New School

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Unlike immediately prior years, the General Assembly of 1837 was controlled by the Old School wing of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Taking advantage of their numbers, they took the action of removing from the denomination the Synods of Utica, Geneva, and Genesee, in New York, and the Western Reserve Synod in Ohio. The primary complaint of the Old School Presbyterians was the teaching of a modified Calvinism, labeled “Taylorism.” And with the excision of these four Synods, they hoped to remove the Taylor doctrine from the Church. Old School Presbyterians had also come to oppose the 1801 Plan of Union, a cooperative arrangement with Congregationalists. Here too, the removal of New School votes from the Assembly made it that much easier to repeal the Plan of Union.

Sixteen charges of theological error were leveled at the New School men by the Assembly of 1837. And no sooner were those charges laid on the table, than the New School responded in prompt reply with the document initially known as Errors and True Doctrines. Later that same summer, in subsequent conference, the New School men issued a revised version of this text under the name of the Auburn Declaration. With this document, the New School men sought to affirm their orthodoxy. Or as one historian summarized it,

The Declaration thus adopted became, not indeed a creed, but an authoritative explanation of the interpretation given to the Westminster Symbols by the leading minds in the New School Church, as organized in 1838. It was in 1868 indorsed by the General Assembly (O. S.) as containing ‘all the fundamentals of the Calvinistic Creed,’ and this indorsement was one among the most effectual steps in bringing about the reunion of the two Churches in 1870. The document is rather a disavowal of imputed error than an exposition of revealed truth, and must be understood from the anthropological and soteriological controversies of that period of division now happily gone by.”

ERRORS AND TRUE DOCTRINE.
[
submitted as a protest to the General Assembly, June 8, 1837]

First Error.“That God would have prevented the existence of sin in our world, but was not able, without destroying the moral agency of man; or, that for aught that appears in the Bible to the contrary, sin is incidental to any wise moral system.”

True Doctrine.God permitted the introduction of sin, not because he was unable to prevent it, consistently with the moral freedom of his creatures, but for wise and benevolent reasons which he has not revealed.

Second Error.“That election to eternal life is founded on a foresight of faith and obedience.”

True Doctrine.Election to eternal life is not founded on a foresight of faith and obedience, but is a sovereign act of God’s mercy, whereby, according to the counsel of his own will, He has chosen some to salvation; “yet so as thereby neither is violence offered to the will of the Creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established;” nor does this gracious purpose ever take effect independently of faith and a holy life.

Third Error.“That we have no more to do with the first sin of Adam than with the sins of any other parent.”

True Doctrine.By a divine constitution, Adam was so the head and representative of the race, that, as a consequence of his transgression, all mankind become morally corrupt, and liable to death, temporal and eternal.

Fourth Error.“That infants come into the world as free from moral defilement as was Adam when he was created.”

True Doctrine.Adam was created in the image of God, endowed with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness. Infants come into the world, not only destitute of these, but with a nature inclined to evil and only evil.

Fifth Error.“That infants sustain the same relation to the moral government of God, in this world, as brute animals, and that their sufferings and death are to be accounted for on the some principles as those of brutes, and not by any means to be considered as penal.”

True Doctrine.Brute animals sustain no such relation to the moral government of God as does the human family. Infants are a part of the human family,and their sufferings and death are to be accounted for, on the ground of their being involved in the general moral ruin of the race induced by the apostacy.

Sixth Error.“That there is no other original sin than the fact, that all the posterity of Adam, though by nature innocent, will always begin to sin when they begin to exercise moral agency; that original sin does not include a sinful bias of the human mind, and a just exposure to penal suffering; and that there is no evidence in Scripture, that infants in order to salvation, do need redemption by the blood of Christ, and regeneration by the Holy Ghost.”

True Doctrine.Original sin is a natural bias to evil, resulting from the first apostacy, leading invariably and certainly to actual transgression. And all infants, as well as adults, in order to be saved, need redemption by the blood of Christ, and regeneration by the Holy Ghost.

Seventh Error.“That the doctrine of imputation, whether of the guilt of Adam’s sin, or of the righteousness of Christ, has no foundation in the Word of God, and is both unjust and absurd.”

True Doctrine.The sin of Adam is not imputed to his posterity in the sense of a literal transfer of personal qualities, acts, and demerit; but by reason of the sin of Adam, in his peculiar relation, the race are treated as if they had sinned. Nor is the righteousness of Christ imputed to his people in the sense of a literal transfer of personal qualities, acts, and merit; but by reason of his righteousness, in his peculiar relation, they are treated as if they were righteous.

Eighth Error.“That the sufferings and death of Christ were not truly vicarious and penal, but symbolical, governmental, and instructive only.”

True Doctrine.The sufferings and death of Christ were not symbolical, governmental, and instructive only, but were truly vicarious, i.e., a substitute for the punishment due to transgressors. And while Christ did not suffer the literal penalty of the law, involving remorse of conscience and the pains of hell, he did offer a sacrifice which infinite wisdom saw to be a full equivalent. And by virtue of this atonement, overtures of mercy are sincerely made to the race, and salvation secured to all who believe.

Ninth Error.“That the impenitent sinner is by nature, and independently of the renewing influence or almighty energy of the Holy Spirit, in full possession of all the ability necessary to a full compliance with all the commandments of God.”

True Doctrine.While sinners have all the faculties necessary to a perfect moral agency and a just accountability, such is their love of sin and opposition to God and his law, that, independently of the renewing influence or almighty energy of the Holy Spirit, they never will comply with the commands of God.

Tenth Error.“That Christ does not intercede for the elect until after their regeneration.”

True Doctrine.The intercession of Christ for the elect is previous as well as subsequent to their regeneration, as appears from the following Scripture, viz. “I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me, for they are thine. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word.”

Eleventh Error.“That saving faith is not an effect of the operations of the Holy Spirit, but a mere rational belief of the truth or assent to the word of God.”

True Doctrine.Saving faith is an intelligent and cordial assent to the testimony of God concerning his Son, implying reliance on Christ alone for pardon and eternal life; and in all cases it is an effect of the special operations of the Holy Spirit.

Twelfth Error.“That regeneration is the act of the sinner himself, and that it consists in change of his governing purpose, which he himself must produce, and which is the result, not of any direct influence of the Holy Spirit on the heart, but chiefly of a persuasive exhibition of the truth, analogous to the influence which one man exerts over the mind of another; or that regeneration is not an instantaneous act, but a progressive work.”

True Doctrine.Regeneration is a radical change of heart, produced by the special operations of the Holy Spirit, determining the sinner to that which is good, and is in all cases instantaneous.

Thirteenth Error.“That God has done all that he can do for the salvation of all men, and that man himself must do the rest.”

True Doctrine.While repentance for sin and faith in Christ are indispensable to salvation, all who are saved are indebted from first to last to the grace and Spirit of God. And the reason that God does not save all, is not that he wants the power to do it, but that in his wisdom he does not see fit to exert that power further than he actually does.

Fourteenth Error.“That God cannot exert such influence on the minds of men, as shall make it certain that they will choose and act in a particular manner, without impairing their moral agency.”

True Doctrine.While the liberty of the will is not impaired, nor the established connexion betwixt means and end broken by any action of God on the mind, he can influence it according to his pleasure, and does effectually determine it to good in all cases of true conversion.

Fifteenth Error.“That the righteousness of Christ is not the sole ground of the sinner’s acceptance with God; and that in no sense does the righteousness of Christ become ours.”

True Doctrine.All believers are justified, not on the ground of personal merit, but solely on the ground of the obedience and death, or, in other words, the righteousness of Christ. And while that righteousness does not become theirs, in the sense of a literal transfer of personal qualities and merit; yet, from respect to it, God can and does treat them as if they were righteous.

Sixteenth Error.“That the reason why some differ from others in regard to their reception of the Gospel is, that they make themselves to differ

True Doctrine.While all such as reject the Gospel of Christ do it, not by coercion but freely—and all who embrace it do it, not by coercion but freely—the reason why some differ from others is, that God has made them to differ.

Philadelphia, June 8th, 1837.

[signed by]:
George Duftield, E. W, Gilbert, Thomas Brown, Bliss lbirnan, N. S. S. Beman, E. Cheever, E. Seymour, George Painter, F. W. Graves, Obadiah Woodruff, N. G. Clark, Robert Stuart, Nahum Gould, Absalom Peters, Alexander Campbell.

The New School protest having been lodged, the official reply was brief and dismissive:

ANSWER

Mr. Plumer offered the following resolutions, which were adopted, viz.

1, Resolved, That the paper just offered, purporting to be a protest, though it contains several important mis-statements of facts, and much extraneous matter, be admitted to record without answer; the lateness of the period at which it is offered rendering it inconvenient to answer it, and the character of the paper rendering another disposition of it proper and necessary.’

2„ Resolved, That duly certified copies of this paper be sent to the respective Presbyteries to which the signers of the protest belong, calling their attention to the developments of theological views contained in it, and enjoining on them to inquire into the soundness of the faith of those who have ventured to make so strange avowals as some of these are.

Dr. Beman moved, that the attention of all the Presbyteries be directed to this protest.

The motion was lost.

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The Root of the Presbyterian Apostasy?

Or simply one of the earliest public manifestations of long-standing sins? Such things do not just suddenly appear out of nowhere. The errors espoused in the Auburn Affirmation had been brewing for decades. Some point back to the influence of Charles A. Briggs and how he continued to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, even after being found guilty of heresy. Others point to the reunion of the New School Presbyterians with the Old School in 1869, a reunion which failed to address the shortcomings of the New School faction. And there are other problems and issues that might be discussed. But the Auburn Affirmation came at a strategic time, early in the 20th-century. Thus its importance as an historical document. 

aubaff_1924When church historians evaluate the history of American Presbyterianism, the publication of the “Auburn Affirmation” will stand out in importance like the nailing of Luther’s ninety-five theses on the Wittenberg Germany church door in 1517.  Except this Affirmation, unlike that of the German reformer, constituted a major offensive against biblical Christianity.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1923 had repeated the earlier high court’s affirmations of five essential truths which made up the fundamentals of Christianity.  They were the inerrant Scripture, the Virgin Birth, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, His literal bodily resurrection from the dead on the third day, and supernatural miracles.  However the very next year,on January 9, 1924, one hundred and fifty Presbyterian elders issued an affirmation in Auburn, New York which stated that these five fundamentals were not necessary and essential doctrines for the church.  Eventually the number of ministers to sign it would increase to 1,294 ordained ministers, about ten per cent of the clergy on the rolls of the Presbyterian church.

[Above right, The Auburn Affirmation as it appeared in its first edition, including a list of 150 signers.]

The Auburn Affirmation used many familiar terms on which unsuspecting Christians might be deceived.  Thus, it affirmed inspiration, but denied Scripture to be without error.  It affirmed the incarnation, but denied the Virgin Birth.  It affirmed the atonement, but denied that Christ satisfied divine justice and reconciled us to God.  It affirmed the resurrection of Christ, but denied Jesus rose from the dead with the same body in which He was crucified.  It affirmed Jesus did many mighty works, but denied that He was a miracle worker.

The tragedy of this Affirmation was that not one of its signers were ever brought up for church discipline by their respective presbyteries.  This sin of omission hastened the apostasy of the church, as many of the signers would later find placement in every agency of the church.

Words to Live By:  “Beloved, my whole concern was to write to you in regard to our common salvation.  [But] I found it necessary and was impelled to write you and urgently appeal to and exhort [you] to contend for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints [the faith which is that sum of Christian belief which was delivered verbally to the holy people of God”] Jude v. 3 (Amplified)

For Further Study:
The Auburn Affirmation and the Response of Confessional Presbyterians, 1924-1946.

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Despite Your Weaknesses—Often Because of Your Weaknesses—God Can Use You.  

It has always been an issue with some of the covenant people of God that they often cannot relate a particular time when they came to a saving relationship with Christ.  Such was the case with a young man by the name of Eleazer Whittlesey, who moved from Bethlem, Connecticut, to Pennsylvania in the mid 1700’s.

We don’t know much about his background, either his parents or what spiritual influences he had from any church.  He showed up to meet Aaron Burr in Newark, New Jersey by a recommendation from a man named Ballamy.  The infant and later Princeton Seminary was located there, with Pastor Burr as its second president.  The latter clergyman noted that he was “not converted in the way” that many of the Presbyterian clergy of his day thought was necessary.  In fact, President Burr spoke of  having “some doubt” of  his spiritual experience.  He went on to state that “he has met with others of God’s dear people, who cannot tell of such a particular submission as we have insisted on, though the substance of the thing may be found in all.”  However, Rev. Burr placed Eleazar under his pastoral care and believed that he was making good progress in learning.  He ended his thoughts by stating that “I trust the Lord has work for him to do.”

Seven years later, Eleazer would graduate from Nassau Hall in Princeton, New Jersey, to which the new college has moved.  He was licensed by the New Castle Presbytery soon afterwards.  We could find no record of his ordination however.  In 1750, he began to supply vacancies, of which there were many at this time in American Presbytery history.  Yet while  doing that “with zeal and integrity,” Eleazer complained of “melancholy”  which kept  him from being able to study or make preparation for sermons in the pulpit.  His days, he acknowledged, were often spent in “painful idleness.”

In 1751, Whittlesey settled in what is now York County, Pennsylvania, where  he began to preach in a log church in Muddy Run.  Faithful in labor in all the neighboring settlements, it was said that he formed the Slate Ridge and Chanceford Presbyterian churches, composed of Scots-Irish  people.

In 1752, he left a pastor’s house one cold day to travel to the Muddy Run church.  On the way, he became ill with pleurisy, and died about a week later on December 21, 1752.  His last words were “O  Lord, leave me not.”

Words to Live By: We remember the apostle Paul who had “a thorn in the flesh,” and prayed earnestly that it might depart from him. ( 2 Corinthians 12:7, 8)  God answered his request with the word “My grace is sufficient for you, for power in perfected in weakness.” (2 Cor 12;9) God can use us for His kingdom despite our bodily and mental weaknesses.   Remember that, Christian.

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Earliest Inklings of a Long Discussion

It was on this day, December 17th, in 1840, that James Henley Thornwell wrote of his intention to address an issue which would then be debated in the Presbyterian Church for the next twenty years.

Readers will please consider the following as an initial dipping of the toe in some very deep waters. Students of American Presbyterian history will (or should) know something of the famous “Board Debates” of the 19th-century. All others will no doubt be suitably bored to tears. 😉

The Board Debates began in 1841 and continued on until their culmination in the famous debate between Thornwell and Hodge on the floor of the General Assembly in 1860. By some accounts, the debate continued on for another few decades at least. These Debates were essentially a leftover or unaddressed issue that resulted from the 1837 split of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. into Old School and New School factions. That split had occurred for a number of reasons, but the heart of the matter lay in the 1801 Plan of Union, whereby Congregationalists and Presbyterians worked in concert to plant churches throughout the rapidly expanding western territories. That association between the two denominations soured when the heterodox New Haven Theology began to spread first among Congregationalists and subsequently among Presbyterians.


To see these debates sketched out, click here. For a thorough examination of the Board Debates, see Kenneth J. Foreman, Jr.’s doctoral dissertation
, The Debate on the Administration of Missions Led by James Henley Thornwell in the Presbyterian Church, 1839-1861.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of The Life & Letters of James H. Thornwell (1875), by Benjamin M. Palmer. Note too Dr. Palmer’s aside concerning both Thornwell’s temper and his prevailing humility:—

thornwell02It has been stated, in a preceding chapter, that most of the discussions in which Dr. Thornwell was engaged, were a sort of remainder from the original controversy by which the Church was rent, in 1837-1838. The first that emerged into view was the discussion about Boards. During the period when the Church was brought under a species of vassalage to Congregationalism, the great National Societies, which usurped her functions, conducted their operations by the agency of Boards. The Church had become familiar with that mode of action; and when the effectual blow was struck for her emancipation, this was supposed to be fully accomplished, when these national organizations were disowned. The great principle upon which the argument turned, that the Church, in her organized form, must do her own work, was supposed to be satisfied, when Boards exactly analogous were established by the Church herself, as the agents by whom her will was to be carried out. It could not be long, however, before it was perceived that the above- named cardinal principle must be extended further: that a Board, consisting of many members, distributed over a large territory, to whom her evangelistic functions were remitted, did not satisfy the idea of the Church acting in her own capacity, and under the rules which the Constitution prescribed for her guidance. Dr. Thornwell was one of those who planted themselves firmly against their continuance in the Church. It is not the business of the biographer to discuss his views, but only to afford him the opportunity of presenting them. It may be remarked, however, that he was not opposed to combined or united action on the part of the Church, but only insisted that the central agency should be simply executive: the mere instrument by which the Assembly acts, and not an agent standing in the place of the Assembly, and acting for it. The first occasion on which he publicly developed his views was at the meeting of the Synod of South Carolina and Georgia; where a stiff debate was held upon the principles involved, and in which the Rev. Thomas Smyth, D. D., of Charleston, S. C, was his chief antagonist. An incident is related of this debate, so characteristic of the man, that it deserves to be recorded. In the heat of the discussion, he suffered himself to be borne beyond the bounds of strict propriety. The old spirit of invective and sarcasm, which later years so perfectly subdued, manifested itself in expressions a little too scornful of his opponent, and the impression was not pleasant upon the house. It so happened that his speech closed exactly at the hour of recess at noon, and there was no opportunity for rejoinder. Immediately upon re-assembling, he arose and apologised in handsome terms for the discourtesy into which he had been betrayed, and declared his profound esteem for the learning, ability, and piety of his adversary. It was done so spontaneously, and with such evident sincerity, that criticism was completely disarmed; and there was a universal feeling of admiration for the magnanimity and courage which could so fully redeem a fault.

This discussion is thus referred to in the first of many letters it will be our pleasure to transcribe, addressed to Dr. R. J. Breckinridge, with whom he was thoroughly associated in the discussion of all these Church questions:

 “COLUMBIA, December 17, 1840.

“REV. AND DEAR SIR :
Above you have a draft on the Commercial Bank of Pennsylvania for seventy dollars. I endeavoured to procure one on some of the banks of Baltimore, but could not succeed. You will please apply the money to the Evangelical church at Lyons, and the Theological Seminary at Geneva. I read to my people the correspondence between your church and that of Lyons, and between yourself and J. H. Merle d’Aubigne; and without any other solicitation than what is contained in your Magazine, they made up among themselves the amount forwarded. It is but a pittance, but still it is a free-will offering. You may give half to the church and half to the Seminary.

You will probably hear exaggerated accounts of the discussion in our Synod on the subject of Boards and Agencies. For your February number, I intend to send you a document which I have carefully prepared upon this subject, and which has received the sanction of a very respectable minority among us. I would have sent it to you before; but affliction in my family, combined with other circumstances which it is useless to mention, prevented me from complying with the promise which I made in Philadelphia

“ Your sincere friend and Christian brother,

J. H. THORNWELL,.”

This was followed, a month later, with a fuller exposition of his views on the same subject, in a letter addressed also to Dr. Breckinridge:

“COLUMBIA, January 27, 1841.

“REV. AND DEAR SIR :

I have detained my manuscript in my hands much longer than I had any idea of doing, when I wrote to you before. My object in the delay has been to copy it; but day after day has passed over, and I have been so constantly occupied that I have had no time for the drudgery of re-writing it. I send it to you, therefore, with all the imperfections of a first draft. It was written before the meeting of our Synod, with the view of presenting it to that body, and in their name sending it as a memorial to the Assembly. This, how- ever, was not done. I submitted the manuscript to a few members of Synod, who cordially concurred in its leading statements. My object in publishing it is not to gain a point, but to elicit discussion. I believe that the Boards will eventually prove our masters, unless they are crushed in their infancy. They are founded upon a radical misconception of the true nature and extent of ecclesiastical power; and they can only be defended, by running into the principle against which the Reformers protested, and for which the Oxford divines are now zealously contending. This view of the subject ought to have been enlarged on more fully than has been done in the article, because the principle involved in it is of vital importance; but I thought it better to reserve a full discussion of it for some subsequent article.

“There is a fact connected with the influence of the Boards that speaks volumes against them. A few men in the Church have presumed to question the wisdom of their organization. These men are met with a universal cry of denunciation from all parts of the land. If, in their infancy, they (the Boards) can thus brow-beat discussion, what may we not expect from them in the maturity of manhood ?

“It is not to be disguised, that our Church is becoming deplorably secular. She has degenerated from a spiritual body into a mere petty corporation. When we meet in our ecclesiastical courts, instead of attending to the spiritual interests of God’s kingdom, we scarcely do anything more than examine and audit accounts, and devise ways and means for raising money. We are for doing God’s work by human wisdom and human policy; and what renders the evil still more alarming, is that so few are awake to the real state of the case. Your Magazine is the only paper in the Church that can be called a faithful witness for the truth. I do sincerely and heartily thank God for the large measure of grace which He has bestowed upon you. I regard the principles which you advocate of so much importance, that I could make any sacrifice of comfort or of means, consistent with other obligations, to aid and support you.

“I rejoice that you remember me and my poor labours in your prayers. My field of labour in the College is arduous and trying; but God has given me the ascendency among the students. I have an interesting prayer-meeting and a Bible-class. My sermons on Sunday are very seriously listened to; and I have succeeded in awaking a strong interest in the evidences of our religion.

“I have formed the plan of publishing an edition of ‘Butler’s Analogy,’ with an analysis of each chapter, a general view of the whole argument, and a special consideration of the glaring defects in the statement of Christian doctrine, with which the book abounds. It is a subject on which I have spent much patient thought, and on which I feel somewhat prepared to write. What think you of the scheme ? If you should favour it, any suggestions from you would be gratefully received. At some future day—I shall not venture to fix the time—you may expect an article from me on Natural Theology. I have been carefully collecting materials on the subject, and shall embody them in a review of Paley’s Theology,’ Bell and Brougham’s edition.

“In regard to the article on Boards,* I give you leave to abridge, amend, correct, wherever you deem it necessary. If you can conveniently do so, I would be glad to have you return the manuscript, as I have no copy of it.

“Sincerely yours,

J. H. THORNWELL.”

* This article appeared in the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, in 1841. It will be found in the fourth volume of his collected writings.

Words to Live By:
Thornwell’s views derived from a core principle—the idea that God is sovereign over His Church. His sovereignty is manifest in doctrine, in worship, and in polity or governance. In each of these three aspects of the Church, God has, in the Scriptures, revealed His sovereign will for the Church. We have no right to invent doctrine, we have no right to invent ways to worship Him, and we have no right to introduce structures and practices for the operation of His Church, other than what is revealed in His Word. That in sum is, I think, a fairly accurate summary of the heart of Thornwell’s system of thought. Others may disagree with him, but you have to admire Thornwell for never having backed away from his convictions.

Never mock a man for his studied convictions. If someone has put a lot of time, study and thought into carefully weighing a matter, then they at least deserve your respect, even if you disagree with them. If you must mock anyone at all, reserve your mockery for those who give little thought to a matter yet come down hard on one side or the other of an issue. Rash conclusions deserve to be belittled. Careful students, on the other hand, are in short supply and should be valued, wherever we find them.

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An excerpt from The Brazen Serpent, by Joseph Huntington Jones provides our Lord’s Day sermon today. Rev. Jones, as you will remember from yesterday’s post, was a close friend of the Rev. Ashbel Green. Dr. Green entrusted his autobiography to Rev. Jones, that he would see it through to publication after Green’s death.

The Brazen Serpent is, as it turns out, a work addressed to children. As such it provides an excellent example of the quality and caliber of nineteenth-century Presbyterian literature for the juvenile audience. The book was published by the Presbyterian Board of Publication, an agency at that time of the Old School wing of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., being published in 1864, just five years before the reunion of the Old School and New School division. What follows is excerpted from the first chapter of the book. A link to the full work follows at this end of this post. Please consider reading this together with your own children.

THE BRAZEN SERPENT, by Joseph Huntington Jones.

We read in the twenty-first chapter of the book of Numbers, that when the Israelites had been bitten by fiery serpents, Moses made of brass an image of this serpent and put it on a pole, and then whoever looked to this brazen or dead serpent was cured of the bit of the living one. There is something very astonishing here. In the history of diseases and remedies there is nothing like it, and had it not been explained to us by him who appointed it, we should be just as much perplexed to understand it as the Jews are. They cannot imagine why Moses should have been instructed to cure his dying brethren by such a simple thing, which, if it affected them at all, would be presumed to make them worse. The very last object at which a man, mortally wounded by a poisonous serpent, would wish to look, or from which he would expect relief, would be an image of the creature that had bitten him. To explain this wonder, and help us to see the use of it to us as well as to them, I will first recount what Moses did to heal his suffering brethren, and then tell you why God directed him to do it, in this particular way.

Most of my young readers, I presume, are familiar with the remarkable history of the children of Israel in Egypt; of the way in which they were brought out of it; and of their wandering forty years in the wilderness. If those of you who understand geography, will take some good map of this region which has the way the people traveled marked out upon it, you will see that, although they traveled probably more than a thousand miles up and down in this desert country, yet the distance in a straight line is less than three hundred. They were now come to Mount Hor, and had they been permitted to go forward in a direct course, their way would have been short. But to this the king of Edom would not consent, as they would have gone across his territory. This was very provoking, because it compelled them to travel back the very way they had come several days, and through a country that was extremely rough and dreary. It is not at all surprising that the people should have been greatly vexed with this most perverse and disobliging king, who had given them so much needless trouble; but it was not to be helped. He had a right to forbid them, and it was their duty to submit. So they turned about and followed the pillar of cloud and fire; but with such an angry and rebellious temper, that they murmured not against Moses only, but against God. “Wherefore,” said they, “have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in this wilderness?”

. . . But some of my young readers will say, We do not understand it, after all. We cannot see any resemblance between those poor Hebrews in the wilderness, bitten by the fiery serpents, and ourselves. We have not been bitten, and have no disease in our bodies that should make us afraid, or that gives us any pain. And even if we had, we do not think that we could be cured by looking to Jesus Christ. That is very true, children, in one sense; and your bright eyes, red cheeks, and healthful looks are pleasant tokens that you are well and happy. But this is not all of the truth; you are in health and full of joy and hope now, but it will not be always so. Many of the children who read this little book have buried a beloved parent; some lost their mother, some have no father, and others have neither. In a few years, all of you, their children, will be called to follow them; and what is the cause of this? Why do not persons live for ever here, without becoming old, wrinkled, and gray-haired, and losing their strength, hearing, and eyesight? Why have people, in past ages, with but two exceptions, all gone out of the world by dying? Who do they, soon or late, as certainly die as all the Israelites did who were bitten, before the lifting up of the serpent? Let us go to the apostle Paul for an answer. “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” Here, then, my dear children, you will see that sin has done the same thing for us, that the fiery serpents did for the Hebrews. It has made us all liable to the death of our bodies, and what is infinitely worse, to the everlasting loss of our souls. This is one point of resemblance.

Another, not less obvious and striking, is the way of escape. As the Israelites could do nothing to save their bodies from death, neither can we do anything for the salvation of our souls. If left to ourselves, in spite of all our works, we shall as certainly lose our souls as the Hebrews would have lost their lives. And in this we notice a second point of resemblance. We are like them in being utterly helpless.

A third is, that as they obtained a cure by looking to the brazen image; so do we receive salvation by looking to Christ. The Saviour does not use the precise words of Moses, and tell us to look to him, but he says, Believe. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” We see, then, that the great design of God, in adopting this way of curing the bitten Hebrews, was to teach us faith in Christ. Now, a great many people suppose that this is a subject so obscure and hard to be understood, that it is never worth our while to say anything to children about it. But in this little story from the writings of Moses, as explained by the Saviour, it is made so plain that few, if any, children who are able to read, can fail to comprehend it as well as their parents.

And I would now ask my little readers three simple questions that I think they can nearly all answer, and which will show how far the story is understood. And first, What was there in the condition of the Israelites that made it necessary for Moses to lift the serpent on the pole? You tell me, at once, they were in such a dangerous state that multitudes would have died without it. This is correct; you have given the true answer; and this, let me tell you, is the first part of faith in Christ. It is to feel ourselves to be in such a deplorable state, on account of our sins, that we must perish without help.

My next question is, Why did these poor, suffering Israelites look to this brazen image on the pole? Why did they not apply to their physicians, or try to cure themselves? You tell me immediately, because they knew that they would die if they did, and that if they were healed at all, it must be done by turning their eyes to this brazen saviour. True, this is the very answer I wished you to give, and this is the second element of faith in Christ. It is a persuasion that if we are saved at all, our help must come from Christ; that “there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” I think, then, you understood this part as well as you did the other.

My third question is, What were their feelings and thoughts when they first lifted their eyes to the image? They felt persuaded, you answer, that if they looked, they would certainly be relieved, no matter how badly they were bitten, or how desperate their bodily condition. Exactly so, children, and this very feeling makes up the remainder of saving faith. It is a conviction, that if we do rely on Christ to save us, he is able, and willing, and ready to do it, the very moment we believe. This is faith, all about it that any of you need know; it is what any of you can know; and, let me add, it is what you all must know, or you will as certainly perish as the Israelites would have died, but for looking to the brazen image.

The Brazen Serpent; or, Faith in Christ Illustrated, by Joseph Huntington Jones. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1864. To download this book in PDF or other digital formats, click here.

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