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THE MEANS OF GRACE.
MALACHI iii. 7.
" Ye have gone away from mine Ordinances, and have not
1. 1. BUT are there any Ordinances now, since life and immortality were brought to light by the gospel ? Are there under the Christian dispensation, any Means ordained of God, as the usual channels of his grace? This question could never have been proposed, in the Apostolical Church, unless by one who openly avowed himself to be an Heathen ; the whole body of Christians being agreed, that Christ had ordained certain outward means, for conveying his grace into the souls of men. Their constant practice set this beyond all dispute; for so long as “ all that believed were together, and had all things common," Acts ii. 44: “they continued steadfastly in the teaching of the Apostles, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers,” ver. 42.
2. But in process of time, when “ the love of many waxed cold," some began to mistake the means for the end, and to place Religion, rather in doing those outward works, than in a heart renewed after the image of God. They forgot, that “the end of every commandment is love, out of a pure heart, with faith unfeigned;" the loving the Lord their
God with all their heart, and their neighbour as themselves; and the being purified from pride, anger, and evil desire, by a “ faith of the operation of God.” Others seemed to imagine, that though Religion did not principally consist in these outward means, yet there was something in them wherewith God was well pleased, something that would still make them acceptable in his sight, though they were not exact in the weightier matters of the law, in Justice, Mercy, and the Love of God.
3. It is evident, in those who abused them thus, they did not conduce to the end for wbich they were ordained. Rather, the things which should have been for their health, were to them an occasion of falling. They were so far from receiving any blessing therein, that they only drew down a curse upon their head : so far from growing more heavenly in heart and life, that they were two-fold more the children of hell than before. Others clearly perceiving, that these means did not convey the grace of God to those children of the deyil, began from this particular case to draw a general conclusion, “ That they were not means of conveying the grace of God."
4. Yet the number of those who abused the ordinances of God was far greater than of those who despised them, till certain men arose, not only of great understanding, (sometimes joined with considerable learning), but who likewise appeared to be men of love, experimentally acquainted with true, inward Religion. Some of these were burning and shining lights, persons famous in their generations, and such as had well deserved of the Church of Christ, for standing in the gap against the overflowings of ungodli.
It cannot be supposed, that these holy and venerable men, intended any more at first, than to shew that outward Reli. gion is nothing worth, without the Religion of the heart : that God " is a Spirit, and they wbo worship him, must worship him in spirit and in truth.” That therefore external worship is lost labour, without a heart devoted to God: that the outward ordinances of God then profit much, when they
advance inward holiness, but when they advance it not, are unprofitable and void, are lighter than vanity : yea, that when they are used, as it were, in the place of this, they are an utter abomination to the Lord.
5. Yet it is not strange, if some of these, being strongly convinced, of that horrid profanation of the ordinances of God, which had spread itself over the whole Church, and well nigh driven true Religion out of the world, in their fervent zeal for the glory of God, and the recovery of souls from that fatal delusion, spake, as if outward Religion were absolutely nothing, as if it had no place in the Religion of Christ. It is not surprising at all, if they should not always have expressed themselves with sufficient caution. So that unwary bearers might believe they condemned all outward means, as altogether unprofitable; and as not designed of God to be the ordinary channels of conveying his grace into the souls of men.
Nay, it is not impossible, some of these holy men did, at length, themselves fall into this opinion : in particular, those who, not by choice, but by the Providence of God, were cut off from all these ordinances : perhaps wandering up and down, having no certain abiding-place, or dwelling in dens and caves of the earth. These experiencing the grace of God in themselves, though they were deprived of all outward means, might infer, that the same grace would be given to them, who of set purpose abstained from them.
6. And Experience shews, how easily this notion spreads, and insinuates itself into the minds of men : especially of those who are thoroughly awakened out of the sleep of death, and begin to feel the weight of their sins, a burthen too beavy to be borne. These are usually impatient of their present state, and trying every way to escape from it. They are always ready to catch at any new proposal of ease or happiness. They have probably tried most outward means, and found no ease in them : it may be, more and more of remorse, and fear, and sorrow, and condemnation. It is easy therefore to persuade these, that it is better for them to abstain from all those means. They are already weary of strive ing (as it seems) in vain, of labouring in the fire: and are therefore glad of any pretence to cast aside that wherein their soul has no pleasure; to give over the painful strife, and sink down into an indolent inactivity.
II. 1. In the following Discourse, I propose to examine at large, Whether there are any Means of Grace?
By Means of Grace I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.
I use this expression, “ Means of Grace,” because I know none better, and because it has been generally used in the Christian Church for many ages: in particular, by our own Church, which directs us to bless God, both for the “ Means of grace,” and hopes of glory; and teaches us that a Sacrament is, “ An outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same."
The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation ; searching the Scriptures, (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon), and receiving the Lord's-Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him : and these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.
2. But we allow, That the whole value of the means depends on their actual subservience to the end of Religion ; that consequently all these means, when separate from the end, are less than nothing and vanity ; that if they do not actually conduce to the knowledge and love of God, they are not acceptable in his sight: yea, rather, they are an abomination before him; a stink in his nostrils; he is weary to bear them. Above all, if they are used as a kind of Commutation for the Religion they were designed to subserve; it is not easy to find words for the enormous folly and wickedness, of thus turning God's arm against bimself; of keeping Christianity out of the heart by those very means which were ordained for the bringing it in.
3. We allow, likewise, that all outward means whatever,
if separate from the Spirit of God, cannot profit at all, cannot conduce, in any degree, either to the knowledge or love of God. Without controversy, the help that is done upon earth, He doth it himself. It is He alone who by his own Almighty Power, worketh in us what is pleasing in his sight. And all outward things, unless he work in them and by them, are mere weak and beggarly elements. Whosoever therefore imagines, there is any intrinsic power, in any means whatsoever, does greatly err, not knowing the Scriptures, neither the power of God. We know that there is no inherent power in the words that are spoken in prayer, in the letter of Scripture read, the sound thereof heard, or the bread and wine received in the Lord's-Supper : but that it is God alone who is the Giver of every good gift, the Author of all grace; that the whole power is of him, whereby, through any of these, there is any blessing conveyed to our souls. We know, likewise, that he is able to give the same grace though there were no means on the face of the earth. In this sense, we may affirm, that, “ with regard to God, there is no such thing as means : seeing he is equally able to work whatsoever pleaseth him, by any, or by none at all.”
4. We allow farther, That the use of all means whatever, will never atone for one sin; that it is the blood of Christ alone, whereby any sinner can be reconciled to God; there being no other propitiation for our sins, no other fountain for sin and uncleanness. Every believer in Christ is deeply convinced that there is no merit but in Him : that there is no merit in any of his own works; not in uttering the prayer, or searching the Scriptures, or hearing the Word of God, or eating of that bread and drinking of that cup. So that if no more be intended by the expression some have used, “ Christ is the only means of grace,” than this, That he is the only meritorious cause of it, it cannot be gainsaid by any who know the grace of God.
5. Yet once more. We allow, though it is a melancholy truth, that a large proportion of those who are called Christians, do to this day abuse the means of grace, to the deVOL. VII.