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The true minister studies the different dispensations, in order to qualify himself for the discharge of every part of his duty.
THE pastor who is ill instructed in the mysteries of our holy religion, loses himself, and leads his sheep astray. The good pastor, on the contrary, having found out the way to everlasting life, presses forward therein at the head of his flock, and exhorts every heedless wanderer to follow his steps. He is conscious, not only that he has a mixture of sheep and goats in his fold, but he knows that, among the former, there are some to whose spiritual condition the sincere milk of the word is much better adapted than stronger food. To all of these he studies to address himself in a suitable manner. To those who are dead in trespasses and sin, equally destitute both of love and fear, he proclaims the first principles of the Gospel, such as "repentance from dead works, faith toward God, and an eternal judgment," Heb. vi, 1, 2. Those who had already awakened from the delusions of sin, he anxiously leads into the paths of grace; and endeavours to conduct those to evangelical perfection, who have felt the powers of the world to come, verse 6. He easily distinguishes the mixed multitude of his hearers into a variety of classes. The unbelieving and the impenitent, who are to be considered as without God and without hope in the world, are such as go on, without any symptom of fear, toward the gulf of perdition; whether it be by the high road of vice, with the notoriously abandoned, or through the by-path of hypocrisy, with Pharisaical professors. Converted sinners, or believers, are either under the dispensation of the Father, under that of the Son, or under that of the Holy Ghost, according to the different progress they have made in spiritual things. And the faithful pastor is as perfectly acquainted with their various attainments, as a diligent tutor is acquainted with the different abilities of his several pupils.
Believers, under the dispensation of the Father, are ordinarily surrounded with a night of uncertainty and doubt, though visited, at times, with a few scattered rays of hope. Under the dispensation of his Son, the doubts of believers are dissipated, like those of the two disciples who journeyed to Emmaus, while they discover more clearly, and experience more powerfully, the truths of the Gospel. But under the dispensation of the.Spirit, they " walk in the light," 1 John i, 7, and are led into all truth by " the Spirit of truth," John xvi, 13; "the anointing which they have received abideth in them, and teacheth them of all things" necessary to salvation, 1 John ii, 27.
A father of the Church, paraphrasing upon those words of the apostle, "Lord, save us; we perish," apostrophizes thus with the doubting disciples: "You have your Saviour with you, what danger can you fear? We are yet, they reply, but children, and have attained but to a small degree of strength: hence we are afraid. The descent of the Holy Spirit, that Divine protector which has been graciously promised, has not yet filled us with full assurance. This has been the cause of our unsteadiness hitherto: and hence the Saviour so frequently reproaches us with thejveakness of our faith." (Origen Horn. Matt- viii, 23-28.) Now all those Christians, who have not yet received the spiritual baptism so frequently mentioned in the New Testament, are shut up in this state of weakness and doubt. But so soon as they are bom of the Spirit, they cry out no longer with trembling fear, "Save us; we perish!" But they cry out, in transports of gratitude, " God, according to his mercy, hath saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which he hath shed on us abundantly, through Jesus Christ our Saviour," Tit. iii, 5, 6. * ,
Under the dispensation of the Father, believers constantly experience the fear of God, and, in general, ajnuch greater degree of fear than love. Under the economy of the Son, love begins to gain ascendancy over fear. But under the dispensation of the Holy Spirit, "perfect love casteth out fear," 1 John vi, 18; because it is the peculiar office of the Comforter to deliver the soul from every thing that is liable to distress and torment it.
Under the economy of the Father, the believer is frequently heard to exclaim, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Rom. vii, 24. Under that of the Son, he gratefully cries out, "I thank God," who hath effectually wrought this deliverance, "through Jesus Christ our Lord," Rom. vii, 25. But under the perfect Gospel, which is the dispensation of the Spirit, all believers are enabled to say with one voice, "We have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but we have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father! The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God, and joint heirs with Christ," Rom. viii, 15-17. •
St. Paul thus distinguishes the different states of advancement in the Christian faith. "The heir, as long as he is a child, [and such is the case with believers, under the dispensation of the Father,] differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; but is under tutors and governors till the time appointed of his father. Even so we were once in a state of bondage; but when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his Son to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore, thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God, through Christ," Gal. iv, 1-7, "by whom we have access into this grace, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God," Rom. v, 2.
Our-Lord himself evidently pointed out the progressive state of the Church, when, turning to his disciples, he said, "Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see: for I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them," Luke x, 23, 24. Nevertheless, when their gracious Master held this language, he was at that time neither glorified nor crucified: and it is well known that the glory of the Gospel was to follow his sufferings and his triumph.
The same subject is treated by St. Peter in his first epistle, where he speaks of that full salvation which is to be considered as the end or recompense of faith, 1 Pet. i, 9. "Of which salvation," saith he, "the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ, which was in them, did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us, they did minister the things which are now reported unto you, by them that have preached the Gospel unto you, with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, which things the angels desire to look into," 1 Pet. i, 10-12. "Happy are ye! for the Spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you," 1 Pet. iv, 14. "Ye are a chosen generation, a peculiar people, that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light," 1 Pet. ii, 9.
Without an experimental knowledge of these several states, a minister can no more lead sinners to evangelical perfection, than an illiterate peasant can communicate sufficient intelligence to his rustic companions, to pass an examination for the highest degree in a university.
It may here be necessary to mark out the grand truths by which these dispensations are severally characterized.
The common language under the dispensation of the Father is as follows: "God hath made of one blood all nations of men, and hath appointed the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he be not far from every one of us," Acts xvii, 26, 27. "The grace of God that bringeth salvation, hath appeared [in different degrees] to all men," Tit. ii, 11. "For the living God is the Saviour of all men, especially of those that believe," 1 Tim. iv, 10. "God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him," Acts x, 34, 35. "Without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh unto God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him," Heb. xi, 6. "He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" Micah vi, 8.
Observe the language of the Son's dispensation, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people: for unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord," Luke ii, 10-14. "Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ," John i, 17, "who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel," 2 Tim. i, 10. "The hour cometh and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in Spirit and in truth," John iv, 23. "Ye believe in God, believe also in me," John xiv, 1. "If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed," John viii, 36. "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent. No man can come unto me, except the Father, which hath sent me, draw him: and every man that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me," John vi, 29, 44, 45. "He that believeth on the Son, hath everlasting life: and he that belieVeth not the Son, shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him," John iii, 36.
The dispensation of the Spirit is again distinguished by the following peculiar language: "This is that which was spoken by the Prophet Joel: In the last days, [or under the last dispensations of my grace,] saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh, upon my servants, uid upon my handmaidens: and they shall prophesy. Jesus, being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, hath shed forth this [plenitude of grace, the effects of] which you now see and hear. Repent, therefore, and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call," Acts ii, 16, 39.
If at any time it is to be apprehended that believers are still carnal, and unrenewed by the Spirit of God, the pastor who is conversant with these different economies of grace, inquires with St. Paul, "Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?" Acts xix, 2. When others among his flock demonstrate, both by their conversation and conduct, that they are influenced by the Spirit of Christ, he exhorts them in a manner suitable to the glorious dispensation under which they live. "Ye are washed, ye are sanctified, ye are justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of God. Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost; therefore glorify God in your body and your spirit, which are God's," 1 Cor. vi, 11, 20. "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption," Eph. iv, 30. "Be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs, making melody in your hearts unto the Lord," v, 18,19. "Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks," 1 Thess. v, 16-18.
This language is too elevated for natural men, who understand it no more than illiterate persons comprehend the most abstruse parts of science. Hence it is necessary that the faithful minister should acquaint himself with the different conditions and capacities of all his hearers, if he would happily accommodate spiritual things to spiritual men. Without this knowledge, he will, under every dispensation, run the hazard of refusing to advanced Christians the solid nourishment they need, and of presenting to the natural man that celestial manna which his very soul abhors.
The different dispensations are produced by that lovely variety with which the Almighty is pleased to distribute his favours.
If the light of the Gospel had been due from God to every individual sinner; if he had not been left entirely free, in every sense of the word, to impart it to whom, at what time, and in what degree soever was most pleasing to himself; his impartial justice would then have engaged him equally to illuminate all mankind, and he must have caused the Sun of righteousness, immediately after the fall, to have shone out in its meridian brightness. In such case, there would have been but one dispensation of grace; and the light of the Gospel would not have proceeded to its highest glory by such just gradations as are observable in all the productions of nature.
But the Almighty has proceeded in the work of our redemption, according^ the dictates of his own unerring wisdom, and not upon the plans of^ur pretended sages. The day of the Gospel, whether it be considered as enlightening the world in general, or the heart in particular, rises, like the natural day, from one degree of brightness to another, till all its glories are fully manifested.
The confusion which many divines have spread over this part of theology, makes it necessary to go into particulars, that we may place in a just point of view, both the gradations and the harmony of those three dispensations, which collectively form the glorious Gospel of God.
If some naturalists were determined to confine their observations upon the rainbow, to those lines in it that are manifestly red: if naturalists of another class were as obstinate in contemplating those of an orange hue; and if others were as resolutely bent in singling out those of a blue colour, they would contradict and dispute with each other in as ridiculous a manner as many ignorant worshippers of the triune God are observed to do at this day. Thus Deists dispute for the honour of God the Creator; and while some Christians pay all their homage to God the Redeemer, others are as wholly taken up with God the Sanctifier. Amid all the confusion of these jarring sentiments, the prudent pastor admits, in their proper place, the various dispensations of evangelical light, conducting his followers from faith to faith, till he beholds them illuminated with all the truths, and experiencing all the power of the Christian religion.
We acknowledge that God is just, though the light of the natural sun approaches us only in a gradual manner, producing a constant variety both in our days and seasons. We do not accuse the Supreme Being of injustice, because he is not pleased to bring the fruits of the earth, in an instant, to their highest maturity; or because the same species of fruit, which is esteemed for its delicious flavour in one climate, is found worthless and insipid in another. And if the Sovereign of the world is not expected to ripen, on a sudden, either the reason of individuals or the knowledge of nations, it should not be matter of surprise to observe him acting in his usual manner, with respect to things of a spiritual nature. His plans are all equally wise: but it is impossible for man to form a perfect judgment of them, unless the creature could stand for a moment in the place of the Creator, and take one comprehensive view of earth and heaven, time and eternity. If "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years," when he is pleased, in anmnexpected manner, to fulfil his grand designs; "and a thousand years as one day," 2 Pet. iii, 8, when he sees good to accomplish his purposes in a more gradual way; why should it so strangely afflict and amaze us, that he has left the human race in a state of suspense, with regard to his unsearchable counsels, for near six thousand years? The time is coming when he will discover to us that stupendous plan, which, in our present circumstances, we contemplate with every disadvantage; and just as an animalcule, whose- lite is limited to six hours, would contemplate the plan of an immense palace, which a skilful architect had promised to complete in as many years. Supposing such an insect, endued with reason, and coming into existence during the night, should blindly crawl among the loose materials of which the intended edifice was to be constructed; what opinion could it form either of the architect or his plan? Would not this insignificant creature be led to judge of these matters as the pretended philosopher inconsiderately judges.of that mysterious plan upon