Northamptonshire Baptist Association
Circular Letter, 1807
By Andrew Fuller
"On Moral and Positive Obedience"
IN addressing these our annual letters to you, it is our desire to lead you on in the Divine life, that, not contented with a superficial acquaintance with religion, you may clearly understand its most discriminating principles. The winds of doctrine which abound, by which many, like children, are tossed to and fro and carried away, require that you grow up into Him in all things who is the Head, even Christ.
Concerning the subject of our present address, namely, moral and positive obedience, suffice it to say, we think we perceive some serious evils growing up in certain parts of the Christian world for want of distinct ideas concerning it, and wish to arm your minds against them. All we shall attempt will be to give a clear statement of the distinction, and to point out the use of it in the Christian religion.
An unreserved obedience to the revealed will of God, in whatever form it is delivered, is the Scriptural test of faith and love. You have professed to believe in Christ for salvation, and have been baptized in his name; but this is not all; the same commission which requires this directs also that the disciples should he instructed in the whole mind of Christ: "Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." As the commandments of Christ, however, are not all of the same kind, so neither is our obedience required to be yielded in all respects on the same principles.
The distinction of obedience into moral and positive is far from being novel. It has been made by the ablest writers, of various denominations, and must be made if we would understand the Scriptures. Without it, we should confound the eternal standard of right and wrong given to Israel at Sinai (the sum of which is love to God and our neighbour) with the body of "carnal ordinances imposed on them until the time of reformation." We should also confound those precepts and examples of the New Testament which arise from the relations we stand in to God and to one another, with positive institutions which arise merely from the sovereign will of the Lawgiver, and could never have been known had he not expressly enjoined them. Concerning the former, an inspired writer does not scruple to refer the primitive Christians to that sense of right and wrong which is implanted in the minds of men in general; saying, "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." But concerning the latter, he directs their whole attention to Christ, and to those who acted under his authority. "Be ye followers of me as I also am of Christ." - "Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances as I delivered them to you." The one is commanded because it is right; the other is right because it is commanded. The great principles of the former are of perpetual obligation, and know no other variety than that which arises from the varying of relations and conditions; but those of the latter may be binding at one period of time, and utterly abolished at another.
We can clearly perceive that it were inconsistent with the perfections of God not to have required us to love him and one another, or to have allowed
of the contrary. Children also must needs be required to "obey their parents; for this is right." But it is not thus in positive institutions. Whatever wisdom there may be in them, and whatever discernment in us, we could not have known them had they not been expressly revealed; nor are they ever enforced as being right in themselves, but merely as being of Divine appointment. Of them we may say, Had it pleased God, he might in various instances have enjoined the opposites; but of the other we are not allowed to suppose it possible, or consistent with righteousness, to require any thing different from that which is required.
The design of moral obligation is to preserve order in the creation; that of positive institutions, among other things, to prove us, whether, like Abraham in offering up his son, we will yield implicit obedience to God's commandments, or whether we will hesitate till we perceive the reason of them. The obligation of man to love and obey his Creator was coeval with his existence; but it was not till God had planted a garden in Eden, and there put the man whom he had formed, and expressly prohibited the fruit of one of the trees on pain of death, that he came under a positive law. The former would approve itself to his conscience as according with the nature of things; the latter as being commanded by his Creator.
Having briefly stated our views of the subject, we proceed to point out the uses to which it is applicable in the exercise of Christian obedience.
Far be it from us to amuse the churches we represent with useless distinctions, or speculations which apply not to the great purposes of practical godliness. If we mistake not, brethren, a clear view of the subject, as stated above, will furnish you with much important instruction.
We need only remind you of the use of this distinction in reducing to a narrow compass the baptismal controversy. Your ablest writers have shown from Hence the fallacy of all reasonings in favour of infant baptism from the Abrahamic covenant, from circumcision, or from any ground of mere analogy: and not your writers only; for the principle is conceded by a considerable number of our most learned opponents. 1 In instituted worship, we have only to understand the will of our Divine Lawgiver in relation to the subject in question, and to obey it.
But this is not the sole, nor perhaps the principal use to be made of the distinction. We are not only taught by it to look for express precept or example, in things positive, but not to look for them in things moral. In obedience of the latter description there is not that need of minute rules or examples as in the former; but merely of general principles, which naturally lead to all the particulars comprehended in them. To require express precept or example, or to adhere in all cases to the literal sense of those precepts which are given us, in things of a moral nature, would lead to very injurious consequences. We may, by a disregard of that for which there is no express precept or precedent, omit what is manifestly right; and, by an adherence to the letter of Scriptural precepts, overlook the spirit of them, and do that which is manifestly wrong.
If we do nothing without express precept or precedent, we must build no places for Christian worship, form no societies for visiting and relieving the afflicted poor, establish no schools, endow no hospitals, nor contribute any thing towards them, nor any thing towards printing or circulating the Holy Scriptures. Whether any person pretending to serious religion would deny these things to be the duty of Christians, we cannot tell; some, however, on no better ground, have thought themselves at liberty to lay aside family worship, and the sanctification of the Lord's day. There is no
express precept or precedent for either, that we recollect, in the New Testament. But the worship of God, being of moral obligation, extends to the various relations and situations in life. In duties of this description, it is not God's usual, at least not his universal method, to furnish us with minute precepts, but rather with general principles which will naturally lead us to the practice of them. We have no account of any particular injunction given to Abraham respecting the order of his family. God had said to him in general, "Walk before me, and be thou perfect;" and this was sufficient. "I know Abraham, said the Lord, that he will command his children, and his household after him, that they shall keep the way of the Lord, and do justice and judgment." And with respect to "the sanctification of the Lord's day," so far as it relates to its being the day appointed for Christian worship, rather than the seventh - that is to say, so far as it is positive - though we have no express precept for it, yet there are not wanting precedents, which amount to the same thing. As to the keeping of the day "holy to the Lord," this is moral, and not positive, and is therefore left to be inferred from general principles. If God be publicly worshiped, there must be a time for it; and that time requires to be devoted to him. Whatever was moral in the setting apart of the seventh day for Divine worship (and that something was so may be presumed from its being one of the ten commandments) applies to any day that shall be appointed for the like purpose. Positive institutions have all something moral pertaining to them, as it respects the holy manner in which they are to be observed. It was on this principle that Paul censured as immoral the manner in which the Corinthians attended to a positive institute. His reasoning on that subject applies to the Lord's day. He argued from the ordinance of breaking bread being the Lord's supper that eating their own supper while attending to it was rendering it null and void. And, by a parity of reasoning, it follows, from the first day of the week being the Lord's day, that to do our own work, find our owns pleasure, or speak our own words on that day, is to render it null and void. Of the former the apostle declared, - "THIS IS NOT TO EAT THE LORD'S SUPPER;" and of the latter he would, on the same principle, have declared, THIS IS NOT TO KEEP THE LORD'S DAY. After all, it is surprising if any who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity can feel this to be a burden. "Why, even of your own selves, judge ye not what is right?"
If, on the other hand, we do every thing according to the letter of moral precepts, we shall often overlook the true intent of them, and do that which is manifestly wrong. Our Lord's precepts, in his sermon on the mount, if so understood, would contain a prohibition of all public prayers, and public contributions, and require such an acquiescence in injuries as he himself, when smitten before Pilate, did not exemplify. The right hand, in certain cases, must be cut off, and the right eye plucked out. If God prosper our lawful undertakings, we must not only avoid all increase of property, but must retain no part of what we have. No beggar nor borrower that asks assistance, whether he need it or not, must, on any consideration, be refused.
We believe self-love will be a sufficient preservative against such expositions being reduced to practice; but if the principle be retained, it will be at work in some other form, diverting the attention from weightier matters, and reducing religion to ceremony and litigious trifling.
It was not our Lord's design, in theme precepts, to regulate external actions so much as motives. Many of his precepts, it is true, mention the act, and the act only; but their aim is at the principle. It was the spirit of ostentation in prayer and almsgiving, of selfish resentment in cases of injury, and of the love of the world in cases of accumulating and retaining property, that he meant to censure.
Neither is it by attending to a ceremony which the country and climate ordinarily render unnecessary, that we comply with our Lord's precept, "Ye ought to wash one another's feet;" but "by love serving one another." We may wash the saints' feet, and neglect to dry their clothes, or administer necessary comfort to them when cold and weary. We may give a disciple a cup of cold water, and keep back what is more valuable for our own use. If we be taught of God to love one another, we shall find little difficulty in understanding and practising these precepts.
By confounding moral and positive obedience, some have reasoned thus: "You agree to take your children to family and public worship, teach them to read the Bible with seriousness and attention, instruct them in catechisms, &c., and why do you not take them to the Lord's supper?" We answer, The former are moral obligations; but the latter is not. These are binding on all mankind, and therefore ought to be inculcated from the earliest dawn of knowledge, even though we had never been told to "bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord;" but this is the immediate duty of believers only. Others, on the same principle, have argued thus, or to this effect: "You withhold the unconverted from joining at the Lord's table, and why not also from joining in family and public prayer?" Our answer is the same. The Lord's supper is the immediate duty of believers only; but prayer is binding on men in general, however far they may be from performing it in an acceptable manner. To join with unbelievers in what is not their immediate duty is to become partakers of their sin; but to allow them to join with us in what is the duty of every one is not so. We ought to pray for such things as both we and they stand in need of, and if they unite with us in desire it is well for them; if not, the guilt remains with themselves, and not with us.
If we be not greatly mistaken, many disputes which have divided Christians on the form, order, and government of the church of Christ, might at least have been considerably diminished by a proper attention to this subject. While one party contends for an Erastian latitude, or that no Divine directions are left us on these subjects, and that the church must be modelled and governed according to circumstances, the other seems to have considered the whole as a system of positive institutions, requiring in all things the most literal and punctilious observance. The truth lies, we apprehend, between these extremes; and the way to find it is to ascertain on what principles the apostles proceeded in forming and organizing Christian churches, POSITIVE or MORAL. If the former, they must have been furnished with an exact model, or pattern, like that which was given to Moses in the mount, and have done all things according to it; but if the latter, they would only be furnished with general principles, comprehending, but not specifying, a great variety of particulars.
That the framing of the tabernacle was positive there can be no doubt; and that a part of the religion of the New Testament is so is equally evident. Concerning this, the injunctions of the apostle are minute and very express. "Be ye followers (imitators) of me, as I also am of Christ." - "In this I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances as I delivered them to you." - "For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you." But were we to attempt to draw up a formula of church government, worship, and discipline, which should include any thing more than general outlines, and to establish it upon express New Testament authorities, we should attempt what is impracticable.
We doubt not but the apostles acted under Divine direction; but in things of a moral nature that direction consisted, not in providing them with a model, or pattern, in the manner of that given to Moses, but in furnishing
them with general principles, and enduing them with holy wisdom to apply them as occasions required.
We learn from the Acts and the Epistles that the first churches were congregations of faithful men, voluntarily united together for the stated ministration of the word, the administration of Christian ordinances, and the mutually assisting each other in promoting the cause of Christ; that they were governed by bishops and deacons; that a bishop was an overseer, not of other ministers, but of the flock of God; that the government and discipline of each church was within itself; that the gifts of the different members were so employed as to conduce to the welfare of the body; and that, in cases of disorder, all proper means were used to vindicate the honour of Christ, and reclaim the party.
These, and others which might be named, we call general principles. They are sometimes illustrated by the incidental occurrence of examples, and which, in all similar cases, are binding; but it is not always so. That a variety of cases occur in our times, in which we have nothing more than general principles to direct us, is manifest to every person of experience and reflection. We know that churches were formed, elders ordained, and prayer and praise conducted with "the understanding," or so as to be understood by others; but in what particular manner they proceeded in each we are not told. We have no account of the formation of a single church, no ordination service, nor any such thing as a formula of worship. If we look for express precept or example for the removal of a pastor from one situation to another, we shall find none. We are taught, however, that for the church to grow unto a holy temple in the Lord it requires to be "fitly framed together." The want of "fitness" in a connexion, therefore, especially if it impede the growth of the spiritual temple, may justify a removal. Or if there be no want of fitness, yet, if the material be adapted to occupy a more important station, a removal of it may be very proper. Such a principle may be misapplied to ambitious and interested purposes; but if the increase of the temple be kept in view, it is lawful, and in some cases attended with great and good effects.
This instance may suffice instead of a hundred, and goes to show that the forms and orders of the New Testament church, much more than of the Old, are founded on the reason of things. They appear to be no more than what men who were possessed of the wisdom from above would, as it were instinctively, adopt, even though no specific directions should be given.
But to place the matter beyond all doubt, let us refer to the professions and practices of the apostles themselves. The principles on which they professed to act, and which they inculcated on others, were these: "Let all things be done to edifying." - "Let all things be done decently, and in order." Whatever measures had a tendency to build up the church of God and individuals in their most holy faith, these they pursued. Whatever measures approved themselves to minds endued with holy wisdom as fit and lovely, and as tending, like good discipline in an army, to the enlargement of Christ's kingdom, these they followed, and inculcated on the churches. And however worldly minds may have abused the principle, by introducing vain customs under the pretence of decency, it is that which, understood in its simple and original sense, must still be the test of good order and Christian discipline.
The way in which the apostles actually proceeded in the forming and organizing of churches corresponds with this statement of things. When a number of Christians were assembled together in the days of Pentecost, they were considered as a Christian church. But at first they had no deacons, and probably no pastors, except the apostles. And if the reason of things
had not required it, they might have continued to have none. But in the course of things new service rose upon their hands, therefore they must have new servants to perform it; for, said the apostles. "It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost, and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business." In this process we perceive nothing of the air of a ceremony, nothing like that of punctilious attention to forms, which marks obedience to a positive institute; but merely the conduct of men endued with the wisdom from above; servants appointed when service required it, and the number of the one regulated by the quantity of the other. All things are done "decently and in order;" all things are done "to edifying."
It is not difficult to perceive the wisdom of God in thus varying the two dispensations. The Jewish church was an army of soldiers who had to go through a variety of forms in learning their discipline; the Christian church is an army going forth to battle. The members of the former were taught punctilious obedience, and led with great formality through a variety of religious evolutions; but those of the latter (though they also must keep their ranks, and act in obedience to command whenever it is given) are not required to be so attentive to the mechanical as to the mental, not so much to the minute observance of forms as to the spirit and design of them. The order of the one would almost seem to have been appointed for order's sake; but in that of the other the utility of every thing is apparent. The obedience of the former was that of children; the latter that of sons arrived at maturer age.
As our Saviour abolished the Jewish law of divorce, and reduced marriage to its original simplicity; so, having abolished the form and order of the church as appointed by Moses, he reduced it to what, as to its first principles, it was from the beginning, and to what must have corresponded with the desires of believers in every age. It was natural for "the sons of God," in the days of Seth, to assemble together, and to "call upon the name of the Lord;" and their unnatural fellowship with unbelievers brought on the deluge. And even under the Jewish dispensation, wicked men, though descended from Abraham, were not considered as Israelites indeed, or true citizens of Zion. The friends of God were then "the companions of those that feared him." They "spoke often one to another," and assembled for mutual edification. What then is gospel church fellowship, but godliness ramified, or the principle of holy love reduced to action? There is scarcely a precept on the subject of church discipline, but what may, in substance, be found in the Proverbs of Solomon.
Nor does it follow that all forms of worship and church government are indifferent, and left to be accommodated to times, places, and circumstances. The principles, or general outlines of things, are marked out, and we are not at liberty to deviate from them; nor are they to be filled up by worldly policy, but by a pure desire of carrying them into effect according to their true intent.
It does follow, however, that Scripture precedent, important as it is, is not binding on Christians in things of a moral nature, unless the reason of the thing be the same in the case to be proved as in the case adduced. The first Christians met in an "upper room;" for they had no proper places of worship. But it does not follow that we who have more convenient houses should do so. The first Christians were exhorted to "salute one another with a holy kiss." The reason was, it was the custom in the East for men in general in this manner to express their affection; and all that the apostle did was to direct that this common mode of affectionate salutation should
be used in a religious way. In places where it is a common practice, it may still be used to express the strength of Christian affection; but in a country where the practice is nearly confined to the expression of affection between the sexes, it is certainly much more liable to misconstruction and abuse. And as it was never a Divine institution, but merely a human custom applied to a religious use, where this custom has ceased, though the spirit of the precept remains, yet the form of it may lawfully be dispensed with, and Christian affection expressed in the ordinary modes of salutation.
Again, The Corinthian men were forbidden to pray or prophesy with their heads covered. The reason was, the head being uncovered was then the sign of authority, and its being covered of subjection. But in our age and country each is a sign of the contrary. If, therefore, we be obliged to wear any sign of the one or the other, in our religious assemblies, it requires to be reversed.
It also follows that, in attending to positive institutions, neither express precept nor precedent is necessary in what respects the holy manner of performing them, nor binding in regard of mere accidental circumstances, which do not properly belong to them. It required neither express precept nor precedent to make it the duty of the Corinthians, when they met to celebrate the Lord's supper, to do it soberly and in the fear of God, nor to render the contrary a sin. There are also circumstances which may on some occasions accompany a positive institution, and not on others; and which, being therefore no part of it, are not binding. It is a fact that the Lord's supper was first celebrated with "unleavened bread;" for no leaven was found at the time in all the Jewish habitations: but no mention being made of it, either in the institution or in the repetition of it by the apostle, we conclude it was a mere accidental circumstance, no more belonging to the ordinance than its having been in "a large upper room." It is a fact, too, that our Lord and his disciples sat in a reclining posture at the supper, after the manner of sitting at their ordinary meals; yet none imagine this to be binding upon us. It is also a fact, with regard to the time, that our Saviour first sat down with his disciples on the evening of the "fifth day" of the week, "the night in which he was betrayed;" but though that was a memorable night, and worthy to be noticed as a circumstance tending to show the strength of his love, yet seeing the words of the institution decide not how often it shall be attended to, and no mention is made of its being afterwards a rule, but, on the contrary, of the church at Troas meeting for the purpose on another day, no one imagines it to be a rule of conduct to us.
The same might be said of females being admitted to communion, a subject on which a great deal has been written of late years in the baptismal controversy. Whether there be express precept or precedent for it, or not, is of no consequence; for the distinction of sex is a mere circumstance, in no wise affecting the qualifications required, and therefore not belonging to the institution. It is of just as much account as whether a believer be a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free man; that is, it is of no account at all. - "For there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female; but all are one in Christ Jesus." Express precept or precedent might as well be demanded for the parties being tall or low, black or white, sickly or healthy, as for their being male or female. If the difference between a professed believer and an unconscious infant, with respect to baptism, were no greater than this is with respect to the supper, we would allow it to be lawful to baptize the latter, though neither express precept nor precedent be found for the practice.
It follows, lastly, that many disputes on which Christians have divided and crumbled into parties might well have been spared, and that without
any disadvantage to the cause of pure religion. Whatever necessity there may be for withdrawing from those who walk disorderly, we have no warrant to consider those things as the standard of order, and to censure our brethren for deviating from them, which belong not to the laws of Christ, but either to a mere difference of opinion respecting their application, or to some accidental circumstance which may or may not attend them.
Finally brethren, while you guard against the extremes of certain disciplinarians on the one hand, avoid those of anti-disciplinarians on the other. Allow us to repeat, what was observed at the beginning, that an unreserved obedience to the revealed will of God, in whatever form it is delivered, is the Scriptural test of faith and love. "Prove what that good, perfect, and acceptable will of the Lord is." "Do all things without murmurings and disputings." Remember that "the wisdom which is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy." Dearly beloved, farewell. The God of love and peace be with you.
1 See Booth's Paedobaptism Examined, Vol. 1. Chap. 1.
==============[From Joseph Belcher, editor, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, Volume III, 1845, rpt. 1988; pp. 325-359. Document on CD provided by David Oldfield, Post Falls, ID. Formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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