Founders Journal · Summer 2004 · pp. 26-33
CIRCLE LETTER OF 1795
DOCTRINE OF SALVATION BY FREE GRACE ALONE
WRITTEN BY REV. SAMUEL PEARCE, A. M.,
PASTOR OF CANNON STREET BAPTIST CHURCH, BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND.
ORDERED TO BE PRINTED IN THE MINUTES OF THE N. Y. BAPTIST ASSOCIATION, THIS YEAR, 1856.
The Elders and Messengers of the several BAPTIST CHURCHES, met in Association at Bewdley, Worcestershire, England, May 26th and 27th, 1795.
To the Churches they represent:–
DEAR BRETHREN:–With gratitude to the great Master of assemblies for another pleasing interview with each other, we unite in expressing our most affectionate wishes that you also may be comforted, with the same consolations wherewith we ourselves have been comforted of God. On this side heaven, indeed, we must not expect our pleasures to be wholly undisturbed; yet, possessed of that faith which overcometh the world, we would exclaim with the holy apostle, “Thanks be unto God, who always causeth us to triumph in Christ;” and teacheth us, “to glory in tribulations also.”
Some causes of grief have been suggested in the various Epistles from the Churches. Among these, in some places, the want of success in bringing souls to Christ; in others, The little zeal and diligence which appear in professors; the death of some, and the unbecoming conduct of others, have been lamented:–But, brethren, these are trials from which no age of christianity, not even the apostolic, has been exempted. Let not these things discourage us. He that laid the foundation of his church, will build her up; he will not desert the work of his own hands, and though Zion may complain, “The Lord hath forsaken me!” it will not be long before he will prove to her joy, that she is “engraven on the palms of his hands, and that her walls are continually before him.” It shall yet be said, “Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee.” Amidst our causes of complaint, we are not without some indications of the divine favour:–some of our Churches have enjoyed very comfortable additions; most are in peace; and some, who were last year destitute of pastors, are now agreeably supplied. Nor is it one of the least causes of our joy, that our various congregations still avow their attachment to the Faith once delivered to the Saints.
The point of difference between us and many other professing christians, lies in the Doctrine of SALVATION ENTIRELY BY GRACE; for whilst some assert that good works are the cause of justification;-some that good works are united with the merits of Christ, and so both contribute to our justification;–and others, that good works neither in whole not in part justify, but the act of faith; WE renounce everything in point of our acceptance with God, but His FREE GRACE ALONE, which justifies the ungodly; still treading in the steps of our venerable forefathers, the compilers of the Baptist Confession of Faith, who thus express themselves, respecting the Doctrine of Justification. “Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith”which “is the alone instrument of justification.”
IN this point do all the other lines of our confession meet; for if it be admitted that Justification is an act of FREE GRACE in God, without any respect to the merit or demerit of the person justified, then the doctrines of JEHOVAH’S sovereign love in choosing to himself a people from before the foundation of the worldhis sending his Son to expiate their guilthis effectual operations upon their hearts, and his perfecting the work he has begun in them, until those whom he justifies he also glorifies, will be embraced as necessary parts of the glorious scheme of our salvation.
At this doctrine, therefore, hath the chief force of opposition been directed, and various are the modes in which it has been attacked: sometimes by appeals to our passionsthen to our reasonand at other times to the Scriptures. We hope, brethren, you are too well read in your Bibles to be at a loss for weapons of defence against these assaults, since whatever the passions or opinions of men may plead, those holy oracles assure us, that we are justified FREELY by the grace of GOD, and that he hath mercy on whom he will; Rom. iii.24. ix. 15, 16. But there is another mode of attack, as frequently and vigorously pursued as either of the former. It is asserted that our doctrine “involves in it conclusions inconsistent with religion, both natural and revealedthat it gives an unjust and offensive idea of Godthat it relaxes the obligations of men to faith and holinessthat it withholds consolation from penitent sinners, and saps the foundations of true morality in the world.”
These are serious charges, and if they can be substantiated, we shall do well to exchange our creed for a better; but let us examine with what propriety such consequences are charged on our profession.
First, Because we maintain the free salvation of God’s elect, we are accused of holding the doctrine of the “absolute reprobation of all the rest of mankind, so as to involve in it this horrible consequence, That God creates innumerable souls to be inevitably damned, without the least compassion for them.”
That to choose some, implies to leave others, must be granted; and if nothing more were meant by the charge of free election involving in it the doctrine of Reprobation, we should not object to the statement:–but is there no difference between leaving men to the just fruit of their sins, and creating them for inevitable damnation irrespective of their characters? We cheerfully avow our abhorrence of a doctrine which asserts, that an infinitely good GOD, created a number of immortal beings capable of such strong sensations of misery as man, merely to gratify himself in filling them with the fullness of torment for ever: such a sanguinary Deity we could never love; nor would faith in such a being promote that disposition to gentleness, tenderness, and affection for all mankind, which are everywhere represented in the gospel as the genuine fruits of a spiritual acquaintance with the true character of GOD: on the contrary, such views of the Almighty would rather cherish the spirit of a bloody Mahomet than a bleeding Jesus.
But we conceive that our detestation of such a creed is no ways inconsistent with our cordial assent to the doctrine of the sovereignty of divine mercy; for, as the execution of a malefactor is not to be attributed to the cruelty of a prince, because royal clemency is a displayed towards another transgressorso neither do the sovereign acts of God’s mercy, in any respect, necessitate him to be the author of misery, any farther than as the author of that holy law which men have broken, and the maintaining of its rights.
In saving, he acts like a merciful Sovereignin condemning, as a righteous Judge, bound to support the honour of his moral government. He was no more under obligation to save all, than he was to save any; and if salvation itself be an act of grace, surely the author of salvation is at full liberty without any impeachment of his goodness, to display that grace “according to the pleasure of his own will;” for is it not admitted, that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God?” Is it any act of injustice in Jehovah to punish sin? Would he not have been just in condemning all, because “all have sinned?” How, then, can God’s decree make that arbitrary, which, without such a decree, is not more that JUST? If actual condemnation of the sinner be righteous, the purpose of GOD to execute his righteous severity towards impenitent sinners, cannot be lawfully arraigned.
In terms, therefore, the most decided, we disavow the charge of holding a doctrine which, by necessary consequence, involves an arbitrary reprobation of any man, irrespective of his crimes; and are most fully persuaded that nothing can be more ungrateful or more unjust, than to represent that as a cause of misery which is the alone source of all the mercy ever showed to man, or comfort enjoyed by him, in this world or in the next.
Secondly, The doctrine of sovereign distinguishing grace, is represented as injurious to “the rich goodness, great mercy, and compassion of GOD to the sons of men; and the contrary doctrine,” it is said, “tends more highly to the promotion of God’s glory; because, the more there are benefited, the greater is the glory of the benefactor.”
But brethren, let it be considered, that no other doctrine, save that of distinguishing grace, secures the eternal benefit of a single individual of our race; for such is the deep depravity of the human heart, that all the outward means of grace are of themselves totally ineffectual to man’s everlasting salvation; insomuch, that after Christ himself had employed the best of external means with the Jews, he complains, “Ye will not come to me that ye might have life;” and upon this ground he asserts, “No man can come to me, except the Father who has sent me draw him.” Whence it follows, that had not GOD sovereignly chosen some, and resolved on their salvation, the death of Christ, and the ministration of the gospel, with all its appendages, would have been in vain; so that the sovereign purpose, and effectual operations of Jehovah, so far from diminishing his grace, tend highly to exalt it, since it is abundantly evident that there is more “grace goodness, and compassion,” manifested in securing the salvation of some, than in making ineffectual provision for the salvation of all.
Thirdly, If the doctrine of distinguishing grace be true, we are told, “then the Jews could not be reasonably accused for not coming to Christ, or not believing in him; much less could it be imputed to them as their great crime, that they would not come to him, or believe in him.”
Now that our Lord did accuse the Jews for not coming to him and believing in him, and that justly, we do not deny; but is there any thing in the doctrine of salvation by grace, which lessens the authority of the gospel, or the obligations of men to embrace it? What more doth the gospel require of men, than TO BELIEVE WHAT IS TRUETO LOVE WHAT IS GOODTO DO WHAT IS RIGHTAND TO BE SORRY FOR WHAT IS WRONG? And is it possible for any acts of divine mercy to make these obligations cease? If Christianity be properly attested, ought it not to be believed? If God is good, ought he not to be loved? If the commandments of Christ are right, should they not be obeyed? And if he discovers to us our faults, ought we not to repent of them?All these in fact are natural duties arising from our necessary relation to the great God, as our creator and moral Governor, and it can never be demonstrated, that God’s special designs of grace to some, annihilate the obligations of all the rest, any more than an earthly prince’s discovering extraordinary regard to some of his subjects, releases all his other subjects from their allegiance to him, and subjection to the laws.
The obligations of men to believe the gospel, arise from its being a divine revelation worthy of God, and sufficiently attested; and their obligations to obey the divine precepts, are founded on their equity, and their being enjoined by the authority of the moral governor of the world; so that unless it can be proved that GOD has no legal claim to the respect and obedience of any besides those whom he resolves to save, and whose hearts he effectually inclines to keep his law, this objection has no force; and if it be admitted, it leaves every man who is not eventually saved, at full liberty, without blame, to treat the blessed GOD of truth as a liar and tyrant! So that our doctrine by no means diminishes the guilt of man in rejecting the gospel, but allows us most cordially to unite with a celebrated writer of our own denomination, Dr. Gill, in asserting that “a man not coming to Christ, when revealed in the external ministry of the gospel, as God’s way of salvation, is criminal and blameworthy, since the disability and perverseness of his will are not owing to any decree in God, but to the corruption and vitiosity of his nature through sin; and, therefore, since his vitiosity of nature is blameworthy (for God made man upright), that which follows upon it, and is the effect of it, must be so too.”
Fourthly, The doctrine of the sovereignty of divine mercy, is charged with being “unfriendly to christian activity, weakening the motives to diligence in religion, and thereby promoting the disuse of the means of grace.”
We hope, brethren, that none of you, by your conduct, have put this objection into the mouths of your adversaries: if YOU have, the reproach be on you, not on the truth you profess. Do we not acknowledge the means as much a part of the divine plan as the end? And will not the same objections lie against the providential government of God, as are urged against the doctrine of sovereign salvation?
Let us inquireDo you believe in a Providence? Is that Providence universal? And does it not secure the accomplishment of its immense designs?All this you allowyet doth your confidence in a Providence annihilate your industry? Are you husbandmen, and do you expect to reap where you have not sown?Are you merchants, and do you expect to raise an edifice without labor? Is not the time of your life appointed, but do you, on this account, neglect the use of medicine in sickness, and food when in health? You attend to these as means necessary to the end; no less necessary do we consider the use of religious means in order to salvation: and from the very same motives, and on the self-same principles on which you act in relation to the concerns of this life, do we conduct ourselves under the influence of our faith in the Plans of Grace, knowing that “what a man soweth that shall he also reap;” and, “for all these things God will be sought unto by the house of Israel, to do it for them.”
Fifthly, The doctrine of distinguishing grace is charged with “giving encouragement to careless sinners to presume groundlessly on GOD’S favor; and discouraging those who are willing to forsake sin from so doing, or cause them to despair of mercy.” But how can that doctrine encourage the careless sinner, which in terms the most decided declares the destruction of sin to be the ultimate object of GOD’S designs? Is not the salvation to which we are chosen, represented by us as “through sanctification of the Spirit?” and are not God’s elect predestinated to conformity to the character of the SON OF GOD, who was holy, harmless, undefiled? And surely, to believe firmly that it is the design of GOD, that his people “should be holy and without blame before him in love,” can have no tendency to “encourage careless sinners to presume on his favor.”
That some hypocrites have abused the doctrine of grace, we admit; but what good thing exists which hath not been abused by wicked men? Thousands, from the forbearance of God, take encouragement fully to set their hearts in them to do evil; Eccl. viii. 2. But doth their sin diminish the divine compassion? Do gluttony and drunkenness prove food to be poison? Or tyranny and despotism disprove the necessity or excellence of good government? Because there are some who turn the grace of God into lasciviousness, must the crime be imputed to the profession? Or shall those who are friendly to the doctrine of grace, be charged with sinning that grace may abound? God forbid!
And what is there in this doctrine discouraging to a true penitent? Men that are careless about their salvation cannot be called penitents; not can they be discouraged from pursuing an object which they have no sincere desire to obtain: and as to those who are seeking the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, with their whole heart and with their whole soul, they are actually in possession of the fruits and evidences of GOD’S distinguishing grace; and can it discourage them to know that their holy desires and spiritual activity are beginnings of a saving work of God upon their hearts, and that he always perfects what he begins? Is this discouraging? No, brethren, you and thousands more have derived encouragement and comfort from such views as these, which have “filled you with joy and peace in believing,” and put a new song into your mouths, even praise to the God of your salvation.
Finally, It is urged that the doctrine of distinguishing grace is “injurious to personal religion, as it destroys all hope of obtaining salvation by our own performances.”
To this we reply, first, This doctrine doth not constitute our performances worse in themselves, or less beneficial in their effects, but only takes for granted a certain truth, viz: THAT OUR OWN RIGHTEOUSNESS IS INSUFFICIENT FOR OUR SALVATION: and therefore, unless it be injurious for a man to know the truth of himself respecting the depravity of his heart, this doctrine can never injure him.
2dly. If personal religion can be no other ways promoted than by consideration of its meritorious influence, then we allow that our doctrine destroys it; but so far are we from imagining that REAL RELIGION, such as the law requires and God approves, can be advanced by the hope of a deserved recompense, that we judge nothing can more effectually subvert it.
Real religion consists in SUPREME LOVE TO GOD AND DISINTERESTED LOVE TO MAN. This is “not only the source and principle, but the very sum and substance, nay the perfection of holiness;” but service long and painful may be yielded for the hope of reward, without any affection to the work, or esteem for the employer, and therefore, without any real religion.
The tendency of any doctrine to promote personal piety is the same as its tendency to promote supreme love to GOD; and as all esteem rises from some real or supposed excellency in its object, whatever exhibits the great Jehovah in the true loveliness of HIS CHARACTER, must undoubtedly be calculated to improve our love for him. Now let it be considered with candor whether the doctrine we maintain doth not so represent the great Jehovah, as most effectually to engage the admiration and esteem of every holy being in the universe.
The doctrine of distinguishing grace, when simplified, is summed up in three propositions
1. All men have rebelled against God, and so rendered themselves obnoxious to his everlasting wrath.
2. It is the pleasure of GOD, for the sake of Jesus Christ to extend a gracious pardon to a great number of his rebellious creatures, and receive them into his favor as though they had never sinned.
3. GOD doth not extend his purpose of salvation to all, but whilst he saves some, leaves others exposed to the awful consequences of their crimes, and the righteous awards of his most holy law.
This is a fair statement of the doctrine: Let JEHOVAH then be viewed in his true character, “The JUDGE of the Whole Earth,” Psal. xciv. 2, and what measures could the Supreme Governor have pursued more becoming his name as the God of mercy, and his character as the universal Judge?
JUSTICE, though an awful, is nevertheless a becoming and essential part of a judicial character, and therefore it is beautiful and lovely. Could we feel any esteem for the official character of a human minister of Justice, who made a point of pardoning every criminal, let his crimes be as complicated or aggravated as they might? What licentiousness would he thereby introduce! What an encourager would he be of vice, and what an enemy to society! Of what advantage would be his tribunal, and of what avail his office? Here we are persuaded that justice is essential to the loveliness of a legislator’s character; and under whatever regulations his designs of mercy may be in his own breast; it is by threatening sin in general with punishment, and by actually punishing a great number of transgressors, he best maintains the respectability of his office, and preserves order in that society of whose morals he is the guardian; for men will be most effectually deterred from evil by their knowing him to be a determined enemy to vice, and seeing that none have any security but in their innocence: whereas, if justice were never administered, every man would do what was right in his own eyes, and the world would be filled with blasphemy, rebellion, and every evil work.
Yet as the legislator acts for the good of society, wherever he perceives that clemency may be shown without endangering the public good, it will be an addition to his loveliness to display it; especially if after a series of experiments it appears to the whole community that such acts of grace under the regulations of legislative wisdom have been to their advantage. They will then cheerfully leave the exercise of mercy to the discretion of their judge, and from experience persuaded that it will never be manifested to their injury, they will feel satisfaction and pleasure in every renewed instance of grace; and the disposition which the legislator shows to the exercise of clemency, whenever it is consistent with the honor of his government and the good of the community, will perfect their sentiments of his official beauty and loveliness.
Such, then, is the legislative beauty of JEHOVAH: He vindicates the honor of his government, by permitting the law to take its course, and thus shines in the glory of holiness; yet mingling mercy with equity, and forgiveness with justice,” according to the counsel of his own will;” every holy mind on a survey of his judicial character must exclaim, “He is the chief of ten thousand; he is altogether lovely.” Hence, the doctrines we avow, when rightly understood, are calculated to create and cherish, that mixture of VENERATION AND DELIGHT, in our contemplation of the blessed, wherein the essence of divine love and all true religion consist.
To this objection it may be answered, 3dly. Personal religion can never be injured by a right view of GOD’S design, in his gracious discriminations; because personal religion was the very thing for which he set apart his people, even “that they should be a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” Taught then by our Bibles, that God chose us that we should be HOLY, we can no longer consider ourselves as possessed of the evidences of election, than whilst we enjoy in a measure the END of it; and hence we have a motive continually arising from the doctrine itself, to “give all diligence to make our calling and election sure;” being convinced, that neither our believing the doctrine, nor expecting to be saved by it, are proofs of our security, any further than attended with inward and personal religion.
Thus brethren, have we endeavored to assist you in maintaining “the faith once delivered to the saints.” We have only a few exhortations to annex in relation to this subject.
1. Whilst we wish you to be furnished with weapons of defence in case of an attack, we exhort you not to seek occasions of controversy with your fellow christians. The religion of the heart generally declines as a controversial disposition prevails: it greatly injures the spirituality of the mind, and its effects everywhere demonstrate, that those who indulge it are leaving the wheat for the chaff. To have christians all of one mind is certainly, in some respects, highly desirable; but we must unite with the great Dr. OWEN in expecting that, should so delightful a period be ever known on this side heaven, the unanimity of christians in sentiment will be the fruit of a previous spirit of LOVE; and therefore, with affectionate ardor, we would urge upon you the excellent exhortations which were given by our venerable predecessors, the pastors of more than one hundred Baptist churches above a century ago. Having expressed their anxiety that whilst they defended the truth, they might carry themselves modestly and humbly towards those who differed from them, they add, “And O that, other contentions being laid asleep, the only care and contention of all upon whom the name of the blessed Redeemer is called, might for the future be to walk humbly with our GOD, and in the exercise of all love and meekness towards each other, to perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord, each one endeavoring to have his conversation such as becometh the gospel, and also suitable to his place and capacity, vigorously promoting IN OTHERS THE PRACTICE OF TRUE RELIGION and undefiled in the sight of GOD our Father: And that in this backsliding day, we might not spend our breath in fruitless complaints of the evils of others, but may every one begin at home to reform in the first place our own hearts and ways, and then to quicken all that we may have influence upon to the same work; that if the will of God were so, none might deceive themselves by resting in, and trusting to, a form of godliness, without the power of it, and inward experience of the efficacy of those truths that are professed by them.”Baptist Confession of Faith, 1688.
2. If you are called upon to defend the truth, see that it be done with meekness and prudence; if the former be wanting you will disgrace yourselfif the latter, the cause you espouse. “The professed friends of truth,” says the eminent Dr. Witherspoon, “often injure the truth: they speak in such a manner as to confirm and harden enemies in their opposition to it; they use such incautious expressions as do indeed justify the objection, ‘Shall we sin that grace may abound?’ And in the hear of their zeal against the self-righteous legalist, seem to state themselves as enemies in every respect to the LAW OF GOD, which is ‘holy, just, and good.’”
Remember, brethren, that it is IMPOSSIBLE FOR GOD TO INJURE HIS OWN GOVERNMENT, and set aside his own authority over his creatures; and therefore such modes of defending the truth as have any tendency to diminish the claims of Jehovah, or the obligations of men, must be unwarranted and indefensible.
3. Pray that your spirituality of mind, heavenly conversation, and holiness of conduct, may demonstrate to a gainsaying world, that the grace of God, which bringeth salvation, teacheth you habitually and decidedly to deny ungodliness and evil works, and to live soberly, and righteously, and godly in the present evil world; so shall you shine as lights on the earth, and by your good words will glory redound to you Father who is in heaven. To his paternal arms and heart we now commend you, resting in the fellowship of the gospel.
Your affectionate brethren in the Lord.
Signed on behalf of the Association.
BENJAMIN MASON, Moderator.