I hated to make this cut also, but I decided not to include Jonathan Dickinson's Familiar Letters in Early Evangelicalism: A Reader. I did, however, write an introduction and edit an excerpt of Dickinson's Reasonableness of Christianity that will appear in Early Evangelicalism: A Reader.
Jonathan Dickinson’s Familiar Letters counts as his most widely circulated publication. In the eighteenth century alone, it went through nine editions. The format is in the form of nineteen letters that address a variety of theological concerns. In his eighth letter, Dickinson presented two types of faith: an authentic saving kind and a false one. After witnessing the waning of religion in the wake of the Great Awakening, with its excessive itinerant preachers and ephemeral zeal for Christianity, Dickinson sought to explain the marks of true faith from those who falsely professed devotion to God at the time of the revivals. Dickinson argued that only a person enlightened by the power of the Holy Spirit could experience the heartfelt change necessary for conversion. While some people could learn knowledge about salvation through Christ, only a true believer not only knows the gospel, but also acts on it. Authentic Christians repent of their sins and earnestly strive to replace a sinful lifestyle with a godly one.
Familiar Letters To a Gentleman upon a Variety of seasonable and important Subjects in Religion (1745)
Letter VIII: Wherein the Difference between a true saving Faith, and a dead temporary Faith, is distinctly considered
I do indeed insist upon it, that men may notionally and doctrinally believe the truth of the gospel, without a saving faith in Christ, and without an interest in him, or a claim to the benefits of his redemption. This is a truth clearly taught in the scriptures; and abundantly evident from the reason and nature of things. If any therefore should expect salvation, from a mere doctrinal and historical faith in Christ, they will in the conclusion find themselves disappointed, and ashamed of their hope.
We read (John xii. 42, 43) of many of the chief rulers who believed in Christ, but dared not confess him; for they loved the praise of men, more than the praise of God. And will any man imagine, that such believers who dare not confess Christ before men, shall be confessed by him before his heavenly Father and his holy Angels, in the great day of retribution? Will any man imagine, that our blessed Lord will own such for his sincere disciples and followers, who love the praise of men, more than the praise of God? Here then is a clear instance of a doctrinal and historical faith, which was not saving; and could give no claim to the promise made to true believers. We have this matter further illustrated and confirmed by the Apostle James, in the second chapter of his epistle; where we are shown, that such a Faith is dead, being alone; that it is but a carcass with breath. As the body without the Spirit is dead, so faith without works, is dead also. Of such a faith we may therefore say with the same apostle, What doth it profit, though a man say that he has faith? Can faith save him?
But I need not multiply scripture quotations in this case. It is what is continually confirmed to us by our own observation. How many do we see every day, who acknowledge the truth of the gospel, and yet live worldly, sensual and vicious lives; who profess they know Christ, but in works deny him; who call themselves by his name, and yet value their lusts and idols above all the hopes of his salvation; and even run the venture of eternal perdition, rather than deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him? Now there can be nothing more certain, than that these men are utterly unqualified for the kingdom of God; and that they can have no special interest in him who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
As, on the one hand, there is a gracious promise of final salvation, to all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved: He that believeth on the Son, hath everlasting life: So, on the other hand, there is a sort of believers, who can have no claim to this promise, nor any interest in the salvation by Christ. It must therefore be of infinite consequence, that we have indeed the faith of God’s elect, that we may become the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ; and therefore that our faith be distinct, in its nature and operations, from such an empty, lifeless and fruitless belief, with which the formal, worldly and sensual professor may deceive and destroy his own soul. From whence it appears, that your question is most important; and deserves a most careful and distinct answer: which I shall endeavor in the following particulars.
1. A true and saving faith, is a realizing and sensible impression of the truth of the gospel: whereas a dead faith is but a mere notional and speculative belief of it. Faith is by the apostle described, the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen: That which brings eternal things into a near view; and represents them unto the soul as undoubted realities. Whence it is, that the true believer, when he has experienced the defect of his own purposes and endeavors, when he is wearied out of all his false refuges, emptied of all hope in himself, and is brought to see and feel the danger and misery of his state by nature, he is then brought in earnest to look to Jesus, as the only refuge and safety of his soul. He then sees the incomparable excellency of a precious Savior, breathes with ardent desire after him, repairs to him as the only foundation of his hope; and proportionably to the evidence of his interest in him, rejoices in Christ Jesus, having no confidence in the flesh. Now, the blessed Savior and his glorious salvation is the subject of his serious, frequent and delightful contemplation. Now, an interest in Christ is valued by him above all the world; and he is in earnest to obtain and maintain good evidence, that his hope in Christ is well founded. Now, the favor of God, and the concerns of the unseen and eternal world, appear of greater importance than every thing else. He now mourns under a sense of his former sins; he groans under the burden of his remaining corruptions and imperfections; and with earnest diligence follows after holiness, endeavoring to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. And in a word, he has such an impression of these invisible realities, that whatever temptations, desertions, or prevailing corruptions he may conflict with, nothing can so banish the great concern from his breast, as to make him habitually slothful and indifferent about it: Nothing can quiet him, short of having his heart and affections engaged in the things of God and godliness; and his appetites and passions under the restraint and governing influence of the Law of the Spirit of Life.
But now, on the other hand, if we take a view of the influence which a dead faith has upon the soul, it is visible, that this usually leaves the subjects of it secure and careless, trifling and indifferent, in the concerns of the eternal world. These appear to such a person but distinct futurities, which don’t engage his solemn attention, and make him in earnest solicitous about the event; nor give any effectual check to his inordinate appetites and passions. Or if (as it sometimes happens) any awakening dispensation alarms the conscience of such a person, to a distressing apprehension of his guilt and danger, drives him to duties and external reformations, and makes him more careful and watchful in his conduct, he has yet no sensible impressive view of the way of salvation by Jesus Christ. He either endeavors to pacify the justice of God, and his own conscience, by his duties and religious performances; and so lulls himself asleep again in his former security: or else continues to agonize under most dark, dreadful and unworthy apprehensions of the glorious God, as if he were implacable and irreconcilable to such sinners as he. Such a person would readily acknowledge, but he cannot feel this blessed truth, that Christ Jesus is a sufficient Savior. He allows it to be truth; but it is to him such a truth, as has no effectual influence upon his heart and life. Though he owns this to be true: Yet he can never comfortably venture his soul and his eternal interests upon it, unless a ray of divine light shine into his soul, and give him a lively and sensible view of what he could before have but a slight and superficial apprehension of.
Here then you see an apparent difference between a true difference between a true and a false faith. The one realizes the great truths of the gospel, by a lively and feeling discovery of them; giving the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. The other gives but a lifeless and unactive assent to these important truths. The one influences the heart and affections, and by beholding with open face, as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, changes the soul into the same image, from glory to glory: The other only swims in the head, and leaves the heart in a state either of security or despondency. The one is an abiding principle of divine life, from which there flows rivers of living water: The other is transient and unsteady, and leaves the soul short of any spiritual principle of life and activity.
2. A saving faith is a hearty consent to the terms of the gospel: while a dead faith is but a cold assent to the truth of it. Accordingly a true faith is in the gospel described to be a receiving of the Lord Jesus Christ. To as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children of God. Our blessed Redeemer is freely offering himself and his saving benefits to poor perishing sinners, in the gospel. Our compliance with and acceptance of the gospel offer, are the terms of our interest in him, and constitute the faith of God’s elect. They therefore, and they only, are true believers in Christ, who heartily acquiesce in the glorious method of a sinner’s recovery from ruin by Jesus Christ; and heartily accept an offered Savior, in all his offices and benefits. A true believer, convinced of his natural blindness and ignorance, repairs to the Lord Jesus Christ to enlighten his mind, to make his way plain before him, and to give him a clear sensible and spiritual acquaintance with the great things of his eternal peace. The true believer has found by experience his utter incapacity to procure the divine favor by the best of his duties, reformations, or moral performances, and that he has cause to be ashamed and confounded in his own sight, for the great defects of his highest attainments in religion: and therefore welcomes the Lord Jesus Christ to his soul, as the Lord his Righteousness, repairs to him, and to him only, for wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; and builds all his hope of acceptance with God, upon what Christ has done and suffered for him. The true believer labors and is heavy-laden with the sinfulness of his nature; and longs for a further victory over his corrupt affections, appetites and passions, for more spirituality in his duties, and for a further progress in piety and holiness; and therefore heartily desires and accepts the Lord Jesus Christ as his Sanctifier, as well as Savior; and earnestly seeks after the renewing, strengthening, and quickening influences of his blessed Spirit. The true believer feels the necessity of this blessed Savior in all his offices, relations, and characters. He sees him to be just such a Savior as his soul wants; and therefore cheerfully accepts a whole Christ, with his whole heart, without any reserve, without any desire of other terms of acceptance with God. He may entertain dark apprehensions of himself, and complain heavily of the great defects of his faith and holiness; but he can never entertain hard thoughts of the gospel-scheme; nor complain of the terms of salvation therein proposed. These appear to him the wisdom of God, and the power of God; and every way answer the exigencies of his state, and the desires of his soul.
But if, on the contrary, we consider the character of a dead faith, it is what never brings the soul to a full consent to the terms of the gospel, without some exception and reserve. The unsound believer may imagine, that he accepts of the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior: But what is the foundation and encouraging motive of his imaginary compliance with the gospel offer? Upon an impartial inquiry, it will always be found to be something in himself: His good affections, duties, moralities, reformations, promises, or purposes. He endeavors by these to recommend himself to God; and on the account of these, he hopes to find acceptance through Christ. Or if he feels ever so strong a desire of salvation by Christ, yet he is driven to it only by fear and self-love; and will renew his affection to his other lords, as soon as his awakening apprehensions are worn off. He doesn’t feel his want of Christ’s enlightening and enlivening influences. For he knows not what they mean. He submits not to the righteousness of Christ. For he is still endeavoring to procure acceptance with God from some good qualifications of his own, some duties which he performs, or some progress which he makes or designs to make in his religious course. He cannot submit to Christ as his Lord. For there is some slothful indulgence, which he cannot forego, some darling lust which he cannot part with, some worldly idol which his heart is set upon, or some difficult duty which he must excuse himself from.
There is nothing more apparent, than the distinction between these two sorts of believers. The one comes to Christ destitute of all hope and help in himself; but sees enough in Christ to answer all his wants. The other is full in himself. The one looks to Christ to be his light. The other leans to his own understanding. The one makes mention of Christ’s righteousness, and that only. The other hopes for an interest in Christ and his salvation, on account of his own attainments; and in effect, expects justification by his own righteousness, for Christ’s sake. The one brings a guilty, polluted, unworthy soul to the blessed Redeemer, without any qualification to recommend it: expecting from him alone all the supplies he wants, repairing to him for gold tried in the fire, that he may be rich; for eye-salve, that he may see; and for white raiment, that he may be clothed. The other ordinarily raises his expectations from Christ, in proportion to his own imaginary qualifications and good disposition. The one as well desires salvation by Christ from pollution, as from guilt. The other has a reserve of some deceitful lust; and hugs some Delilah in his bosom, which he can’t be willing to part with. In fine, the one is willing to accept of the Lord Jesus Christ upon any terms. The other will not come to Christ, but upon terms of his own stating.
Jonathan Dickinson, Familiar Letters To a Gentleman, upon A Variety of seasonable and important Subjects in Religion (Boston: Printed and Sold by Rogers and Fowle, 1745), 109-17.