You need not be told that being born again—created in Christ Jesus—converted—becoming as a little child, &c., are phrases expressive of a change of heart, which the Scriptures make necessary to a life of holiness here, and to eternal life hereafter. It is on this account that I begin with conversion, considering it as the commencement of a holy life.
A change of this sort was as really necessary for Nicodemus, whose outward character, for aught that appears, was respectable, as for Zaccheus, whose life had been devoted to the sordid pursuits of avarice. Few, I suppose, will deny this to be the doctrine taught in the New Testament. But should this be questioned, should the necessity of a change of heart in some characters be denied, still it will be allowed necessary in others. Now, as a change is more conspicuous, and consequently more convincing, in such persons as have walked in an abandoned course, than in those of a more sober life, I have fixed upon the conversion of profligates as a suitable topic for the present discussion.
There are two methods of reasoning which may be used in ascertaining the moral tendency of principles. The first is, comparing the nature of the principles themselves with the nature of true holiness, and the agreement or disagreement of the one with the other. The second is, referring to plain and acknowledged facts, and judging of the nature of causes by their effects. Both these methods of reasoning, which are usually expressed by the terms a priori, and a posteriori, will be used in this and the following Letters, as the nature of the subject may admit.
True conversion is comprehended in those two grand topics on which the apostles insisted in the course of their ministry—“Repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.” Let us, then, fix upon these great outlines of the apostolic testimony, and examine which of the systems in question has the greatest tendency to produce them.
Repentance is a change of mind. It arises from a conviction that we have been in the wrong; and consists in holy shame, grief, and self-loathing, accompanied with a determination to forsake every evil way. Each of these ideas is included in the account we have of the repentance of Job. “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay my hand upon my mouth. Once have I spoken, but I will not answer; yea, twice, but I will proceed no further.”—“I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” It is essential to such a change as this, that the sinner should realize the evil nature of sin. No man ever yet repented of a fault without a conviction of its evil nature. Sin must appear exceeding sinful before we can, in the nature of things, abhor it, and ourselves on account of it. Those sentiments which wrought upon the heart of David, and brought him to repentance, were of this sort. Throughout the fifty-first Psalm, we find him deeply impressed with the evil of sin, and that considered as an offence against God. He had injured Uriah and Bathsheba, and, strictly speaking, had not injured God; the essential honour and happiness of the Divine nature being infinitely beyond his reach: yet, as all sin strikes at the Divine glory, and actually degrades it in the esteem of creatures, all sin is to be considered, in one view, as committed against God; and this view of the subject lay so near his heart as to swallow up every other—“Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight!” It follows, then, that the system which affords the most enlarged views of the evil of sin must needs have the greatest tendency to promote repentance for it.
Those who embrace the Calvinistic system believe that man was originally created holy and happy; that of his own accord he departed from God, and became vile; that God, being in himself infinitely amiable, deserves to be, and is, the moral centre of the intelligent system; that rebellion against him is opposition to the general good; that, if suffered to operate according to its tendency, it would destroy the well-being of the universe, by excluding God, and righteousness, and peace, from the whole system; that seeing it aims destruction at universal good, and tends to universal anarchy and mischief, it is, in those respects, an infinite evil, and deserving of endless punishment; and that, in whatever instance God exercises forgiveness, it is not without respect to that public expression of his displeasure against it which was uttered in the death of his Son. These, brethren, are the sentiments which furnish us with motives for self-abhorrence; under their influence millions have repented in dust and ashes.
But those, on the other hand, who embrace the Socinian system, entertain diminutive notions of the evil of sin. They consider all evil propensities in men (except those which are accidentally contracted by education or example) as being, in every sense, natural to them; supposing that they were originally created with them: they cannot, therefore, be offensive to God, unless he could be offended with the work of his own hands for being what he made it. Hence, it may be, Socinian writers, when speaking of the sins of men, describe them in the language of palliation,—language tending to convey an idea of pity, but not of blame Mr. Belsham, speaking of sin, calls it “human frailty,” and the subjects of it “the frail and erring children of men.”* The following positions are for substance maintained by Dr. Priestley, in his treatise on Necessity: “That, for any thing we know, it might have been as impossible for God to make all men sinless and happy, as to have made them infinite;” that all the evil there is in sin arises from its tendency to injure the creature; that if God punish sin, it is not because he is so displeased with it as in any case to “take vengeance” on the sinner, sacrificing his happiness to the good of the whole; but, knowing that it tends to do the sinner harm, he puts him in temporary pain, not only for the warning of others, but for his own good, with a view to correct the bad disposition in him; that what is threatened against sin is of such a trifling account, that it needs not be an object of dread. “No necessarian,” says he, “supposes that any of the human race will suffer eternally; but that future punishments will answer the same purpose as temporal ones are found to do, all of which tend to good, and are evidently admitted for that purpose; so that God, the author of all, is as much to be adored for what we suffer as for what we enjoy, his intention being equally kind in both. And since God has created us for happiness, what misery can we fear? If we be really intended for ultimate, unlimited happiness, it is no matter, to a truly resigned person, when, or where, or how.”† Sin is so trifling an affair, it seems, and the punishment threatened against it of so little consequence, that we may be quite resigned, and indifferent whether we go immediately to heaven, or whether we first pass through the depths of hell!
The question at present is not, Which of these representations is true, or consonant to Scripture? but, Which has the greatest tendency to promote repentance? If repentance be promoted by a view of the evil of sin, this question, it is presumed, may be considered as decided.
Another sentiment intimately connected with that of the evil of sin, and equally necessary to promote repentance, is, The equity and goodness of the Divine law. No man ever truly repented for the breach of a law the precepts of which he considered as too strict, or the penalties too severe. In proportion as such an opinion prevails, it is impossible but that repentance must be precluded. Now the precept of the Divine law requires us to love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. It allows not of any deviation or relaxation during the whole of our existence. The penalty by which this holy law is enforced is nothing less than the curse of Almighty God. But, according to Mr. Belsham, if God “mark and punish every instance of transgression,” he must be a “merciless tyrant;” and we must be “tempted to wish that the reins of universal government were in better hands.”‡ Mr. Belsham, perhaps, would not deny that perfect obedience is required by the law, according to the plain meaning of the words by which it is expressed, or that the curse of God is threatened against every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them; but then this rule is so strict that to “mark and punish every instance” of deviation from it would be severe and cruel. It seems, then, that God has given us a law by the terms of which he cannot abide; that justice itself requires him, if not to abate the precept, yet to remit the penalty, and connive at smaller instances of transgression. I need not inquire how much this reflects upon the moral character and government of God. Suffice it at present to say, that such views must of necessity preclude repentance. If the law which forbids “every instance” of human folly be unreasonably strict, and the penalty which threatens the curse of the Almighty on every one that continueth not in all things therein written be indeed cruel, then it must so far be unreasonable for any sinner to be required to repent for the breach of it. On the contrary, God himself should rather repent for making such a law than the sinner for breaking it!
Fuller, A. G. (1988). “The Systems Compared as to Their Tendency to Convert Profligates to a Life of Holiness,” Letter II in The Calvinistic and Socinian Systems Compared as to Their Tendency to Convert Profligates. The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Controversial Publications (J. Belcher, Ed.; Vol. 2, pp. 115–118). Sprinkle Publications.