Circular Letter, 1795
"Why Christians in the Present Day Possess
Less Joy than Primitive Disciples"
By Andrew Fuller
WHILE the judgments of God are abroad in the earth, and multitudes are trembling for the fate of nations, and dreading lest famine, or war, or pestilence, which have desolated other countries, should receive a commission to lay waste our own, we have reason to bless God that he has manifested his care of his churches, by continuing the gospel among us, and granting it to be attended with some increasing success. The wall of Jerusalem is built up even in troublous times; and we were not only permitted to assemble in peace, but received tidings from most of the churches of a peculiarly pleasing nature.
In our letter of last year we addressed you on the nature and grounds of joy in God. In pursuance of the resolution of the last association, we shall in this attempt an answer to the following inquiry: WHY IS IT THAT CHRISTIANS IN THE PRESENT DAY COME SO FAR SHORT OF THE PRIMITIVE CHRISTIANS IN THE POSSESSION OF JOY?
That the thing itself is a fact can admit but little doubt. It is true, the joy of the primitive Christians was not always the same: previous to the resurrection and ascension of Christ they appeared to possess it in a far less degree than afterwards; and in their brightest days they, no doubt, as well as we, occasionally experienced intervening clouds. The account, nevertheless, which is given of them, intimates that a vein of sacred enjoyment ran through their lives. No sooner had they beheld the Lord Jesus taken up into heaven than they returned "to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God." And after the day of Pentecost, and the addition of three thousand souls by the preaching of Peter, they are described as "continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and eating their meat with gladness and singleness of heart." Persecution itself did not destroy their happiness, but helped, on some considerations, to increase it. Having been summoned before the Jewish council for preaching Christ, they "departed, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name's sake." Covered with stripes, thrust into an inner prison, and with their feet made fast in the stocks, "at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sung praises to God!" Nor was this happy frame of mind confined to the apostles, or to the first few years after the introduction of Christianity: Peter could say of the generality of Christians at the time when he wrote his First Epistle, "Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet, believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable, and full of glory."
Such accounts of the primitive disciples afford an affecting view of the great disparity between them and the generality of modern Christians. The following particulars, amongst others, must needs strike an attentive observer: - First, They rejoiced in all their labours, complying with the commands of Christ rather as an honour and a privilege than as mere matter of duty. The prompt and cheerful manner in which they attended to Divine institutions exhibits a lovely picture of genuine Christianity. "They that gladly received the word were baptized. - And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers." There is not a single instance in all the New Testament of an avowed Christian living in the neglect of the ordinances of Christ. Such
an idea seems never to have entered into their minds; but it is unnecessary to say that with us it is a common case. - Secondly, They rejoiced, as we have seen, in tribulation, considering the reproaches of the world as an honour, and counting it all joy when they fell into divers temptations: but the highest exercises of grace that are common amongst us fall short in this particular; instead of rejoicing in tribulation, we are ready to account it pretty much if we rejoice notwithstanding it. - Thirdly, They experienced an habitual consciousness of their being the subjects of gracious dispositions, and consequently enjoyed a settled persuasion of their interest in Christ. In all the New Testament we have scarcely an instance of a Christian being at a loss to perceive the evidence of his Christianity. What are called doubts and fears amongst us, and which make up so large a proportion of our religious experiences, seem to have occupied scarcely any place amongst them. This fact, if there were no other, calls for serious inquiry into the cause or causes of it. The language that we are in the habit of using, when speaking of our love, or faith, or obedience, betrays a sad defect in the exercise of these heavenly graces. Instead of being able to say, "O Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee" - "I have believed, and therefore have I spoken" - "God, whom I serve in the gospel," - and the like, we are ready to be startled at such professions, and feel ourselves under a kind of necessity to soften the language into a wish, a willingness, or a desire. I desire to love, I would believe, I wish to be obedient, are expressions which frequently occur in our prayers and hymns; but wishing to love, and desiring to obey, when substituted in the place of love and obedience themselves, are inadmissible. Such language is unknown in the Scriptures, unless it be found in the character of the slothful, whose desire is said to kill him; and indicates, to say the least., but a small degree of real religion.
To account for this disparity is of importance, as by a knowledge of the causes of a malady we may be directed to the proper means of a cure. Peculiar dejection in individuals may often be accounted for from the peculiarity of their habits, constitution, circumstances, opportunities, and connexions; but when it affects a body or generation of men, it must be traced to other causes. Why should not we go on our way rejoicing in the same manner, and to the same degree, as the primitive Christians? We have the same gospel, the same promises, and the same hopes. The joy and peace which they experienced was in believing: the great, interesting, and transporting truths of the gospel were the source whence they derived their bliss. The Lord Messiah was come according to promise, and by laying down his life had delivered all who should believe in him from the wrath to come. - Through his death also they were freed from the spirit of bondage attendant on the former dispensation, and received the Spirit of adoption, whereby they cried, Abba, Father. - The thunders of Sinai gave place to the blessings of Zion, the city of the living God; to the holy society of which, as to a kind of heaven upon earth, they were introduced. - Commissioned to publish these glad tidings to every creature, and persuaded that the cause in which they had engaged would sooner or later universally prevail, they laboured with courage and unwearied assiduity, and the work of the Lord prospered in their hands. - Finally, in hope of eternal life, the joy set before them, like their Lord and Master, they endured the cross, despised the shame, and went and sat down with him on his throne, as he had overcome, and sat down with his Father on his throne.
Now which of these sources of joy has been exhausted? Are not Christ and the gospel, and its promises, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever? Is not God as willing now that the heirs of promise should have strong consolation
as he was formerly? Are not the great blessings of eternal life as real and as interesting in the present age as in any that have gone before? and being promised to the smallest degree of real grace, even to the giving of a cup of cold water to a disciple of Jesus because he belongs to him, can it, in ordinary cases, be a difficult matter for a decided friend of Christ to obtain a clear satisfaction of his interest in them? Wherefore is it then, if the Son hath made us free, that we are not, in the most extensive meaning of the term, free indeed?
Some would probably attribute the whole to Divine sovereignty, alleging that the Holy Spirit divideth to every age and generation, as well as to every man, severally as he will. It is allowed that the Holy Spirit, in all his gifts and operations, acts in a way of sovereignty, since we have no claim upon him for any thing which he bestows; but it does not belong to the idea of sovereignty that there be no reason for it, or wisdom in it. The Holy Spirit divideth to every age and every man severally as he will, but he always willeth what is wise and good, or what is best upon the whole. The sovereignty of creatures may degenerate into caprice; but this cannot be supposed of God. Now it belongs to the wisdom of God to bestow his favours in such a way as to encourage righteousness, and stamp an honour upon the means of his own appointment; hence it is that the joys of salvation, though bestowed in a way of sovereignty, are generally connected with a close walk with God, and communicated through means adapted to the end.
It has been thought by others that the difference betwixt us and the primitive Christians, in these things, may be accounted for, at least in some degree, by a difference of circumstances. Life and immortality were brought to light, as the Scriptures express it, by the gospel. The wonderful transition therefore which they experienced, some of them from the darkness of Judaism, and others from the still grosser darkness of paganism, together with the great success of their labours, must have forcibly impressed their minds with both surprise and joy. There is some truth, no doubt, in this observation; but it ought to be considered, on the other hand, that our circumstances are in some respects more favourable to joy than theirs; sufficiently so perhaps to balance, if not overbalance, those in which theirs were superior to ours. Let the following things be considered in connexion with each other: First, Glorious things are spoken in prophecy of what shall be done for the church in the last periods of time. All the light and glory that have ever yet appeared will be eclipsed by what is to come. One peculiar characteristic of the kingdom of Christ is, that it is progressive. God is saying to his church under every new dispensation, or period of her existence, "Remember not the former things, neither consider the things of old: behold, I do a new thing in the earth." - As if he should say, You may forget the past, and yet have enough to fill you with joyful admiration. The Jewish dispensation contained a greater display of God than had ever been made before; yet, compared with the dawn of gospel glory, it was but as the moon to the sun; and glorious as this was, with regard to all that had gone before, it will bear no comparison to that which is to follow after. Not only shall "the moon be confounded," but "the sun ashamed, when the Lord of hosts shall reign in Mount Zion, and before his ancients gloriously!" Secondly, The time when things shall be accomplished cannot be very far off. The sacred writers of the New Testament frequently intimate that they had passed the meridian of time, and were entered, as it were, into the afternoon of the world. They speak of their times as the last days, and of themselves as those "on whom the ends of the world were come." They declared that, "the end of all things was at hand; "that the Judge" was "at the door;" and the concluding warning of the book of God is couched in this strong
expression, "Surely - I come quickly!" But if the end of all things was then at hand, what must we think of it after a lapse of nearly 1800 years? Thirdly, It is highly probable, if not more than probable, that in the ages yet to come there may be much more effected than in all preceding ages put together. Some of the greatest events in prophecy we know remain to be accomplished; particularly, the utter downfall of antichrist, the conversion of the Jews, and the universal spread of true religion but if the end of all things be at hand, and such great events are first to be accomplished, we have every reason to expect great changes, in quick succession, and at no great distance of time. The convulsions of the present day may, for aught we know, be some of the throes of creation travailing in pain for the glorious liberty of the sons of God. At all events, the day of the church's redemption draweth nigh; it is time therefore to "lift up our heads," and to go forth in prayer, and praise, and joyful exertion to meet the Bridegroom. Could the apostles and primitive Christians have been placed in our situation, they would have rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory. - We must turn our attention then to some other objects besides the circumstances in which we are placed as the causes of our want of joy.
We pass over the cases of such as indulge themselves in known sin, or live in the neglect of known duty, as cases easily accounted for, at one period of time as well as another; and confine our inquiry to those whose conversation is allowed in general to be regular and circumspect; so much so, at least, as to be equal to that of the body of professing Christians around them.
In the first place, Let it be considered whether it does not arise from the want of a greater degree of religion in general. - Joy is a grace which cannot thrive by itself; it is a kind of appendage to the lively exercise of other graces. "With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation." - "Hitherto ye have asked nothing in my name; ask, and receive, that your joy may be full." - "The kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost." From these passages, and many others which might be cited, it is apparent that holy joy stands connected with appropriating the great truths of the gospel to our particular cases - with importunate prayer in the name of Christ - and with the practice of righteousness and peace. The same persons who were daily employed in praising and blessing God have this testimony given of them, "and great grace was upon them all."
Secondly, Let it be considered whether another reason be not our neglect of a more frequent and intense application to those objects whence joy arises. - We have seen already, that the sources from which the primitive Christians derived their joy were the great doctrines of the gospel; but it is a lamentable fact, that the generality of professing Christians amongst us content themselves with a very superficial knowledge of these things. There are but few even amongst the godly in our day, that so enter into the spirit and glory of the gospel as clearly to distinguish it from error speciously disguised. Hence, if a minister who is much respected by his people turn aside from even important truth, it is common for many of them to go off with him. If Christians were properly rooted and grounded in the gospel - if they understood not only what they believe, but wherefore they believe it - they would not be shaken with every wind of doctrine; nor would many of the principles which prevail in the present age excite even a momentary hesitation in their minds. But if we do not so understand the truth as clearly to distinguish it from error, it cannot be supposed that we should be greatly affected by it. It is by drawing waters from the wells of salvation that we have joy; but these wells are deep, and, in proportion as we are wanting in an understanding of Divine things, we may be said to have nothing to draw with.
Thirdly, To this may be added the want of public spirit. - The primitive Christians were all intent on disseminating the gospel through the world; and it was in the midst of this kind of employment, and the persecutions which attended it, that they are said to have been "filled with joy and the Holy Ghost," Acts xiii. 52. Much of the joyful part of religion is lost by rendering it the immediate object of our pursuit. The chief end for which great numbers read their Bibles, and hear the word, is that they may be comforted, and obtain some satisfaction of their being in a state of salvation; but this is not the way in which the comforts of the gospel are obtained. There are things which, if pursued as our chief end, will elude our grasp and vanish from our sight: such is reputation amongst men, and such is religious joy. If we pursue the public good, not for the sake of applause, but from a disinterested regard to the well-being of our species, reputation will follow us; and if the glory of God and the prosperity of his cause occupy the first place in our affection, we shall not in ordinary cases be wanting in peace and heavenly consolation. If a portion of that time which we spend in ransacking for evidence in the mass of past experiences, were employed in promoting the cause of God in the world, and seeking the welfare of the souls and bodies of men, it would turn to a better account. In seeking the salvation of others we should find our own. The love of Zion has the promise of personal prosperity. Ardently to promote the honour of God, and the good of mankind, is itself an evidence, and the highest evidence, of true religion: while, therefore, we feel conscious of the purity of our present motives, we have less occasion for reflections on the past. There is a much greater satisfaction too in this way of obtaining comfort than in the other; for however former exercises of grace might be strong and decisive at the time, yet it must be difficult to realize them merely by a distant recollection. It is much better also, and more for our profit, to live in the exercise of grace, than barely to remember that we did so at some former period of our lives. We appeal to your own hearts, brethren, with respect to your late disinterested exertions for carrying the gospel amongst the heathen, - we appeal to those of you especially who have had the undertaking most at heart, whether, since your own comfort has in a sort been overlooked, and swallowed up in concern for the salvation of others, you have not felt more of the joyful part of religion than you did before; yea, may we not add, more than at any former period in your remembrance?
Fourthly, Much may be owing to our viewing the mixture of evils which pervade creation on a contracted scale. - If the evils which befall creatures be considered merely as evils, and our minds are disposed to pore upon them, we must necessarily feel dejected; but if every partial evil contribute to the general good - if every adversity, whether it respect our persons, families, Christian connexions, country, or species, be but as a wheel acting upon other wheels, and all necessary to complete the vast but wellordered machinery - the contemplation of evil itself in this view must raise the heart instead of depressing it. The miseries of the present and of the future life, if contemplated by a good man merely as evils, must overwhelm him and destroy his present peace. What can he do? He cannot shun the abodes of the wretched in this world, and so put the thoughts of their miseries far from him, for that were inhumanity; neither can he allow himself to doubt of the execution of, Divine threatenings in the world to come, for that were to arraign the justice, goodness, wisdom, and veracity of God in denouncing them: but he may view things on an enlarged scale, and thus perceive that all is right and best upon the whole. This is to be of one mind with God, and so to be truly happy. It is in this way that we are reconciled to our own adversities: could Jacob have seen through the gracious designs of God
with regard to his children, or, though he might be unable to do this, had he properly recollected the Divine promise, "I will surely do thee good," he would not have concluded, as he did, that all these things were against him.
It is thus that upon some occasions we are reconciled to the miseries of a public execution. Awful beyond conception it must be to the party who suffer; but justice may require the sacrifice. However natural affection, therefore, may for a moment revolt at the idea of inflicting death, all concern for a suffering individual is absorbed by the love of our species, and a regard for the general good. It is thus that the heavenly inhabitants are described as being not only reconciled to the overthrow of mystical Babylon, but as rejoicing in it. While the merchants who traded in her wares bitterly lament her fall, crying, "Alas! alas! that great city! In one hour is she made desolate!" the friends of God are called to a very different employment: "Rejoice over her, thou heaven, and ye holy apostles and prophets, for God hath avenged you on her. And after these things I heard a great voice of much people in heaven saying, Hallelujah! - true and righteous are his judgments, for he hath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication, and hath avenged the blood of his servants at her hand. And again they said, Hallelujah - and her smoke rose up for ever and ever!" Was there any malevolence or unchristian bitterness in all this? No: it was only viewing things on a large scale; viewing them as God views them, and feeling accordingly.
The primitive Christians were in the habit of considering all things as working together for good, and so of deriving joy from every occurrence. If the world smiled upon them, they rejoiced, and availed themselves of the opportunity for spreading the gospel; or if it frowned on them for their attachment to Christ, they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name's sake. By thus converting every thing into food for joy, they answered to the exhortations of the apostles, "Let the brother of low degree rejoice that he is exalted; but the rich in that he is made low." - "Beloved, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations." - "Rejoice evermore. - In every thing give thanks." If we would feel like them, we must enter into their views; we must have less of the complaining patriarch, as well as of the whining merchants; and more of that temper which prompted the holy inhabitants of heaven, on every new dispensation of providence, to cry, "Amen, Hallelujah!"
Fifthly, Much is owing, no doubt, to a spirit of conformity to the present world, by which many Christians, especially those in prosperous circumstances, are influenced. It was a complaint made by one of the fathers (Cyprian) in the middle of the third century, a time when the church had enjoyed a considerable respite from persecution, that "each one studied how to increase his patrimony, and, forgetting what the faithful had done in apostolic times, or what they ought always to do, their great passion was an insatiable desire of enlarging their fortunes."
This complaint, every one knows, is too applicable to our times. The primitive Christians were persecuted. The Waldenses, the Reformers, the puritans, and the nonconformists were the same; and, having but little security for property, they had but little motive to increase it being driven also from the society of their persecutors, they were under very little temptation to imitate their manners; their trials were great, but they were of a different kind from ours. Having long enjoyed the blessings of religious liberty, we have relaxed in watchfulness, and the world has seemed in a measure to have lost its enmity, and to smile upon us. In consequence of this we have become upon more friendly terms with it; not merely by behaving courteously and affectionately to men in common, which is our duty; but
by imbibing their spirit, courting their company, and subjecting ourselves to a servile compliance with their customs.
These things were extremely unfriendly to true religion. If the cares of this world be compared to thorns, which choke the word, the alluring pleasures of it are with no less propriety compared to the burning sun, through whose influence many a promising plant has withered away. Or, should the root of the matter be found in us, yet if our heads and hearts are occupied with appearance, dress, entertainments, and the like, there can be but little room for heaven or heavenly things; and consequently this joyful part of religion will be slighted and lost.
Finally, It is not to be dissembled that much is to be traced to the manner in which the gospel is preached. The Holy Spirit ordinarily works by means of the word. It is the office of ministers to be "helpers of your joy;" but if they partake of the spirit common to the age in which they live, their preaching will partake of it too. If the great and interesting truths of the gospel are not thoroughly understood, and felt, they cannot, in the ordinary course of things, be communicated in such a manner as greatly to interest the hearts of others. While, therefore, the recommend serious reflection to you, brethren, you also have a right to expect the same of us; and we trust we are willing to receive as well as to administer the word of exhortation. Dear brethren, farewell!
===============[From Joseph Belcher, editor, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, Volume III, 1845, reprint, 1988; pp. 325-331. Document provided by David Oldfield, Post Falls, ID. Formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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