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7. All christians agree that sinners are justly charged with, and made accountable for, all the iniquities of their hearts and lives; that they ought to repent of every transgression, and will certainly be punished if they continue impenitent : yet they greatly differ in their ideas of the state in which man is born, of the way in which he becomes a sinner, and respecting his ability to act right. On these disputed points the unlearned christian may decide for himself, by a due attention to those things in which all parties agree. Common sense will suggest to him the impossibility of sinners being charged, by a righteous God, with criminality, and rendered accountable for what they were subjected to, independent of their own choice, for what they could not possibly avoid, or for omitting what they had no ability to perform. There can be no room for a man to repent of any thing but what is properly his own act and deed; nor can impenitence be a crime in those who have not power to repent. The necessity of repentance, which all admit to be an essential branch of christian doctrine, proves that man has power to act right.
8. Though all the professors of the gospel admit that faith towards the Lord Jesus Christ is an essential part of christianity, many of them say that man has not power to believe; yet they admit that those who do not believe will be damned. This mistake may be detected and rectified by a steady adherence to what themselves confess to be a fundamental of the christian religion. If men cannot
become christians without faith, and they have not power to believe, it follows that they have not power to become christians; and it must be obvious to the common sense of mankind that it would be unjust to punish men for not being what they have not the power to become. If, as such persons contend, unbelief be a damning sin, faith must be a practical duty.
9. It seems to be a very common mistake, that men are justified and saved by faith alone. This mistake may be detected by what all christians admit to be an essential truth, i. e. that without holiness of heart and life, men cannot be finally saved; for it must strike every man of common sense, that if a holy life be necessary to the obtaining of eternal salvation, then sinners are not saved by faith only, and that faith, to be saving, must, as James taught, be accompanied by good works. If christians would but exercise common sense on what they all admit to be a leading truth of the gospel, i. e. the necessity of holiness of heart and life, they might see the fallacy of resting their whole salvation on faith alone.
10. Serious persons have often had their minds perplexed, and their peace disturbed, by the doctrines of partial election and arbitrary reprobation; but the fallacy of such doctrines may be detected by bringing them to the test of what all christians must admit to be an essential part of revealed truth, i. e. that God is no respecter of persons; that he will render to every man according to his works. Common sense teaches that if the Al
mighty chuse a part of mankind to be the objects of his special favours, without any regard to their character, and reject others in the same arbitrary way, he is evidently a partial being, a respecter of persons, and does not render to every man according to his works. If the divine impartiality, which all profess to admit, be strictly adhered to, every notion of God's partial favour to some, and his arbitrary rejection of others, must be renounced; and the rational idea, that he approves or disapproves of men according to their real character, and deals with them according to their moral state, fully admitted.
The preceding observations are intended to show the unlearned reader the use he may make of what all parties of christians admit to be essential truths of revelation, in judging for himself on those points in which they differ; and that common sense, freely exercised on the first principles of christianity, will lead to a detection of the most material errors in religion.
Prop. III. There seems no way to effect a complete reformation of faith and practice among christians, but by returning to first principles; nor any way of terminating religious controversy, but by bringing every subject to that test.
On the meaning of particular words and phrases a complete agreement is not probable. In explaining particular passages of scripture, christians will continue to differ. It is only in the first prin
ciples of religion, as we have defined them, they accord. This, then, is the only common ground on which contending parties can meet. Until they can agree to bring the points on which they differ to the test of those leading doctrines of truth in which they agree, and determine to retain or reject their present notions as common sense points out their consonance or dissonance with those undoubted truths of revelation, their differences will continue. Until religion be reformed, not by human authority, by the standard of tradition, or according to the opinions and maxims of a preponderating party, but by a general, uniform, and practical adherence to first principles, reformation will be incomplete.
Prop. IV. Whatever is contrary to the first principles of christianity must be false; whatever harmonizes with those principles is likely to be true.
As the first principles are the ground of the whole christian system, it is impossible the sys, tem at large should contain any thing dissonant to those principles; and, though certain sentiments may be doubtful, for want of full evidence, if they agree with the fundamental parts of christian truth, it is probable they are true.
Prop. V. The sense of figurative terms, ambiguous phrases, and difficult passages of scripture, must be determined by a reference to first principles.
Christians have been much in the habit of building doctrines upon figurative, ambiguous, and difficult passages of scripture; but such passages ought to be explained agreeably to the plain acknowledged and positive declarations of truth, and what are unequivocally the leading doctrines of the gospel; consequently, independent of such explanation, they ought not to be regarded as decisive proof. From the neglect of this rule, many mistakes, and much confusion, have arisen among christians; nor can these evils be avoided but by a steady adherence to first principles; for different persons will unavoidably reason differently when what is figurative and ambiguous is taken as the ground of reasoning and argument. On the leading truths of christianity, to which all parties assent, let the unlearned christian take his stand, and resolve to admit no sentiment, founded on figurative, ambiguous, and difficult passages, any further than it agrees with those truths. This will preserve him from many mistakes.
Prop. VI. Inferences deducible from the first principles of christianity, are to be preferred to conclusions founded on figurative expressions, and detached passages of scripture.