John McDowell on Experimental Religion

(If the author links in this post are broken, please visit our Free PDF Library and click on the author’s page directly.)

The Psalmist says, “Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul” (Ps. 66:16). This verse is the basis for a sermon on “Experimental Religion” by the Rev. John McDowell (1780-1863) which is worth your time to read. It is Sermon No. 2 in The New-Jersey Preacher (1813), edited by George S. Woodhull and Isaac Van Arsdale Brown, and can be found on our site on the Compilations page.

J.C. Ryle once said, “Let us resolve to talk more to believers about the Bible when we meet them. Alas, the conversation of Christians, when they do meet, is often sadly unprofitable! How many frivolous, and trifling, and uncharitable things are said! Let us bring out the Bible more, and it will help to drive the devil away, and keep our hearts in tune. Oh, that we may all strive so to walk together in this evil world; that Jesus may often draw near, and go with us, as He went with the two disciples journeying to Emmaus!”

In like manner, John McDowell takes what the Psalmist has said and paints a picture of what “astonishing love” brings forth in the heart and by the tongue of the Christian who cannot help but speak of that which God has done in him and for him.

The Christian may say, "Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare he hath" called "my soul." — He saw me lying in the same mass of ruin with the rest of mankind. My mind was carnal, and it was enmity against him. I loved sin. I was walking with the multitude the broad way, which leadeth to destruction. God called after me. He gave me pious parents, who early dedicated me to him, and put upon me the seal of his gracious covenant; and who endeavoured by their prayers, their instruction, their example, and their affectionate reproofs and corrections, to bring me to a saving acquaintance with God, and divine things. But, although my conscience under these means frequently rendered me uneasy, still I continued a stranger to God; I wandered from him and loved to wander. — He cast my lot in a Christian land. He brought me within the hearing of a preached gospel. By this he called after me, day after day and year after year, instructing, inviting, warning, reasoning and expostulating with me, threatening me, and lamenting over me. But when he called, I refused ! when he stretched out his hand I disregarded. He poured out his spirit — many of my companions became serious I paused and became thoughtful. But still I loved sin, and soon said to my convictions, "go your way for this time, when I have a more convenient season, I will send for you." — He visited me with alarming providences; death snatched my friends from me, and disease threatened his approach to me. I trembled, I wished to die the death of the righteous; but I refused to give God my heart. I besought him to remove his hand from me, and promised amendment. He heard me, and granted my request; but I forgot his goodness and my promises, and returned to carelessness and sin. My heart became harder, my mind blinder, and my conscience less tender. O wonder of patience! that I was born with and not cut down in my sins!

The Lord would not give me up; but continued to call me, and sent his Spirit to accompany the call with his Almighty, and irresistible influences. Then, like the prodigal, I came to myself, and saw my wretchedness. I saw myself walking the broad way to destruction. I heard the law of God pronouncing its curses against me; and felt a load of guilt pressing down my soul into woe. Then my anxiety was excited in earnest; and I cried, "what shall I do to be saved." — I then feared that the day of grace might possibly be past — I read, and heard, and prayed, and reformed; but could find no comfort. I heard the law rigorously demanding satisfaction for the past, and perfect obedience in future. I heard of the gospel plan of salvation; but my mind was blind, I could not understand it. My heart was proud, and unwilling to submit — it was filled with unbelief, and I could not by faith lay hold of an offered Saviour. Ignorant of the deceitfulness of my own heart, I thought I was willing to give myself away to God; but that he was unwilling to assist me to make the surrender, or to accept the dedication. But he led me by a way that I knew not — he humbled my proud heart — he made me willing in the day of his power — he put his spirit within me — he took away my stony heart and gave me a heart of flesh — he enlightened my mind — he renewed my heart — he discovered to me the suitableness of the Saviour, and his ability and willingness to save. My heart approved of his character, and I was enabled to believe in him, and to receive and rest upon him for salvation as he is offered in the gospel.

Then was my soul comforted. "Old things passed away, and all things became new." The character of God appeared to me glorious and worthy of my highest love — his law appeared holy, just and good, and I loved it, and heartily desired to render obedience to it. — Sin appeared to me odious and I detested it, and loathed myself on account of it, and wondered how I could live in sin with delight, as I had done. Jesus appeared precious to me, "the chiefest among ten thousand," and "altogether lovely." He appeared a suitable, an able, willing, and compassionate Saviour; and I felt as though I could and did venture my soul upon him, and commit my everlasting interests into his hands; and I heard him in his word speaking peace to my troubled conscience, and promising to me everlasting life. O fellow-christian! what a season was this! after the gall and wormwood which I had been compelled to drink! It was a day of espousals — a season of love. "Then was my mouth filled with laughter and my tongue with singing,” Psalm 126:2. O the riches of divine grace! that such a wretch was arrested in his career to destruction, while he was stopping his ears against the voice of mercy! and hath been brought to a saving knowledge of himself, and of Christ!

Fellow-christian, you have experienced this same grace, though there may be shades of difference in the manner and circumstances of your call, and the exercises through which you have passed. Like me, you were once blind, but you now see — you were once dead, but you are now alive — you were once lost, but you are now found. Let us unite in admiring, adoring and loving God. Why were we guests? Why were we made to enter while there was room, while so many have perished, and are perishing in their sins ? We must ascribe it to the free grace of God. To grace we will give the glory — "Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory," Psalms 115:1.

Consider then the gracious work that God does in a sinner, which ought to well up in the heart of every believer as a fountain of gratitude. Our experiences will differ, but who can refrain from declaring the works of God in their life when God has done such great and wonderful things? God is exalted and praised, and our brethren edified and encouraged, when we thus speak.

In the conclusion of this discourse, we may observe from what has been said, that Christians need never be at a loss for conversation on experimental religion when they meet. The subject is inexhaustible. Even eternity will not exhaust it. And considering what great things the Lord hath done for his people, how can we belong to that number, if we seldom, or never w hen we meet, speak of these things to his praise and glory. Even the real people of God engage too seldom, and with too much indifference on this subject. Let them be humbled and excited by this subject more frequently to engage, when they meet, in conversation on experimental religion. Thus they will shew forth the praise and glory of God, and mutually edify and animate each other.

Read John McDowell’s sermon on “Experimental Religion” in The New-Jersey Preacher here in full, and be encouraged, be stirred up, then, dear believer, to speak of the things that God has done for you.