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Being a Letter to the Author, in unswer to his request of
information concerning the opinion of Protestant Divines and Churches in general, of the Presbyterians in Scotland and Dissenters in England in particular, respecting Five QUESTIONs that relate to this controversy.
REV. AND DEAR Sır,
If you look into Mr. Baxter's controversial writings against Mr. Blake, you will meet with such accounts of principles and facts, as I think may reasonably give an inquirer much satisfaction as to the common judgment of Protestant churches and divines in the points you mention. I particularly refer
. I you to his Five DISPUTATIONS of Right to Sacraments, and the true Nature of Visible Christianity; where all or the most
your queries are considered and answered, with a multitude of iestimonies produced in favour of sentiments contrary to those of your excellent predecessor, the late Mr. Stoddard. I have not said this from any disposition to excuse myself from the labour of making some further inquiry, if it be thought needful. And as it may shew my willingness to gratify your desire, I will now say something on your questions distinctly, but with as much brevity as I can.
Question I. What is the general opinion respecting that SELF-EXAMINATION required in 1 Cor. xi. 28. Whether communicants are not here directed to examine themselves concerning the truth of grace, or their real godliness?
ANSWER. This construction of the text, as far as I have had opportunity to inquire, appears to me very generally received ; if I may judge by what many celebrated expositors have said, on the place, and by what many famous divines have written in treatises of preparations for the Lord's supper, besides what is contained in public confessions, catechisms, directories, &c. I think Dr. Reynolds, in his Meditations on
the Lord's supper, has summarily expressed the common judg. ment of Calvinists in these strong lines of his : “ The sacrament is but a seal of the covenant; and the covenant essentially includes conditions ; and the condition on our part is faith. No faith, no covenant ; no covenant, no seal; no seal, no sacrament.—The matter then of this trial (says he) must be that vital qualification, which predisposeth a man for receiving of these holy mysteries; and that is faith."
However, I may venture to be confident, that Mr. Stoddard's gloss on the text, who tells us in his controverted sermon, “ The meaning is, that a man must come solemnly to that ordinance, examining what need he has of it,” is quite foreign from the current sense of Calvinist writers. And, though he makes a different comment in his Appeal to the Learned, saying, “ The examination called for is, whether they understood the nature of the ordinance, that so they may solemnly consider what they have to do when they wait upon God in it;” neither can I find any appearance of a general consent of the learned and orthodox to this new gloss, at least as exhibiting the full meaning of the text. I might easily confront it with numerous authorities: but the Palatine Catechism, and that of the Westminster Assembly, with the common explanations and catechizings upon them, may be appealed to as instar omnium. And I shall only add here, if it be allowed a just expectation that the candidate for the communion examine himself about the same things, at least as the pastor, to whom he applies for admission, ought to make the subject of his examination, then it is worth while to hear the opinion of those unnamed ministers in New England, (among whom the late Dr. Colman, I have reason to think, was the principal,) that answered Dr. Mather's Order of the Gospel, (anno 1700, who, in the Postscript to their Review, thus express themselves: “We highly approve-that the proponant of the Lord's table be examined of his baptisinal vow; his sense of spiritual wants, sinfulness, and wretchedness; his hope, faith, experiences, resolutions through the grace of God." This, I think, is something beyond Mr. Stoddard.
QUESTION II. Whether it be the general opinion of those aforesaid, that some who know themselves to be unregenerate, and under the reigning power of sin, ought notwithstanding, in such a state, to come to the Lord's table?
ANSWER. I am aware, Sir, though you have seen fit to take no notice of it to me, that Mr. Stoddard (in his Doctrine of Instituted Churches) is peremptory in the affirmative ; but I have met with no author among Calvinists, at home or abroad, consenting with him, unless it be Mr. Blake, and some that were for a promiscuous admission, with little or no limitation. If divines in general, of the Calvinistic character, were for such a latitude as Mr. Stoddard's, what can we suppose to be the reason, that in treating on the Lord's supper, they so constantly consider it as one of the rights of the church, belonging to the truly faithful alone, exclusively of all others? Why do we hear them declaring, It is certain that the right of external fellowship resides in the faithful only: and as to the rest, they are in that communion only by accident, and it is also only by accident that they are suffered there; but being what they are, they have not any part in the rights of that society properly belonging to them? If they thought the sacrament instituted for conversion, why do we never find them recommending it as a converting ordinance, and urging persons to come to it with that view, who know themselves to be in an unconverted state? If they thought that any such have a right before God, and may come to it with a good conscience, why do we find them so solemnly warning all that are truly convinced of their remaining yet in a natural state, to refrain coming to the Lord's table in their unbelief and impenitence; as if they judged it a sinful and dangerous thing for them to come under such circumstances? I know Mr. Stoddard, in his Appeal, disputes the fact. But it has occurred to me in abundance of instances, while reviewing my authors on this occasion.
Among the foreign Protestants in Germany, France, &c. I shall name but two out of many instances before me. The Heidelberg or Palatine Catechism, which had the solemn approbation of the Synod of Dort, and was especially praised by the Divines of Great Britain ; which has been in a manner universally received and taught, formerly in Scotland, and still all over Holland, and by reason of its excellency has been translated into no less than thirteen several languages; this is most express in claiming the Lord's supper for a special privilege of such as have true faith and repentance; and forbidding it to hypocrites, as well as scandalous persons, declaring that none such ought to come. See the eighty-first and other questions and answers, with Ursin's Latin Explications, and De Witte's English Catechizings thereon. Here, Sir, indeed you have the judgment of a multitude in one. Another celebrated book is Claude's Historical Defence of the Reformation; in which I meet with repeated declarations of the same sentiments, perfectly on the negative side of the question in hand, but, I think, too many and too long to be here transcribed. The language of some of them I have just now had occasion to make use of.
As for the Church of Scotland, I find they have adopted
the Westminster Confession, Catechisms, and Directory, which debar all ignorant and ungodly persons from the Lord's table, and require every one to examine himself, not only as to his knowledge, but also his faith, repentance, love, new obedience, &c.- In their Books of Discipline, I observe sundry passages that appropriate the sacrament to the truly penitent and faithful, as the only proper subjects. Their national covenant, renewed from time to time, has this clause ; To the which [true reformed kirk] we join ourselves willingly, in doctrine faith, religion, discipline, and use of the holy sacraments, as lively members of the same in Christ our Head, &c. And among the divines of Scotland, I find many in their sermons, sacramental speeches, and other discourses, declaring themselves strongly on the negative part in the question before us, advising to strictness in admission to the Lord's supper, renouncing the opinion of its being a converting ordinance, inviting only the sincere friends of Christ to it, and frequently warning professors conscious of reigning sin and hypocrisy to forbear approaching the Lord's table. I might bring much to this purpose from Mr. Andrew Gray's book of sermons, published anno 1716 ; and his sermons, printed anno 1746, with a preface by Mr. Willison.-So from Mr. Ebenezer Erskine's synodical sermon, anno 1732—And from Mr. Ralph Erskine's sermon on Isa. xlii. 6, and his discourse on fencing the tables, annexed to his sermon on John xvi. 15.--So from Mr. Willison's synodical sermon, anno 1733 ; where he sets down a variety of searching questions, (no less than twenty-seven,) which he advises to be put to proponants, and their answers to be waited for before they are admitted. The anonymous author of a Defence of National Churches against the Independents, (who is reputed to be Mr. Willison,) asserts it as a Presbyterian principle, that none have right before God to the complete communion of the church, but such as have grace; and that none are to be admitted but those who are saints, at least in profession ; such as profess to accept of the offers of Christ's grace, &c. and confess themselves to be sincere. Mr. Aytone, in his Review against Mr. Glas, owns that the Lord's supper is not a formal mean of conversion, but of further growth and nourishment to those already converted. In the same strain is Mr. Nasmith's Treatise of the Entail of the Covenant—And Mr. Warden's Essay on Baptism. In a word, I find Mr. Currie (in his synodical sermon, anno 1732,) testifying of the ministers in Scotland, that they are tender, (i. e, circumspect and cautious,) in admitting people to the holy table of the Lord ; knowing the design of the ordinance is not conversion, but confirmation; and he observes, that all who approve themselves to God here, will a thousand times rather choose to have, was it but one
table or half a table of honest communicants, true believers and real saints, than have a hundred tables, by admitting any that are unworthy, (or Christless souls, as he anon characterizes them,)of whom there are not moral evidences of their fitness for this holy ordinance. And for the commendable practice of the Church of Scotland, in being pointed and particular in debarring the unworthy from this ordinance, (says he,) God forbid ever it turn into desuetude. I think I may here not unfitly subjoin those remarkable passages in Mr. Anderson's excellent Defence of the Presbyterians, against Mr. Rhind; where he informs us, they look upon this holy ordinance as the common privilege of the faithful ; and therefore they usually fence the Lord's table, in the words of Scripture, 1 Cor. vi. 9. or some such-like. To exclude the impenitent from the privilege of gospel-mysteries; to debar those from the Lord's table, whom the Lord has, by the express sentence of his word, debarred out of the kingdom of heaven, is what every one, who is not quite lost in impiety, must own to be not only lawful, but a duty. Upon which I beg leave to observe, according to this principle I do not see but that a man who with apparent signs of credibility confesses himself habitually impenitent, ought to be debarred from the Lord's table: and surely, by parity of reason, he that knows himself to be unregenerate, ought to refrain coming, since there can be no true repentance without regeneration. I think we have no just grounds to suppose Mr. Stoddard's principle in this matter has hitherto any general prevalence in the Church of Scotland.
And now to pass over to England, neither do I find reason to think the Dissenters there in general are for Mr. STODDARD's latitude. The Assembly of Divines pronounce all the ungodly, as well as ignorant, unworthy of the Lord's table ; direct to preparation for it, by examining ourselves of our being in Christ, &c. And though they declare this sacrament appointed for the relief even of the weak and doubting Christian, who unfeignedly desires to be found in Christ; and having directed such a one to bewail his unbelief, and labour to have his doubts resolved, they assert that so doing he may and ought to come to the Lord's supper, to be further strengthened: yet I do not find any appearance of a bint, as if others who know themselves to be in a natural state, or are conscious of their being certainly graceless, may and ought to come to this ordinance, that they may be converted. Nay, they expressly declare of all ungodly persons, that while they remain such, they cannot without great sin against Christ partake of those holy mysteries.—As to particular divines, I find multitudes of them among the Dissenters, in later as well as former times, expressing the same sentiments : distinguishing between natural and instituted duties, between initial and con