|Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth.| -- John 17:17.
MY DEAR SISTER,
Some people are frightened at the idea of Doctrine, as though it were a mere abstraction, which has nothing to do with practical life. This notion is founded on a misapprehension not only of the meaning of the term, but of the connection of actions with established principles of the mind. The general signification of the word doctrine is, the principles upon which any system is founded. As applied to Christianity, it means divine truth; for this is the foundation upon which the Christian religion rests. Although the truths of God's Word are not reduced to a regular system in the Bible, yet, when brought together, they make the most beautiful and perfect of all systems. It is proper, therefore, that we should contemplate them in a body, as they appear with the most perfect symmetry, in the plan of God's moral government. There is a disposition, at the present day, to undervalue doctrinal knowledge. Many people think it of little consequence what they believe, if they are only sincere, and manifest much feeling on the subject of religion. But this is a ruinous mistake. There is a most intimate connection between faith and practice. Those principles which are believed and received into the heart govern and control our actions. The doctrines which God has revealed in his Word are the principles of his moral government. As we are the subjects of that government, it cannot be a matter of small moment for us to understand, so far as we are capable, the principles upon which it is administered. If we mistake these principles, we may be found in open rebellion, while we think we are doing God service. For example: God commands us not to steal. But, if we do not believe that he has given this commandment, we shall feel under no obligation to obey it. And every truth which God has revealed is as intimately connected with practice as this, although the duty enjoined be, in itself considered, of less consequence. Christianity is called a spiritual building. |Ye are built up a spiritual house.| |Whose house are we?| |We are God's building.| Now the foundation and frame-work of this building are the doctrines or truths of the Bible. Some of these doctrines are called fundamental or essential, because they lie at the foundation of the whole building; and are so essential to it, that, if taken away, the whole would fall to the ground. These are, The Existence of God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the Fall, and consequent Depravity of Man; the Atonement of Christ; Justification by faith in him alone, and the Office of the Holy Spirit in the work of Regeneration. If any one of these were taken away, it would overturn the whole building. These may, therefore, well be called the foundation. But you see there are other very important parts of a frame besides the foundation. So there are many other very important truths of Christianity, besides its essential doctrines. But some of these are of more consequence than others. If a post or a beam is taken away, the building is greatly marred and in danger of falling; yet, if well covered, it may still be a comfortable dwelling. Again, although a brace or a pin is of service to strengthen the building, yet either may be taken away without very serious injury. But a frame may be complete in all its parts, and yet be no building. Without a covering, it will not answer a single design of a house; and just in proportion as it is well covered, will it be a comfortable residence. Just so with Christianity. The covering of the house is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, producing gracious affections, which manifest themselves in a holy life. But the covering of a house cannot exist without some kind of frame-work. So experimental and practical piety cannot exist without a belief of the principal doctrines of the gospel. The Holy Spirit operates upon the heart through the truth. He gives it a personal application; brings it home to the heart and conscience, and makes it effectual in changing the heart and life. |Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.| |Of his own will begat he us, with the word of truth.| |Seeing ye have purified your souls, in obeying the truth through the Spirit.| |Being born again by the word of God.| Thus, the agency of the Spirit is always acknowledged in connection with the truth. Any religious feeling or experience, therefore, which is not produced by the truth made effectual by the Holy Spirit, is not genuine. There is a kind of indefinite religious feeling, which many mistake for Christian experience. They feel, and perhaps deeply; but they know not why they feel. Such religious feeling is to be suspected as spurious. It may be the delusion of the devil. By persuading people to rest upon this spurious religious feeling, he accomplishes his purpose as well as if he had kept them in carnal security. And the clearer our views of truth, the more spiritual and holy will be our religious affections. Thus, godly sorrow arises from a sight of our own depravity, with a sense of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, as committed against a holy God, and against great light and mercy. Faith is produced by a spiritual view of the atonement of Christ, and of his infinite fulness as a complete and perfect Saviour. Love is excited by a discovery of the excellence of God's moral perfections. Holy fear and reverence arise from a sight of the majesty and glory of his natural attributes, and a sense of his presence. Joy may come from a sense of the infinite rectitude of his moral government; from the sight of the glory of God, in his works of providence and grace; or from a general view of the beauty and excellence of divine truth. Comfort may be derived from evidence of the divine favor; and confidence, from an appropriation of God's promises to ourselves. And in many other ways, also, the Holy Spirit produces spiritual feelings through the instrumentality of the truth. But all religious feeling, produced by impulse, without any rational view of the truth, is to be suspected. It may be the work of Satan, who is very busy in counterfeiting religious experiences for those he wishes to deceive. Every religious affection has its counterfeit. Thus, sorrow may be produced by the fear of hell, without any sense of the evil of sin; a presumption of our own good estate may be mistaken for faith, and this will produce joy; we may exercise a carnal or selfish love to God, because we think he loves us, and has made us the objects of his special favor; and the promises of God, so far as they concern the personal good of the believer, may administer as much comfort to the hypocrite as to the real saint.
How exceedingly important is it, then, that you should not only exercise a general belief of the great doctrines of the gospel, but that you should have a right apprehension of them. The truth is so necessary in the Christian warfare, that it is called the sword of the Spirit. But of what benefit is the sword to the soldier who knows not how to use it? The sword is used as much to ward off the blows of the enemy, as to attack him. But the novice, who should engage an enemy, without knowing the use of his weapon, would be thrust through in the first onset. Hence, the peculiar force of the prayer of our Lord, |Sanctify them through thy truth.| It is by the use of the truth, as the |sword of the Spirit,| in the Christian warfare, that the work of satisfaction is carried on.
But, as the frame-work of a building, though complete in all its parts, would be no house without a covering; so we may have a perfect knowledge of the abstract doctrines of the Christian religion, and be no Christians. It is the practical and experimental application of these doctrines to our own hearts and lives, that makes the building complete. Regard yourself as a subject of God's moral government, and the doctrines of the Bible as the laws of his kingdom; and you will feel such a personal interest in them, that you cannot rest in abstract speculation. Study these doctrines, that you may know how to live to the glory of God.
I will now give you a few simple directions for obtaining a correct knowledge of the doctrines of the Bible.
1. Approach the subject with the spirit of a little child. |As new-born babes desire the sincere milk of the word.| |Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.| A little child is always satisfied of the truth of what his father tells him. |My father says so,| is reason enough for him. He does not say, |I will not believe it, because I cannot understand it.| So it should be your first object to ascertain what the Bible teaches, and then submit to it with the confidence of a little child. You cannot expect fully to comprehend the ways of an infinite Being. You can see but a very small part of the system of his moral government. It cannot be strange, then, if you are unable to discover the reasonableness of every truth which he has revealed. Do not try to carry out difficult points beyond what is plainly taught in the Scriptures. God has revealed all that is necessary for us to know in this life. He knows best where to leave these subjects. If there were no difficulties in the truths revealed, there would be no trial of our faith. It is necessary that we should take some things upon trust. There are also some truths taught which we find it difficult to reconcile with others as plainly revealed. Be content to believe both, on the authority of God's word. He will reconcile them hereafter. |What I do, thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter.| Let this consideration always satisfy you: |Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.| I am the more particular on this point, as it is the place where error always begins. The setting up of feeble reason in opposition to the word of God, has been the foundation of all mistakes in religion. And, if we determine to be satisfied of the reasonableness of the truth before we believe it, and carry out the principle, we shall land in downright atheism. By this, I do not mean that any truth is unreasonable. It is not so. Divine truth is the perfection of reason. But there are some truths which may appear unreasonable, because we cannot see the whole of them. Thus, a fly, on the corner of a splendid edifice, cannot see the beauty and symmetry of the building. So far as his eye extends, it may appear to be sadly lacking in its proportions. Yet this is but a faint representation of the narrow views we have of God's moral government. There is, however, no truth which he has revealed, in relation to that government, that is more difficult to understand, than many things that philosophy has discovered in the natural world. Yet, even infidels do not think of disputing facts conclusively proved by philosophy, because they cannot understand them. It becomes us, then, with the deepest humility and self-abasement, to submit our reason to the word of God.
2. Avoid a controversial spirit. Do not study for the sake of finding arguments to support your own opinions. Take the place of a sincere inquirer after truth, with a determination to embrace whatever you find supported by the word of God, however contrary it may be to your favorite notions. But when objections arise in your mind against any doctrine, do not suppose you have made some new discovery, and therefore reject it without farther inquiry. The same objections have perhaps occurred to the mind of every inquirer, on the same subject; and very probably they have often been satisfactorily answered by able writers. This is a common error of young inquirers. They are apt to think others take things upon trust, and that they are the only persons who have thought of the difficulties which start up in their minds. But, when their reading becomes more extensive, they learn, with shame, that what appeared to them to be original thought, was only following an old, beaten track.
3. Use such helps as you can obtain. Read carefully selected and judicious authors, on doctrinal subjects.[A] The advantages arising from the perusal of other books than the Scriptures, to obtain doctrinal knowledge, are these: 1. You may profit by the experience of others. You see how the difficulties which arise in your own mind appeared to them, and how they solved them.2. Much light may be thrown upon many difficult passages of Scripture, by an intimate acquaintance with the times and circumstances under which they were written; and men who undertake to write on these subjects generally search deeply into these things.3. God has been pleased, in every age, to raise up men |mighty in the Scriptures.| By the extraordinary powers of mind which he has given them, they may have clearer perceptions of divine truth than you are able to obtain by the exertion of your own faculties alone. You may also employ the sermons which you hear, for an increase of doctrinal knowledge, as well as an excitement to the performance of duty. But all these things you must invariably bring to the test of God's word. We are commanded to |try the spirits, whether they be of God.| Do not take the opinions of men upon trust. Compare them diligently with the word of God, and do not receive them till you are fully convinced that they agree with this unerring standard. Make this your text-book; and only use others to assist you in coming to a right understanding of this.
4. In all your researches after doctrinal knowledge, seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Make it a subject of daily prayer, that God would enable you to understand his word, that you may be |rooted and grounded in the faith.| The influences of the Holy Spirit are two-fold. He enlightens the understanding, to lead it into a correct knowledge of the truth; and he applies the truth to the sanctification of the heart. Pray diligently that you may have both. If you persevere in the proper observance of this direction, you cannot fail to profit by the others. But, if you neglect this, your pursuit of doctrinal knowledge will serve only as food to your pride, self-confidence and vain-glory, and exert a blighting influence upon your soul.
Your affectionate Brother.
[Footnote A: The reader will find a list of suitable books in the Appendix.]