The elders and brethren of the several churches, met in Association at Philadelphia, October 21 st, 1783.
To the several churches to which we relate, send greeting.
Dearly beloved, -- Through the kind indulgence of a gracious God, we met according to appointment. We have been favored, as usual, with peace and harmony, during the whole of our consultations, for which we call on you to join us in giving glory to the Head of the church.
For the result of our deliberations, together with the good tidings we received from different parts, we refer to the minutes of our proceedings, which we herewith send you.
The point of doctrine, which, according to our order, comes next under consideration, is, the freedom of man's will. Confession of faith, Chapter IX.
The inquiry concerning the liberty of the will is, whether man, as a moral agent, acts freely, without any restraint or constraint. That he should act thus freely, without any coercive force on the will, is necessary, in order to his being a free agent, or the subject of moral government. For if he acted under constraint, as his actions would not be free, they could not be charged to him, as virtuous or vicious, but must be placed to the account of that being, under whose influence he acted. So essential is it to the cause of morality to support the liberty of the will.
How it can be that the decrees of God, and the superintendence of Providence, do not interfere with this freedom and liberty of the will, is what renders the subject difficult; and it will, perhaps, remain in some measure inexplicable, until we arrive to a state of a more free and clear exercise of our mental powers, and a greater perfection in knowledge.
That there is a Divine Providence is as certain and necessary, as that there is a God: and that the Divine Being governs and sustains the universe, as that he made it.
Nor is there much difficulty in admitting and conceiving this precedence of the Deity among the orders of inanimate nature; nor yet with regard to moral agents, so far as respects good actions; but how far the divine agency is versant about evil actions, is one of the most perplexing inquiries in the whole compass of theology.
Nevertheless, that the providence of God has a concern in evil actions is clear, not only from what we have suggested above, but also from those Scriptures following, on which no consistent meaning can be put, without admitting that superintendence of the divine Being, of which we are speaking.
Joseph, addressing his brethren concerning their selling him into Egypt, tells them, that it was not they that sent him thither, but God. Gen. xiv. 8. And God is said to harden Pharaoh's heart. Exod. iv. 21. The same is also said of Sihon, king of Hesbon. Deut. ii. 30. And David, speaking of Shimei's cursing him, says, that God had bid him. 2 Sam. xvi. 10.
By these, and such like passages, it is clear that the providence of God is some how conversant even about evil actions; but we know it must be in such a way as that he is neither the author nor approver of sin; and it may be in these ways following:
1. By causing the object to be presented, which, through the corruptions of our nature, may be the occasion of sin; as in the case of Joseph and his brethren, David and Shimei. Now all this may be, and yet the Supreme Disposer of all things perfectly clear; for the presentation of the object does not lay a necessity of sinning, nor is the object presented with a view to occasion the sin. Thus our blessed Lord, a little before his crucifixion, knew that his going to Jerusalem at that time would prove the occasion, by presenting the object, of his being apprehended and crucified. But he did not go thither with that view; nor did his going, or his knowing what they would do, lay them under a necessity of doing it.
2. It may be in suffering and permitting sin, not in suggesting it, or influencing to it, as the Apostle James, speaks: "Let no man say, when he is tempted, that he is tempted of God; for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man. But every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lusts and enticed," Jam. i. 13, 14.
3. The providence of God is conversant about evil actions, in overruling them to his own glory, as in the case of Joseph, just now mentioned; but especially the fall of man, and the sufferings of our Redeemer.
It may further be of use, in considering this subject, to distinguish between what is natural and what is sinful in an action; the former being from God, but the latter from ourselves. Thus the power of speech, and the faculties of the mind are from God, but the misuse and abuse of those powers and faculties to the purposes of blasphemy, and the like, must be from the corruptions of our own hearts. This is illustrated by an apt similitude, taken from the sun's drawing forth vapors from the earth, by that heat, which has a tendency to exhale them; but the stench that attends what is exhaled from a dunghill, or any putrid substance, is not owing to the sun, but the nature of the substance from whence it is drawn.
In the chapter referred to above, the free agency of man is applied to his fourfold state.
1. The state of innocence; concerning which there is no difficulty except the decree, which affects all states and actions alike.
2. His fallen state; wherein man is naturally inclined and prone to that which is evil, but averse to that which is good. Now, in conversion, the operations of grace do not offer violence to the will; but the understanding is enlightened, and a discovery is made to the creature of his awful situation in a state of sin and guilt, in consequence of which, sin is embittered, the attention is turned to the spiritual concern of the soul, the desire is excited after pardon, and thus is wrought in him to will and to do, and he is made willing in the day of God's power.
3. The state of man after conversion, wherein he is actuated by a two-fold principle; the remains of nature, and the principle of grace: as the apostle speaks, Rom. vii. 15, 24. Concerning the first there is no difficulty, and the other operates much after the same manner as in conversion, explained above.
4. And lastly, the state of glory, wherein the inclination will only be to that which is good, which, however, is not inconsistent with freedom, but is the perfection of it, as in the Divine Being himself, since liberty consists in freedom to follow, the desire, while it is confined within the limits of the agent's power.
As for the inference of the decree with the liberty of which we are speaking, if it be hard to conceive how it should not, so, let it be remembered, it is as hard to conceive how it should. The blessed Jesus, for instance, is said to be delivered by the determinate counsel and fore-knowledge of God, Acts ii. 23. But what influence could this fore-knowledge have on the Jews, who were not conscious of it, and never adverted to it in all their proceedings, but acted freely, according to the natural course of their wicked inclinations, even those vile affections of malice, hatred, selfishness, envy, and the like, they were actuated by.
Thus, dear brethren, we have brought to your view, and briefly explained this abstruse subject, so far as the nature of it, and the narrowness of our limits would admit. You see three things are certain: 1st, The decrees and providence of God: 2dly, That he is neither the author nor approver of sin: yet, 3dly, That man is a free agent. And if there be any difficulty in perceiving the agreement between the first and the last, yet not near so great as to reject all three, or either of them. It is not necessary we should know every thing. There are mysteries in nature as well as in providence and grace. We should beware of picking the lock, as one expresses it, of which the key is not in our keeping. It becomes us rather humbly to adore that God, who does all things well, Mark vii. 37; but gives account of his matters to none, Job xxxiii. 13; and be thankful for that wonderful and all-sufficient discovery of divine truth, that has been made. Let us use diligence in improving those discoveries to the glory of God, and our own advancement in grace, that we may be built up in faith and holiness. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
JOHN GANO, Moderator. THOMAS USTICK, Clerk. =================
[From Philadelphia Baptist Association Minutes, 1873. The title is added. - jrd]
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