“He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers that they should make them known to their children.” Ps. 78:5.
God’s testimony precedes his law, and these two things are perfectly distinct, though inseparable. The same distinction is made in our Shorter Catechism, where the preface is distinguished from the ten commandments. And this is the order which God has observed ever since the revelation of his mercy to fallen man. The reason is, redemption work supplies the motives which alone will influence to obey the law. Often does Moses remind the Israelites of the works which God had wrought for them, as motives to obedience or aggravations of sin. Every reader of the scriptures must have noticed all this. But redemption from Egypt was typical of the greater “redemption purchased by Christ,” and from this redemption the believer gathers the motives to all acceptable obedience. “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” Jno. 14:15. Now, in what way does Christ manifest his love? By laying down his life for us: “Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it.” That was the evidence of his love; and “we love him, because he first loved us.” 1 Jno. 4:19.
God’s testimony, like his law, is directed to the righteous and the wicked; but the effects are not only different, but opposite. Thus—”The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them.” Ex. 7:5. On the other hand, the Israelites know by the same testimony not merely what the Egyptians know, but—”ye shall know that I am the Lord your God.” Ex. 6:7. This difference in the effect of God’s testimony upon saints and sinners, is exemplified also in the time of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar must be taught by judgments “that the heavens do rule.” Dan. 4:26. Such persons are not favored, while such, with the witness of the Spirit. Jno. 14:17. The Lord Jesus manifests himself to the world, but to his disciples, as he does “not unto the world.” 14:22. By the volume of creation, Rom. 1:20; by providence, Acts 14:17; by signal judgments, Ps. 58:11; but especially by his servants, God keeps up a testimony in the world; by all which he asserts his claims, vindicates his honor, and condemns the world. Acts 1:8; Heb. 11:7.
A very large proportion of the Bible is historical, and all this part of the Holy Scriptures is a record of God’s dealings with the two great classes of the human family, and of their dealings with him. By judgments—desolating judgments—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome have been taught, in succession, that Zion’s God is Jehovah. And all these things have been written for our learning, “that we, through patience and comfort of the scriptures, might have hope.”
Transfer our thoughts, suggested by this cursory view, to Scotland—to that tyrannical horn of the beast, under the administration of the “bloody house of Stewart.” By that despotic power the work of the first and second reformation was resisted. The struggle was violent and protracted: but, as in all former contests, Immanuel’s right hand and his holy arm got him the victory. Also, those that were with him, being called and chosen and faithful, overcame by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. Their achievements were collected in the Westminster formularies—the symbols of their profession, as adopted by the Church of Scotland, and as more comprehensively embodied and displayed in their solemn covenants. And as the National Covenant is a standing testimony against Popery, so is the Solemn League against Prelacy. These solemn deeds contain a confession of faith, a protestation against error, an engagement to duty, and a testimony against moral evils in organized society: a doctrinal and practical reformation on paper. I say on paper; for though some followed the Lord fully, the heart of many “was not right with God, neither were they steadfast in his covenant.” This soon appeared in the overthrow of the reformation. At the Revolution, the Westminster standards were not changed; and the National Church of Scotland owns these till the present day! But that church will not own the covenants. And why is this? Because the covenants bind to a definite and uniform application of those doctrinal standards. The same is true of the General Assembly of Ireland, and for the same reason.
When a secession took place from the Revolution Church of Scotland, the Seceders professed to own the covenants; but their bond for renewing them was defective, and that body, while claiming to be identified with the original Covenanters, have forfeited that claim, by relinquishing some of the peculiar and distinctive principles and practices of the Scottish Reformation. Now, how shall a sincere inquirer ascertain whether the National Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the Associate Presbyterian Church of Britain and America, (not to mention other claimants,) hold the doctrines and exemplify the practice of the primitive British Covenanters? This inquiry must be pressed. How shall any person find the legitimate successors of the Covenanters? Well, one will say—“I will try the doctrines of the several churches by the scriptures.” Very well; that will be a profitable exercise, but will such a course bring the inquirer to the desired result? Certainly not. The Seceders will assert that Donald Cargil owned the government of king Charles. Others will affirm that when any government ceases to persecute unto death, or has never so persecuted, it is to be owned and supported as the moral ordinance of God. Of course all who demur are to be treated as rebels, resisting the ordinance of God. In such a state of society—the state in which we now find ourselves—there is no rational or possible way of coming to a satisfactory solution of the question as to who are the consistent followers of the covenanted witnesses of Christ, but by consulting authentic history. Of the contendings and achievements of our covenanted fathers in the British isles, the scriptures are wholly silent. Their doctrines, as well as their practice, must be learned from history. Their doctrines—because that an assembly of divines met at Westminster is to be known only by history; and that the Confession which goes under their name is their genuine production, can be known only by the same kind of testimony. All this was well understood by our fathers who survived the persecution in Scotland, and who framed, sanctioned and published the “Act, Declaration and Testimony, in 1761,” which embodies history, argument and declaration. The first two, viz: history and argument, are not only important, but absolutely necessary to a right understanding of the doctrinal part. They were careful to distinguish between declaration, and testimony: the former embracing the doctrines which they believed, the latter history and argument, by which the reader might understand how our fathers applied doctrines to individual and social life, as well as how other parties, professing to believe the same doctrines, misapplied them.
But as some have complained that they cannot apprehend the foregoing views, as expressed in diverse phraseology, on former occasions, let us try the effect of illustration by throwing the matter into concrete form, thus:
Donald Cargil, Richard Cameron, James Renwick, and others associated with them in their time, were witnesses for Christ. How is this known? The Bible says nothing of them. That such men ever lived, we know from history. But what principles did they hold? To this question, history supplies the answer. Again, how did those men apply their avowed principles, in their private and public life, to themselves and others? From the same source alone can we obtain a satisfactory answer—from history! Thus, then, we have the existence of the witnesses, the principles which they held, and their method of applying these principles in the British isles, in the seventeenth century, all vouched for by history. Then, admitting the general correctness of history in these respects, an inquiry remains which cannot be answered by history, viz: How shall we know that those people were witnesses, and some of them martyrs? That they were rebels, traitors, fools, enthusiasts, &c., was the opinion of a majority in their own time. But as this point was susceptible of solution at that time, so it is now, by an appeal to the law and to the testimony; though many, to this day, think of our covenant fathers as those thought of them who were consenting unto their death.
It seems obvious that we cannot identify with the Reformed Covenanted Church of Scotland, unless we admit history to contribute in settling the terms of ecclesiastical fellowship. God’s testimony—his special providences, explains the principles of his law, vindicating the equity of his moral government over friends and enemies; answerable to which the Church’s testimony illustrates her doctrinal symbols, vindicates the honor of her Redeemer, and supplies powerful motives to obey his law. When a church ceases to be a historical church, she ceases to be a Reformed Covenanted Church.
Tranquillity, July 25, 1856.