The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character

Gardiner Spring, 1829



Nor is it conclusive evidence of true religion that a man is well instructed in the doctrines of the Gospel. No man is warranted to believe himself a Christian who is profoundly ignorant of the truths revealed in the Sacred Scriptures. There can be no spiritual knowledge, where there is no speculative knowledge. God cannot be loved, where He is not known.

Sin cannot be detested, where its nature is not discerned.

Christ cannot be confided in, where His character and sacrifice are not perceived.

Duty cannot be performed, where the mind does not apprehend its nature and obligations.

Truth is both the instrument of gracious affections when produced in the soul, and the nourishment of them in all their subsequent growth and enlargement. There is no spiritual knowledge, where there is no speculative knowledge. But there may be much speculative knowledge, where there is no spiritual knowledge. Speculative knowledge has its seat in the head. Spiritual knowledge has its seat in the heart. It is obvious there is no moral goodness in the simple assent of the understanding to truth.

We receive, compound, and compare ideas, whether we wish to or not. When we see the evidence of a religious doctrine to be clear and convincing, we cannot withhold our assent from it while at the same time, we may hate what we believe and love what we reject. Besides, who does not see that there is nothing in the nature of speculative knowledge to produce gracious affections? The twilight of reason and conscience and the clear sunshine of the Gospel are of themselves alike unadapted to the causation of holiness. Should all the light of the Last Day break in upon the understanding of the natural man, it could not originate one holy emotion.

Follow the enemies of God through every possible degree of instruction, and though their heads will be better—their hearts will be worse. The author uses this term as a synonym of intellectual perception, or what is commonly referred to as "head knowledge" as opposed to "heart knowledge." The more they see, the more they will hate. The more they understand, the more they will complain and object. The more they are convinced, they will the more murmur and rebel. It is quite possible, therefore, for the understanding to be illuminated where the heart is not sanctified.

But, theory apart, what is the language of experience and observation? We need but open our eyes to discern the fact that the minds of wicked men are often richly furnished with doctrinal knowledge, and that they are frequently very orthodox in their sentiments.

Jesus told the unbelieving Jews that they had both seen and hated both Him and His Father (John 15:24). The Apostle tells us of some who, when "they knew God, glorified him not as God" (Romans 1:21). He also addresses this pointed reproof to the Pharisee, "Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth" (Romans 2:17-20). And yet, of these very men our Lord says, they are "serpents, a brood of vipers," and cannot escape the damnation of Hell" (Matthew 23:33).

And what does the holy Apostle say of the vilest reprobates in perdition? "You believe there is one God—you do well; the devils also believe and tremble" (James 2:19). That foul spirit was himself once an angel of light. There is no more studious observer of the character, designs, and truth of God than that malicious fiend. There is no greater proficient in theological truth, than the father of lies. There is no lack of orthodoxy, even in Hell.

And why should it not be so? Bad men, as well as good, are endued with perception, reason, and conscience; and are as capable of applying these faculties in reflecting upon moral objects as upon natural objects.

There is indeed something in the doctrines of the Gospel which the wicked do not perceive; and this is their beauty and loveliness. But this is a perception of the heart and not of the understanding; and of this the wicked are destitute. "The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). But, because he does not love the truth, it is no evidence that he does not understand it.

How many people have you seen who were thoroughly versed in the sacred volume, who comprehended the symmetry and connection of the entire system of revealed truth, and who themselves were distinguished champions of the faith—but who, lamentable to confess, were strangers to the religion of the heart? Something beside the illumination of the natural understanding, therefore, is indispensable to the possession of Christian character. Alas! how many have gone loaded with knowledge down to Hell!