Ink and paper can never make us Christians, can never beget a new nature, a living principle in us; can never form Christ, or any true notions of spiritual things, in our hearts. The gospel, that new law, which Christ delivered to the world, it is not merely a dead letter without us, but a quickening spirit within us. Cold theorems and maxims, dry and jejune disputes, lean syllogistical reasonings, could never yet of themselves beget the least glimpse of true heavenly light, the least sap of saving knowledge in any heart. All this is but the groping of the poor dark spirit of man after truth, to find it out with his own endeavors, and feel it with his own cold and benumbed hands. Words and syllables, which are but dead things, cannot possibly convey the living notions of heavenly truths to us. The secret mysteries of a divine life, of a new nature, of Christ formed in our hearts, they cannot be written or spoken, language and expressions cannot reach them; neither can they be ever truly understood, except the soul itself be kindled from within, and awakened into the life of them. A painter that would draw a rose, though he may flourish some likeness of it in figure and colour, yet he can never paint the scent and fragrancy; or if he would draw a flame, he cannot put a constant heat into his colours; he cannot make his pencil drop a sound, as the echo in the epigram mocks at him. All the skill of cunning artisans and mechanicks cannot put a principle of life into a statue of their own making. Neither are we able to enclose in words and letters the life, soul, and essence of any spiritual truths, and, as it were, to incorporate it in them.
Christ came not into the world to fill our heads with mere speculations, to kindle a fire of wrangling and contentious dispute amongst us, and to warm our spirits against one another with nothing but angry and peevish debates; whilst in the mean time our hearts remain all ice within towards God, and have not the least spark of true heavenly fire to melt and thaw them. Christ came not to possess our brains only with some cold opinions, that send down nothing but a freezing and benumbing influence upon our hearts. Christ was vitae magister, not scholae: and he is the best Christian, whose heart beats with the purest pulse towards heaven; not he, whose head spinneth out the finest cobwebs. ¶ He that endeavors really to mortify his lusts, and to comply with that truth in his life, which his conscience is convinced of, is nearer a Christian, though he never heard of Christ, than he, that believes all the vulgar articles of the Christian faith, and plainly denieth Christ in his life.
Let us endeavour to promote the Gospel of peace, the dovelike Gospel, with a dove-like spirit. This was the way by which the Gospel at first was propagated in the world; Christ did not cry, nor lift up His voice in the streets; a bruised reed He did not break, and the smoking flax He did not quench; and yet He brought forth judgment unto victory. He whispered the Gospel to us from Mount Zion in a still voice; and yet the sound thereof went out quickly throughout all the earth. The Gospel at first came down upon the world gently and softly, like the dew upon Gideon’s fleece; and yet it quickly soaked quite through it; and doubtless this is the most effectual way to promote it further. Sweetness and ingenuity will more command men’s minds than passion, sourness, and severity; as the soft pillow sooner breaks the flint than the hardest marble. Let us follow truth in love; and of the two, indeed, be contented rather to miss of the conveying of a speculative truth than to part with love. When we would convince men of any error by the strength of truth, let us withal pour the sweet balm of love upon their heads. Truth and love are the two most powerful things in the world; and when they both go together they cannot easily be withstood. The golden beams of truth and the silken cords of love twisted together will draw men on with a sweet violence, whether they will or no. Let us take heed we do not sometimes call that zeal for God and His Gospel which is nothing else but our own tempestuous and stormy passion. True zeal is a sweet, heavenly, and gentle flame, which maketh us active for God, but always within the sphere of love. It never calls for fire from heaven to consume those who differ a little from us in their apprehensions. It is like that kind of lightning (which the philosophers speak of) that melts the sword within, but singeth not the scabbard; it strives to save the soul, but hurteth not the body. True zeal is a loving thing, and makes us always active to edification, and not to destruction.
It is now some years since I detected how many are the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis, and from that time I was convinced that I must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation…
I cast not praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness. Which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas, describing true temperance under the person of Guion, brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain. Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.