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OF THE DOCTRINE OF CONVERSION.
MATTHEW, ix. 13.
I am not come to call the righteous, but
sinners, to repentance.
IT appears from these words, that our Sa
viour, in his preaching, held in view the character and spiritual situation of the persons whom he addressed; and the differences which existed amongst men in these respects: and that he had a regard to these considerations, more especially in the preaching of repentance and conversion. Now I think, that these considerations have been too much omitted by preachers of the Gospel since, particularly in this very article: and that the doctrine itself has suffered by such omission.
It has been usual to divide all mankind into two classes, the converted and the unconverted; and, by so dividing them, to infer the necessity of conversion to every person whatever. In proposing the subject under this form, we state the distinction, in my opinion, too absolutely, and draw from it a conclusion too universal : because there is a class and description of Christians, who, having been piously educated, and having persevered in those pious courses into which they were first brought, are not conscious to themselves of ever having been without the influence of religion, of ever having lost sight of its sanctions, of ever having renounced them ; of ever, in the general course of their conduct, having gone against them. These cannot properly be reckoned either converted or unconverted. They are not converted, for they are not sensible of any such religious alteration having taken place with them, at any particular time, as can properly be called a conversion. They are not unconverted, because that implies a state of reprobation, and because, if we call upon them to be converted (which if they be
unconverted, we ought to do), they will not well understand what it is we mean them to do ; and, instead of being edified, they may be both much and unnecessarily disturbed, by being so called upon.
There is, in the nature of things, a great variety of religious condition. It arises from hence, that exhortations, and calls, and admonitions, which are of great use and importance in themselves, and very necessary to be insisted upon, are, nevertheless, not wanted by all, are not equally applicable to all, and to some are altogether inapplicable. This holds true of most of the topics of persuasion or warning, which a Christain teacher can adopt. When we preach against presumption, for instance, it is not because we suppose
that all are presumptuous; or that it is necessary for all, or every one, to become more humble, or diffident, or apprehensive, than he now is : on the contrary, there may amongst our hearers be low, and timorous, and dejected spirits, who, if they take to themselves what we say, may increase a disposition which is already too much; or
be at a loss to know what it is herein that we would enjoin upon them. Yet the discourse and the doctrine may, nevertheless, be very good ; and for a great portion of our congregation, very necessary. The like, I think, is the case with the doctrine of conversion. If we were to omit the doctrine of conversion, we should omit a doctrine, which, to many, must be the salvation of their souls. To them, all calls without this call, all preaching without this doctrine, would be in vain ; and it
be true, that a great part of our hearers are of this description. On the other hand, if we press and insist upon conversion, as indispensable to all for the purpose of being saved, we should mislead some, who would not apprehend how they co ld be required to turn, or be converted, to religion, who were never, that they knew, either indifferent to it, or alienated from it.
In opposition, however, to what is here said, there are who contend, that it is necessary for every man living to be converted before he can be saved. This opinion undoubtedly deserves serious consideration, because it founds itself upon Scripture, whether rightly or erroneously interpreted is the question. The portion of Scripture upon which they who maintain the opinion chiefly rely, is our Saviour's conversation with Nicodemus, recorded in the third chapter of Saint John's Gospel. Our Saviour is there stated to have said to Nicodemus, “ Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God ;” and afterwards, as a confirma* tion, and, in some sort, an exposition, of his assertion, to have added, “ Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” It is inferred from this passage, that all persons whatever must undergo a conversion, before they be capable of salvation : and it cannot be said that this is a forced or strained inference; but the question before us at present is, is it a necessary