W. D. (William Dool) Killen.

A reply to the Rev. Isaac Nelson, of Belfast, and Rev. William Dobbin, of Anaghlone, or, Revivalism, assurance, the witness of the spirit defended, in speeches delivered at the General Assembly, June 12, 1866 online

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Online LibraryW. D. (William Dool) KillenA reply to the Rev. Isaac Nelson, of Belfast, and Rev. William Dobbin, of Anaghlone, or, Revivalism, assurance, the witness of the spirit defended, in speeches delivered at the General Assembly, June 12, 1866 → online text (page 3 of 8)
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I am his." Whence arises any peace we have with our own consciences, but
from the conviction that we are at peace with God? Being justified by faith,
we have — not we hope for — ^but we hwve peace with God. On the other
theory patronised by the appellants, their gospel would be the gospel of
doubt, the gospel of uncertainty, — ^but not the gospel of peace.

But the question is here, — Who is the errorist? Who holds by, or
•who deviates from, the teaching of the Standards ? Let us see. In th^


Larger Catechism, quest. 81, it is said, " Assurance of grace and salvation
not being of tlie essence of faith, true believers may wait long before they
obtain it; and, after the enjoyment thereof, may have it weakened and inter-
mitted." But the language is more definite and precise in the Confession of
Faith. Chap, xviii — " Such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him
in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may in
this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may re-
joice in the hope of the glory of God : which hope shall never make them
ashamed." And again in chap, xiv., sec. 3, on saving faith — " This faith is dif-
ferent in degrees, weak or strong ; may be often and in many ways assailed and
weakened, but gets the victory ; growing up in many to the attainment of a
full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.**
And again in the 3rd sec. of the 18th chap. — " This infallible assurance doth
not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long,
and conflict with many difficulties before he is partaker of it." Moderator,
I am not here to decide whether the Standards are agreeable to the Word of
God, that with us is a settled question ; but what do they teach ? Can it be
doubted that they teach that faith and assurance differ only in degree, — that
faith may, can, should grow up to an infallible assurance. Sir, the men of
the Westminster Assembly were men profound in thought, and very accurate
in their definitions, and the charge of making use of redimdant and un-
meaning words, cannot be laid at their door, and what do they mean by the
use of this term — so. Assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith
but that it is involved in it, as the fruit is in the flower, as the full corn is in,
the seed ; and yet not so, but that there may be life and growth, though that
result has not been reached That is practically the teaching of Mr. Craw-
ford, and therefore we say that this charge of heresy has not been proved. I
was greatly astonished, sir, to hear the use that was made of the ex-
perience of David, as set forth in the 5l8t psalm, as if it taught that David
had absolutely lost aU sense of interest in a covenant God, or argued any-
thing against an assurance that could be clouded, and obscured as his was.
Sir, it is a curious fact, and fitted to cover some paxties with confusion, that
when the Confession asserts that a true believer may have the assurance of
his salvation shaken and intermitted, the Scripture proof which is furnished
in defence of that position, is taken from the 51st psalm. And what I would
say to the appellant, and to myself is this, — If ever we grieve the Spirit of
God, and are found walking in darkness, and seeing no hght at all, may we
have at least, that sense of nearness to God, and that consciousness of the
worth and value of His Spirit dwelling and abiding within us, that will war-
rant us in saying, as David did, " Cast me not away from thy presence; and
take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Eestore unto me the joy of thy salvation ;
and uphold me with thy free Spirit."

There is a third point in this controversy — ^viz., the connexion of the wit-
ness of the spirit with assurance, and whether it is, or can be, a distinct tes-
timony to a believer that he is a child of God. I will speak immediately to
the doctrine as part of the testimony of this chiurch in her Standards ; but
as preliminary, let the Assembly mark that the question is not. Where, and
in what circumstances, is the witness furnished — but is it ever given to any
believer ? Nor, sir, is the question before us — Is this testimony constructive,
cumulative, and confirmatory, or found alone and apart from other kinds
of evidence ? Nor is the question. Would a man, who had no other evidence
of his deliverance from the death in trespasses and in sins, be warranted in
falling back on his consciousness of the indweUing of the Holy Spirit, as
sufficient to warrant the belief that he was born again ? On such questions
we axe not required to give any deliverance. I commit no man to the
opinions I hold on these points, but in the presence of my fathers and brethren,
I can say that, while I would not limit the Holy One of God, I would look
with extreme suspicion on the professed religiousness of a man, who could
give no proof of being renewed in the spirit of his mind, except that intan-
gible testimony, (I mean intangible to others) that he had been sealed with


tlie Holy Spirit of promise : I am inclined to believe that the Compilers
of the Standards regarded this evidence as the cumiilative and crowning,
but not the essential link in the chain of these evidences that prove the
saving operation of grace in a soul.

I will leave to other brethren the task of exhibiting the harmony of this view
of truth with the language of the inspired volume ; such as, " The Spirit wit-
nesseth with our spirit." " Te were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise,
which is the earnest of our inheritance.'* " We have received not the spirit
which is of the world, but the Spirit which is of God," &c., &c. But on this
point let us hear the voice of the church. Confession, chap, xviii., sec. 2.
" This infallible assurance is founded upon the divine truth of the promises
of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises
are made, the testimony of the spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits
that we are the children of God ; which Spii-it is the earnest of our inherit-
ance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption." Sir, have we not here
three distinct clauses^ — the truth of the promises, — the inward evidence of
grace, — and the testimony of the Spirit. I contend that we have, — and see
how this is confirmed by the language of the Larger Catechism. Quest. 80,
" True believers may without extraordinary revelation by faith grounded upon
the truth of God's promises, and by the Spirit enabling them to discern in
themselves those graces to which the promises of life are made, and bearing
witness with their spu-its that they are the children of God, be infallibly
assuied that they are in the estate of grace," &c. Now, sir, the sentences and
propositions here, are plainly and clearly distinct, the very punctuation, and
use of the copulative and, make that to my mind at least, as clear as a sun-
beam, but if I could have entertained any doubt on the matter, it would have
been removed by observing the order and arrangement of the Scripture proofs
that are subjoined to the text. Sir, he must have read the Confession of
Faith to little purpose, who has not observed the exquisite skill, and admir-
able wisdom of the Compilers in selecting their Scripture proofs. And he
must be blind indeed who does not see that when they set forth a distinct
proposition, they sustain it by a series of distinct and independent proofs.
Now, sir, when we turn to the 18th chap, and 2nd sec, we do find the tliree
clauses, with their separate proofs, arranged under letters f, g, and h, to my
mind clear evidence that the Compilers believed, and wished us to believe, in
the distinctive evidence of the witness of the Spirit.

Sir, we heard many strange things this forenoon, and amongst them
a reference to the opinions of good old Dickson, who, although not in
the Westminster Assembly, was the warm friend of Henderson, Gillespie,
Baillie, Rutherford, and the other worthies of that period; and it
would certainly have been a help to the Dobbin cause, if it could have
been proved that Dickson, a cotemporary theologian, held views of
assurance of the witness of the Spirit, contrary to those which we aifii*m
the Confession and the Catechism teach. But what was the evidence
adduced, — a quotation from the Sum of Saving Knowledge, which does
not treat very distinctly on this controversy. I can give Mr. Dobbin a little
of the history of that book. It was the joint production of the godly Durham,
and of the learned Dickson, but how much of the work was Dickson's cannot
now be ascertained ; what, however, is much more to the point is this : -^
Dickson wrote a commentary on all the chapters in the Confession of Faith,
entitled, " Truth's Victory over Error." I would strongly recommend that
book to the attention of the appellants ; and. Moderator, I have brought it
with me that Mr. Dobbin may hear the testimony of his own witness. In
chap, xviii. he asks, — " Do not the Papists err who maintain that no man
can be sure of God's peculiar favour towards himseK without extraordinary
revelations ?" Yes, and they are confuted by these reasons : — I. We are
commanded to make our calling and election sure. 2. We are to examine
ourselves whether we be in the faith. 3. The Scriptui-e proposeth and setteth
forth some marks and tokens by which a believer may be infallibly assured
that he is of the number of Christ's sheep. 4. Because a true believer may


be persnaded that neither death nor life, nor any other thing can sepai'ate
him from the love of Christ. 5. Because believers have received the Spirit
of adoption, whereby they cry abba Father, and He himself witnesseth with their
spiHt that they are the children of God." Tliis last soui-ce of evidence you will
observe is separate and distinct from the others, and especially from the third.
" Is this assm-ance infallible ?" he asks again, — " Yes, for these reasons : —
1. Because assurance is from the testimony of the Spii-it. 2. Because founded
on the promises. 3. Because believers are sealed with the Holy Spirit." And
again, — " Do not Antinomians err who maintain that none can gather any
comfort or assm-ance from his own works of hoHness, but that a believer
ought to rest upon the alone testimony of the Spirit, without any marks or
signs ?" "Yes," &a,&c George Gillespie, who, though the youngest mem-
ber of the Westminster Assembly, was reputedly one of its ripest Theologians,
of highest scholai'ly attainments, and of gTcatest dialectic power, has left behind
him, besides other writings, a treatise of Miscellaneous Questions, in which
there is a chapter under the heading : — " On an Assurance of an interest in
Christ, by the marks and fruit of Sanctification, and by love to the brethi-en,
and how this agreeth with, or difFereth from. Assurance by the testimony of
the Spirit;" in which the following sentiments occur : — "All thy marks will
leave thee in the dark, if the Spirit of grace do not open thine eyes that thou
mayest know the things that ai'c freely given thee of God; — and yet, to make
no trial by marks, and to trust to an inward testimony, under the notion of
the Holy Ghost's testimony, when it is without the least evidence of any gracious
mark, is a deluding and ensnaring of the conscience." In which passage
he seems to me to argue that the testimony of the Spirit is cumulative, and
not isolated ; for he adds : — " It may be asked, how doth this assurance by
marks agree with, or differ from, assurance by the testimony of the Holy
Ghost ? May the soul have assvirance either way ? or must there be a con-
currence of both ? for I suppose they are not one and the same thing."
And he proceeds to argue out that point, arriving at this conclusion : — " So,
therefore, in the business of assurance and full persuasion, the evidence of
grace, and the testimony of the Spirit, are two concurrent causes or helps. It
is not a safe nor a well-grounded assurance without the testimony of the
Spirit." This is the judgment of Gillespie — the ornament of the Westminster
Assembly, — and I presume that my fathers and brethren will have rather more
respect for his sentiments, than for the opinionative dicta of the appellant.
And holy Eutherf ord, who adorned that same age, says in his " Christ's Dying,'*
p. 100 : — " In believers there is a grace, a new nature, an habitual instinct of
heaven, to discern the Lord's Spirit immediately testifying that we are the
sons of God. The Holy Ghost speaketh the same thing by His operation of
grace in holy walking that He does by the word, and immediate voice of the
Spirit witnessing to our spu-its," &c., &c. ,-

Moderator, I could easily multiply such authorities, but I forbear. I have
said enough, however, to expose the rashness and temerity of the man who in-
tended to sustain his errors by referring to the writers, who were the friends
and cotemporaries of the Compilers of the Confession of Faith. And now. Mod-
erator, one word on the nature of the testimony itself. Sir, we may often be
thoroughly alive to facts which we cannot explain, and be abundantly sure of
results, while yet the modus operandi may be to us unexplicable. This re-
mark is specially applicable to the acts and operations of the Holy Ghost on
the souls of men. I say nothing of how in the experience of believers, the
affections are sometimes suddenly stirred, and the soul overpowered with a
sense of God's greatness, and a deep, overawing conviction of its vileness
and nothingness before Jehovah ; and whgn there is nothing in the means,
nor in our external circumstance to awaken such feehngs at the time, they seem
like the shadows of Omnipotence falling in their gi-andeur on the soul, or
like the acting of that spiritual instinct to which Eutherford alludes, by which
we at once detect the presence of the Holy One, and are humbled or comforted
thereby .^ I know how easy it is for men to sneer at all this, as presumption
or fanaticism ; but I have no doubt, that a child of God may have an inward


consciousness of the presence of the Spirit of God, not that that consciousness
will be found to stand alone, and independent, as an evidence of a gracious
state, but be preceded or accompanied by other signs of the Spirit's work,
that ratify and confirm it- I believe that the human soul of Chi-ist had this
concurrent testimony j the evidence not only of works, wrought by the power
of that Eternal One, but of His presence with His pure humanity ; and I am
persuaded, that the consciousness of the presence of the Holy One, is a privilege
that may be enjoyed hy at least some of the ennobled children of the King-

Moderator, I do not regret that this subject has come up for discussion.
I have no doubt that the Assembly will stand in the old path, and give forth
such a finding as will sustain the Commission, and gladden the hearts of multi-
tudes in our Israel. Sir, we have been pondering the deep things of God,
following the soul in its highest flight, till we have seen it floating in the clear
atmosphere of the most perfect assurance of Divine love ; and difficult as the
ascent has been, and hard to understand as some of the glories revealed have
been, there are higher and loftier honours attached to the humblest behever,
more difficult even to comprehend than the inward witness of the Spu-it.
Who, who can tell all that is involved in his being made an heu* of God, a
joint heir with Christ Jesus ? Who, who can tmderstand the state of a soul
when it walks the golden streets of the New Jerusalem, made like to God
himseK ? and yet faith can reach to, and lay hold of all this, and she bids
us reason thus: — that if a sense of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit now, is so
sweet and precious, — if the joy and peace that spring therefrom are so blessed,
even amid all the imperfections of this pilgrim condition, what will our joy
and exultation be, when the shadows have passed away, and the veil is re-
moved, and imperfection is buried in the gTave of time, and we see God face
to face, and know even as we are known ?

Fathers and bretliren, I cannot go forth as a preacher of the everlasting
Gospel, if I must not tell sinners tbat they may know that they have eternal
life. The word which the Lord hath given us to publish is not a message
of doubt, that may originate a dim and ambiguous hope, but a message of
comfort, of peace, of unspeakable joy. Uncertainty is no characteristic of the
declaration of the Word of God, whether we ai-e dealing with sinners or with
saints. It is in my judgment essential to the right discharge of our duties,
that we say to our hearers, " You may know that you are dead in sins or alive
to righteousness, you may know that you are still an unconverted man and
under condemnation, or that you have passed from death to life, having
been quickened by grace. Our mission is very specially one of consolation to
the followers of the Lamb. We must be able to teU them that there is no
condemnation to them who are in Christ, and that they may have the hap-
piness of knowing that it is their privilege to say, " My beloved is mine
and I amHis." " God hath sent forth the Spiiit of his Son into our hearts."
** Made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints." Sir, if we
are to beseech men to be reconciled to God, must we not tell them what that
reconcihation means, and that the fact of it may be surely and certainly as-
certained ? Are we to stand between the living and the dead, and proclaim
that there is a broad path that leadeth to perdition, and a straight way that
leadeth to life eternal, but that, till life is done, it it impossible for any
man to be absolutely sure whether he is in the broad or narrow way. Su-, the
eff'ect of such teaching would be to foster the false peace of seK-deluded souls,
and to injure the healthf ulness of Divine life in converted men. Let us not
stigmatise the glad tidings of gi-eat joy by limiting them to a perhaps, or a
peradventure. Not thus did the apostles, the early teachers, the reformers,
the fathers of our church, set forth the commandment of the Lord, They
addi-essed believers as men who had received the gift of eternal life. Like
them we say to Christians, These words, we make known to you, that you may
know that you have eternal life. We know that the Son of God is come,
and hath given us an understanding that we may know Him that is true, and
we are in Him that is truth, even in His Son Jesus Chi-ist



Dr. Watts then addressed the Assembly, and, after a preliminary remark
on a subject foreign to the case, imported by the appellants, proceeded as
follows : —

I am here this evening not through any desu'e on my part to be here. In
the providence of God, and without my knowledge, I was appointed on the
Assembly's Commission in this case. Of that appointment I was not aware
until within a few weeks of the meeting of the Commission. I went to the
meeting of the Commission prepared to do my duty in the fear of God, with-
out partiality. The speech which I made on the occasion, and for which I
have been assailed by the appellants, both here and through the medium of
the secular Press, was not a thing of forecast or premeditation. My friend,
Mr. Rentoul, can testify that I rose not to make a speech, but to interpose a
remark while he was speaking. That remark led to a challenge from Mr.
Nelson, and Mr. E,entoul giving way, I accepted the challenge. I was chal-
lenged to prove, from our Standards, that the Westminster Divines recognised
the testimony of the Holy Spirit to our adoption, as a distinct and an
additional ground of assurance. The sum and subEtance of my speech, in
response to this challenge, was simply an exposition of a piece of very plain
and exceedingly precise English, in the Confession of Faith. When I had
done, I ventiu-ed to suggest a counter challenge. I remarked that as Mr.
Nelson had challenged me, he could not well refuse a return of the compli-
ment. I there and then demanded that he should prove from our Standards,
that the testimony of the Holy Spirit was not recognised by the Westminster
Divines, as a distinct and an additional ground of assurance. This challenge,
as the members of the Commission, and especially my friend, Mr. Eobinson,
can testify, Mr. Nelson did not find it accept. For the declina-
ture, it is true, he assigned reasons ; but they w^e not considered valid by
the Commission, nor will they be considered valid by this Assembly. He
said that it was neither the time, nor the place to discuss that question. Well,
most of us thought it was the very time, and the very place, and we could not
avoid the conclusion, that he declined the challenge because he dare not set
his defective theory of assurance in the light of these luminous, and unequiv-
ocal Standards. I am persuaded that nothing short of a felt, and a painfully
felt incapacity, could have compelled a spirit so chivalours to decline a demand
which his own tendered and accepted challenge had rendered so obviously
obligatory. It must be assumed that an orthodox Presbyterian would not
appeal, except out of a feeling of despair/from a regularly constituted church
court to the world, and conduct, before the ears of public opinion, a discussion
which he himself had set on foot within doors, and before his brethren of the
Commission. Mr. Nelson's procedure on the occasion, and since, reminds me
very much of the ground taken by Mrs. Catherine Beecher — a sister of Henry
Ward Beecher' s — in a book entitled, " An appeal from the Commentators to
to the people as the authorized expounders of God's Word." Mr. Nelson has
little faith in the institutions of Christ for settling questions of doctrinal
differences, but he has unlimited confidence in the secular Press and public

Well, Mr. Moderator, it is worthy of note that the appellants have made
some progress since the Commission met. On that occasion they denied that
there were three grounds of assurance, but they admitted that there were at
least two. Now, however, they have succeeded, by a more thorough appli-
cation of their newly invented instrument of exegesis, in reducing the two to
one. This is, I suppose, another instance of those *' vanishing points," of
which Mr. Nelson spoke on Friday last.

It must be admitted, however, that though this reduction of three to two,
and, finally, of two to one, is fatal both to their exegetical theory, and to the
doctrine of assurance, the operation is logical and consistent. The members
of the Commission will remember that the result, now attained, was pre-


dieted when this principle of exegesis was avowed at our meeting'. Mi'.
Nelson and his friend were told, that to be consistent, they must cany out
their principle, and make the second clause exegetical of the first, and thus
reduce the three clauses to one. This they have now accomplished, and it
must be acknowledged, that the result is a proof, at once, cf consistency and
of courage.

But these remarks will be more intelligible if the brethren will tm-n with
me to the Confession of Faith, chap, xviii. sec. 2. And I may be permitted to
hope that, as one of the results of this controversy, we may all be brought to
a more thorough study of these venerable Standards, than which no nobler
summary of saving truth has ever been evoked by man from the treasury o£
the infallible Word of God. In regard to the nature and grounds of assur-
ance the Westminster Divines state, in the passage referred to, that " This
certainty is not a bare conjectui-al and probable persuasion, grounded upon a
fallible hope ; but an infallible assm^ance of faith, founded u.pon the divine
truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto
which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption wit-
nessing with oui- spirits that we are the children of God : Avhich Spirit is the
earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption."
Now it seems to have been the doctrine of the men who wi-ote this, section,
not only that there is such a tiling as an infallible assm-anco attainable, but
that this assurance rests on a threefold foundation. 1. The divine truth of
the promises of salvation. 2. The inward evidence of those graces to which
these promises are made. 3. The testimony of the Sjjirit witnessing with
our spirit that we are the children of God. Such would be the interpretation
which any person competent to judge of the meaning of a sentence of Eng-

1 3 5 6 7 8

Online LibraryW. D. (William Dool) KillenA reply to the Rev. Isaac Nelson, of Belfast, and Rev. William Dobbin, of Anaghlone, or, Revivalism, assurance, the witness of the spirit defended, in speeches delivered at the General Assembly, June 12, 1866 → online text (page 3 of 8)