Lectures to Young People
William B. Sprague, 1830
EMBRACING TRUE RELIGION
"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved." Acts 16:31.
In this passage, we have the apostle's answer to the momentous question of the jailer, to which your attention was directed in the preceding lecture. As I endeavored there to exhibit before you the process preparatory to becoming a Christian, usually styled conviction of sin. I design now to advance a step farther, and call your attention to that great change which the soul experiences in passing from death unto life.
You perceive, my young friends, that we have now reached a most interesting point in human experience. But I fear I have already advanced one step farther than most of you have been prepared to accompany me; and that, in bringing before you the case of a convinced sinner, I have turned your thoughts to a subject upon which you have not, to this hour, had any experience. Nevertheless, I cannot stay, at present, to reason with you in respect to the guilt or danger of your condition. I will only put the question to your conscience, whether the fact that you cannot go along with me any farther, may not have a fearfully ominous bearing upon your eternal destiny? There are some, I would willingly hope, before me, who do realize all that was described in the preceding discourse; and who have come this morning, earnestly desiring to have the great question answered, in what way they may obtain the pardon of their sins, the blessing of a pacified conscience, and a title to eternal life. It is for such youth especially that this discourse is designed; and may God the Holy Spirit bring it home to their hearts with a subduing and all-gracious energy!
It may be worth while, before proceeding to consider the direction which the apostle, in our text, gives to a convinced sinner, to advert, for a moment, to someFALSE DIRECTIONS which the advocates of error, of various classes, are accustomed to give in similar circumstances: for if there be any subject on which it is important that you should accurately discriminate between truth and error, and on which, from various circumstances, you are in danger of being misled, it is in respect to the terms of your acceptance with God.
One class of advisers will tell you that, in order to be saved, you must maintain a correct deportment before the world, and especially that you must be honest in your fellowship with your fellow-men. They say that God is not a hard master; and that if your lives are such that you obtain a good report among men, no doubt you will stand acquitted by your Judge. And is it so, then, that he who looks directly at the heart—will estimate the character of actions, merely by the outward appearance? Or will he who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, overlook the prevalence of a spirit of rebellion in the heart, merely because the lips, and the hands, and the body, are moved in a way that does not interfere with the worldly interests of our fellow-men? They who give this direction to the inquiring sinner, are guilty of making Jehovah altogether such an one as themselves. To say nothing of God's word, reason spurns at such a prescription for a guilty conscience, and assures the sinner that, if he adopts it, it must be at the expense of losing his soul.
Another class, advancing a step farther, will tell you that, if you would be saved, you must not only be sober and moral—but generous, affectionate, benevolent: these traits, you are told, constitute the moral perfection of human nature, and will ensure to you an entrance into heaven. Such advisers confound naturally amiable tempers with gracious affections, making no difference between the exalted principle of love to God and gratitude to the Savior, and those instinctive qualities which belong to us in common with some of the brute creation. They deny the doctrine of human depravity, and maintain that there is no necessity of a divine influence to sanctify the heart. How can this answer be given, when the Bible everywhere proclaims the doctrine that man is "dead in trespasses and sins;" and that "except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God?"
A third class will tell you that more is necessary in order to salvation, than is comprehended in either of the preceding directions—that there are duties which you owe to God as well as man; that besides being honest and benevolent in your fellowship with the world, you are bound to read the Bible, and pray, and attend church; but that if you do this, all will be well. These are pharisaical guides. They think to catch and please the eye of Omniscience, by a round of external duties, when the heart has no part nor lot in the matter. They are chargeable with mistaking the means for the end; with substituting rites and forms for the life and power of godliness.
A fourth class will acknowledge that we are sinners, and cannot be saved, except by the atonement of Christ: they say, however, that, by our good works, we may merit salvation in part, and that the righteousness of Christ will be appropriated to supply the deficiency. In opposition to this theory, the Bible uniformly represents man as having contracted a debt to divine justice, which he can do nothing to cancel; as being altogether dependent for salvation on God's rich and sovereign mercy; and as ascribing the glory of his salvation to his Redeemer's blood and righteousness.
A fifth class will answer the awakened sinner's inquiry, by saying that nothing is necessary to salvation—but a simple reliance on the merits of Christ, without any regard to the temper of the heart, or the conduct of the life. The law, they will say, has been magnified by Christ's death, in such a sense, that we are released from its obligation; and if you only believe that he died for you in particular, you need give yourself little concern about personal holiness. Thus says the unblushing Antinomian; and that too in the very face of the declaration that 'without holiness no man shall see the Lord.'
"But none of these directions," methinks I hear you say, "yield any solid peace to my soul. I feel that I am a condemned sinner, and need the expiation of my guilt. I feel that I am a polluted sinner, and need the aid of a sanctifying power. I feel that I have no righteousness of my own, and I need one that is perfect. My soul, sinking under the burden of its sins, turns away from these blind guides, and looks anxiously round for some relief; but finds none until it reposes in the simple answer contained in my text—"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved."
What then, you will inquire, is the NATURE OF THAT FAITH on which is suspended so momentous a result?
I answer, it includes, as one of its primary elements, an intellectual assent to the great truths of the gospel—especially that which constitutes its most prominent and glorious feature—the doctrine of redemption by the blood of Christ. I dare not say that, in some cases in which the opportunity does not exist for becoming acquainted with this truth, the Spirit of God may not, in some mysterious way, exert his renewing influence upon the heart; though if the fact be so, the word of God has given us no intimation of it: nor would I venture to say with how much indistinctness this doctrine may be viewed, or with how much erroneous speculation it may be connected, and still be the power of God unto salvation.
But I may say with confidence, that no person, with the Bible in his hand, can intellectually reject this doctrine, and yet believe to the salvation of his soul. The fact that Jesus Christ, by the peculiar constitution of his person, is fitted to be our Mediator, that in this character he has made an atonement for sin, in virtue of which God can be just and yet the justifier of the ungodly, and that this atonement constitutes the only ground of hope to the sinner—so much as this, it would seem, must be understood and assented to, as the first step towards exercising evangelical faith. These facts you are to believe, just as you would believe any other facts which come to you established by proper testimony.
But notwithstanding this intellectual assent of which I have spoken, to the doctrine of redemption by the blood of Christ, is one of the essential constituents of saving faith, it does not of itself constitute it. You may believe this truth intellectually, and you may even be fierce advocates for it, and after all it may remain in your mind as a dead letter, and you may die in your sins. If you will have that faith which ensures salvation, the truth must descend from the head to the heart; it must assert and maintain its dominion over the affections; thus purifying the fountains of moral action, and becoming the seed of all Christian graces, and gradually bringing the whole man into captivity to the obedience of Christ.
Saving faith, then, is a practical, influential belief of the scripture doctrine of redemption. The truth is first received into the understanding, and then exerts its legitimate influence upon the heart. And this influence discovers itself, first, in an act of self-abasement, or giving up every idea of personal merit; and then in an act of self-consecration, or giving up the whole soul to God, in humble reliance on the merits of Christ, to be employed in his service, to be disposed of at his pleasure, and to be saved by his sovereign mercy. It may be that the intellectual views of the sinner have in all this undergone little or no change; he may have always been as evangelical in his opinions as he is now: but his faith, instead of being merely a cold assent, as formerly, is now a cordial confidence; instead of exerting no influence, it is a powerful principle of action. Who does not perceive that this representation is exactly co-incident with that of the apostle, when he says, "With the heart man believes unto righteousness."
But you will inquire whether there are not other truths beside the great doctrine of redemption, which it belongs to evangelical faith to receive, and which are fitted to constrain the affections and influence the life. I answer, there is no truth revealed in the Bible which we are not required to believe, not only with the understanding—but with the heart; and none which is not fitted to exert a practical influence. Nevertheless it is the doctrine of Christ crucified, than which the apostle determined not to know anything else in his preaching, the reception of which is more immediately concerned in the sinner's justification; for in practically believing this, the sinner lets go his own righteousness as a ground of justification, and rests entirely on the atoning blood and perfect righteousness of the Redeemer.
Moreover, this truth is to be regarded not only as a cardinal doctrine of the Christian system—but when viewed in all its connections, as constituting the entire system; so that he who believes it intelligently, actually believes the whole gospel. And hence you readily perceive that any error in religious faith becomes important, as it is more or less nearly connected with the doctrine of redemption by the blood of Christ; just as an error in the construction of a building becomes more serious, the more intimately it is related to the foundation.
Let me here definitely state what has all along been implied—that the sinner is never brought to exercise evangelical faith, or to rest his all upon the Savior, until he has gained a thorough conviction that there is salvation in no other. And this is often the result of a long course of self-righteous efforts: God permits him to take his own way, and thoroughly to test the efficacy of means, until he is driven to the blood of Christ as his last and only refuge; and when by faith he comes to receive the Savior, and the peace-speaking blood of Christ is applied to his soul, and he rejoices in God as a reconciled father, he wonders that he has not complied with the terms of the gospel before. He perceives that his faith in the Savior was a perfectly voluntary act, and that he has remained in darkness only because he would not come to the light of life.
It is true indeed that the evidence of faith may not, in all cases, immediately accompany its exercise; and the soul may be left in darkness for a season, even after it has a right to appropriate to itself the consolations of a Christian hope: but in many instances at least, the first act of confidence in the Savior draws down upon the soul the tokens of his love, and surrounds it with the light of his countenance. The soul embraces its Savior in the arms of faith, and exultingly exclaims, "My Lord and my God!" and the Savior acknowledging the soul as ransomed by his blood, graciously responds, "Your sins are forgiven!"
You perceive from what has been said, that the office of faith in our justification is simply to appropriate the blessings of the Redeemer's purchase; and hence it is to be considered merely as an instrument. The blessings of salvation are all the purchase of the Savior's blood, and are offered without money and without price. Faith is the hand by which the soul receives these blessings. The poor man on whom you bestow your charity, never suspects that there is any merit in the act of holding out his hand to receive it: nor does the sinner any more dream of merit in the act of stretching out the hand of faith, to receive those spiritual blessings which the Lord Jesus has treasured up for the supply of his people.
Methinks I hear some one say, "And is it so that faith is the only thing requisite for salvation: how is it then that, in other parts of the Bible, good works are so explicitly enjoined: how is it, especially, that the Savior himself, who could not mistake in respect to the conditions of salvation, has said, 'You are my friends—if you do whatever I command you?'" In order to see the perfect consistency of these different passages with each other, we have only to refer to the gracious constitution of the gospel. By good works in scripture, are not meant works which are good merely in form, which appear to the eye of man to be good, while they are dictated by motives which God cannot approve; but such as are good in principle, which are the legitimate operation of sincere and sanctified affections. Good works, in this sense, are indeed essential to salvation, unless the believer dies before he has the opportunity of performing them; but then they are essential, not as constituting the ground, or any part of the ground, of a sinner's justification—but simply as the fruits and evidences of a living faith. They are as truly required by the gospel as faith itself; and even if they had not been explicitly required, the requisition of them would have been involved in the requisition of faith; for evangelical faith is the great principle of Christian obedience. There may be that which pretends to be the faith of the gospel, which does not produce good works; but it will be found, in the end, to have been no better than the faith of devils.
You may inquire again, how the importance which I have here given to faith, consists with those passages in which repentance, being born again, &c. are mentioned as the conditions on which eternal life is bestowed. Here again, the answer is easy. Being born again is nothing less than having a renewed nature; and faith, repentance, and all other Christian graces, are only the legitimate exercises of that nature. Evangelical faith always includes godly sorrow for sin; and there is no such thing as genuine repentance, independently of a believing view of the great atonement.
The Christian character is made up of a variety of virtues and graces; and as no one of them exists independently of the rest, wherever one of them is enjoined, the rest are all implied. They may indeed exist with different degrees of strength, and some of them may be so feeble that they seem scarcely to exist at all; nevertheless, where a gracious principle has once been implanted, there is the embryo of a perfect character. Hence you perceive that, whether we exhort you to repent of your sins, or believe in Christ, or submit to God, or obtain a new heart, the direction is, in each case, substantially the same: and it is impossible that you should obey one of these injunctions, without at the same time obeying all the rest.
I have now endeavored to show you, my young friends, what you must do, to secure the salvation of your souls. Let me, in conclusion, direct your attention to two or three practical remarks.
1. And, first, the subject teaches you thatit is a most responsible office to direct and counsel the awakened sinner. When the mind is wrought up to a high state of painful excitement, and is anxiously looking out for relief, it is likely to grasp with eagerness at anything that is offered in the way of consolation; and if, at such a moment, an awakened sinner has a cup of poison put into his hands, there is great danger that he will drink down its contents, and suspect no danger, until he finds the blood freezing at his heart. One right direction, at that critical moment, is doubtless, often, in the hands of the divine Spirit, the means of bringing the sinner to a joyful acceptance of Christ's salvation; while, on the other hand, it admits of as little question, that one wrong counsel may be the means of carrying the soul away from the Savior, and entrenching it in some wretched, fatal delusion.
You are a young Christian; and some companion comes to you, to tell you confidentially that he is anxious for his soul, and to ask you what he shall do to secure its salvation. There is danger that his distress may work upon your natural sensibilities in such a way, that you may drop some expression that will lower his view of the evil of sin, or that will put him upon some other way of relief than that which is prescribed in the gospel. But rely on it, this is false compassion. If his impressions concerning his character and prospects were only the effect of a heated fancy, unquestionably it were an act of kindness to undeceive him, and to restore, if possible, the serenity of his mind, by convincing him of his mistake. But this is not the fact: so far from it, that the most vivid conceptions of his guilt which he is able to form, probably fall far below the actual reality.
If your brother or sister were sick, would it be kindness in you to forbear administering a remedy which you knew would be efficacious, only because it might be disagreeable; and would you substitute one which you were certain could not avail, only because it might give momentary relief, and would not be attended with pain? If the dearest friend I have on earth were so bowed down under a sense of sin, as to be deprived even of that rest which nature requires; if his iniquities had taken hold upon him so that he could not even look up; though I would open my heart wide to his distresses, and would go and spread out his case before my God, and would embalm my supplication with tears—yet I would not dare to point him to any other refuge than the cross of Christ. I would not dare to press upon him any less important duty than repentance of sin, and faith in the atonement, and submission to God, his rightful Sovereign. And until he had done this, I would be obliged to say, however my heart might bleed for his anguish, that his convictions were not unreasonable. Yes, if I would point him to any other spot in the universe, than the cross of Calvary—I would anticipate the time, when I would hear a reproving and reproaching voice from the world of despair, charging me with having been his destroyer!
2. In view of our subject, wesee how exactly accommodated are the terms of the gospel to the necessities of men. Any scheme of salvation that was not entirely of grace, could never meet the exigencies of our condition. If the blessings of eternal life were to be bestowed only on the ground of human merit, where is the being on earth who could expect any other portion than that which the Bible awards to the reprobate? For where is the individual who has not, by violating the precept, exposed himself to the penalty, of God's law? But the scheme of mercy which the gospel proposes, contemplates man in all his guilt and ruin; it offers to him a free forgiveness—a free salvation—and it demands only that he should accept it, without money and without price. Behold here both the wisdom and goodness of God—that he should have devised a scheme of redemption, in which the necessities of our condition are so happily contemplated! Here also behold an illustrious proof of the divinity of the gospel; for what man or angel could have formed a plan, in which so much grace shines forth to rebel man, and so much glory redounds to God in the highest?
Finally:Happy is that youth who has believed in Christ to the saving of his soul! For this principle of faith constitutes a delightful bond of union between the soul and its Savior, which is the channel of the richest spiritual blessings, and which all the powers of darkness might labor in vain to dissolve. What though he may die in the morning of life? His faith will secure to him a part in the inheritance which Jesus has purchased for his people. What though he may be spared to the period of middle life or old age? His faith is a pledge that he will live for the benefit of his fellow men, and the glory of his Redeemer. What though temptation may assail him in its varied forms, and affliction may aim at him its sharpest arrows? His faith will enable him to triumph over the one, and to rejoice in the other. What though he may sometimes be ready to sink under the burden of his own corruptions? Faith will be in him a principle not only of comfort—but sanctification, and will ensure to him a victory over these internal foes. How lovely will be his character, how useful his example in life; how peaceful his reflections, how bright his prospects in death; and how unutterably glorious his condition in eternity!
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