The Christian Father's Present to His Children
by John Angell James, 1825
DECISION OF CHARACTER IN TRUE RELIGION
How deep, and how just a reproach did the prophet Elijah cast upon the tribes of Israel, when he addressed to the assembled multitudes on Mount Carmel, that memorable interrogation, "How long are you going to waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him! But if Baal is God, then follow him! But the people were completely silent." 1 Kings 18:21. From this it appears they were in a state of indecision, in reference to the most momentous question in the universe, not wholly satisfied that they were doing right in worshiping Baal, yet not sufficiently resolute to abandon his service. What a criminal, what a degrading, what a wretched state of mind! Not decided whom they would acknowledge to be their God! to whom they would pay divine homage!
But is this state of mind, my dear children, uncommon? By no means. To how many of the youth who attend our places of devotional resort, could we address, with propriety, the same question, "How long are you going to waver between two opinions?" How many are there who can go no further than Agrippa, when he said to Paul, "you almost persuade me to be a Christian." Almost! Only almost persuaded to be a Christian! What a melancholy thought!
In the last chapter you saw in the character of "Inconstans", an instance of this indecision. Did you admire it? Impossible. What was lacking?—DECISION. But what do I mean by decision? "A fixed purpose, not made in haste—but with much deliberation; not in our own strength—but in reliance on the grace of God; without delay, and at all risks, to seek the salvation of the soul through faith in Christ—and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present evil world." It includes an inflexible severity of conviction, that this is the one great thing we have in this world to do—and such a concentration of all the energies of our soul in this mighty business, as, to idle spectators, shall put on the appearance of fanaticism. It is such a purpose as subordinates everything to itself.
In opposition to transient devotion—it is permanent; in opposition to fluctuating opinions—it is a fixed, abiding resolution; in opposition to mere occasional acts—it is an indelible character, an indestructible habit. In short, it is faith in opposition to mere opinion and speculation—it is actually receiving Christ instead of talking about him. It is not like the vapor, which, after attracting every eye by its meteoric splendor, vanishes away while yet the surprised and delighted spectator beholds its luminous course—but it is like the shining light which holds on its way in the heavens, and shines more and more unto the perfect day. It is attended with a relinquishment of former associations, former pursuits and pleasures, and the embracing of all such as are on the side of true religion.
We have a fine instance of this decision in the heroic leader of the armies of the Lord, when looking around upon the wavering tribes of Israel, he exclaimed, "Let others do what they will—as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." Another example, equally splendid, was presented by the great apostle of the Gentiles, when with the perspective of his suffering career before his eyes, he gave utterance to that burst of sublime heroism, "None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto me, so that I might fulfill the ministry I have received of the Lord, and finish my course with joy." Similar to this is the language of a decided Christian, "Self-denial, ridicule, rage, mortification, loss—all are nothing to me—so that I may believe the gospel, live in the fear of God, die in his favor, and, through the merits of Christ, be received to everlasting glory."
It will be proper to state here the reasons why so many that have strong impressions occasionally made upon their minds, are not thoroughly and decidedly engaged in the practice of true religion. Some of these will be found in the chapter "On the Obstacles of Piety," but there are others which are still more specific in reference to the case before us.
There is in many a lack of deep serious consideration. They do not follow up the subject of true religion, even when it has been impressed with some degree of force upon their hearts. When emotions have been excited, they do not cherish them—but go to their usual conversation, company, or business—instead of entering into their closets to examine their hearts, and to apply the subjects they have heard. An officer in the army, when about to embark for the continent, came to a Christian friend, and told him that he had a great many serious thoughts about the state of his soul, and was resolved to lead a new life; "but," said he, "there is such a company I must be with tonight; I wish I could disengage myself from them." His friend of course attempted to dissuade him from joining the party. He, notwithstanding, went to them, forgot all his serious thoughts when there; was drawn into the revelry of the night; the following day went abroad; and the next news his friends heard of him was, that he was killed in action. Thus his vain companions extinguished his serious thoughts, diverted his good resolutions, and by his own consent, robbed him of his eternal salvation.
Another cause of irresolution is, the feeble and uncertain perceptions which many people have of divine and spiritual things. They have a dim view of the truths of Scripture—but they appear like objects in a mist, too indistinct to be made the matter of pursuit. Hence it is of tremendous consequence, that when a young person becomes in any degree serious about true religion, he should instantly betake himself to all proper means for informing his judgment on the nature of true religion. He should read the scriptures with intense application of mind, listen to the preaching of the word with great fixedness of attention, and peruse good books with much seriousness of mind.
The dominion of some one prevailing sin, if cherished and indulged, has a most fatal influence in preventing decision. Herod would do many things—but would not part from Herodias. Felix was moved by Paul's preaching—but he would not give up covetousness. Thus it is with many—they admit the claims of true religion, admire its beauty, are moved by its force, resolve to submit to its influence—but then there is some besetting sin, which, when they come to the point, they cannot be induced to sacrifice. Every plant has some leading root which connects it with the soil in which it grows, on which, more than any of the rest, it is dependent for support and nourishment. So it is in the human heart—there is in most people some prevailing corruption of nature, which, more than any of the rest, holds the heart to an unregenerate state, and to which very particular attention must be paid in the business of true religion. This sin may be different in different people—but whatever it is—it must be destroyed, or it will destroy us!
Fear of persecutionoperates in many to prevent decision. You are deterred, probably, my children, from giving up yourselves to the influence of piety, by the apprehensions that you shall be called to endure the ridicule of those with whom you have been accustomed to associate, and who, being unfriendly to true religion, will vent their scorn and contempt on those who submit to its claims. It is impossible that I can be so ignorant of the irreconcilable enmity existing, and destined ever to exist, between true piety and the depravity of human nature; or of the usual practice of those who hate true religion, as to promise you an exemption from the sneers of the scorner, if you walk in the paths of wisdom. The only weapons which many are able to wield against Christianity, are sneers. For there is no mind so imbecile, no fool so foolish, as not to be able to laugh—the individual who could no more argue than an infant—or could use the sword or brandish the spear of a Goliath—can shoot out the lip, and cry 'fanatic!'
The power to argue is comparatively rare—but almost every village in the kingdom will furnish a mob of little minds, to follow after true religion as it passes by, and, like the children of Bethel persecuting the prophet of the Lord, to ridicule its venerable form. Never did Satan invent a more successful weapon against true religion than 'ridicule'. By this apparently base and contemptible weapon, he arms all of his drudges.
A morbid sensibility to shame, I am perfectly convinced, has kept not a few young people from piety. They cannot bear the broad, loud laugh, the contemptuous sneer, the witty jest. They cannot endure the attack of the profane, nor the raillery of the impious. They blush, and conceal their secret attachment to piety, as soon as it is assailed. But, my children, where is the dignity or the courage of your mind? Are you indeed convinced of the truth of Christianity and the justice of its claims—and yet allow yourselves to be vanquished by the laugh of folly? What! flee from the enemy of your souls, and surrender your salvation, when he only hisses at you in the skin of a fool! What though the whole world were to unite in scorn—shall this deter you from acting, when God, truth, heaven, the Bible, conscience, salvation, saints, angels, are all on your side? What! when your spirit has plumed her wings of faith and hope for flight to heaven—shall she give up the dazzling object of her high ambition, and cower down on earth, because she is watched and ridiculed by the witling? Or shall her eagle pinions be blown from their lofty course by the scoff of the scorner?
Be DECIDED, and all this base and feeble kind of persecution will soon cease. Before that sublime and unbending decision which dares to be singular, which nothing can divert from its purpose, which nothing can diminish in its ardor, which clings the closer to its object for all the efforts that are employed to detach it from the pursuit; I say before that inflexible spirit, it is astonishing to see how the space clears away, and how soon she is left to pursue her course—while all the tribe of little, pecking, caviling, noisy minds, drop down into their hedges, and leave the eagle to her course.
"This invincibility of decided conviction," says the profoundest and most elegant essayist in the English language, "will often make the scoffers themselves tired of the sport. They begin to feel that against such a man it is a poor kind of hostility to laugh. There is nothing that people are more mortified to spend in vain, than their scorn. A man of the right kind would say, upon an intimation that he is opposed by scorn—'They will laugh, will they? I have no concern about their mirth. I do not care if the whole neighborhood were to laugh in a chorus. I would indeed be sorry to see or hear such a number of fools—but pleased enough to find that they do not consider me one of their stamp. The good to result from my project will not be less, because vain and shallow minds, that cannot understand it, are opposed to it, and to me. What would I think of my pursuits, if every trivial, thoughtless fool could comprehend, or would applaud them. What would I think of myself, if I needed their levity and ignorance for my allies, or would shrink at their sneers?'" (Foster "Essay on Decision of Character")
I would deem it an insult to my readers, to suppose they have not read these essays; and not less so their author, to suppose that they needed my recommendation. I cannot help, however, enjoining on my readers to read the essay from which the above extract is made, with the resolution to seek, and the prayer to obtain all that decision which is there so eloquently described, not only in reference to every good work in general—but to true religion in particular.
My children, think of the importance of the matter to be decided upon—the service of God, the pursuit of immortality, the salvation of the soul—and shall a false shame deter you from the pursuit? Think of the example of Jesus Christ, who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame. Look at this divine sufferer, as he is presented to us in the hall of Pilate, when he was made the object of every species of scorn and indignity; and will you shrink from a few sneers and scoffs for HIM? Remember our Lord's most alarming language—"Whoever shall be ashamed of me, and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father, and with the holy angels." Anticipate, if you can, the shame, the disgrace, the mortification, the torment, of being disowned, rejected, and abandoned by Christ, before assembled worlds—and let that be a preservative against being ashamed of Him now!
It is time now to set before youthe evil of indecision, as a motive to induce you to seek after decided convictions.
Indecision is most unreasonable, if youconsider both the IMPORTANCE of the subject, and the means you possess of coming to speedy and right decision. Is it a matter of trifling importance? Yes, if God, and eternity, and salvation, and heaven, and hell, are trifles! If true religion is a trifle, where, in all the universe, shall we find anything that is important? Irresolution here is to be undetermined whether you will be the friend or the enemy of God. Irresolution here is to be undetermined whether you will live in this world under the favor or the curse of Jehovah. Irresolution here is to be undetermined whether in the world to come, you will eternally in the torments of the bottomless pit, or amid the felicities of the heavenly city. Irresolution here is to be undetermined whether you will choose condemnation or salvation.
There is no language which can describe, there is no allusion which can illustrate, the folly of indecision in true religion. The irresolution of a slave, whether he should continue to groan in fetters or be free; of the leper, whether he should still be covered with the most loathsome disease, or enjoy the glow of health; of the condemned criminal, whether he should choose an honorable life, or the most torturing and ignominious death—is not marked with such desperate folly as an undecided state of mind about personal religion. The scripture demands decision, and it demands it in these striking words—"See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil; therefore choose."
Yet some are undecided whether they will serve God, their Creator, Preserver, and Benefactor, and inherit eternal life—or yield themselves to Satan, their destroyer, and suffer the bitter pains of eternal death! If the matter were involved in obscurity, as to what was your duty or your interest, there would be some apology—but when both are as clear as the day, the 'folly of indecision' is so palpably manifest, as to entail a most fearful degree of guilt upon the conscience of the irresolute.
Indecision is CONTEMPTIBLE."Unstable as water you shall not excel," is a character which no one ever pretended to admire. In the ordinary affairs of life, indecision renders a man an object of pity or contempt. "It is a poor disgraceful thing not to be able to answer with some degree of firmness to the questions—What will you decide? What will you do? It is a pitiable thing to see a creature with all the faculties of a rational being about him, so irresolute and undecided, as almost to wish that he could exchange reason for instinct, in order that he might be spared the trouble of thinking, and the pain of choosing. An undecided person is a poor, dependent, powerless creature, that floats like a feather or a ship along the stream of time, belonging to whatever can seize him; and without one effort of resistance, whirled in every little eddy, and intercepted by every little twig."
But how much more disgraceful is this irresoluteness of mind in the affairs of true religion, where there are so many means, and so many motives for coming to a proper conclusion. To be blown about like thistle-down by every wind of doctrine, and carried just wherever the gust or the current impels—is as dishonorable to our understanding as it is detrimental to our salvation.
Indecision is UNCOMFORTABLE.Suspense is always painful. Hesitation as to the steps we shall take, and the conduct we shall pursue, is a most undesirable state of mind; and this uneasiness will be in exact proportion to the importance of the business to be decided, and to the degree of compunction we feel for not deciding upon a course, which, we cannot help thinking, upon the whole, is the right one. The undecided cannot be altogether easy in their present fluctuating state of mind. No! directed one way by conviction, and dragged another by inclination—determining at one time to serve God fully, and at another smarting under the guilt of broken vows; resolved on the Sunday, and irresolute on the Monday; sometimes advancing with courage, and then again retreating with fear and shame—no, this is not the way to be happy. You may as well expect peace on the field of battle, as in the bosom where such a conflict is carried on. Look up to God, and ask for grace to terminate by decided piety the dreadful strife that is carried on in your bosom.
Indecision is DANGEROUS.Consider the uncertainty of life. How soon and how suddenly the King of Terrors may arrest you, and bear you to his dark domain. Some acute, inflammatory disease, in a few days may extinguish life! Or a fatal accident, which leaves you no leisure even to bid adieu to those you love on earth, may hurry you into eternity! And then what becomes of you? In a state of indecision you are unprepared for death, for judgment, for heaven! You are within the flood-mark of Divine vengeance. God accounts all those to be decidedly against him—who are not decidedly for him. There is, properly speaking, no middle ground between regeneracy and unregeneracy, between conversion and unconversion—and therefore he who does not occupy the one—is found within the limits of the other. You are a child of God—or an enemy of God. Whatever may be your occasional relentings, your transient emotions, your ineffectual desires, if you do not become decidedly pious, God will take no account of these things—but treat you, if you die in this state, as one that had decided against him.
Can you then linger—when death and hell do not linger? Can you halt, hesitate, and fluctuate—when death may the very next hour decide the business for you? And, oh! if you should die without decision, what will be your reflections—and what will be ours. How bitterly will you exclaim, "Fool that I was, to let anything interfere with my eternal salvation, to let anything interpose between my soul and her everlasting welfare. Why, why did I hesitate? I saw the excellence of true piety. I coveted the possession of true religion. Often I felt my heart rising to go and surrender unreservedly to God. I wept, I prayed, I resolved—but that accursed lust in which I took pleasure, held me fast—and rather than tear myself from it—I let go the hope of eternal life. I was afraid of a little ridicule, which I ought to have disregarded or despised—and when I seemed near the kingdom, was ruined by indecision. While I hesitated, death seized me, and now I shall be exhibited, by the light of this flame in which I burn forever, a dreadful proof of the folly and the danger of indecision! Woe, eternal woe upon my wretched spirit!"
Spare yourselves, my dear children, these dreadful reflections, this inconceivable torment. Without an hour's delay, resign yourselves to God and the influence of true religion. Decide the doubtful point. Believe and obey!
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