The Christian Father's Present to His Children
by John Angell James, 1825
"The church," said Saurin, "had seldom seen happier days, than those described in the nineteenth chapter of Exodus. God had never diffused his benedictions on a people in a richer abundance. Never had a people more lively gratitude, or more fervent piety. The Red Sea had been passed; Pharaoh and his insolent court were buried in the waves; access to the land of promise was opened; Moses had been admitted to the holy mountain to derive felicity from God the source, and sent to distribute it among his countrymen; to these choice favors, promises of new and greater blessings yet were added; and God said, 'You have seen what I have done unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people, although all the earth be mine.' The people were deeply affected with this collection of miracles. Each individual entered into the same views, and seemed animated with the same passion; all hearts were united, and one voice expressed the sense of all the tribes of Israel—'all that the Lord has spoken we will do.'
But this devotion had one great defect—it lasted only forty days. In forty days the deliverance out of Egypt, the passage of the Red Sea, the articles of the covenant; in forty days, promises, vows, oaths, all were effaced from the heart, and forgotten. Moses was absent, the lightning did not glitter, the thunder claps did not roar, and "the people made a calf at Mount Sinai; they bowed before an image made of gold. They traded their glorious God for a statue of a grass-eating ox!" Psalm 106:19-20
Here, my children, was a most melancholy instance of transient devotion. Alas! that such instances should be so common! Alas! that Jehovah should so frequently have to repeat the ancient reproach, and his ministers have to echo, in sorrowful accents, the painful complaint—"O Ephraim! what shall I do unto you? O Judah! what shall I do unto you? For your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it passes away."
Nothing, however, is more common than such short-lived religious impressions. Disappointment of the bitterest kind is very frequently experienced, both by parents and ministers, in consequence of the sudden turning aside of those young people, who, for awhile, seemed to run the race that is set before us in the word of God. At one time, they appeared to be inflamed with a holy ambition to win the prize of glory, honor, and immortality; we saw them start with eagerness, and run with speed—but after a while, we met them turning back—leaving us, in the bitterness of our spirits, to exclaim—"You did run well; what hindered you?"
"The religion I am now describing is not the hypocrisy of the pretending Christian, nor is it the backsliding of the real one; it goes further than the first—but does not go so far as the last. It is sincere of its kind, and in that it goes further than hypocrisy—but it is unfruitful, and in that it is inferior to the piety of the weak and backsliding Christian. It is sufficient to discover sin—but not to correct it; sufficient to produce good resolutions—but not to keep them; it softens the heart—but does not renew it; it excites grief—but does not eradicate evil dispositions. It is a piety of times, opportunities, and circumstances—diversified a thousand ways, the effect of innumerable causes—but it expires as soon as the causes are removed."
"Inconstans" was a youth who had enjoyed a pious education; he developed many amiable qualities, and was often impressed by the religious admonitions he received—but his impressions soon wore off, and he became as careless about his eternal concerns as before. He left the parental roof, and was apprenticed; and his parents having taken care to place him in a pious family, and under the faithful preaching of the word, he still enjoyed all the external means of grace, and still, at times, continued to feel their influence. His attention was oftentimes fixed when hearing the word, and he was sometimes observed to weep. On one occasion in particular, when a funeral sermon had been preached for a young person, a more than ordinary effect was produced upon his mind. He returned from the house of God pensive and dejected, retired to his closet, and with much earnestness prayed to God, resolved to attend more to the claims of true religion, and to become a real Christian. The next morning he read the Bible, and prayed before he left his chamber. This practice he continued day after day. A visible change was produced in his deportment. His seriousness attracted the attention and excited the hopes of his friends. But, by degrees, he relapsed into his former state, gave up reading the scriptures, then prayer; then he reunited himself with some companions from whom, for a season, he had withdrawn himself, until at length he was as unconcerned about salvation as ever.
Some time after this, Inconstans was seized with a fever. The disease resisted the power of the medicine, and baffled the skill of the physician; he grew worse and worse. His alarm became excessive. He sent for his minister and his parents, confessed and bewailed his fickleness. What tears he shed! What sighs he uttered! What vows he made! "O, if God would but spare me this once! if he would but grant me one more trial; if he would but indulge me with one more opportunity of salvation, how would I improve it to his glory, and my soul's eternal interest!" His prayers were answered; he recovered. What became of his vows, resolutions, and promises? The degree of his piety was regulated by the degree of his malady. Devotion rose and fell with his pulse. His zeal kept pace with his fever; as one decreased, the other died away, and the recovery of his health was the resurrection of his sins. Inconstans is at this moment, what he always was—a melancholy specimen of the nature of mere transient religion.
What is lacking in this religion? You will, of course, reply, "Perseverance." This is true. But why did it not continue? I answer—there was no real change of the heart. The passions were moved, the feelings were excited—but the disposition remained unaltered. In the affairs of this life, men are often led by the operation of strong causes to act in opposition to their real character. The cruel tyrant, by some sudden and most affecting appeal to his clemency, may have the spark of pity smitten from his flinty heart—but the flint remaining, the wretch returns again to his practices of blood. The covetous man may, by a vivid description of poverty and misery, be for a season melted to liberality—but, like the surface thawed for an hour by the sun, and frozen again immediately after the source of heat has retired—his benevolence is immediately chilled by the prevailing frost of his nature.
In these cases, as in that of true religion, there is a suspension of the natural disposition, not a renewal of it. All religion must be transient, by whatever cause it is produced, and with whatever ardor it should, for a season, be practiced—which does not spring from a regenerated mind. It may, like the grass upon the house-top, or the grain that is scattered in unprepared soil, spring up and flourish for a season—but for lack of root it will speedily wither away. Do not then, my dear children, be satisfied with a mere excitement of the feelings, however strong it may happen to prove—but seek to have the general bias of the mind renewed.
You cannot, if you consider only for a moment, suppose that these 'transitory impressions' will answer the ends of true religion, either in this world or in that which is to come. They will not honor God—they will not sanctify the heart—they will not comfort the mind—they will not save the soul—they will not raise you to heaven—they will not save you from hell. Instead of preparing you at some future time to receive the gospel, such a state of mind, if persisted in, has a most direct and dangerous tendency to harden the heart. What God, in His sovereign grace, may be pleased to effect, it is not for me to say—but as to natural influence, nothing can be more clear than that this 'fitful piety' is gradually putting the soul further and further away from true religion.
Iron, by being frequently heated, is hardened into steel; water that has been boiled becomes the colder for its previous warmth; soil that has been moistened with the showers of heaven becomes, when hardened by the sun, less susceptible of impression than before; and that heart which is frequently impressed by pious impressions, without being renewed by them, becomes more and more insensible to their sacred influence.
They who have trembled at the terrors of the Lord without being subdued by them—who have outlived their fears without being sanctified by them—will soon come to that degree of insensibility which will enable them to bear, without being appalled, the most awful denunciations of divine wrath. They who have been melted, from time to time, by the exhibitions of divine love—but have not been converted by it, will come at length to hear of it with the coldest indifference. It is a dreadful state of mind to be given up to a spirit of slumber and a callous heart; and nothing is more likely to accelerate the process than occasional, yet ineffectual religious impressions.
Can we conceive of anything more likely to induce Jehovah to give us up to judicial blindness and insensibility, than this tampering with pious convictions—this trifling with devotional impressions? These pious emotions which are occasionally excited, are kind and gentle admonitions that he has come near to the soul, with all the energies of his Spirit; they are the work of mercy knocking at the door of our hearts, and saying—"Open to me, that I may enter with my salvation." If they are from time to time neglected, what can be looked for but that the celestial visitor should withdraw, and pronounce, as he retires, the fearful sentence—"Woe unto you—when my Spirit departs from you."
There is something inexpressibly wicked in remaining in this state of mind. Such people are in some respects more sinful than they whose minds have never been in any degree enlightened; whose fears have never been in any degree excited; who have paid no attention whatever to true religion—but whose minds are sealed up in ignorance and insensibility. When people who have taken some steps in true religion return again; when they who have come near the kingdom of God, recede from it; and they who have sipped, as it were, of the cup of salvation, withdraw their lips from the water of life, the interpretation of their conduct is this—"We have tried the influence of true religion, and do not find it so worthy of our reception as we expected; we have seen something of its glory, and are disappointed; we have tasted something of its sweetness, and, upon the whole, we prefer to remain without it." Thus they are like the spies who brought a false report of the land of promise, and discouraged the people. They defame the character of true piety, and prejudice men's minds against it. They libel the Bible, and persuade others to have nothing to do with true religion. My children, can you endure the thought of this?
Mere transient devotions have a great tendency to strengthen the principle of unbelief in our nature. It is not only very possible—but very common for men to sin themselves into a state of despair of God's mercy; and none are so likely to do this, as those who have repeatedly gone back to the world, after a season of religious impression. In our communion with society, if we have greatly offended and insulted a man after many professions of decided friendship and warm attachment to him—we can hardly persuade ourselves to approach him again, or be persuaded to think he will admit us again to the number of his friends. And, as we are prone to reason from ourselves to God, if we have frequently repented, and as frequently returned again to sin, we shall be in great danger of coming to the conclusion that we have sinned past forgiveness—and abandon ourselves to guilt and despair.
I have read of a man who lived without any regard to true religion until he was taken alarmingly ill—when his conscience was roused from its slumber, and he saw the wickedness of his conduct. A minister was sent for, to whom he acknowledged his guilt, and begged an interest in his prayers, at the same time vowing that if God would spare his life, he would alter the course of his behavior. He was restored to health, and for awhile was as good as his word. He set up family worship, maintained private prayer, and frequented the house of God; in short, appeared to be a new man in Christ Jesus. At length he began to relax, and step by step went back to his former state of careless indifference. The hand of affliction again arrested him. His conscience again ascended her tribunal, and in terrible accents arraigned and condemned him. The state of his mind was horrible. The arrows of the Lord pierced him through, the poison whereof drank up his spirits. His friends entreated him to send for the minister, as above. "No!" he exclaimed, "I who have trifled with the mercy of God once, cannot expect it now!" No persuasion could shake his resolution; no representation of divine grace could remove his despair; and, without asking for God's pardon, he died!
The same despair has, in many other instances, resulted from the sin of trifling with religious impressions.
These pages will probably be read by some, whose minds are under religious concern. Your situation is more critical and important than any language which I could employ, would enable me to represent. If your present concern subsides into your former carelessness, you are in the most imminent danger of being left to the depravity of your nature. God is now approaching you in the exercise of his love, and waiting that he may be gracious. Seek him while he is to be found, call upon him while he is near. The soft breezes of celestial influence are passing over you, seize the favorable season, and hoist every sail to catch the breath of heaven. Tremble at the thought of losing your present feelings. Be much and earnest in prayer to God, that he would not allow you to relapse into unconcern and neglect. Take every possible means to preserve and deepen your present convictions. Read the Scriptures with renewed diligence. Go with increased earnestness, and interest, and prayer, to the house of God. Endeavor to gain clearer views of the truth as it is in Jesus—and labor to have your mind instructed, as well as your heart impressed.
Be satisfied with nothing short of a renewed mind—the new birth. Be upon your guard against self-dependence. Watch against this, as much as against grosser sins. Consider yourself as a little child, who can do nothing without God. Study your own sinfulness in the mirror of God's holy law. Grow in humility; it is not well for a plant to shoot upwards quickly, before it has taken deep root; if there be no fibers in the earth, and no moisture at the root, whatever blossoms or fruit there may be in the branches, they will soon fall off. And in the same way, if your religion does not strike root in humility, and be not moistened with the tears of penitential grief, whatever blossoms of joy or fruits of zeal there may be on the mind or conduct, they will soon drop off under the next sharp gust—or heat of temptation. Take heed of 'secret sinning'. A single lust unmortified, will be like a worm at the root of the newly-planted piety of your soul. Continually remember that it is yet but the beginning of true religion with you. Do not rest here; believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; nothing short of this will save you; without faith, all you have felt, or can feel, will do you no good. You must come to Christ, and be anxious to grow in grace, and in the knowledge of God our Savior.
Some, it is probable, will read these lines, who have had religious impressions, and lost them. Your goodness has vanished like the cloud of the morning; and, like the early dew, has sparkled and then dried up. Sometimes you exclaim, with an emphasis of deep melancholy,
"What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill."
You are not—you cannot be happy. Oh no! the din of pleasure or of business cannot drown the voice of conscience; a pause now and then occurs, when its thunders are heard, and heard with indescribable alarm. Sometimes, in the midst of your pleasures, when all around you is jollity and mirth—you see a spectre which others do not see, and are terrified by a mystic hand which writes your doom upon the wall. From that moment there is no more joy for you. Sometimes you almost curse the hour when the voice of a faithful preacher lodged conviction in your bosom, and half-spoiled you for a man of pleasure and the world. You look with almost envy on those who, by never having been taught to fear God, are wrapped in total darkness, and see not the dim spectres, the half-discovered shapes of mischief, which, in the twilight of your soul, present themselves to your affrighted vision.
At other times, a little relenting, you exclaim, "O that it were with me as in months past, when the candle of the Lord shined on me. What would I give to recall the sentiments and feelings of those days! Happy seasons! But you have fled. And are you fled forever? Can no power recall you to this troubled mind?" Yes, my young friend, they are all within reach, lingering to return. Fly to God in prayer, beseech him to have mercy upon you. Implore him to rouse you from the slumber into which you have fallen. Beware of the chilling influence of despondency. There is no room for despair. Covet the possession of true religion.
Search for the cause which destroyed your impressions in the past. Was it some improper companion? Abandon him forever—as you would a viper! Was it some situation unfriendly to godliness which you voluntarily chose—as Lot chose Sodom, on account of its worldly advantages? Relinquish it without delay. Escape for your life, and tarry not in all the plain. Was it some besetting sin, dear as a right eye, or useful as a right hand? Pluck it out, tear it off without hesitation or regret; for is it better to make this sacrifice, than to lose eternal salvation, and endure everlasting torments! Was it self-dependence, self-confidence? Now put your case into the hand of Omnipotence, and call upon God. Ask for the Holy Spirit to renew, to sanctify, and to keep your soul. Learn from your past failure what to do, and what to avoid for the future. Believe the gospel, which declares that the blood of Christ cleanses from all sin. It was saving faith that was lacking, in the first instance, to give permanence to your religious impressions. There was no saving belief, no full persuasion, no practical conviction, of the truth of the gospel. Your religious feelings were like the stream raised by external and sporadic causes—but there was no spring. You stopped short of believing, you made no surrender of the soul to Christ, nor committed yourselves to him, to be justified by his righteousness, and to be sanctified by his Spirit. This do and live!
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