
First, That which faith comprehends, or at least supposes, is a knowledge of the things which are to be believed. This, in contradiction to the absurdity of the Papists, is very plain, I from the scriptures; which so speak of faith, as manifestly to give us to understand, that knowledge is included in the very idea, as well as the practice of faith, Isa. 53:11. John 17:3. compared with Hab. 2:4. John 6:69. 2 Tim. 1:3. II. From the very nature of faith, which, as it speaks of an assent given to a truth revealed by God, and that without any doubting, necessarily presupposes the knowledge of these two things, 1. That God has revealed something. 2. What that something is, which faith assents to as divinely revealed. For to say that a person assents to any truth, which he is ignorant of, and concerning which, he knows not whether there be any testimony extant which is worthy of credit, is absurd. III. The presupposition of this knowledge is plain from the manner in which faith is produced in the soul; that is to say, it is done externally by the preaching and hearing of the gospel, Rom. 10:17. which reveals the thing to be believed, with demonstration of the truth to the conscience, 2 Cor. 4:2. and it is done internally; and both these by the institution and appointment of God the Father, John 6:45. If therefore faith is generated in the heart by an external, as well as an internal institution, it necessarily must consist in knowledge; for knowledge is the most proper and immediate effect of such institution. IV. The presupposition of this knowledge is plain, from the consequences annexed to it, which are, confession and acknowledgment, Rom. 10:9, 10. 1 Pet. 3:15. but these things cannot be, where there is no knowledge. Hilary saith well, that none can speak what he does not know.
But indeed it must be confessed, that in this dark state of our minds, there are many things of which even the most illuminated are ignorant; and many things, especially by young beginners and babes in Christ, to be implicitly believed, so far as they admit in general the scripture to be the infallible standard of all things which are to be believed (in which are contained many things they understand not) and so far as they embrace the chief doctrines and opinions of Christianity, in which many other truths are centred, which, by evident consequence, are drawn from thence, and which they believe, on considering the foundation on which they stand; as St. John writes to the faithful, that they knew all things, 1 John 2:20. because through the teaching of the Spirit they had learnt that foundation of foundations, to which all saving truths are reduced, and from which they are deduced. But to proceed. It might so happen, that a person to whom has been given but a scanty portion of knowledge, may nevertheless be firm in faith, even to martyrdom, but then it does not follow, that faith is better described by ignorance, than by knowledge: or that those do well, who cherish ignorance amongst the people, as the mother of faith and devotion, contrary to Col. 3:16. for by no means can any one believe what he is wholly ignorant of, Rom. 10:14. All should strive to have their faith as little implicit, and as much distinct as possible, as becometh those who are filled with all knowledge, Rom. 15:14. for the more distinctly a person sees, by the light of the Spirit, a truth revealed by God, and the rays of divinity that shine therein, the more firmly will he believe it. The martyrs, who as to other things were rude and unlearned, saw, most distinctly and clearly, that those truths, for which they made no scruple to die, were most certain and divine, tho’ perhaps they could not have disputed very ably for them in the schools.
Moreover those things which are necessary to be known, by one who would believe aright, are, in general, the divinity of the scriptures, into which faith must be ultimately resolved; but more especially those things which concern the obtaining salvation by Christ, which may summarily be reduced to these three heads. I. That you should know, that by sin you are alienated from the life of God, and have come short of the glory of God, Rom. 3:23. and that it is not in your own power, or in that of an angel from heaven, or any creature in the world, or all the creatures together, to draw you out of this abyss of misery, and make you happy. II. That you should know Christ the Lord, full of grace and truth, John 1:14, who is that only name given under heaven whereby we can be saved, Acts 4:12. and in the knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, John 17:3. III. That you should know it to be necessary, if you would obtain salvation in Christ, to be united to Him by the Spirit and by faith, and to give yourself up to Him, not only to be justified, but to be sanctified, and to be governed by his will and pleasure, proving what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. Rom. 12:2.
To this knowledge must be joined an assent, which is the second act of faith, by which a person receives and acknowledges as truths, the things he knows, receiving the testimony of God, and thus setting to his seal that God is true, John 3:33. This assent is most especially founded upon the infallible veracity of God, who beareth testimony of himself and of his Son, 1 John 5:9, 10. on which testimony revealed in the scriptures, and shedding forth all around the rays of its divinity, the faithful soul relies with no less safety, than if it had actually been present and an immediate party in those things that are revealed. For when the soul enlightened by the Spirit of God, perceives those divine truths, and seeth in them a certain divine excellency, and a most wife and indissoluble connection of the whole, it cannot but assent to a truth which forces itself upon it with so many arguments, and as securely admits, what it thus knows, for certainty, as if it had seen it with its own eyes, or handled it with its hands, or had been taken up into the third heaven, and heard it immediately from God. Let the lust of the flesh murmur, or let vain sophists argue what they may, though perhaps the soul may not be able to answer or solve all objections, it still persists in the acknowledgment of this truth, which it sees too clearly, and has heard too certainly, as it were, from the mouth of God, ever to suffer itself to be drawn away from it by any sophistry. I have not, saith the believing soul, followed cunningly devised fables in believing the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but, in the spirit, have I beheld his Majesty, and heard, as it were, his voice from heaven, 2 Pet. 1:16, 18. So that faith is accompanied with what is called substance and evidence, Heb. 11:1. full persuasion or plerophory, Rom. 4:21. Of the signification of which words, it may not be unuseful to consider a little.
The apostle speaketh of ῶληροφορία, full persuasion or assurance as it is rendered, more than once. He speaketh of the plerophory of understanding, Col. 2:2. The plerophory of hope, Heb. 6:11. And the plerophory of faith, Heb. 10:22. This word plerophory, according to its etymology, denotes any thing that is strongly borne or carried forward; a Metaphor, as it should seem, taken from ships, when their sails are filled with a prosperous gale: so that it here signifies the vehement inclination of a soul, carried or rather driven forward by the Holy Spirit, towards an assent to a truth it is made sensible of: that most excellent master of the Greek tongue Hesychius, explains it by the word firmness, and in that sense the plerophory of faith is nothing else than a firmness in the faith of Christ, and ῶεῶληροφορημενα ῶραγματα are such things as are most surely believed, Luke 1:1. Thus firm therefore ought our assent to the divine verity to be.
The word Ὑῶοστασις Hypostasis (substance) is a most emphatical word, which the apostle uses when he is speaking of faith, Heb. 9:1. Nor have the Latins any word that can fully express all its force and significancy. I. Ὑῶοστασις, denotes existentia, the existence, or as some of the antients have said, extantia, the standing up or appearing of any thing, in which sense the philosophers use it to express a thing that really is, in contradiction to what is the fiction only of our own minds: and indeed faith so orders it, that the thing hoped for, though not actually extant, is yet extant in the mind of the believer, who assents as firmly to the promises of God, as if he now had the thing promised present with him. Chrysostom had this in his mind when he said, “The general resurrection of the dead does not as yet exist in itself, but Hope (we will say saith) sets it before us, and makes it extant or apparent in our minds.” A Greek scholiast, cited by Beza, has expressed the same thing very happily. “Because things which are placed in expectation only, are void of being, as things not yet extant; Faith is a kind of substance, or essence of them, because it makes them in some measure extant to us, and present with us, for that it believes them to be.” II. Ὑῶοστασις, also signifies a base or foundation, in which sense Diodorus Siculus, cited by Gomarus, said ὑῶοστασιν τα ταφα, the foundation of the sepulchre; and to that the interpretation of Calvin looks, faith, says he, is the same as Hypostasis, that is, a, prop or possession on which we fix our feet. III. It signifies stedfastness and courage, by no means yielding to any hostile force. In this sense it is used by Plutarch and Polybius. And indeed there is something in faith, which will intrepidly sustain all the assaults of temptation; nor will it suffer itself to be moved from an assent to a truth it has once known. Now if we join all these together, we may say, that faith is so firm an assent to divine truth, that it sets before us future things as if present, and that it is a prop to the soul on which it fixes its foot, and yields to no assault.
Nor should it be passed by unnoticed, that the apostle calls faith ἔλεγχος ἀ βλεπομενων the evidence of things not seen. The word ἔλεγχος denotes these two things. I. Certain demonstration. According to Aristotle it is that sort of reasoning, which cannot be otherwise, but must necessarily be as we say. II. It denotes, a conviction of the mind by such a demonstration of the truth. In this sense it is used by Aristophanes. There is therefore in faith, if it be ἔλεγχος (an elenchus) a certain conviction of the mind, by reason of clear and infallible demonstration of Truth. But this demonstration rests upon the testimony of God who cannot deceive; from whence faith thus argues; Whatever God, who is truth itself, reveals, cannot but be most true and worthy of all acceptation, although I cannot discover it with my eyes, or fully comprehend it in my mind.
All these things tend to this, namely, to teach us, that the assent there is in faith has the greatest certainty, which cannot be outdone by the certainty of any mathematical demonstration; wherefore they speak very incautiously, who contend that the mind may be deceived by a falshood under the notion of faith, since the proper object of faith is the testimony of God, which is necessarily true, and more certain than any demonstration. Nor can any places of scripture be brought, in which any thing is proposed to a man’s belief, which is not true.
But here another scruple is to be removed. If faith is such a certain and firm assent, are they destitute of true faith, who are sometimes fluctuating and doubting even about fundamental truths? Answer, I. We are describing faith as considered in idea, as that Christian virtue, to the perfection of which we all ought to tend, not as it subsists in any particular subject. II. It may sometimes happen, even amongst the most eminent believers, especially when exposed to some vehement temptation, that there may be doubts and staggerings, and even contrary inclinations, as the waverings of Asaph, Jeremy, and others, about the providence of GOD, do prove; these are certain defects in faith, which arise from the infirmity of the flesh. III. faith immediatly wrestles with those temptations, it doth not assent to those suggestions of the devil, or to the evil desires of the flesh; nor doth it ever rest until it hath entered into the sanctuary of the Lord, and, by the teaching of the Spirit of God, is confirmed in the contemplation and acknowledgment of the truths, about which it was staggering. There at length, and no where else, doth it find rest for the soles of its feet. See Ps. 73.
What follows assent to the truth, thus known, and acknowledged, is love, and this is the third act of faith, of which the apostle, 2 Thess. 2:10. for since there is a clear manifestation of the glory of God in saving truths, not only so far as he is true in his testimony, but so far also as the wisdom, the holiness, the justice, the power, and other perfections of God, shine forth in them, it cannot be, but that the faithful soul, discerning in those truths these amiable perfections of the Deity, should burn with the love of them, should exult in them, and glorify God. Hence the believer is said to give glory to God, Rom. 4:20. and to love his glory, John 12:43. nor can it be but the believer should especially delight in the fundamental truth which concerns Christ; he loves it as an inestimable treasure, and as a pearl of great price. This is precious, yea most precious to believers, 1 Pet. 2:7. It is true that love, strictly speaking, is distinguished from faith; but nevertheless the acts of each are so interwoven with one another, that we can never explain nor exercise faith without some acts of love interfering. This is an observation of some of the greatest divines before me, each of which cites that saying of St. Austin—What is it to believe in God? by believing to love. If any have a mind, according to the gloss of the schools, to call this love a commanded act of faith, they are welcome to do so: only let that be granted, that it cannot be but that the faithful soul, while it exercises faith, must sincerely love the truths it knows, and acknowledges, as they are in Christ, rejoicing that they are true, and delighting itself in that truth: far otherwise is it with devils and wicked men, who would not have those things true, which they know to be true.
Hence arises a fourth act of faith, a bunger and thirst after Christ; for the faithful soul knowing, acknowledging and loving the salutary truths of God, cannot but wish, that all those things which are true in Christ, may be true also in regard to itself, and that it, according to, and by those truths, may be sanctified, and made blessed; and it cannot but seriously desire, that it, being alienated from the life of God upon account of sin, may be again sealed unto the glory of God by free justification, and in that by sanctification: this is that hunger and thirst after righteousness spoken of, Mat. 5:6. and pray by what means can it come to pass, that he, who believes and perceives in himself, that he is a most miserable creature, who is most firmly persuaded that he cannot be delivered out of his misery by any creature in heaven or on earth, who sees at the same time the fullness of that salvation that is in Christ, who is certain that he cannot attain unto salvation, until he be united with Christ, who loves that truth from his very soul, which treats of the fulness of salvation that there is in Christ only, and in communion with him—I say how can it come to pass, but that such a one must seriously and ardently desire to have Christ, dwelling in him, must seek it and set about it, and that with such a desire as cannot be satisfied, but in the possession of the thing desired; just as hunger and thirst are not appeased, but by meat and drink.
What follows this hunger and thirst, is the receiving the Lord Christ for justification, for sanctification, and thus for complete salvation: and this is the fifth, and indeed the formal and chief act of faith, which is thus—the heavenly Father freely offers the Son, Christ the Lord freely offers Himself, with all his benefits, and fulness of salvation which resides in Him, to the sick and weary soul, saying, Is. 65:1. Behold me! behold me! and the soul now conscious of its own misery, considering the fulness of the salvation that is in Christ, with joy and hope, and eagerly desiring communion with Him, cannot help apprehending and receiving so great a good offered to it; and thus by accepting it, makes it its own: by this act Christ is made the peculiar property of the believing soul; so that whatever is Christ’s, and offered together with Christ, the believer claims to himself: and first, of all the righteousness of Christ, which is the foundation of salvation, and thus by apprehending Christ, is united to Him. The believer being thus united to Christ, is deemed and looked upon to have done and suffered, whatever things Christ, so far as He was a surety did and suffered in his stead. Thus it is easily to be understood in what manner we are justified by faith in Christ.
The scriptures more than once represent this act of faith in express words. A remarkable passage is that of John 1:12. As many as RECEIVED him, which is equivalent to those who BELIEVE on his name: and Col. 2:6. As ye have therefore RECEIVED Christ Jesus the Lord, &c. to which may be added what the Lord so emphatically says, Is. 27:5. Let him TAKE HOLD of my strength, meaning taking such hold as will not be let go, which is the meaning of the original, as those who understand it will find by reading Prov. 4:13. where the word here used in Isaiah to signify taking hold, is opposed to another which signifies to let go.
But because the soul thus apprehending Christ for salvation, reclines and leans, or rests upon Him; therefore this act of faith is frequently explained by this metaphor, as Ps. 71:6. By Thee have I been HOLDEN UP. Is. 48:2. They STAY THEMSELVES upon the God of Israel, meaning those who feigned to be true believers. So Is. 50:10. Let him STAY UPON his God. Add to these, Is. 10:20. 2 Chron. 16:7, 8. If you are minded to distinguish subtilly this act of the faithful soul thus reclining and leaning upon Christ from the act of receiving Christ, and place it after, I shan’t oppose it; we will therefore call this a sixth act of faith.
Moreover, When the faithful soul thus receives Christ and rests upon Him, it doth not consider Christ as its Saviour only, but as its Lord. For it receiveth a whole Christ, and receiveth Him just as he is: and He is not less a Lord than a Saviour. Indeed he cannot be a Saviour, unless He be also Lord. In that doth our salvation consist, not that we are our own, or any creature’s, but Christ the Lord’s. Faith therefore receiveth Christ the Lord, Col. 2:6. Nor doth Christ any otherwise offer himself as a spouse to the soul, than under this condition, that she shall acknowledge Him for her Lord, Ps. 45:11. And when the soul casts herself upon Christ, she renounceth her own will, and giveth herself up to the will of Jesus, to be ordered by Him, as He shall please. Hence there is in faith an humble giving and delivering up of self, by which the believer, as much as in him lies, as an act he is in duty bound to, makes a return of himself to Christ, who was so freely given to him. I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine, Cant. 6:3. They gave their own selves to the Lord, 2 Cor. 8:5. Something like the form in which Amasai gave himself, with his companions, to David. 1 Chron. 12:18. Thine are we, David, and on thy side, thou son of Jesse. And this giving up ourselves to Christ, which we set down as the seventh act of faith, is the continual spring and fountain of all true obedience, which is therefore called the obedience of faith, Rom. 1:5.
After the believing soul hath thus received Christ, and thus given itself up to Him, it may and ought to conclude from thence, that Christ and all his saving benefits are its own, and that it shall certainly be blessed here and hereafter by him; according to the following infallible argument of faith.—Christ offers himself as a complete Saviour to all the weary, hungry, and thirsty, that receiving him, are ready to deliver up themselves to him: but I am weary, hungry, thirsty; I receive Him, and am ready to deliver up myself to Him: therefore Christ hath offered himself to me, He is now mine, and I am his; nor shall any thing separate me from his love. This is the eighth act of faith, and this is what is called a reflex act, springing from the conscience, Gal. 2:20. 2 Tim. 1:12. Rom. 8:38, 39.
Hence, lastly, is derived into the soul, which is conscious of its union with Christ by faith, a trust, a tranquility, a joy, a peace, and a bold defiance of all the enemies, and of all the dangers that may assail it, a glorying in the Lord, a glorying in adversity, while the soul sweetly leaneth on her Beloved, Cant. 8:5. casting herself upon him, certain of the mutual union and communion, and mutual love there is between them; while she sings, I am my Beloved’s and his desire is towards me, Cant. 7:10. She piously exults and delights in her Lord, and rejoiceth in his love, with joy unspeakable and full of glory, 1 Pet. 1:8. Rom. 5:2.
Having thus explained these things at large, let us now bring them together, and behold them, as it were, in one view. Faith includes the knowledge of the mystery of Christ and of God in the light of grace, the truth of which mystery the faithful soul acknowledges, with a full assent of the mind, upon the authority of God who testifieth it; and not only so, but the believer loves that same truth, exults in it, and glorifies God: desiring also most earnestly, communion with Christ, that those things which are true in Christ, may be true as to himself also unto salvation; wherefore when, by the word and spirit, Christ is offered unto him, he receiveth Him with the utmost willingness of mind, he rests upon Him, leans upon Him, to Him doth he deliver up himself; which being done, he glories that Christ is now his own, and most sweetly delights himself in Him, reposing himself under the tree of life, and satiating himself with its fruits. This is the faith of God’s elect, Tit. 1:1 that inestimable gift, the bond of our union with Christ, the ladder of Paradise, the key of the ark of the covenant, by which its treasures are unlocked, the perpetual fountain of a life, holy, tranquil, and blessed.
If any one imagines that he speaks with greater exactness, when he so distinguishes these acts of faith, as that some of them precede, or go before faith, strictly so called; as for instance, the knowledge of revealed truth, to which some excellent divines add a pious affection of the will towards God: if he thinks others of the things mentioned are of the form and essence of faith, as the assent, the hunger and thirst after righteousness, the receiving Christ as a Saviour and Lord, and the soul’s flying unto Him for refuge: if he thinks others of the acts of faith accidental, which are only agreeable with a firm and strong faith; as for instance, that certainty, that Christ is now mine, and that sweet reliance upon Him as mine, joined with that rejoicing and glorying in Him; I see no reason why such a one should not enjoy his own exact method, it is not at all displeasing to me. I only intend to shew that all those things concur in the full and complete practice and exercise of faith.
From what has been said, it is evident, that, between the faith we have been hitherto describing, and what is usually called an historical or temporary faith, there is an almost immense distance. But I doubt whether what they call by those names, are called so properly. They call that an historical faith which is a naked assent given to those things which are contained in God’s word, and this by reason of the authority of God who asserts them, but without, any pious motion of the will. However, since that assent may not only be given to the histories contained in the sacred volume, but also may extend itself to the precepts, doctrines, promises and threatenings therein contained; the title of historical seems to be too narrow to comprehend it: unless it may perhaps be so called, in respect to the manner in which it is exercised about those things which are the objects of it. For as one who in reading histories of things, which don’t concern him, barely contemplates them, and is not inwardly moved or affected by them; so those who have that sort of faith, do only in an idle, careless manner, speculate concerning what they are taught in the word of God, but do not carry them into practice; though, by the way, this is not universally true, that histories of the greatest consequence, and which concern another world, are read without any affection, commotion, and application; therefore it would be better to call this a theoretic faith, or a faith of bare assent.
Our Lord, Mat. 13:21. calls that a temporary faith, which, besides a general assent, rejoices in the truth known and acknowledged, professes it, and stirs up many emotions in the heart, and many actions in the life of the person who has it, which exhibit an appearance of real piety, but this only for a season, while all things under the gospel are in a prosperous way; but when the storms of persecution gather, it fails. This sort of faith is wifely called by our Lord, προσκαιρος i.e. that dureth for a while. But as it possibly may happen, and happens frequently, that, while the affairs of a church are prosperous, men, in such a profession of faith, and imaginary joy, and in such a particular course of life, as they deem sufficient for the purpose of piety, persevere to the end of their lives; I say, as this may be the case, the name of temporary is not so proper for this kind of faith, which our Lord gave only to the faith of apostates, whereas this faith is not saving indeed, but it is constant. Perhaps therefore it might be better called presumptuous faith.
But it is needful, for our consolation, that we should know clearly, by what means this faith may be distinguished from that which is true, living, and saving. And, first, In the acknowledgment of the truths revealed there is not a small difference, to which truths indeed this presumptuous faith assents as truths, but as it is destitute of the light of the spirit, it does not see them in their proper form, and as they are true in Christ; it does not consider the perfections of God, which are resplendent in them; it doth not rightly estimate their value; when first it begins to know them, it is indeed taken with the rarity and novelty of such things, but doth not light up into an ardent love towards them, nor doth it labour altogether that they should not only be impressed upon the soul, but expressed in the life and conversation; and as often as other things present themselves to the mind, which flatter with the appearance of pleasure or profit, it easily suffers the ideas of those truths, which are enemies to its convenience, to be obliterated, and is very near wishing they were not truths, which, even against its will, it is forced to account as such. But in the case of true faith, these things are directly contrary, as we have already shewed.
Secondly, there is a vast difference in the application of the promises. For presumptuous faith doth not proceed in a true or right method. It rashly imagines that the salvation promised in the gospel belongs to it, but this is either upon no foundation, or upon a false one: For whenever such people, without any examination and scrutiny of their own hearts, (which they fly from as from something that is too troublesome, and inconvenient to their affairs) foolishly flattering themselves, arrogate proudly the grace of our Lord to themselves, they securely slumber in this vain dream; neither do they enquire, nor are they willing to enquire, what is the foundation of this their imagination. Sometimes they lay for a foundation of their confidence, that preposterous conception, the universal uncovenanted mercy of God, and a sort of easy way to heaven, which the gospel-covenant hath never pointed out: or an opinion of the sufficiency of their own holiness, when at the same time they are very little less wicked than the most profligate: or their outward communion with some church, and form of religious worship: or the security of their own sleeping conscience, and the pleasant fancies of their own dreams, which they think to be the peace of God, and the consolation of the Holy Spirit. With this, and the like vanities, they deceive themselves, as is such were sufficient marks of grace. But true believers, from a deep sense of their misery, panting eagerly after the grace of the Lord Jesus, and apprehending it with trembling and humility, dare not to boast themselves, as though it were now become their own; unless after a diligent examination of themselves, they find the certain and infallible marks of grace within them. When they are about to apprehend the grace of Christ, they draw near with profound humility, a sacred kind of horror, and a sincere denial of themselves; and when they have apprehended it, they boast not of it, unless after a most exact scrutiny, first of the marks and standard of grace, then of their own hearts: otherwise is it, in both these respects, with the presumptuous, who rashly lay hold of what, in that manner, is not offered to them (for God doth not offer to sinners security and joy, before the mind is struck with a proper concern for past crimes, and due solicitude for salvation) and boast rashly of the grace they have apprehended, of which, by no necessary arguments, do they know how to prove themselves partakers.
The third difference between the faithful, and the presumptuous, is in the joy they have: for there is a joy which accompanies, and follows both these kinds of faith; and this difference is two-fold. I. In respect of its origin. II. In respect of the effect of that joy. In the case of presumptuous faith, a joy arises partly from the rarity and novelty of the things revealed (for the knowledge of a truth, which is more rare and abstruse than common, delights the understanding, as the enjoyment of any good delights the will) partly from that vain imagination, that the good things offered in the gospel belong to them, of which they have, in some sort a taste, but, as it were, only with the outside of the lips; and this from the ordinary and common gifts of the Holy Spirit. But in living faith there arises a more noble and more solid joy, from the love of those most precious truths, by the knowledge of which, the soul taught of God, rightly thinks itself most happy; and this from a hope that is not fallacious, but a certain persuasion of the believer’s own spirit,* together with the testimony of the Spirit of God, of present grace and future glory; and lastly, from a most sweet sense of present grace, and a real foretaste of future glory. Since therefore there are such different causes of joy, no wonder the effects of that joy are in both cases different. The first makes the soul full of itself, leaves it empty of the love of God, and still increases the slumber of carnal security. Whereas the latter kind of joy strikes, in a wonderful manner, the faithful soul with an admiration of the unmerited love of God to man, inflames them with mutual love towards the most beneficent Jesus, and begets in them a sollicitous exactness, lest they should admit, or allow themselves in any thing unworthy the immense favour they have received from God, or grieve that spirit of grace which hath dealt so kindly by them.
The fourth difference respects the fruits of faith. For presumptuous faith either drowns men in a deep sleep of security, which they increase by indulging the flesh; or it brings a sort of outward change of action for the better, and so orders it, that by the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they, in a measure, escape the pollutions of the world, 2 Pet. 2:20. or when it operates in the highest manner, it excites some light and fading purposes, and endeavours after a more accurate kind of piety; but it doth not purify the very heart, it doth not introduce new habits of holiness, and as often as the flatteries of the world and the flesh, or any inconveniencies accompanying evangelical piety, come on a little stronger than usual, they immediately tire in the course of goodness they had set out upon, and then they return like the sow that was washed, to wallow in the mire. They are prevailed upon indeed by the superficial knowledge of evangelical truth, and of a good, so pleasant and useful, as well as becoming, which is held forth in the gospel, to amend their lives, tho’ these things are not deeply impressed on their minds; but when it comes in question, how they shall get any present advantage, or avoid any imminent calamity, the ideas of truth and goodness, which the gospel has suggested to them, are so obliterated and defaced, that they prefer the getting the present good or pleasure, and avoiding the impending evil, to all the promises in the gospel, and to all evangelical piety. But living faith impresses the image of what is right and good in such deep characters on the soul, that it thinks nothing can be more lovely than to endeavour after it with all its power and might: it paints in such lively colours the bright holiness of the Lord Christ, that the soul fondly contemplating it, is transformed into His image, 2 Cor. 3:18. It represents the love of the dying Jesus so feelingly, that the faithful reckons nothing more acceptable, than in return to live and die for Him, Gal. 2:20. It engraves, as it were, the meditation of promised blessedness so deeply, that it is ready to experience all things, and bear all things for it, 2 Cor. 4:16, 17, 18. and thus it purifies the heart itself, Acts 15:9. and improves it into a sincere and constant piety, which, as faith is more lively or more languid, is also more lively or more languid.
Having thus far observed the nature of living faith, and its difference from presumptuous faith, let us farther enquire, how every one may be conscious to himself, that he has faith. For that it is possible, yea, frequent for the faithful to have a consciousness of their faith, Paul teaches us, not by his own example only, 2 Tim. 1:12. I know in whom I have believed; but in that admonition directed to all, 2 Cor. 13:5. examine yourselves, prove your own selves, whether ye be in the faith. Which admonition would be vain, if by examination, and trial they could not arrive at the knowledge of what they search after. But that they could, he plainly enough insinuates by adding, know ye not your own selves, that Jesus Christ is in you except ye be reprobates?
Nor is it difficult to understand, how this consciousness of faith should arise in the faithful. First, it behoves them to be well informed of the nature of saving faith from the word of God. Nor is there any necessity to weary the minds of the weak with a multipliplicity of marks to judge by; only let it be explained to them simply and clearly, what are the principal and essential acts of faith: let the difference betwixt a strong and a weak faith be inculcated, betwixt faith that is lively and that which is languid; that which is quiet and calm, and that which is shaken with various temptations: and let them be admonished, not only that weak, languid, or shaken faith, is nevertheless true faith, but that in the examination of themselves, weak faith is not to be measured by the idea of strong faith; that which is languid, by that of lively faith; nor faith that is shaken, by the idea of faith that is quiet and calm; but each is to be compared with its proper idea. This being duly observed, let every one examine himself, whether he putteth forth acts agreeable to what we have been describing: which no man that attends diligently to himself can be ignorant of. Whatsoever things a Man thinks of, and wills, by that very faculty which thinks of and wills those things, is he immediately conscious that he does so: now faith is an action of the mind and will.
Somebody perhaps may reply —— if it be so ready and easy a matter to be conscious of one’s having faith, whence doth it happen that many of the faithful are tormented with such uneasy waverings about this matter? There is more than one reason for this. I. It often happens that they have either formed to themselves a wrong idea of faith, or have rashly taken it from others who have incautiously formed it before them. Thus we have learnt from experience, that not a small number of Souls have been exercised in an opinion, that the essence of faith consists in a certain persuasion of divine love, in a delightful sense of it, and full assurance of salvation, and not finding these things in themselves, have, by a harsh judgment, expunged themselves from the lot of the faithful. Yet those very people, being better informed of the nature of faith, and being taught, that these things are rather the glorious fruits of a confirmed and strong faith, than the essential acts of true faith, have, by little and little, returned to a more quiet mind. II. It also sometimes happens, that the faithful are agitated with so many storms of temptation, that they attend the less to the discernment of the proper acts of their souls, or indeed are Jess able to attend to them. For in that situation, all things are done by them so confusedly, and in such a desultory manner, that in this perturbation of mind, they cannot discern clearly the state of their own hearts, while the thoughts of their own minds and the emotions of their wills, succeed and oppose each other with an unaccountable variety. III. Sometimes too it is difficult, especially in an afflicted state of their souls, to reconcile that contention of their actions, with the description of true faith, or, to speak more clearly, to weigh or compare the rule, with that, which ought to be exacted by that rule: especially when any one has proposed to himself an idea of lively faith, and only discovers in himself a languid faith, then it can hardly be otherwise; but, seeing very little agreement in these things, or rather the widest difference between the rule, and the act to be done according to that rule, he must think the worse of his Faith.
It is not indeed absolutely necessary to salvation, that every one should know that he believes, for the promise is annexed to the sincerity of faith, Mark 16:16. John 3:16. not to the knowledge that any may have of their faith. Nevertheless it is expedient that every one should, by an accurate scrutiny, inquire into the truth and sincerity of his faith. I. That he may render due thanks to God for such an inestimable gift. For if Paul could so often render thanks to God for the faith of others, Eph. 1:15, 16. Phil. 1:3, 4. 1 Thess. 1:2, 3. 2 Thess. 1:3. how much more is it incumbent upon every one to thank God for his own faith? But he can’t do this, unless he knows he has faith. II. That he may greatly console himself: for a consciousness of our faith, makes us at the same time certain of salvation: thus the apostle joins these two, 2. Tim. 1:12. I know in whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed to him against that day. III. That he may run the race of holiness with the greater alacrity, for he who is certain that he works from a principle of faith, is certain also, that his labour will not be in vain in the Lord; and this certainty makes the believer steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. 1 Cor. 15:58.
Witsius, H. (1761). (Madan, Trans.). London: E. Dilly; J. Fuller.