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James Dodson


The best methods that Christians can use for obtaining a proper knowledge of saving faith, are the two following:—To attend carefully unto the scriptural account of that grace, and diligently to examine what passes in their own mind when they actually believe. Although the former is all unerring guide, yet the latter is also necessary, and both of them ought to be used. If we attend to the Scriptures, without considering our experience, we will be in danger of obtaining no more than a notional knowledge of faith; and if we consider our experience, without searching the word of God, we will certainly be led into error. The Scriptures will correct these false views of faith, which from our experience we might be apt to form; and our experience will quicken and assist us in learning the nature of faith from the holy oracles. That person is best qualified for examining what passes in his own mind when he believes, who has much acquaintance with the Scriptures; and he will succeed best in deducing the knowledge of faith from the word, who has in his own soul an experience of the exercise of that grace. That knowledge, therefore, of saving faith, is the most complete and pure, which is learned from the word, and illustrated by experience; deduced from experience, and supported by the word.

Having been employed, in the two foregoing parts, in making some general observations on the nature of saving faith, we are now to add a few more observations illustrative of the same doctrine.

OBS. XI. There is a difference betwixt the principle and the exercise of saving faith. The principle of faith is that holy disposition, or moral and spiritual ability to believe, which is implanted in the mind of man on the day of regeneration, and is part of the image of God in the soul, consisting in knowledge, righteousness and true holiness. The exercise of faith is these acts of believing, which are put forth by christians in the whole of their lives in this world, and by which they continue to receive and rest upon the object of faith that is set before them in the Gospel. Having thus described both the principle and the exercise of faith, we shall mention the following differences betwixt them:—The principle of faith is the work of the Holy Spirit; but the exercise of faith is the act of the creature. By the power of the Holy Ghost is this principle implanted in the souls of christians, when they are created again in Christ Jesus unto good works. Although the Spirit’s influence is absolutely necessary to produce in believers the exercise of faith; yet all the exercises of it in them, are the acts of the creature. In the implantation of the principle of faith the christian is wholly passive; but, in the exercise of that grace, he becomes active in receiving Christ, and in believing on his name.—The principle of faith is permanent; but the exercise of faith is transient. The Christian can never be robbed of the principle of faith; but the exercise of that grace may undergo a temporary suspension. From the day of the christian’s regeneration till the day of his death, the principle of faith is an abiding, permanent principle in his soul. The exercise of faith, on the other hand, is a transient frame in the mind. There are seasons when faith is exercised, and there are times when the exercise of it is suspended.—The principle of faith is the cause of its exercise; and the exercise of faith is the evidence of this principle. The exercise of faith is produced in the soul, by the principle of that grace which is in it. The effect may as soon exist, prior to its cause, as the actings of faith can have a being, before the principle of faith is implanted in the soul. The exercise of faith is the evidence of the reality of the principle. There is no way of manifesting the principle to the satisfaction of the believer, but by its acts. Wherever the actings of this grace are found in any person, they are a certain evidence of the existence of the principle of faith in him.—The principle of faith is the seed of grace in the soul; and the exercise of faith is the fruit growing up unto maturity. When the Holy Spirit implants faith in the soul, he sows the seed of grace in the heart; and when, under, his influence, faith is exercised, he causes its fruit to abound to the glory of God, and the person’s comfort.—The principle of faith is the conformity of the heart of man to the law of God; but the exercise of that grace is the conformity of the christian’s life unto that law. The former belongs to the inward dispositions of the soul and the latter pertains to the christian’s frame. That person who is possessed of the principle of faith, is, in so far, pure as the law requires, in the inward man of the heart. And the person who attains unto the actings of faith, complies with the holy law in his life and spiritual exercise. The strength of the principle of faith leads to frequent and vigorous actings of it; and the frequency and strength of the actings of faith, corroborate the principle. They differ, therefore, in the influence which they have upon one another. The strength of the principle conveys vigor into the holy acts, and the strength of the exercise tends to confirm, in the soul, the pure and blessed principle of faith.

OBS. XII. In true believers, saving faith Will be found in different degrees. This diversity will apply to its principle, its exercise, and its fruits. In some of the saints the principle of faith is weak, the actings of it are feeble and infrequent, and its fruits are small and few. It is otherwise with those believers in whom faith is strong. Its principle is confirmed; its exercise is habitual, and its fruits are abundant. This is verified not only in different believers, but in the same believer at different times. To his disciples Jesus said, “O ye of little faith.” The Apostle Paul speaks of some who were weak in faith. Our Saviour said of the centurion, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” To the woman of Canaan he said, “O woman, great is thy faith.” Of Abraham it is testified, “He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God.” Among true believers, therefore, some are found whose faith is weak, and others whose faith is strong. This difference has no respect to the truth or reality of faith in the heart, but only to its measure or degree. The weak believer’s union to Christ is as firm, and his title to eternal life is as valid as the union and title of those are, whose faith is strong.

By neglecting the object of faith, and by indulging doubts and fears of their interest in that object, christians discover that they are feeble-minded and ready to halt. When the exercise of their faith is much interrupted, and the actings of that grace are few and feeble, their faith is weak. When they refuse to be comforted, or shun consolation; when they are partial and formal in the performance of religious duties, and when their resistance to the assaults of their spiritual enemies are not vigorous and constant, their strength is small. A conviction of the incomprehensible greatness of spiritual and eternal blessings, provided by the Father, purchased by the Son, and applied by the Spirit, and a deep sense of their own unworthiness, without a clear view of the mystery of salvation, as a scheme of infinitely sovereign and free grace, may sometimes discourage those who are weak in faith. A view of the manifold difficulties that stand in the way of their salvation, and the seeming contradictions that sometimes appear between the promises and the providences of God to them, with the jealousy which humble Christians are ready to entertain of themselves, without duly considering the mystery of faith, by which the saints are often called “against hope to believe in hope,” will sometimes greatly perplex those who are weak in faith. In Christ’s household there are little children, young men, and fathers. As Christians are of different standing in the church, so they are of different attainments. The degrees of grace belonging to the little children must not be compared with the strength and vigor of the young men; nor should their’s be balanced with the experience and stability of the fathers. All of them are in the hand, and thrive under the care of the great Head, “who shall feed his flock like a shepherd; who shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”[Isaiah 10:2.]

The weakness of the Christian’s faith arises, not so much from a defect in the principle of that grace, as it does from a grievous fault in the believer. Habits are acquired and strengthened by frequent acts, and inward principles are enlarged and confirmed by frequent exercise. Were believers habitually endeavoring to live a life of faith on the Son of God, their faith would grow exceedingly. Earnestly striving to abound in the exercise of faith on its object, the influences of his Spirit would not be withheld; but the Lord would be as the dew to their souls, and they would grow as the lily, and cast forth their roots as Lebanon. Exercising themselves unto godliness by a frequent contemplation of the scheme of redemption, and cordially acquiescing in it; by daily embracing Christ as their all-sufficient Savior; by habitually trusting in God as their God and portion in Christ; by a continued reception and improvement of the influences of the Holy Ghost; and by a renewed taking hold of the everlasting covenant, the precious promises and the holy law, they would soon, by Divine grace, become strong in faith, giving glory to God. But while believers continue negligent in these important matters, suffering inferior, or opposite objects to engross their time and attention; alas! what can they expect, but that the Lord, to chastise them for spiritual slothfulness, may cause their days to consume in vanity, and their years in trouble. Let Christians, therefore, by searching the Scriptures, meditation, and fervent prayer, accompanied with the exercise of faith, arise and shake themselves from the dust, and loose themselves from the bands of their neck, that their spiritual captivity may be ended, and that they may sing on the heights of Sion.

OBS. XIII. In the sacred oracles, great things are ascribed to saving faith. It is necessary to salvation, and salvation is inseparably connected with it. “He that believeth, shall be saved.”[Mark 16:16.] On our part it is the bond of our union to Christ. “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.”[Eph. 3:17.] “At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”[John 14:20.] An interest in Christ’s righteousness is obtained by saving faith: “And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”[Phil. 3:9.] In this righteousness, sinners become interested by believing in Christ. It is added, the “righteousness which is of God by faith.” Christ’s righteousness, is the believer’s, by a divine imputation of it to his soul. In this way it is of God. But faith is necessary to this, and therefore it is of God by faith. Faith is the mean of our justification. “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[Rom: 5:3.] The Christian, by faith, receives and rests on Christ’s righteousness, which procures the pardon of his sin and the acceptance of his person before the Lord. The believer’s faith has also an intimate connection with his adoption into the Divine family. “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.”[Gal. 3:26.] It is by faith in Christ, that we are admitted into the family, and are entitled to all the blessings of the sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty.—The grace of faith has a special instrumentality in the Christian’s sanctification. Peter’s words confirm this truth, “Purifying their hearts by faith.”[Acts 15:8.] Christ’s words to Paul prove the same thing: “That they might receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith, that is in me.”[Acts 26:18.] As faith and the exercise Of it are parts of the person’s sanctification, so they are the means for promoting in them that holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.—An instrumentality belongs to faith, both in our access into a state of grace, and into the gracious presence of God: “By whom also we have access, by faith, into this grace wherein we stand.”[Rom. 5:2.] “In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.”[Eph. 3:12.] Our access to the Lord Jesus as the glorious Redeemer, to the ordinances of Divine grace, and to communion with him, these are all ascribed to saving faith.—To faith belongs the principal instrumental agency in the proper direction of the Christian life. “The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”[Gal. 2:20.]—The believer’s consolation is also enjoyed by means of faith. “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy, and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.” It is by the exercise of their faith that believers enjoy these consolations that are in Christ, who is the Consolation of Israel.——To the Christian’s preservation and perseverance, the exercise of his faith is necessary. “Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.”[1 Peter 1:5.] Though Divine power is the grand efficient cause of the saint’s preservation and perseverance, there is an instrumentality of this faith in their enjoyment of these blessings.—The believer’s victory over Satan and the world, is obtained by means of his faith. “Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.”[Eph. 6:16.] “Your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith.”[1 Peter 5:8, 9.] “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”[1 John 5:4.]

On the exercise of all the principles of grace in the soul, faith exerts a special influence. It excites in the heart love to God in Christ. “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.”[Gal. 5:6.] It produces godly sorrow for sin: “And they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him.”[Zech. 12:10.] It increases in the soul true spiritual joy and peace: “Now, the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.”[Rom. 15:13.] It has an influence on the believer’s patience: “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.”[Rom. 5:3.] It supports in the exercise of holy waiting for glory: “For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.”[Gal. 5:5.] It will also support the soul at death: “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.” “And these all died in faith.” Since God has appointed the faith of believers to be the mean of obtaining all these blessings, O how precious must it be, and how diligently should they exercise it!

1. From this part of the subject we may be informed, that the want of the present actings of faith, is no certain evidence that the person is not a believer. Though the habit of faith is a permanent principle in the soul, the exercise of it consists in transient acts of the mind. These acts may be wanting, when the principle of faith remains; and therefore, a person may be possessed of this grace, and yet for a time may not have the exercise of it. It is very common with believers, whenever the exercise of faith fails, to question the existence of that grace in their own souls. This is exceedingly weak. All conclusions of this kind are rash and ungrounded judgments, for which the believer has no proper foundation. The want of the sensible actings of faith, proves that grace not to be in a lively exercise; but will not, by any means, prove that the person is not renewed in the spirit of his mind. In much confusion and trouble, do exercised souls involve themselves by denying the goodness of their state, from the badness of their frame. Many advantages does Satan gain over those who are delivered from his dominion, when they give way to such despondencies of mind. From the same cause it is, that the saints keep themselves long from obtaining a revival. Winter seasons do overtake the trees of righteousness, as well as the trees of the field, when their leaves fall, and their fruit is taken away; but still they are rooted in Christ, and shall grow as the cedar in Lebanon, When they are without the exercise of faith, instead of questioning their interest in Christ, and the reality of their grace, let them wait upon the Lord, keep the path of duty, look to him for a time of refreshing from his presence, and study the renewed actings of faith.

2. Front this we may farther see in what sense it is that the faith of believers shall never fail; it is not as to the exercise, but it is with respect to the principle of it. When the Savior forewarned Peter of Satan’s sifting him, he also informed him, that he had prayed for him that his faith should not fail. The faith of this disciple failed remarkably in its exercise; but as to its habit or principle in his soul, it remained unshaken and firm. With all believers the case is the same; their faith, though it may fail in its actings, shall never die away in its principle. By the abiding nature of the Christian’s faith, a reviving in its exercise is secured to him; so that because the seed of God remaineth in him, his faith shall be increased and enlarged in its actings. The never-failing nature of the Christian’s faith, and the failure of its exercise, have a respect to the inhabitation and influence of the Spirit. As the Spirit ever dwells in the souls of believers, so faith in its principle cannot fail; but, since the Spirit’s influence may be restrained from them, the exercise of this grace may fall under a decay.

3. From what has been said, it will also appear, that there are seasons when the grace of faith is, in a particular manner, exercised upon its object. To the exercise of faith there is a season, and a time for this spiritual purpose under the sun. The day of converting grace is one of these seasons. When the children of Israel came out of Egypt, and were brought through the Red sea, which was a type of a sinner’s conversion, it is said of them, “Then believed they his words.”[Psalm 106:12.] At the day of a sinner’s deliverance out of his natural state, he is enabled to exercise faith upon the Son of God; he flies for refuge to Christ, and lays hold upon him as the hope that is set before him. The want of that knowledge which arises from Christian experience and observation, though it may hinder the young convert from judging of the acts of his faith at the time, yet it does not prevent the motions of his heart from being a real receiving and resting on Christ for salvation. The time of the Spirit’s renewed influence upon the soul, is another of those seasons. He is the Spirit of faith, and no sooner does his influence come upon the soul, than the heart flows out in the actings of that grace. A day of spiritual darkness and want of Comfort is another season for the exercise of faith. “Who is among you that feareth the Lord, and obeyeth the voice of his servants, and walketh in darkness and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay himself upon his God.”[Isaiah 50:10.] This particular season the Christian often finds to be a day of believing. The Lord seems to visit his people with darkness, that they may be stirred up to trust his word of promise, and stay themselves upon his mercy in Christ. The day of outward trouble is a season of the actings of faith. Some of the strongest and most joyful expressions of the Christian’s trust in God are heard from him, when he is in bodily distress. Job was in this condition when he said, “I know that my Redeemer liveth;” and “though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” In the same manner are believers enabled to speak, when they are in trouble; and when they do so from the heart, they are in a special manner exercising their faith. The day of the Christian’s attendance upon God, in the ordinances of his grace, is a season of faith’s actings in his soul. If faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, this must be a time when the soul puts forth acts of faith. When Christians come into the house of God, and hear what the Lord doth speak, they are often enabled, before they depart, to say, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” The time of secret duties is a season for the exercise of faith. When the saints retire from the company of others and from worldly pursuits, to hold communion with God, and to serve him in the duties of the closet, they often find their hearts enlarged in the exercise of faith. When Jacob was left alone, and the Angel of the covenant wrestled with him, his faith was eminently exercised; he enjoyed sweet fellowship with God, and he obtained the blessing. Similar privileges will be bestowed upon believers in every age, who are exercised in the same manner. The day of death is a season of the exercise of faith. “These all died in faith,” is the description of the death of the saints. As they, all live by faith, so they die in faith. An act of faith having been the first gracious exercise that ever was produced in the soul, it is fit and necessary that another act of that grace should be the last. It is by an act of faith that the ransomed of the Lord came out of a state of nature into a state of grace; so it is by an act of the same faith that they go from a state of grace into a state of glory. Many of the saints, we are assured, have died in this manner; and I know not but we may think that they all die in the same way; whether they are disabled by bodily weakness, trouble, or otherwise, to express it or not. We are not to imagine that there is no more of the exercise of faith in the minds of dying saints, than that which they express. The reverse of this is doubtless the case; for they all die in faith, and die in the Lord.

4. From this part of the subject we may be informed, that it is the duty or Christians frequently to exercise the grace of faith. As they are, by the principle of it, conformed in heart to the image of God, so they should study, by the frequent acting of it, to be conformed in their exercise to his law. Believing is at all times our duty, and should constantly be our endeavor. Duties are a lifeless carcass, if faith is not exercised in the performance of them; and therefore, the frequent actings thereof are necessary. Paul’s account of the life which he lived in this world may assure us that it is our duty, and should be our endeavor, to “live by the faith of the Son of God.”[Gal. 2:20.] By the habitual actings of faith on the Son of God, he lived out his life in the body, from his conversion to his death. Let all Christians be exhorted to labor after the frequent actings of faith. Indolence in this matter is both sinful in the sight of God, and hurtful to yourselves; while diligence in it is not only pleasing unto him, but is unspeakably profitable to you. Gird up, then, the loins of your mind. Bestir yourselves, O Christians, unto this exercise. Strive to believe in your God, in your Savior, and in the promise, at all times, in all duties, on all trials, and by all means. Be discontented with, and struggle to disengage yourselves from an alienation of heart from God, and estrangement of soul from the exercise of faith. Let it be an object which yon ever keep in view, to believe in God, through Christ, by the promise, for your eternal salvation. If Solomon had reason to say, “Happy is the man that feareth always;”[Prov 28:14.] surely we may also aver, that happy is the man that believeth always. Let this, therefore, be your constant study, so that, with an eye upon the Spirit for his powerful influence, you may, at last, have it to say, “We have kept the faith.”

5. This part of the subject unfolds the happiness and the duty of those Christians whose faith is strong. They are delivered from many troubles to which weak believers are subjected. They are privileged with many comforts to which the other class are comparatively strangers. When their great faith is in lively exercise, difficult duties are easy, heavy afflictions are light, strong temptations are overcome, and the Christian can say, “Though the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls; yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will joy in the God of my salvation.”[Hab. 3:17, 18.] Under what obligations are all those Christians, to praise and serve the Lord, who has dealt so bountifully with them? What reason have they to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please themselves? Let them remember that to whom much is given, of them much shall be required. Satan, who bears a special enmity at them who are strong in faith, assaults them with great temptations. Let them be ever on their guard against both the wiles of the devil and his fiery darts. God himself gives no grace to his people without a design to try it. “The trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth,” &c. Let eminent believers, therefore, be humble and watchful, trusting in the Lord for help in the day of trial, that they may be enabled to say, “When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.”

6. Believers suffer much by the weakness of their faith. They suffer much loss. They are deprived of many spiritual enjoyments which they might have obtained; many gospel consolations with which their hearts might have been filled, and many victories over their spiritual enemies which they might have gained. For the same cause, they are often deprived of the sweet and powerful application of the word of grace to their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and of fellowship with Christ, and communion with the Father in him.—Christians, by the weakness of their faith, suffer much trouble. While their faith is weak, they are like a wave of the sea, driven of the wind and tossed., And how uncomfortable in this condition! Spiritual darkness surrounds them, and spiritual deadness prevails within them, unbelieving doubts dwell in their hearts, and slavish fears fill their souls. While they are in this situation, they go mourning without the sun, staggering at the promise through unbelief, and cannot exert their spiritual strength against their enemies, by which, in the Christian warfare, so many blessed victories are won.

7. It is the duty of those who are weak in faith, to seek and labor to obtain enlargement in this grace. It is their duty to seek it. To whom can they go for this blessing, but to Him who is the author and finisher of faith? This did the disciples:—”And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith.” O imitate their example! go ye to the throne of grace, and cry to him that sits on the throne, for the increase of your faith. Through the mediation of him who is in the midst of the throne, and by the influence of him who is the seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, cry that your faith, in its principle, exercise and fruits, may be enlarged. But you must also labor to obtain this increase. Improve the means which God hath appointed for enlarging grace in the hearts of his people. Search the Scriptures, which is the word of faith. Attend the ministrations of the Gospel with the hearing of faith. Maintain Christian fellowship with the saints. And endeavor to exercise faith in God through Christ, saying,—”Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

8. This subject brings under our view the warrant that weak believers have to encourage themselves in the Lord their God. Their state of acceptance with God in Christ Jesus, depends not upon the strength, but upon the truth of their faith. The believer’s faith may be weak, especially in his own estimation, when it is real and sincere. Weak faith, as well as that which is strong, unites the person to Christ, and gives him an interest in God as his God, and portion forever. Having this relation to God, he is both allowed and required to encourage himself in him. The first act of faith, on the day of regeneration, we may suppose, must be attended with much weakness. But it is by this act that the sinner is united to his Savior, clothed with his righteousness, and entitled to eternal life through him who hath said, “And I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any pluck them out of my hand.”[John 10:28.] Let those who complain of the weakness of their faith, encourage themselves in the Lord; for God is able to make all grace abound toward them. Let them carefully avoid every thing that has any tendency to weaken their faith, hinder its exercise, or diminish its fruits, and let them labor in these duties, by which their faith is strengthened. And when they are walking in darkness, let them stay upon their God.