How Samuel Davies
Relates to the
Heresy of Decisional Regeneration
Samuel Davies (1723-1761) was a Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey that had an orthodox view of salvation. Samuel Davies was President of the College of New Jersey from 1759-1761. He gives the pre-Witherspoon view of salvation as a supernatural change of nature. He wrote this before John Witherspoon took over the College in 1768. The Presbyterian president immediately before Witherspoon was John Blair (1720-1771), who also had an orthodox view of salvation. Blair was president from 1767-1768, just before Witherspoon changed the course of American evangelical history by introducing decisional regeneration as emperical evidence of election.
The Divine life in the souls of men considered
The Divine life in the souls of men considered: -- St. Paul relates his own case in the text, in which you may observe these truths.
1. That believers are endowed with spiritual activity; or, that they are enabled to serve God, and perform good works. This is intimated by two expressions, "I am crucified," and "I live"; which, though they seem contradictory, do really mean the same thing. "I live" signifies spiritual activity; a vigorous, persevering serving of God; a living unto God (as it is explained ver. 19, and Rom 6:11). Such a principle or power is very significantly called life, to denote its intimacy in the soul, its vivacity, and permanency.
2. We may observe that the vital principle of holiness in believers, whereby they are enabled to serve God, is communicated to them through Christ only as a Mediator. This is also asserted in the emphatical epanorthosis, "I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me"; that is, spiritual life is formally in me, but it is not self-originated; it does not result from my natural principles (which are so essential to me, that I may represent them under the personal pronoun I), but was first implanted, and is still supported and cherished, by the power and grace of God through Christ; and it is in every respect so dependent upon Him, and His influence is so intimately diffused through my soul, that I may say, "Christ liveth in me." A like expression is used in Col 3:3,4. "Christ is our life."
3. We may take notice that believers receive supplies from Christ for the maintenance and nourishment of their spiritual life. The life which I now live (or, as it might be rendered more significantly, what I now live) "in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God." Nothing can be more profitable, nothing more necessary, than right notions about spiritual life.
I. Wherein spiritual life consists.
II. When it is communicated.
III. Whether it be instantaneously communicated, or gradually acquired by repeated acts.
IV. Who are the subjects of it, or in what extent is it communicated.
V. In what sense is it communicated and supported through Christ?
VI. How faith derives supplies from Him for its support and nourishment.
I. "Wherein does spiritual life consist?" This inquiry, though necessary both to inform your minds and to repel the charge of unintelligibleness, so frequently alleged against this doctrine, yet is exceeding difficult, both because of the mysteriousness of the thing in itself, and because of the blindness of the-minds of those that are not endowed with it.
It is mysterious in itself, as every kind of life is. The effects and many of the properties of animal life are plain, but what animal life is in itself is an inquiry too sublime for the most philosophic and soaring mind.
Now spiritual life still approaches nearer to the life of the Divine Being, that boundless ocean of incomprehensible mysteries, and consequently exceeds our capacity more than any other. But besides, such is the blindness of unregenerate souls, that they cannot receive or know the things of the Spirit of God (1 Cor 2:14), and therefore what is knowable by enlightened minds concerning spiritual life, cannot be apprehended with suitable clearness by them.
1. It supposes a living spiritual principle. There can be no life, no vital actions, without a vital principle, from whence they flow; e.g., there can be no animal life, no animal sensations and motions, without a principle of animal life. Now spiritual life must suppose a principle of holiness. A principle of life of any kind will not suffice; it must be particularly and formally a holy principle; for life and all its operations will be of the same kind with the principle from which they proceed.
Now a holy principle is something distinct from and superadded to the mere natural principle of reason. To illustrate this matter, let us suppose a man deprived of the faculty of memory, and yet to continue rational (as he might in a low degree); according to this supposition, he will be always incapable of an act of memory, however strong his powers of perception, volition, etc., may be, till the power of exercising his reason in that particular way which is called remembering be conferred upon him. So let a sinner's mere natural powers be ever so much refined and polished, yet, if there be no principle of spiritual life distinct from them infused, he will be everlastingly incapable of living religion. This gracious principle is called the seed of God (1 John 3:9), to intimate, that as the seed of vegetables is the first principle of the plant, and of its vegetative life, so is this of spiritual life, and all its vital acts.
2. Spiritual life implies a disposition to a holy operation, an inward propensity, a spontaneous inclination towards holiness, a willing that which is good (Rom 7:18). Every kind of life has some peculiar innate tendencies, sympathies, and antipathies: so animal life implies a natural inclination to food, to move at proper seasons, etc. There is a savour, a relish for Divine things, as essential to spiritual life as our natural gusts and relishes are to natural life. Hence gracious desires are often signified in Scripture under the metaphors of hungering and thirsting; and to this St. Peter expressly alludes, "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word, that ye may grow thereby" (1 Peter 2:2). By virtue of this disposition, believers set their affections on things above (Col 3:2); they relish, they savour, they affect things above.
3. Spiritual life implies a power of holy operation. A heavenly vigour, a Divine activity animates the whole soul. It implies more than an inefficacious disposition, a dull, lazy velleity, productive of nothing but languid wishes. So every kind of life implies a power of operation suitable to its nature. Animal life (e.g.) has not only an innate propensity, but also a natural power to move, to receive and digest food, etc. "They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength" (Isa 40:31); that is, they have strength given them; renewed and increased by repeated acts, in the progress of sanctification. They are "strengthened with might, by the Spirit in the inner man "(Eph 3:16).
I do not mean that spiritual life is always sensible and equally vigorous ; alas! it is subject to many languishments and indispositions; but I mean there is habitually in a spiritual man a power, an ability for serving God which, when all pre-requisites concur, and hindrances are removed, is capable of putting forth acts of holiness, and which does actually exert itself frequently. Again, I do not mean an independent power, which is so self-active as to need no quickening energy from the Divine Spirit to bring it into act, but a power capable of acting under the animating influences of grace, which, as to their reality, are common to all believers, though they are communicated in different degrees to different persons.
Before we lose sight of this head, let us improve it to these purposes: Let us improve it as a caution against this common mistake, viz., that our mere natural powers, under the common aids of Divine grace, polished and refined by the institutions of the gospel, are a sufficient principle of holiness, without the addition of any new principle. You see a principle of spiritual life is supernatural; it is a Divine, heaven-born thing; it is the seed of God; a plant planted by our heavenly Father.
But, alas I how many content themselves with a self-begotten holiness! Let us also improve what has been said, to remove another equally common and pernicious error, namely, that gospel-holiness consists merely in a series of acts materially good. Some imagine that all the actions they do, which are materially lawful, and a part of religion, have just so much of holiness in them; and as they multiply such actions, their sanctification increases in their imagination. But, alas! do they not know that a principle, a disposition, a power of holy acting, must precede and be the source of all holy acts? That a new heart must be given us, and a new spirit put within us, before we can "walk in God's statutes and keep His judgments, and do them?" (Ezek 36:26,27.)
Further, let us improve our account of spiritual life, to inform us of a very considerable difference between a mere moral and spiritual life; or evangelical holiness and morality.
Spiritual life is of a Divine original; evangelical holiness flows from a supernatural principle; but mere morality is natural; it is but the refinement of our natural principles, under the aids of common grace, in the use of proper means; and consequently it is obtainable by unregenerate men.
Again, we may improve what has been said to convince us that a life of formality, listlessness, and inactivity is far from being a spiritual life. We proceed to inquire --
II. When spiritual life is communicated? To this the Scriptures direct us to answer, that it is communicated in that change which is generally called regeneration, or effectual calling.
1. If spiritual life were communicated in creation, there would be no propriety or significancy in the expressions used to denote the communication of it. There would be no need of a new, a second birth, if we were spiritually alive by virtue of our first birth.
III. Whether spiritual life be instantaneously communicated? Or whether (as some allege) it be gradually acquired by repeated acts?
1. It is a contradiction that it should be originally acquired by acting, or a series of acts; for that supposes that it exists, and does not exist, at the same time: as it acts, it exists; and as it is acquired by acting, it does not exist.
Note: In a few years, John Witherspoon will change the College of New Jersey. Jonathan Edwards Jr and other American ministers will leave and Scottish Common Sense Realism will be taught. Supernatural regeneration will be replaced with decisional regeneration. Scottish Common Sense realism holds that a series of “truth impressions” gradually change the constitution of the mind until it is convinced to serve God over self. This error necessitated the idea that regeneration is when the will chooses to serve God over self. According to Scottish Common Sense Realism, regeneration is not the moment the character is instantly changed by supernatural infusion, but rather the moment a “tipping point” is reached in the rational mind. Compare that with what Samuel Davies (and all American New Light Calvinists before Witherspoon) taught.
It will perhaps be objected, "That it may be acquired by the repeated acts of another kind of life, namely, rational; or the exercises of our rational powers about spiritual objects." But this may be answered from what was observed under the first head, namely, that a principle of spiritual life is something distinct from and superadded to our natural powers. Principles of action may be confirmed and rendered more prompt to act by frequent exercise; but can never be originally obtained that way.
Note: In fairness to John Witherspoon, he did not say it was repeated rational acts that resulted in the “tipping point” of decisional regeneration. His gradual change of the mind did not require “repeated rational acts”. But one must ask the question, if the change of mind did not necessitate rational acts, then why would it have to be gradual? The reason the “truth impressions” theory appealed to Scottish Common Sense Realists was precisely because it conformed to the empirical system and the psychological view of change of the will.
2. The terms whereby the communication of spiritual life is signified as begetting, creating, quickening, or raising the dead, etc., denote an instantaneous communication.
3. Spiritual life is represented as prior to, and the source and principle of, all acts of evangelical holiness; and consequently it cannot be gradually acquired by such acts, but must be implanted previously to the putting forth of any such acts; as reason is not acquired by reasoning, but is a pre-requisite and principle of all the acts of reason. We are created in Christ Jesus to make us capable of good works (Eph 2:10). Hence we may see the vanity of that religion which is gained in the same manner that a man learns a trade, or an uncultivated mind becomes knowing and learned, namely, by the repeated exercises of our natural powers in use of proper means, and under the aids of common providence.
We have seen that a principle of spiritual life is not a good act, nor a series of good acts, nor anything acquirable by them, but the spring and origin of all good acts. Let us then, my brethren, try whether our religion will stand this test. Hence also we may learn a considerable difference between what is commonly called morality and gospel-holiness. The one is obtained, as other acquired habits are, by frequent and continued exercises; the other proceeds from a principle divinely implanted.
IV. Our inquiry is, Who are the subjects of spiritual life? or in what extent is it communicated?
V. Our next inquiry is, In what sense is spiritual life communicated and supported through Christ? To explain and illustrate this point, let these three things be considered.
1. That by the sin of our first parents and representatives, our principle of spiritual life was forfeited, and the forfeiture is continued, and spiritual death brought on us by our personal sin.
2. The Lord Jesus, by His sufferings, made a "complete satisfaction to Divine justice," and thereby redeemed the blessing forfeited; and by the merit of His obedience purchased Divine influence for the extirpation of the principles of spiritual death which lurk in our natures, and the implantation of holiness. Hence the regeneration and sanctification, as well as the salvation of His people, are ascribed to His merits and death. We are "sanctified through the offering up of the body of Christ" (Heb 10:10).
3. Christ, the Purchaser, is appointed also "the Communicator of spiritual life" to His people. "The Son quickeneth whom He will" (John 5:21).
VI. How faith derives supplies from Christ for the support and nourishment of spiritual life? I shall proceed to the solution of this by the following gradation.
1. The communication of grace from Christ to maintain and nourish spiritual life in His people is a peculiar and distinguishing communication.
2. It is fit and necessary there should be a peculiar union between Christ and His people as the foundation of this peculiar influence.
3. It is fit that that grace which has a peculiar concurrence or instrumentality in the uniting of the soul to Christ, and in continuing of that union, should also have a peculiar concurrence or instrumentality in deriving supplies of spiritual strength from Him; for since union is the true special ground of the communication, it is fit that that which is the peculiar instrument of this union should also be the peculiar instrument of receiving, or vehicle of communicating vital influences.
Note: Witherspoon taught the “verbal restrictive” theory of the Holy Spirit. Regeneration consisted of changes of the rational mind and continuing in grace consisted in improvements of the rational mind. Witherspoon did not believe in supernatural regeneration or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
4. Faith has a "peculiar concurrence" or "instrumentality in the first union" of the soul to Christ, and the consequent continuation of the union. It is the grand ligament whereby they are indissolubly conjoined. It is true the spiritual man, as well as our animal bodies, consists of several essential parts. Repentance, love, and the whole system of evangelical graces and moral virtues are as necessary, in their proper respective places, as faith. But then faith has a peculiar aptitude, above all other graces and virtues, for performing the part we now appropriate to it. So heart, lungs, bowels, etc., are essential to the human body, as well as nerves and arteries; but the nerves are the peculiar vehicles to carry the vital spirits from the brain; and the arteries are the only conveyancers of the blood from the heart, through many labyrinths, to the whole body.
Faith, in a special manner, implies those things in its very nature which reason directs us to look upon as suitable pre-requisites or concomitants of deriving vital influence from Christ. For instance, it is fit that all that receive spiritual life as a blessing of the covenant of grace should submit to and acquiesce in the terms of the covenant. Now such a submission and acquiescence is faith. For the particular improvement of this head, I shall make these three remarks --
(1) That a saving faith is always operative; and what renders it so is its constant dependence on Christ for quickening grace. It is designed by God, and has a peculiar aptitude in its own nature to derive strength for all acts of holiness from Christ; and He will not deny any of the influences it naturally craves. So far is a dependence on Him from leading to sloth and libertinism as some slanderously surmise.
(2) We infer that "without faith it is impossible to please God."
(3) We observe that gospel holiness may be distinguished from all counterfeits, and particularly from what some dignify with the name of morality, by this criterion, that it pre-supposes a special union with Christ, and is cherished in the heart, and exercised in practice, by virtue of the quickening influences flowing from Him, as the head of His Church, and received by faith; whereas mere morality does not necessarily suppose such a union, but may result from our natural powers, under the common influences of Divine Providence.
I shall conclude with a short general improvement of the whole subject in the following inferences --
1. That the reason why religion is so burdensome to many is because they are "destitute of a principle of spiritual life," and the "quickening communications of Divine grace." Constrained by self-love, they drudge and toil in religious duties, and cry, "What a weariness is it!"
2. Let us examine ourselves whether the evidence of spiritual life, which may be collected from what has been said, give us reason to conclude that we are possessed of it. Do we feel, or have we felt, a supernatural principle working within? Is our religion heaven-born? or is it natural and self-sprung? Do we derive our strength for obedience from Christ by faith? Is He "our life?" Are we generally crying, "Lord, we have no strength; but our eyes are unto Thee?"
3. Let those who are made spiritually alive "acknowledge and admire the distinguishing grace of God, and act as it becomes their character."
For more sermons by Samuel Davies, click on links below:
The Nature And Process Of Spiritual Life (A good primer on How God prepares Sinners For Regeneration)