The Course of Faith, or
The Practical Believer Delineated

By John Angell James, 1852


The substance of the following little treatise was given to my congregation some few years since, in a course of week-day sermons. It occurred to me at the time that perhaps what had instructed my own flock might be of some small service to others; but for some reason or other the matter was laid aside. The intention then conceived is now fulfilled, though amid innumerable occupations, and some painful circumstances in my relative circle.

The design of this work is to aid the Christian in the practice of theology, rather than the theologian in the study of it. I write for the disciple, not for the teacher. To awaken the sinner, guide the inquirer, and aid the believer in the path of life—rather than to lead the student through the intricate labyrinths of controversy or into the depths of profound Biblical knowledge—is the highest object which my literary ambition has ever led me to seek, or my own consciousness will ever lead me to hope that I can obtain.

In this work I have selected what none will deny is the great principle of the spiritual life, of the Christian character, and of holy conduct. There is such a thing as the spiritual life. A religious profession is nothing apart from it. Without this, however correct may be its outward form and expression, it is a picture or a statue; it may be a beautiful one, but it is dead. Faith is the expression of this life, or rather it is the principle of life itself which develops in all other expressions of it. The spiritual life is subject of course to all the varieties which mark the course of our physical vitality; and hence the reality of what is called 'experimental religion' or 'religious experience'. There is perhaps no subject less understood or more abused than this.

Man is a being possessed of the various faculties of intellect, will, passions, and conscience. True religion is designed to influence all these, for it takes the whole soul under its guidance, influence, and impulsion. It gives light to the intellect, determination to the will, emotion to the heart, tenderness to the conscience, and purity to the imagination; and brings out the effect of this joint operation of the soul in all the beauties of a holy life. It falls from heaven upon the whole soul like the solar ray upon the prism, which divides and distributes the distinct and separate colors over the whole glassy substance. But men are apt to distort this beautiful consummation, and represent religion too much as consisting only, or in the predominance, of one color.

There have been, so to speak, different schools, distinguished by the predominance they give in their representations of the influence of religion over one or other of the faculties of the soul. Some, like Sandeman, or Walker of Dublin, have resolved it into the intellect, and made true personal piety to consist of correct head knowledge, almost to the exclusion of the affections; and have presented religion in the form of an icicle—clear, but cold. Others, like Mr. Finney, have made it to consist almost exclusively of the determination of the will—this is to render it like a scepter of iron—stern, inflexible, and powerful; but still hard, cold, and unfeeling. Others, like Madame Guyon, Thomas a Kempis, and perhaps some of the modern Methodists, give too great a prominence in experimental religion to the emotions—this is to exhibit religion as the morbid excitement and variations produced by stimulants, rather than the sober feelings and steady continuous action of health. Others again, such as Papists, Puseyites, and many of a better school, resolve nearly the whole of experimental religion into the imagination and make it consist of the soul's communion, through this faculty, aided by the senses, with people, places, and events of deep historic interest—this is to make it consist of a species of poesy, which delights the subject of it with its touching and beautiful mental pictures, pleasing associations, and brilliant images—while perhaps the intellect is uninformed, the will unsubdued, and the conscience unenlightened.

It is very clear to some observant minds, that there is in this age, a species of religious writing emanating from the evangelical school of divinity, and included in its experimental department, which partakes far too much of the soft, the pensive, the plaintive, the sentimental—to constitute a robust and healthful piety, and which is the more seductive on account of its seeming deep-toned spirituality. There is unquestionably considerable mental luxury in those hours and frames of meditative stillness and tender emotion, which are indulged and enjoyed when such works are perused, in which all that is spiritually touching appeals to all that is susceptible in our nature, and the sweet cordials of luscious consolation are administered by the hand of gentleness, from the tasteful cup of elegant and touching composition. And such reading no doubt tends to foster the aesthetical part of religion. Yet is it a question whether this kind of works does not substitute for a healthy personal religion, a vague emotional mysticism—a weak solution of religious feeling and poetic sentiment; whether it does not enervate the soul and render it less vigorous in mortifying corruption—less disposed to cherish and exercise a self-denying and warm-hearted philanthropy, and more inclined to indulge the tastes of the religious recluse—than of the evangelist and the reformer of this dark, wicked, and wretched world.

There is also another series of once popular and widely circulated devotional and theological works, but now forgotten, or nearly so, amid the multitude of more modern ones that have superceded them in public favour, to which I would for a moment allude, especially as bearing a resemblance in name to this treatise, I mean Romaine's "Life," "Walk," and "Triumph of Faith." Of these works it may be said, they are each the reproduction of the other, and all three are books of one idea—but that one how great and glorious, "CHRIST IS ALL!" Or put in another form, "The Lord our Righteousness." With what delight the intelligent and devout believer, whose creed and whose heart are replete with Christology, may and must read these works, I need not say; but he must be an intelligent and devout believer to do so. He must be like their author, so entirely in the holy spell and fascination of the cross of Christ, as to be able to look at nothing else. This was the case with Romaine—he so constantly walked and basked in the noontide glory of the Sun of Righteousness, that he had eyes for no other object. He was so engrossed with the great orb of gospel light, that he saw not even the wide and glowing landscape of beauty which that Sun revealed and illuminated. His faith was only or chiefly faith in Christ for justification. He shut up his readers to faith, and shut up that faith to Christ. It was a noble seclusion I admit, and yet it may be doubted whether it was a scriptural one.

Christ is the center of the Christian scheme, but there is also a circumference; and a true faith, while it begins at the center, does not stop there, but radiates through all the intermediate spaces to the outer circle. Romaine's works, spiritual, evangelical, and experimental as they are, must be considered by every judicious mind as defective—they are not a fair impress of the New Testament as a whole—there is, if not too much of Paul, too little of James; if not too much of the epistle to the Galatians, too little of the Sermon upon the Mount. Or to give another illustration, he dwelt almost exclusively on the justifying faith of the epistle to the Romans, without taking up either the justifying works of the epistle of James, or the general faith of the eleventh chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews. What was the consequence? Just what might have been expected—he prepared the way for 'theoretic Antinomianism', and many of his hearers when he died became the admirers and followers of that notorious 'personification of spiritual pride', presumption, and arrogance, William Huntington. For what is Antinomianism? The gospel abstracted from the law and resting upon a basis of sovereign mercy, instead of being founded upon the principles of moral government—a scheme intended to subvert the law, while mercy is exercised towards its offenders. A true faith therefore, must be exercised as much towards all the duties of the law as towards all the blessings of the gospel.

It has been my object in the present volume to combine, as far as I could, the theoretical, practical, and experimental—in the representation of personal piety. In true godliness, there must be some great truths received in the exercise of intelligent faith upon the mind. These must be felt in their influences upon the affections, and carried out in practical and visible operation in the life. We cannot conceive of a true religion which does not affect the whole man; nor can we conceive of a true revelation which is not adapted to produce such a religion. Now it is the glory of Christianity that it does this. It addresses itself to all our faculties; it meets us in all our changeful circumstances; and is adapted to all our conditions of existence. If this be so, then a true faith must be that which, as a principle of action, is as extensive as the details of the Bible, or as the varieties of our situation and experience.

There is no exercise of true piety, with which faith has nothing to do. No religious duty can be performed, whether relating to God the Father or Christ; to Providence or grace; to God or to man; to justification, sanctification, or consolation; to prosperity or adversity; to life, death, or eternity—which does not involve the exercise of faith. In the Christian life, faith is the vital blood which, gushing from the renewed heart, flows through the whole frame of godliness, carrying warmth, health, and strength to its minutest parts, and to its very extremities. Where this comes not, there is coldness and death. Faith constitutes the pulse of the soul, which indicates, as it beats feebly or vigorously, the state of the soul's health, and its degree of vigor and vitality.

It is therefore quite apparent that I have not too much widened the sphere of faith in giving it the varied application set forth in this volume. Too many, like Romaine, have opened for it only one channel to flow in, and that is justification. If too much prominence has not been given to doctrinal instruction, too little has been devoted to that which is practical. It is not knowledge, so much as love, which constitutes the Christian—the love which is the working of faith. Few can make high attainments in knowledge, but all may grow illimitably in the exercise of the holy, submissive, and kindly Christian love!

There is nothing now so much needed by and for Christianity, as an earnest exhibition, demonstration and manifestation of Christ's own teachings in his Sermon upon the Mount, founded on the apostle's doctrine of justification by faith. This, exhibited by the church in the sight of all the world, would establish the law by faith; would preach louder than a thousand voices; would be more eloquent than ten thousand volumes; would carry to the minds of many a deeper conviction than the most conclusive logic; and do more to recommend true Christian doctrine than the most powerful and attractive rhetoric. Let those who would see the error of many false systems of religion, and see the nature of the true one, ponder deeply the apostle's saying, "In Jesus Christ, neither circumcision avails anything nor uncircumcision—but faith which works by love!"