The Christian Father's Present to His Children
by John Angell James, 1825
THE DISPOSITIONS NECESSARY FOR AN
INQUIRY INTO THE NATURE OF TRUE RELIGION
True religion is a subject of a spiritual and moral nature, and, therefore, requires a different frame of mind to that which we carry to a topic purely intellectual.
1. The first disposition essentially necessary is a DEEP SERIOUSNESS.
True religion is the very last thing in the universe with which we should allow ourselves to trifle. Nothing can be more shocking and incongruous than that flippancy and inconsiderateness with which some people treat this dread theme. When Uzzah put forth his hand, in haste, to support the ark--he paid his life for his recklessness; and if the man, who takes up his Bible to inquire into the meaning of its contents, with a frivolous and whimsical temper, does not suffer the same penalty, it is not because the action is less criminal or less dangerous—but because God has now removed the punishment to a greater distance from the sin. I cannot conceive of anything more likely to provoke God to give a person up to the bewildering influence of his own inherent depravity, and, consequently, to a confused and erroneous perception of religious truth, than this temper. To see a person approaching the Book of God with the same levity as a votary of fashion and folly enters a place of amusement, is, indeed, revolting to taste, to say nothing of more sacred feelings. True religion, enthroned behind the veil in the temple of truth, and dwelling amid the brightness which the merely curious eye cannot bear to look upon, refuses to unfold her glories or discover her secrets to the frivolous mind; and delivers to every one who draws near to her abode, the admonition of Jehovah to Moses—"Take off your shoes, for the place whereon you stand is holy ground."
The subjects treated of by true religion are of the most exceedingly important nature. Everything about it is serious. The Eternal God, in every view of His nature and operations; the Lord Jesus Christ, in His sufferings and death; the soul of man, in its ruin and salvation; the solemnities of judgment, the mysteries of eternity, the felicities of heaven, the torments of hell--are all involved in the mighty comprehension of true religion. Should such themes be ever touched with irreverence? My dear children, I warn you against the too common practice of reducing, to the level of mere intellectual theories, and of treating with the same unconcern as the systems of philosophy, that sacred volume, which, to use the words of Locke, "has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its contents!" Do not forget, then, that the very first requisite, not only in true religion itself—but also in that frame of mind which enables us to understand its nature, is SERIOUSNESS.
2. A GREAT SOLICITUDE to be guided aright is the next disposition, and nearly allied to the former.
Eternal consequences hang upon this question. According as we mistake it or understand it--we shall travel onward to heaven or to hell. An inquiry of such importance should, of course, be urged with the deepest concern. It might be rationally expected that events so awfully tremendous as death and judgment—a subject so deeply concerning us--as whether we shall spend eternal ages in torments or in bliss, could in no possible case, and in no constitution of mind whatever, fail of exciting the most serious apprehension and concern. And yet there are multitudes who have talked a thousand times about religion—but yet have never had, in all their, lives, one hour's real solicitude, to know whether their views of its nature are correct. Is it to be wondered at, then, that so many remain in ignorance—or plunge into error?
3. A TEACHABLE DISPOSITION, is of great consequence.
Our Lord laid great emphasis on this, when he said—"Except you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." Children, when they first go to school, have a sense of their own ignorance; they have neither biases nor prejudices; they present their unfurnished minds to their teachers, to receive, with implicit confidence, all that they are taught. A teachable spirit is essential to improvement in everything; for, if a child goes to school puffed up with high notions of his own attainments, imagining that he knows as much as his master can teach him, and with a disposition to cavil at everything that is communicated—in this case, improvement is out of the question; the avenues of knowledge are closed. In nothing is a teachable spirit more necessary, than in true religion, where the subject is altogether beyond the cognizance of the senses and the discoveries of reason.
Christianity is purely and exclusively matter of revelation. Of course, all our knowledge on this topic must be derived from the Bible; to the right understanding of which, we must carry the same consciousness of our ignorance, the same destitution of prejudice and bias, the same implicit submission of the understanding, as the child, on his first going to school, does to his instructor. We must go to the word of God with these convictions in our mind—"This is the Master, from whom I, who know nothing, am most implicitly to receive all things. My Teacher is infallible, and I am not to cavil at his instructions, however, in some things, they may transcend my ability to comprehend them."
Yes, the Bible, the Bible alone, is the infallible teacher of spiritual truth, from whose authority there is no appeal; before whose solemn truths reason must bow in humble silence, to learn and to obey. This is a teachable spirit, by which I mean, not a supple disposition to believe what others believe, or to adopt the creed which they would impose upon us. No—this is the surrendering our understanding to be enslaved by human authority. But teachableness means going direct to the heavenly Master, with this determination—whatever he teaches I will believe; be it so sublime, so humiliating, so novel, and, to my present limited capacities, so incomprehensible as it may.
Are we, then, to exclude reason from the business of true religion? By no means. It would be as absurd to attempt it, as it would be impossible to accomplish it. The whole affair of piety is a process of reason; but then it is reason submitting itself to the guidance of revelation. Reason bears the same relation to true religion, and performs the same office, as it does in the system of jurisprudence; it examines the evidence by which a law is proved to be an enactment of the legislature; interprets, according to the known use of terms and phrases, its right meaning, and then submits to its authority. Thus, in matters of true religion, its province is to examine the evidences by which the Bible is proved to be a revelation from God; having done this, it is to ascertain, according to the fixed use of language, its true meaning, and then to submit to its authority, by believing whatever it reveals, and obeying whatever it enjoins. This is what we mean by prostrating our reason before the tribunal of revelation.
But, suppose that reason should meet with palpable contradictions in the word of God, is she to believe them? This is putting a case which cannot happen, since it is supposing that God will give His sanction to a lie. There can be no contradictions in the word of God; the thing is impossible. But still, it will be replied—Is not one kind of evidence for the divine authority of revelation derived from its contents? and, if so, may not reason make the nature of a doctrine a test of its truth? At best, this is but a secondary species of evidence, and cannot oppose the primary kind of proof. If it cannot be proved that a doctrine is really an interpolation, and if there be, at the same time, all the evidence that the case admits of that it is a part of divine revelation, no difficulty in the way of understanding its meaning, no seeming mystery in its nature, should lead us to reject it—we must receive it, and wait for further light to understand it.
Revelation is the sun, reason the eye which receives its beams, and applies them to all the purposes of life, for which, in ceaseless succession, they flow in upon us; and it can no more be said that revelation destroys or degrades reason, by guiding it, than it can be said the solar orb renders the faculty of vision useless, by directing its efforts.
A teachable spirit, then, my dear children—by which I mean a submission of the human understanding, in matters of true religion, to the word of God—is essential to all true piety. I insist upon this with more earnestness, because it is easy to perceive the tendency of the present age is in an opposite direction. A haughty and flippant spirit has arisen, which, under the pretext of freedom of inquiry, has discovered a restless propensity to throw off the authority of divine truth; a spirit more disposed to teach the Bible than to be taught by it; to speculate upon what it should be, than to receive it as it is; a spirit which would receive the morality of the word of God as it finds it—but which is perpetually employed in mending its theology; which, in fact, would subvert the true order of things, and, instead of subjecting reason to revelation, would make reason the teacher and revelation the pupil. Beware, my children, of this dangerous spirit, which, while it pays flattering compliments to your understanding, is injecting the deadliest poison into your soul!
4. A PRAYERFUL SPIRIT is essential to a right disposition for inquiring into the nature of true piety.True religion is an affair so spiritual in its nature, so tremendously important in its consequences, and so frequently misunderstood; and, on the other hand, we ourselves are so liable to be misled in our judgments by the bewildering influence of internal depravity and external temptation--that it betrays the most criminal indifference, or the most absurd self-confidence--to enter on this subject without constant, earnest supplication for direction, to the Father and Fountain of lights.
The 'religious world' is like an immense forest, through which lies the right road to truth and happiness; but besides this, there are innumerable paths running in all directions—every way has its travelers, each traveler thinks he is right, and attempts to prove it by referring to the map which he carries in his hand. In such circumstances, who that values his soul or her eternal salvation, would not seek for guidance to Him who has promised to disclose to us, by His Spirit, the path of life? When young people trust to the efforts of their own unaided reason, and neglect to ask for the guiding influence of the eternal God--it is matter of little surprise that they are found walking in the paths of error. There is a degree of pride and independence in this, which God often punishes by leaving them to the seductions of worldly philosophy and falsehood.
In addition, then, to the greatest seriousness of mind and the most intense desire after truth, and the most unprejudiced approach to the oracle of scripture--pray constantly to God to reveal to you the nature of true piety, and to dispose you to embrace it. This is the way appointed by God to obtain it. "If any man lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men liberally, and upbraids not; and it shall be given him." "If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto those who are your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give His Holy Spirit to those who ask Him." "I will instruct you, and teach you in the way you shall go; I will guide you with my eye."
These, surely, with a thousand other passages of similar import, are sufficient to enjoin and encourage the temper I now recommend. I have no hope of those who neglect habitual prayer for divine illumination. I expect to see them left to embrace error, or to content themselves with the mere forms of godliness, instead of its power.
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