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Essays on The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character (1829) by Gardiner Spring, D.D.



There are errors on the subject of faith in Christ, which it is nowhere more important to observe and avoid, that when we consider it as a test of Christian character.  There are those who affirm, that the faith of the Gospel is nothing more than a general assent to the doctrines of revelation, unaccompanied by love to them, or a dependence on Christ for salvation.  It is not necessary to animadvert upon this description of faith, for every man who reads the bible must perceive, that faith in Christ is there described as a holy act.  But if it is nothing more than the assent of the understanding to the doctrines of the Gospel, then is it possessed by some of the vilest men on the earth, as well as by the fallen spirits in hell  (James 2:19).

There are also, those who teach, that the faith of the Gospel consists in a strong persuasion of our personal piety.  If a man believes that he is one of God’s elect people; that Christ loved him from eternity; that he died for him in particular; and that he is a regenerated, pardoned sinner; this persuasion is by many supposed to constitute him a believer in the scriptural acceptation of the term.  Hence the stronger a man’s persuasion of his own interest in Christ, and the blessings of his salvation, the stronger his faith! And hence the sentiment has obtained that unbelief consists in not believing, or doubting that we are Christians; and all those fears which disturb the peace of good men, and all those apprehensions lest they should be deceived in their hopes, and fail of everlasting life, are stigmatised as unbelief.  Now, that these cannot be either the faith or unbelief of the Gospel is abundantly evident from a number of considerations, on which we cannot enlarge, and will merely suggest.  Nothing can be the object of saving faith, except what is revealed in the scriptures.  Now it is nowhere revealed in the scriptures, that any one of us in particular, is pardoned and justified and individually interested in Christ’s redemption; and if any one imagines that this revelation has been made to him in particular, he deceives himself and the truth is not in him.  Besides, the scriptures always represent faith as terminating on something without us; namely, on Christ and the truths concerning him; but if it consist in a persuasion of our being in a state of salvation, it must terminate principally on something within us, namely, the work of grace in our hearts; and how inferior is such an object of faith to the all-sufficiency and glory of the great Redeemer?

It is not easy to give a definition of faith, that comprehends all its properties.  In its most general character, it is reliance upon the testimony of God’s word. It is receiving the truth in the love of it. The apostle Paul uses the phrase, received not the love of the truth as synonymous with the phrase, believed not the truth. Faith, however, when viewed as an evangelical grace, possesses altogether a peculiar character.  It is not simply reliance upon the divine testimony, but particularly upon the truth of God revealed in the scriptures concerning Jesus Christ. So the scriptures themselves represent it.  “These things are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, ye might have life in his name.” (John 20:31)  “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” (Rom. 10:9)

I cannot better describe this grace, than by adverting to the state of mind, which precedes and exercises it.  When, by the operations of the Holy Spirit, a man is made sensible that he has sinned against the Holy God, he deeply feels that he is fallen, guilty, condemned and undone.  He sees that he lies at the mere mercy of that God whom he has offended, who is under no obligation to pity him, and may most righteously destroy him for ever.  Under the righteous sentence of a holy law, he does not see how God can be just, and yet extend pardoning mercy to a wretch like him, until he becomes acquainted with that soul-reviving truth, that “he so loved the world as to give his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  In this wonderful expedient, he discovers a remedy which vindicates the authority of the divine law in the dispensations of pardoning mercy, and relieves his soul from the oppressive apprehension that there is no forgiveness with God.  Through this Redeemer, he ascertains that he is invited and commanded to return to God, with the hope and assurance of mercy; and is confirmed in the belief that “whosoever cometh to Jesus Christ, he will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37).  And he is emboldened to go.  The good deeds, the religious performances, which once used to encourage him, afford him no encouragement now: but renouncing them all, he returns to God with an implicit, active, and exclusive reliance on Jesus Christ and his redemption, as God’s appointed way of saving sinners.  He approves of this method of salvation; he delights in it; he chooses it as his only refuge.  He no longer rejects the mystery of the cross, or stumbles at the corner-stone which is laid in Zion, but glories in the cross of Christ, and is happy to adventure his all for immortality on this sure foundation: and thus does he “receive, and rest on Christ alone for salvation as he is offered in the Gospel.”  And this is faith in Christ.

This heavenly grace, is one of the fruits of the spirit, and evidences of regeneration. “He that believeth shall be saved” (John 3:36).  “No man can say, that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 12:3).  Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God” (1 John 5:1).  Do you possess this heaven-inspired grace? What do you know of Jesus Christ as the Saviour of sinners?  What glory have you ever discovered in that great moral wonder, “God manifest in the flesh,” as the Prophet, the Priest, the King in Sion?  Have you from the heart, received the record, that God has given of his Son?  Have you discovered any thing in Christ, that qualifies him to be your Saviour, and that can encourage guilty, miserable men to trust in his grace?  Is he precious to you, as to those who believe? Is it your happiness to commit your cause to better hands than your own; to relinquish all your self-righteous confidences, and cast yourself into the arms of Jesus?  What things were gain to you, do you count loss for Christ? Is every thing you are, and have done, and can perform, in your own view, nothing, that you may win Christ, and be found in him, not having your own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith?  (Phil 3:8-9).  In a word, with a just view of the character, and a supreme attachment to the person of Christ, can you yield yourself into his hands as a full and complete Saviour? Can you look to him to be sanctified by his Spirit; to be governed by his laws; to be protected by his power; to be saved by his death; to be disposed of at his pleasure, and to be the means of promoting his glory?  If you can, all is well!  In the comprehensive promise of that covenant to which faith makes you a party, lie concealed the life and immortality of the Gospel.  Life and death, earth and heaven, things present and things to come, joys high, immeasurable, immortal—what shall I say?—All are yours, and ye are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:22-23).


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The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character by Gardiner Spring, D.D.

Chapter 9:  Repentance For Sin

A MERE glance at the ruin and recovery of man, is enough to convince us, that of the religion of fallen beings, repentance forms an essential part.  It is alike significant of the character, and indispensable to the happiness of a converted sinner, to be penitent.

In the order of gracious exercises, repentance follows love to God. An affectionate view of God prepares the mind to take a just view of sin. As it is impossible to repent of having sinned against a God that we hate; so it is impossible not to repent of having sinned against a God that we love.  When the heart has been renewed; when the soul, enlightened by the Divine Spirit, sees the beauty, the loveliness of the Divine character—it cannot seriously reflect upon a life of sin, without unfeigned grief.

True repentance is “to abhor sin as committed against God; to abhor ourselves for sin, and to reform.”   Repentance, like every other grace, is the gift of God, and the reasonable and indispensable duty of men; and there are considerations which the mind of man perceives, and which the Spirit of God makes use of in the production and exercise of this grace, which give it a peculiar character.  The leading thought which influences the soul in all godly sorrow, is the intrinsic turpitude of sin. It is not enough to feel and acknowledge that we are sinners; the mind must be imbued with a deep and settled conviction of the great evil of sin, as committed against God, and as a wanton and wicked violation of his most holy law.  The very definition of sin is that it is a “transgression of the law.”  In this you discover its true nature, and appropriate malignity.  It is a violation of all law; a wilful disregard of all authority; and a consequent hostility to all the holiness and happiness which a conformity to law would necessarily secure.

We cannot now speak of the pernicious consequences of sin, and tell how a view of these opens the sources of godly sorrow in the soul.   The capital thought that affects the mind of the penitent is, that he has sinned against God! Sin is contrary to every attribute of the divine nature, and is the abominable thing which God’s soul hateth.  And the penitent sinner feels that he is the perpetrator of this foul deed!  He has been sinning against the great God; he has been rising up in rebellion against his legitimate authority; he has done what he could to pour contempt upon his infinite majesty and excellence, to trample upon his goodness and forbearance, to despise his grace, and diminish and destroy his influence in the world.  He has not only done this, but he has done it with a calm and deliberate purpose, and in defiance to the strongest inducements to an opposite course of conduct.  He sees also, that he has sinned always; that he has been cherishing a totally depraved heart, which has never intermitted its iniquity, and never ceased from its unprovoked and ungrateful disobedience.

Now when a mind that has been renewed by the Spirit of God makes these internal discoveries, it is not surprising that it should be filled with utter abhorrence of all iniquity.  To such a mind, sin appears in its native odiousness:  it is vile, it is utterly detestable; it is exceedingly sinful.  He abhors it, as committed against God. The thought which most deeply affects him is, “Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned!”   Nor is it enough that he abhors his sins; he abhors himself for sin. He is sensible that he is a vile transgressor; that he has no excuse for his iniquity, and is altogether criminal; that the evil of his transgression is chargeable upon himself alone; that he deserves to be blamed, rather than pitied, and that he might well bear the blame as well as endure the curse of his iniquities to all eternity.  There are seasons when his views of sin are comparatively languid; and there are also seasons when they are deep and thorough— when they pierce and rend the heart, and fill it with the bitterness of ingenuous sorrow.  O, he feels that his transgressions are multiplied, and that his iniquities testify against him!  His laughter is turned into mourning, and his joy into heaviness.  His heart is heavy, and he goes bowed down to the earth.  He is abased before God. He loathes himself in his own sight for his iniquities and abominations.  It breaks his spirit to look back and survey the multitude of his transgressions.  If you could follow him to his closet, I doubt not you would often hear him cry with the bemoaning prophet, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God; for mine iniquities are increased over my head, and my tresspass is grown up into the heavens!”

An essential part of true repentance also consists in actual reformation.  It exhibits itself in real life.  The penitent feels the force of considerations which, restrain from sin. He is afraid of sin, and dreads its aggravated guilt.  How shall I commit this great wickedness, and sin against God! Though a sinner still, he cannot remain a sinner in the sense in which he was a sinner once.  He manifests a desire to honour the God he has so long dishonoured; to undo what he has done against the interest of His kingdom, and repair the injury he has caused to the souls of men.  There is no genuine repentance where there is no forsaking of sin. Still to go on in sin, to practice iniquity with greediness, with constancy, and with perseverance, is incompatible with the nature of that sorrow which is unto salvation.

Such is true repentance.  This is that “godly sorrow” of which the scriptures speak “that worketh repentance to salvation, not to be repented of.”  But before you apply these thoughts in the examination of your own character, allow me to advise you, that there is a false and spurious repentance,— a “sorrow of the world that worketh death.”  Saul and Esau, Ahithophel and Judas were penitents; but their repentance needed to be repented of.  The damned in hell are weeping and mourning, and must weep and mourn without end; but they are not the subjects of godly sorrow.  A child will weep under the rod, and often grieve and afflict his heart because he expects to be punished; while he is at a great remove from ingenuous sorrow for his fault.  Is there not reason to fear there is no small degree of repentance which arises from the fear of punishment, without hating sin?

It is one thing to mourn for sin because it exposes us to hell, and another to mourn for it because it is an infinite evil.  It is one thing to mourn for it because it is injurious to ourselves, another to mourn for it because it is offensive to God. It is one thing to be terrified, another to be humbled.  A man may tremble at the apprehension of Divine wrath, while he has no sense of the intrinsic turpitude of sin, and no true contrition of soul on account of it.

There is also the sorrow which arises merely from the hope of forgiveness.  Such is the mercenary repentance of the hypocrite and the self-deceived.  Many, it is to be feared, have eagerly cherished the expectation of eternal life, and here begun and ended their religion.  Many, it is to be feared, have eagerly cherished the hope of mercy, and here begun their repentance, who have mourned at the last. In all this, there is nothing that is ingenuous, no godly sorrow arising from a sense of the intrinsic turpitude of sin.

With this illustration of the nature of true repentance, we think you may decide the point as to your own good estate.  Those who are true penitents are born of God. Suffer me then to inquire, Do you know any thing of ingenuous, godly sorrow for sin?  Retire into your own bosom, and ask yourself questions like these:  Do I possess any settled conviction of the evil of sin? Does sin appear to me, as the evil and bitter thing? Does a conviction of the evil of it increase?  There are moments when heaven and hell lie out of sight:   How does sin appear then?  Do you hate it merely because it is ruinous to your soul, or because it is offensive to God!  Do you hate it because it is sin? Is your repentance deep and sincere?  Is sin your greatest grief? Which grieve you most, your sins, or your misfortunes?  What sacrifices are you willing to make to be delivered from your sins?  Do your sins appear many and aggravated?  Do you discover sin in a thousand forms, and new expressions, which you never discovered before?  Do you mourn over the sins of the heart? Do you abase yourself for your innate depravity, as one that was shaped in iniquity, and conceived in sin? Do you mourn over your vain thoughts and carnal affections; over a life of sin, ingratitude, and profligacy; over your unprofitableness and unfaithfulness?  Does it grieve you that you are worldly, proud, and selfish; that you have lifted up your soul unto vanity, and panted after the dust of the earth?

Does it grieve you to the heart, to call to mind that you have sinned against God? When your eyes behold the King, the Lord of Hosts, are you constrained to exclaim, “Woe is me!” When you look on Him whom you have pierced, are you constrained to cry out, “I am undone!

The degree of godly sorrow is by no means to be overlooked in your self-examination.  When God touches, he breaks the heart.  Where he pours out the spirit of grace, they are not a few transient sighs that agitate the breast; they are heart-rending pangs of sorrow.  Is the reader experimentally acquainted with such godly sorrow?  Can no solitary hour, no sequestered spot bear testimony to the bitterness of your grief?  Does any thing grieve you more than that you have ten thousand times pierced the heart of redeeming love?  Do you abhor sin and turn from it?  Are you conscious of being afraid of sin, as well as of an increasing tenderness of conscience whenever you are tempted to go astray?  If so, then have you testimony that the work of grace is begun within you—testimony just as infallible as the sincerity of your repentance?  “Whoso covereth his sins shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall find mercy.”

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