TO THE CHURCHES COMPOSING THE NORTH BEND ASSOCIATION. —
DEAR BRETHREN: — Having been graciously preserved during the past year, and permitted to meet together to celebrate another anniversary, we address to you our annual letter, selecting as the subject of our communication, THE ELEMENTS OF CHRISTIAN CHARACTER.
The foundation of christian character is obviously laid in a genuine work of conversion, the character itself is formed after the model of Jesus Christ, who is the supreme head of the church, and in all respects has the preeminence. After conversion it is in a formative state, and although these elements are by the influences of the spirit and truth of God implanted in the believer's heart at this particular period, they are nevertheless as germs which are to be cherished, cultivated, and more fully developed before he arrives at "the stature of a man in Christ Jesus." To have a distinct and scriptural view of these, is of the first importance in attaining to a well developed christian character. This we define to be a character, in which these essential elements at once present harmony of association, symmetry in growth, and strength and stability of action.
Among these, knowledge holds a prominent place. Christian knowledge, or "the knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus Christ["] is distinguished from all other knowledge by its object and effects. Human knowledge is useful in acquainting us with the affairs of human life, and in developing the natural faculties of the mind, but is wholly insufficient to acquaint us with the character of God, of Christ as mediator, and the way of salvation through him. "The world by wisdom knew not God," and by searching is incapable of finding him out. This knowledge so far from edifying the soul for its good, not unfrequently inflates it with vanity. But the knowledge of God is designed to secure this noblest end, and leads to the safest and happiest results.
Man was originally created in the image of God. Knowledge was an essential part of that image; and when the fallen man is renewed by grace in the divine image, he is "renewed in knowledge." When God shines into the heart of a sinner, it is "to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." True knowledge is in an important sense the spring of every virtue, associated in the life and character of the christian. There is not faith without it; for "how shall we believe on him of whom we have not heard?" Truth believed, is truth known. There is no love without it; how shall we love God, when we know nothing of the amiableness and loveliness of his character, as well as the benevolence of his disposition? A want of love to him is ever associated with a want of knowledge of him. "He that loveth not, knoweth not God." And without knowledge, "hope is as the giving up of the ghost;" knowledge of things promised is essential to hope in the fulfillment of them. It was not until the disciples had a perfect knowledge of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, that they were "begotten again to a lively hope." This knowledge is supernatural, it is above the capacity of reason, it is given by the revelation of God. It is spiritual, because an emanation of the mind of the spirit, used by him in our conversion and sanctification, and, that by which we are renderd like unto him, "spiritually minded." It is experimental, capable of being reduced to the experience of the soul, received in the love of it, delighted and rejoiced in. — It is eminently practical, being the only safe directory in all matters of practical life, as well as faith. It is the supreme rule of every habit, and guide of every action which characterises the true christian. It is even "life eternal to know the true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent." The first step in advance of the divine life is to learn of Christ, and all subsequent progress is characterised by growth in knowledge. Indeed the development of christian character is ever proportioned to the knowledge of divine things. — We are esteemed learned christians just so far as we are "wise unto salvation;" strong christians no farther than the truth has given energy, consistency, and stability to our lives; zealous christians, just in proportion as our zeal is "according to knowledge;" and useful and happy christians, only so far as our principles and practices are conformed to the truth. The church is accounted "the light of the world" chiefly because of the knowledge she possesses, communicates and exhibits. Such is the excellency of divine knowledge, as an essential element of christian character; and in such estimation was it held by the apostle Paul, that he was ready to "count all things as but loss and dross, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus the Lord."
Faith is also an important element of christian character. Knowledge though essential to faith, is nevertheless without it, nothing more than "holding the truth in unrighteousness." Faith is that firm persuasion of gospel truth which unites the exercises of the understanding and the affections of the heart. It comes by hearing and hence affects the mind in the exercise of its thoughts. It is controlled by the affections, and hence the heart is the seat of its operations. — "With the heart men believeth unto righteousness;" and such only as "believe with the whole heart" are adjudged proper subjects for gospel ordinances, and a gospel church. — So essential is it to christian action, that without it "it is impossible to please God;" and so distinguished among the several graces as to become the significant title of the needs of the people of God. They are styled "believers," the "household of Faith," "the faithful." Its effects are displayed in all the diversified scenes of life; particularly in those events which are calculated to try the rectitude and steadfastness of christian character. Under affliction, it soothes the christian with precious promises; supports him under persecution, shields him against temptations and errors, in darkness he walks by faith, and amid the numerous conflicts which arise between the law of the mind and that of the members, as well as in the last struggles of death, it brings him the victory. "This is that which overcometh the world, even our faith." In commemorating the history of the old testament saints, the apostle ascribes their "mighty and wonderful works" to the operations of faith. The man of God was then, and is no less now, the man of faith. Faith determines the benevolence of our actions, the acceptableness of our offerings, and the constancy of our devotion. It is so blended with all that it behooves us to know, to do, and become, we cannot but regard it, a prominent and indispensable ingredient to christian character. A third general element of christian character is that of holiness. This is a pervading element. It consists not in mere emotions of heart, and transient devotions; it is equality of the soul, and a property of every christian virtue. — It is that which the spirit communicates in regeneration and wherein the likeness of God chiefly consists. If in regeneration, the sinner is said to be "renewed in knowledge after the image of Him who created him;" he is also said to be "created in righteousness and true holiness." Knowledge gives direction to the christian life, faith gives constancy, it is "true holiness" which adds a quality of mere unspeakable value with God to it, than any other. The holiness of the christian is relative; it is derived from God, hence true in nature. It operates through imperfect mediums, and hence imperfectly exhibited. It is however, displayed in love to God and man, particularly in brotherly love and in a chaste conversation, amiable deportment, and general purity of life. As a first fruit of the spirit, it is the delightful source of those things which follow in the train: "joy, peace, long-suffering. gentleness, meekness, goodness, temperance, faith." It is characterised by whatever "is true, honest, lovely, and of good report." It is the very life's blood of christianity, so that without it, any pretension to religion is but profanation of the christian name, as "without it no man shall see the Lord." We conclude that a well-developed christian character, according to the standard of the gospel, comprises sound knowledge, strong faith, and holy living. Brethren we commend to you a more earnest and careful attention to "the scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation." A renewal of such spiritual intercourse among yourselves as will tend to strengthen and increase your faith. And finally that you would purge yourselves from the infuence of false doctrines, corrupt affections, and sinful practices, to which you may be exposed, or with which you may be tainted, and you will "be vessels unto honour, sanctified, and mete for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work." AMEN.
[From Northbend Baptist Association Minutes, 1851. The spelling and grammar are unchanged. — jrd]
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