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EZEKIEL xviii. 31. "Make you a new heart and a new spirit, for why will ye die?"
1. The meaning of the command in the text.
2. Its reasonableness.
In answer to the first question, "what are we to understand by the requirement to make a new heart and a new spirit?" I endeavored to show negatively,
2dly. That it does not mean a new soul. Nor,
3dly. Are we required to create any new faculties of body or mind; nor to alter the constitutional powers, inclinations, or susceptibilities of our nature. Nor to implant any new principle, or taste, in the substance of either mind or body.
I endeavored to show that a change of heart is not that in which a sinner is passive, but that in which he is active. That the change is not physical, but moral. That it is the sinner's own act. That it consists in changing his mind, or disposition, in regard to the supreme object of pursuit. A change in the end at which he aims, and not merely in the means of obtaining his end. A change in the governing choice or preference of the mind. That it consists in preferring the glory of God, and the interests of his kingdom, to one's own happiness, and to every thing else. That it is a change from a state of selfishness in which a person prefers his own interest above every thing else, to that disinterested benevolence that prefers God's happiness and glory, and the interests of his kingdom, to his own private happiness.
I come now to a fourth inquiry, to which the discussion of the above named topics naturally leads, viz. How shall I perform this duty, and change my own heart? This is an inquiry often made by anxious sinners, when they are commanded to change their hearts, and convinced that it is their duty to do so, and of the dreadful consequences of neglecting to obey. They anxiously inquire, HOW SHALL I DO IT? By what process of thought or feeling is this great chancre to be wrought in my mind? The design of this discourse is to help you out of this dilemma; to remove, if possible, the darkness from your minds; to clear up what seems to you to be so mysterious; to hold the lamp of truth directly before you; to pour its blaze full upon your path, so that if you stumble and fall, your blood; shall be upon your own head.
[I. HOW THE HEART CANNOT BE CHANGED. ]
1st. I observe, negatively, that you cannot change your heart by working your imagination and feelings into a state of excitement. Sinners are apt to suppose that great fears and terrors, great horrors of conscience, and the utmost stretch of excitement that the mind is capable of bearing, must necessarily precede a change of heart. They are led to this persuasion, by a knowledge of the fact, that such feelings do often precede this change. But, sinner, you should understand, that this highly excited state of feeling, these fears, and alarms, and horrors, are but the result of ignorance, or obstinacy, and sometimes of both. It often happens that sinners will not yield, and change their hearts, until the Spirit of God has driven them to extremity; until the thunders of Sinai have been rolled in their ears, and the lurid fires of hell have been made to flash in their faces. All this is no part of the work of making a new heart; but is the result of resistance to the performance of this duty. These terrors and alarms are, by no means essential to its performance, but are rather an embarrassment and a hinderance. To suppose that, because, in some instances, sinners have those horrors of conscience, and fears of hell before they would yield, [and] that, therefore, they are necessary, and that all sinners must experience them before they can change their hearts, is a as unwarrantable an inference as if all your children should maintain that they must necessarily be threatened with severe punishment, and see the rod uplifted, and thus be thrown into great consternation, before they can obey; because one of your children had been thus obstinate, and had refused obedience until driven to extremities. If you are willing to do your duty when you are shown what it is, fears, and terrors, and great excitement of mind are wholly unnecessary: God has no delight in them for their own sake, and never (sic.) causes them only when driven to the necessity by pertinacious obstinacy. And when they are obstinate, God often sees it unwise to produce these great terrors, and will sooner let the sinner go to hell without them.
2. You cannot change your heart by an attempt to force yourself into a certain state of feeling. When sinners are called upon to repent, and give their hearts to God, it is common for them, if they undertake to perform this duty, to make an effort to feel emotionsof love, repentance, and faith. They seem to think that all religion consists in highly excited emotions or feelings, and that these feelings can be bidden into existence by a direct effort of the will. They spend much time in prayer for certain feelings, and make many agonizing efforts to call into existence those highly wrought emotions and feelings of love to God of which they hear Christians speak. But these emotions can never be brought into existence by a direct effort to feel. They can never be caused to start into existence, and glow and burn in the mind at the directbidding of the will. The will has no direct influence over the them [emotions], and can only bring them into existence through the medium of the attention. Feelings, or emotions, are dependent upon thought, and arise spontaneously in the mind when the thoughts are intensely occupied with their corresponding objects. Thought is under the direct control of the will. We can direct our attention and meditations to any subject, and the corresponding emotions will spontaneously arise in the mind. If a hated subject is under consideration, emotions of hatred are felt to arise. If an object of terror, of grief, or of joy, occupies the thoughts, their corresponding emotions will of course arise in the mind, and with a strength corresponding to the concentration and intensity of our thoughts upon that subject. Thus our feelings are only indirectly under the control of the will. They are sinful or holy only as they are thus indirectly bidden into existence by the will. Men often complain that they cannot control their feelings; they form overwhelming attachments, which they say they cannot control. They receive injuries - their anger arises - they profess that they cannot help it. Now, while the attention is occupied with dwelling upon the beloved object in the one case, the emotions, of which they complain, will exist of course; and if the emotion be disapproved of by the judgment and conscience, the subject must be dismissed from the thoughts, and the attention directed to some other subject, as the only possible way of ridding themselves of the emotion. So in the other case, the subject of the injury must be dismissed, and their thoughts occupied with other considerations, or emotions of hatred will continue to fester and rankle in their minds. "If a man look on a woman, to lust after her, he has committed adultery with her already in his heart;" he is responsible for the feelings consequent upon suffering such a subject to occupy his thoughts.
[II. THE EXERCISE OF THE WILL, AND THE PLACE OF THE EMOTIONS IN MAKING A NEW HEART. ]
Voluntariness is indispensable to moral character; it is the universal and irresistible conviction of men, that an action, to be praise or blame-worthy, must be free. If, in passing through the streets, you should see a tile fall from a building upon which men were at work, and kill a man, and upon inquiry you found it to be the result of accident, you could not feel that there was any murder in the case. But if, on the contrary, you learnt that the tile was maliciously thrown upon the head of the deceased by one of the workmen, you could not resist the conviction that it was murder. So, if God, or any other being, should force a dagger into your hand, and force you against your will to stab your neighbor, the universal conscience would condemn, not you, but him who forced you to this deed. So, any action, or thought, or feeling, to have moral character, must be directly or indirectly under the control of the will. If a man voluntarily place himself under such circumstances as to call wicked emotions into exercise, he is entirely responsible for them. If he place himself under circumstances where virtuous emotions are called forth, he is praiseworthy in the exercise of them, precisely in proportion to his voluntariness in bringing his mind into circumstances to cause their existence.
Love, repentance, and faith, may exist in the mind, either in the form of volition or emotion. Love, when existing in the form of volition, is a simple preference of the mind for God and the things of religion to every thing else. This preference may, and often does exist in the mind, so entirely separate from what is termed emotion, or feeling, that we may be entirely insensible to its existence. But although its existence may not be a matter of consciousness,by being felt, yet its influence over our conduct will be such as that the fact of its existence will in this way be manifest. The love of family and friends may, in like manner, exist in the mind in both these forms. When a man is engaged in business, or journeying from home, and his attention taken up with other subjects, he exercises no sensible or felt love for his family; but still his preference remains, and is the mainspring that directs his movements in the business about which he is engaged, in order to make provision for them. He does not forget his wife or family, nor act as if he had none; but, on the contrary, his conduct is modified and governed by this abiding, though insensible preference for them; while at the same time his thoughts are so entirely occupied with other things, that no emotion or feeling of affection exists in his mind.
But when the business of the day is past, and other objects cease to crowd upon his attention, this preference of home, of wife and family, comes forth and directs the thoughts to those beloved objects. No sooner are they thus bidden before the mind, than the corresponding emotions arise, and all the father and the husband are awake and felt to enkindle in his heart. So the Christian, when his thoughts are intensely occupied with business or study, may have no sensible emotions of love to God existing in his mind. Still, if a Christian, his preference for God will have its influence over all his conduct, he will neither act nor feel like an ungodly man under similar circumstances; he will not curse, nor swear, nor get drunk; he will not cheat, nor lie, nor act as if under the dominion of unmingled selfishness; but his preference for God will so modify and govern his demeanor, that while he has no sensible or felt enjoyment of the presence of God, he is indirectly influenced in all his ways by a regard to his glory. And when the bustle of business is past, his abiding preference for God naturally directs his thoughts to him, and to the things of his kingdom; when, of course, corresponding feelings or emotions arise in his mind, and warm emotions of love enkindle, and glow, and happify the soul. He understands the declaration of the Psalmist, when he says, "While I mused the fire burned."
I said also, that repentance may exist in the mind, either in the form of an emotion or a volition. Repentance properly signifies a change of mind in regard to the nature of sin, and does not in its primary signification necessarily include the idea of sorrow. It is simply an act of will, rejecting sin, and choosing or preferring holiness. This is its form when existing as a volition. When existing as an emotion, it sometimes rises into a strong abhorrence of sin and love of holiness. It often melts away into ingenuous relentings of heart; in gushings of sorrow, and the strongest feelings of disapproval and self- abhorrence in view of our own sins.
So faith may exist, simply as a settled conviction or persuasion of mind, of the truths of revelation, and will have greater or less influence according to the strength and permanency of this persuasion. It is not evangelical faith, however, unless this persuasion be accompanied with the consent of the will to the truth believed. We often believe things to exist, the very existence of which is hateful to us. Devils and wicked men may have a strong conviction of the truth upon their minds, as we know they often do; and so strong is their persuasion of the truth, that they tremble; but still they hate the truth. But when the conviction of Gospel truth is accompanied with the consent of the will, or the mind's preference of it, it is evangelical faith, and in proportion to its strength will uniformly influence the conduct. But this is faith existing as a volition. When the objects of faith, revealed in the Gospel, are the subjects of intense thought, faith rises into emotion: it is then a felt confidence and trust, so sensible as to calm all the anxieties, and fears, and perturbations of the soul.
Emotions of love or hatred to God, that are not directly or indirectly produced by the will, have no moral character. A real Christian, under circumstances of strong temptation, may feel emotions of opposition to God rankling in his mind. If he has voluntarily placed himself under these circumstances of temptation, he is responsible for these emotions. If the subject that creates these emotions is forced upon him by Satan, or in any way against his will, he is not responsible for them. If he divert his attention, if he flee from the scene of temptation, if he does what belongs to him to resist and repress these emotions, he has not sinned. Such emotions are usually brought to exist in the mind of a Christian by some false view of the character or government of God. So emotions of love to God may exist in the mind that are purely selfish, they may arise out of a persuasion that God has a particular regard for us, or some vain assurance of our good estate and the certainty of our salvation, Now, if this love be not founded upon a preference for God for what he really is, it is not virtuous love. In this case, although the will may have indirectly produced these emotions, yet as the will prefers God, not for what he is, but for selfish reasons, the consequent emotions are selfish.