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“the unity of the spirit,” and “the bond of peace?”—Is this a time for men who agree in the cardinal doctrines of the trinity, the entire depravity of man by nature, the indispensable necessity of a special divine influence to renew the soul, the sovereignty of God in the dispensation of his grace, the entire dependence of man on the vicarious atonement of Christ for pardon and acceptance with God—is it a time for such men to contend about terms, and to waste their strength in mutual animosities and recriminations, when God is calling upon them “to preach the gospel to every creature?”
ART. XI.-REVIEW OF Cox's SERMON ON REGENERATION.
Regeneration and the Manner of its occurrence. A Sermon from John v. 24,
preached at the opening of the Synod of New York, in the Rutgers'-Street church, on Tuesday cvening, Oct. 20, 1829. By SAMUEL H. Cox, D. D. Pastor of the Laight-Street Presbyterian church. Pp. 42.
This sermon has appeared to us worthy of a more extended notice, than we can ordinarily bestow upon occasional productions of this kind. It was prepared and preached for the especial benefit, of one of the largest and most respectable synods of the Presbyterian church. It is given to the public under circumstances which are fitted to secure to it wide publicity, the avails of it being devoted to a most worthy object of benevolence. The author is extensively known by reputation, as a powerful preacher; but, with the exception of a single discourse, delivered at the funeral of the lamented Bruen, he “never before, in the course of a ministry of thirteen years, has felt it to be his duty to adventure a sermon before the public.” We hope he will be induced frequently to repeat the experiment. “Its imperfections of style" he says, “ are acknowledged and perhaps sufficiently felt.” They are of exactly that kind, however, as far as they exist, which are best removed by the habit of writing much and carefully for the public eye. All the productions of Dr. Cox are characterized by original and penetrating thought. In very few writers do we find more direct and pointed argumentation; a keener glance in tracing the minutest shades of thought; or more of the rapidity of the lightning's flash, in laying open the dark recesses of guilt and error in the human heart.
But passing by all minor points of criticism, we shall come at once to the subject of Dr. Cox's sermon, which is one of the most interesting and important in the whole range of christian theology, viz. the nature of REGENERATion and the manner of its occurrence.
The bible describes men as by nature, “ dead in trespasses and sins;" but no one understands this to mean, that they are like the dead, inert, cold, and senseless. We need no evidence Vol. II.
from the scriptures to assure us, that men are by nature actively and positively opposed to God; filled with pride and envy, “bateful and hating one another.” Representations then, of the character of man, as if there were some mass of corruption, seated in the constitution of the moral agent, or some concreated feebleness of faculty, or positive defect, or latent and terrible poison, in the structure of the soul, involving all the proclaimed condemnations of apostasy only by its existence there, even while it slumbers, are as much a violation of the dictates of common sense, and of the laws of the mind, as of the sacred scriptures. No being, in all the conceivable stages of transgression, has more decidedly active power than man : and none, except the fallen angels, wields that power
with more terrible efficiency. When the scriptures, therefore, speak of man, as “dead,” they mean to say, figuratively, that while he is intensely active in the pursuit of earthly objects, he puts forth no power for the attainment of heavenly things. In this respect, he is like the man in the tomb, in relation to the hum of the busy, the pomp of the ambitious, and the levity of the gay above bim. The mouldering inhabitants of the sepulchre hear not the tread of the thoughtless over the place of their rest; nor feel the emotions of gladness that cheer the hearts of those who enjoy the pleasures of this world. So it is with the wicked, in regard to the things of religion. With respect to other things, than efforts to obtain salvation, however, they have tremendous activity. Aggressions upon God, and upon each other, and the wide desolations of the world around us, are proofs, that, with all his spiritual deadness, man is “ vital in every part" for the purposes of evil.
There is a change in many men. A point of time arrives when all this activity in evil is stayed, and turned over to the side of religion. The mighty machine, that was carrying desolation far and wide suddenly stops; the wheels run backward, and all its powers are employed in the cause of truth and of God. In other words, the man a few months or weeks ago active in sin, now becomes active in righteousness. He that put forth talent and wealth to corrupt other men, now puts forth talent and wealth to win them to the Savior. He that compassed sea and land to make a proselyte to infidelity, lust, and blasphemy, would now recross those seas, and retraverse those lands to win back that proselyte to faith, to chastity, and to the love of God. He that put forth amazing powers to aggrandize himself or family; to rear palaces and live at ease; or to prepare for his body, when dead, a magnificent consignment to the empire of worms, now puts forth the same powers to build up the cause which he labored to destroy,—to advance the kingdom of righteousness, and to “prepare a high way for the Lord.” Paul, just before insuriated and blind, now preaches the same Jesus that he persecuted; and Newton, Rochester,
and Gardiner, tell of the love and glory of the same Redeemer, whom a few days before they cursed and blasphemed.
The reason is, they have passed through that great revolution called in the bible " the new birth.” They have traversed the line which divides darkness from light, and which separates the kingdom of satan from that of God. They are new creatures; acknowledge a new Lord and new laws; love new objects, and seek new rewards. This is the most decisive change that man ever experiences. It enrols him with new beings, and is eternal in all the impressions it makes on the soul. No stamp of faith, hope, love, joy, or peace once made there is ever blotted out, but lives, deepens, brightens, glows, forever and ever.
Now an important question arises here, whether this being, so active in different directions on both sides of this change, is also active in the passage? Or is he, during the change from one state to another, a mere passive recipient of what may be imparted to him? Is the soul like wax which receives the impression made on it by a seal, or does it think, resolve, feel, will, and act, even in the moment of the change? In one word, is the man active or passive in regeneration?
The inquiry on this subject is well stated by Dr. Cox.
In originating and executing the redemption-system, God is self-moved, sovereign in his goodness, and spontaneous in all. We are relatively passive then, and even worse since we did nothing to originate his mercy, but much to provoke his justice; since it is his grace that commences and completes the stupendous plan of sulvation; and since he is alone the glorious Author, Sustainer, and Finisher of the incomparable scheme “ according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”—But in reference to the initial point, the point of contact between the soul and the kingdom, the question occurs, are we passively introduced? The question is not, Does God introduce us? is HE the author of our piety? is his operation effectual, and his counsel unfrustrate? It is this; Does God regenerate the soul passively, or is the soul passive while he acts?--Are we regenerated before we love God, or obey the gospel?—Is not the change itself entirely coincident with the laws of accountability, with self-reproaches for its postponement, and with every order of God to all men every where to become the immediate subjects of it? Is it not wholly moral, in contradiction to physical, in its nature? Is it not looking through words to things-trom books to fact8-at nature, not theory,) is it not intrinsically absurd, and therefore impossible that passive regeneration should exist? that we should be morally regenerated in the order of time, or nature, or correct thought, or any other order, before we do our duty ? that we should do our duty passively? i.e. by not doing it, which is“the way of Cain?” And if this be absurd, is not its absurdity the best part of it? or at any rate its least injurious part? pp. 4, 5.
It is unnecessary for us to say, that the answer to these questions will determine much in relation to the character of this change; the obligations of the sinner; the duty of ministers; the
proper feelings of christians; and the agency of God. Perhaps the solution of the single question whether the soul is active or passive in this great change, may be the pivot on which shall turn whole systems in divinity ;—the radiating point from which may shoot off rays, into whole regions of surrounding twilight or midnight darkness. Dr.Cox's design has not lead him very fully into the argument on this point. He has however presented some bold and striking illustrations of the subject; and exposed in very strong language, the pernicious consequences of the dogma which he opposes. We shall endeavor to consider the question somewhat at large.
1. In looking at the bible with reference to this question, we are first met by the fact that God requires this change; and requires the sinner himself to exert the requisite power to effect itnot merely to attempt to do it—to pray, and sleep, and dream, and hate God while in the sanctuary, or upon his knees, or in reading the bible; calling this a using of the means; but actually to do the thing, the whole thing involved in this change. Thus he commands “all men every where to repent.” Thus he enjoins the duty of believing, on penalty of eternal woe. Thus he calls on all to love him, to obey him, and to keep wholly his commandments. So he says "Cast away from you all your transgressions whereby ye have transgressed, and make you a NEW HEART, and a right spirit. For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord, wherefore turn yourselves and live ye.”
Respecting these commandments, it is to be observed, that they are made with a full knowledge of all the circumstances of the case. God is not ignorant of what man can do, and of what he cannot do. There are
no secret circumstances, no unknown events in the case, as there often are in a human government, that would authorize or excuse a neglect of these requirements. Sickness, disappointment, or some burst of feeling uncontrollable by existing power, which no parent can foresee, may
often excuse a child from obeying the letter of his commands. But no such unforeseen event can excuse a sinner for not obeying the command of God, and doing the whole thing required at bis hands. Our Maker knew all the pleas that could ever be made for rebellion. He knew that no contingent posture of human spiritsno new and strange attitudes of rebellion would throw the guilty beyond the proper compass of such a requisition; and with this full knowledge of all possible evasions, and of all conceivable potency and malignity of sin, he issues the demand that all moral agents in this world, should put forth their own active agency, and accomplish the work in question.
In regard to these commands, it is farther to be observed, that
they require an immediate compliance. They do not enjoin on the sinner merely to use means--to pray, and seek, and thus prolong the day of rebellion, but they solemnly demand on pain of woe eternal, that he should do the whole of the specified work, at once.
Language cannot be plainer; nor can it be misunderstood. Nor can it, without manifest and most gross perversion, be so tortured as to be consistent with the proclamation that the sinner is to wait till God does it; or that God will do it without the sinner's agency; or that it can be done while the sinner is inactive. Most clearly, if this change does take place without action on the part of the sinner, the command of God is not obeyed. It is as much unmet by a mere passive recipient, as it is
other being who never heard it, or who remains in rebellion. It is clearly a matter of command, that the sinner's own mind is to turn to God, by some kind of turning consistent with bis moral powers; and the just penalty if he does not, is that he must die. If it had not been required and expected, that the sinner would be active in the change, the command would have been couched in different language. Instead of its being a solemn injunction to do the thing required, it would have been to wait till God repents and believes for us, and then to take the misnamed reward.
2. When we look at the record of facts in the bible, we find that these requirements were based on a knowledge of what might take place. Many men of former days did comply with the command of God. In what way do they speak of this great change? Do they record their feelings, as though they were passive, and did nothing themselves? That they acknowledged their regeneration to have been owing to the special—the electing love and the almighty power of God, is admitted. It was not by works of righteousness which they had done, but according to his mercy he saved them. It was because he had chosen them to salvation through sanctification, and belief of the truth, that they believed. It was because whom he foresaw, he called, and whom he called, he justified, that they were made free from condemnation. So we feel.
Chat God is the author of regeneration, and of all the grand agencies and results of the redemption system, securing the effect by the exertion of proper power, and bestowing the rewards as it
seems good in his sight,” is a grand fundamental article of our belief, which it is “not in our hearts to impair, but only to aggrandize and honor.” But our belief is, that the sacred writers meant to state this grand truth in such a way as not to "manacle the hands, fetter the feet, or stagnate the mental and moral functions of a man."
When saints of old speak of the actual process of regeneration, they speak as all other moral agents speak, when they are active.