Lectures to Young People
William B. Sprague, 1830
EVIDENCE OF TRUE RELIGION
"Not everyone that says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my father which is in heaven." Matthew 7:21.
It is the privilege of God's people, not only to have a principle of divine life implanted in their hearts, which is destined to prove the germ of immortal glory; but also to possess evidence themselves, and furnish evidence to others, that such is their happy condition. Every Christian may, by a faithful inspection of his own heart, satisfy himself, on good grounds, that he is a disciple of Christ. Every Christian will, by the general tenor of his conduct, evince the same fact to those who have an opportunity of witnessing his conversation and deportment.
Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that, though the evidences of personal piety are within the reach of every individual, insomuch that no one need mistake in respect to his own character, there is great danger that erroneous judgments will actually be formed; and that people, by the adoption of false standards, will fatally deceive themselves on the great point of their acceptance with God. And while this is true, in a degree, of all, it is especially true of the young; and that, for reasons which are so obvious, that I need not stop here to specify them.
It is the design of this discourse, my young friends, to guard you against mistake on this momentous point—to prevent you, on the one hand, from resting satisfied with insufficient evidence of Christian character; and to save you, on the other, from needless anxiety and distress, through a misapprehension of the kind or degree of evidence with which you ought to be satisfied.
The words of our text, as they stand connected with our Lord's discourse, are designed primarily to aid us in forming a judgment of each other. But if I mistake not, they may also be legitimately used to assist us in forming a judgment of ourselves. Both these objects will be kept in view, while I endeavor to present before you, first, what ARE NOT, and secondly, what ARE, evidences of Christian character.
I. What are NOT evidences of Christian character. I am, first, to notice several things which, taken by themselves, or taken together, furnish no sufficient evidence of Christian character. "Not everyone that says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven."
1. Under this article, I observe, first, that there is no judgment to be formed on this subject, from any character whichone's conviction of sin may assume. Nothing is more common than for people, in speaking of the hopeful piety of others, to dwell with great emphasis upon the fact that they have been the subjects of peculiarly deep and pungent convictions; and no doubt too that many, in estimating their own claims to the Christian character, for lack of better evidence, go back to the same period, and think over the remorse, and terror, and agitation, which they then felt; and very charitably, alas, too charitably for themselves, conclude, that in all this there must have been laid the foundation of a thorough conversion to God. True it is indeed—that there is no repentance which is not preceded by conviction; but it is far from being true that there is no conviction which is not followed by repentance. Even the most pungent conviction that was ever felt on this side of the world of woe, involves not the least necessity in the nature of the case, or the least certainty in fact—of the subsequent renovation of the heart. And in accordance with this statement, who that has been conversant with subjects of this kind, has not witnessed instances in which the most deep and awful impressions of the wrath of God, have manifestly given place to a habit of carelessness; and the soul that seemed to be stricken by the terrors of the judgment, has, in a little while, fallen back into the current of worldly levities; and not a vestige of concern, or even of seriousness, has remained.
Venture not then, my young friends, for a moment, to believe that you have experienced the renewing influences of the Spirit, merely from the fact that you have experienced his awakening influences, even though his disclosures may have filled you with agony. That you may ascertain your condition in the sight of God, it is right indeed that you should inquire, whether you have ever seen your true character as a guilty and ruined sinner. But if this be the only inquiry that you make, and you rest satisfied here, you are inevitably deceived, and there is every probability that you are undone. The reprobate in the world of eternal despair, are the subjects of far more pungent conviction than was ever felt by mortals on earth; but the spirit which reigns in their hearts would, if it were armed with power, wrest from the Almighty his scepter, and spread desolation through the universe. Is it not presumption, is it not madness, to believe yourself regenerated—on no better evidence than that which the fiends of darkness have, and have had, for ages?
2. There is nothing inthe peculiar manner of the Spirit's operation at the time of a supposed conversion, by which it can be decided with certainty whether the change be genuine. It is well known that there is a great diversity in the manner in which the Holy Spirit operates to bring sinners into the kingdom. Sometimes the change is gradual, and the subject of it can only say, in comparing his exercises at different periods, "One thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see!" Whereas, in other cases, the Savior reveals himself suddenly to the soul in all his grace and glory, and fills it with joy unspeakable. Now, as these different states of mind actually exist in connection with a genuine conversion, so each has its counterfeits; and neither the one nor the other can be safely relied on as evidence of evangelical faith.
I can point you to instances in which individuals, who have seemed to come silently and tremblingly into the kingdom, and have expressed the utmost distrust of their own hearts, have, after all, fallen back, and openly deserted the cause of Christ. And I can point you to instances still more numerous, in which the strongest professions of humility, and faith, and joy, and deadness to the world, at the time of a supposed conversion, have been followed, and speedily followed, by an entire disregard, and sometimes an absolute contempt, of spiritual true religion.
Here again, then, my young friends, be on your guard against self-deception. Are you professedly a disciple of Christ—and yet are you living in criminal conformity to the world? And though you are conscious that there is nothing, at present, either in the exercises of your heart, or the conduct of your life, to yield any evidence of a spiritual renovation—are you nevertheless recurring in your thoughts to the peace, and love, and rapture, of other days, as evidence that a principle of divine life has been implanted in your soul? Believe me, all that peace, and love, and rapture, may have been delusion; and your present condition renders it more than probable that it was so. Yes, what you once thought was the evidence of piety, and what you still cling to as such—may be only the result of an attempt of the grand adversary, to blindfold you in respect to your danger, that he may the more easily lead you down to perdition!
3.The most diligent performance of external duties, is not to be relied on as evidence of a renewed heart. You may be a regular and respectful attendant at the sanctuary—as often as the doors of the sanctuary are open. You may devote part of every day to the reading of the Bible, and may feel an interest in gaining a knowledge of its blessed truths. You may often be found in the private pious circle, and may be the instrument of edifying and comforting others, by the part you take in its exercises. You may, in a full belief of the truths of the gospel, join yourself to the number of God's people, and come to the holy ordinance of the supper, thus rendering an external obedience to your Savior's dying command. You may even go farther than this, and may enter your closet statedly and frequently, and may fall down upon your knees, and may take the language of prayer upon your lips. And in all this you may be conscientious, and may actually suppose yourself devout; and yet after all, the spirit of true piety may never have found a place in your heart. It may all be the working of a spirit of self-righteousness—a spirit which is seeking to secure the divine favor by means which have never received the divine sanction; which would substitute, as the price of salvation, human merit for the merit of the Redeemer's blood.
I do not say that, in all this, there may not be that which may seem to indicate to the surrounding world the existence of a principle of true religion—but I do say that this, and more than this—may exist, while the heart has never experienced a moral renovation, and while, of course, the individual can have no evidence of having experienced it.
4. I observe, once more, thatgreat zeal in respect to the great objects and interests of true religion, furnishes decisive evidence of Christian character. You may not only do all, and be all, that I have supposed under the preceding article—that is, you may not only discharge the various external duties belonging to a Christian profession, with diligence and punctuality—but you may manifest a degree of interest in respect to the advancement of the kingdom of Christ, which may procure for you the reputation of a devoted Christian, and which may seem to cast into the shade the apparently more sluggish efforts of some who have really been born of the Spirit. You may talk much of your own inward experience, of the trials and conflicts, the joys and triumphs of the Christian life; and may imagine yourself the subject of raptures which seem to you like the beginning of heavenly glory; you may wonder at the apparent heartlessness of other professors, and even doubt the genuineness of their religion, because their feelings do not rise so high as your own. You may deplore the deep moral lethargy of the surrounding world, and may sound the note of alarm in the ear of every careless sinner whom you meet. You may even set yourself up as a reformer, and astonish the world by theories of faith and duty, and exhibit a deportment which, to the surrounding world, shall seem to say, "Stand aside, I am holier than you:" Yes, and you may be foremost on the list of those who are willing to contribute their time, and substance, and influence, to the advancement of the kingdom of Christ; and may seem to evince a spirit of self-denial which would not shrink from martyrdom.
All this you may be and do, and yet after all, you may be an utter stranger to the influence of genuine true religion. For in all these labors and sacrifices, the secret feeling of your heart may be that you are drawing upon you the approving eye of God, and laying up for yourself treasures of bliss to be realized in eternity. And with this feeling there may be a spirit of pride, which exults in a comparison of your own character with that of others; and which, strange as it may seem, exists, in no small degree, upon your fancied self-abasement. Here again, you may deceive the world; but if you deceive yourself, it is only because you neglect to ascertain the real state of your heart, or because you neglect to compare it with the Bible standard of Christian experience.
So far then you may go, and not be a Christian. You may have pungent convictions, and glowing raptures; you may be punctual in the performance of external religious duty, and zealous for the advancement of the cause of Christ; and yet, after all, you may have no sufficient evidence that you have been born of the Spirit. So far your experience may reach—and yet it may be nothing more than saying, "Lord, Lord."
II. In what DOES consist the true evidence of Christian character?We have the answer to this inquiry in the concluding part of our text: "But he who does the will of my Father, who is in heaven." This is the second division of our discourse.
The grand test of Christian character, then, isobedience to the will of God.
It is not perfect obedience; for no mere man since the fall has ever perfectly kept the commandments of God. The Bible has declared that "all have gone out of the way;" that "there is none who does good, and sins not." The condition on which salvation was originally offered, was perfect obedience; and if man had yielded such obedience, he might have claimed eternal life, on the ground of law, as his reward. But the gospel contemplates him as a sinner. And the conditions on which it offers salvation, are accommodated to his character as a sinner; and while it continues the law as a rule of life, and supposes a disposition in the Christian to obey the law, it nevertheless makes provision for the forgiveness not only of past sins—but of those also which flow from his partially sanctified nature. The gospel, like the law, demands of the sinner that he should do the whole will of God; but, unlike the law, it provides for the acceptance of an imperfect obedience.
What then is the nature of that obedience, which is to be regarded as a test of Christian character?
It is the obedience of the life, and the obedience of the heart.
It is the obedience of theLIFE; by which I mean, the habitual discharge of all external duties.
There are those who lay great stress upon the duties which they owe to MAN, who yet find it an easy matter to compromise with conscience for those which they owe to God. In their domestic relations, as parents or children, husbands or wives, brothers or sisters, they are in many respects most exemplary; and are always on the alert to minister to each other's happiness. In civil society, they are active and public spirited, and are ready to lend a helping hand to the various institutions which promise to meliorate the condition of man. They are moreover generous and humane, and will never turn a deaf ear to the cry of distress, and will even go and search out objects of need and suffering, that they may administer relief. But on the other hand, they will think it a light matter to allow their seats to be vacant in the house of God, and will regard the Bible as little more than a piece of antiquated furniture, and will hardly suspend their secular employments on the sabbath; and as for the duty of private prayer, or confessing Christ before men, they never even think of performing it. They are good neighbors, and good friends, and good citizens; but here you must stop, unless you go on to say that "God is not in all their thoughts."
There is another class—just the opposite of this—who perform with pharisaical exactness the external duties which they owe to GOD, while those which belong to their social relations, are but little regarded. They make conscience of being in the house of God at least twice every sabbath, and oftener if they have opportunity; they publicly profess their faith in Christ, and unite with his people in commemorating his death; they come regularly to every prayer-meeting, and never shrink from taking part in its services; they go, at least every morning and evening, into their closets for prayer, and in their daily interaction, always seem ready to admonish the careless sinner or the sluggish Christian, or to put forth an effort, in any way, for a revival of true religion. And yet, after all, when you hear the testimony of their poor or sick neighbors respecting them, it may be that they have said to them, "Be warmed, and clothed—depart in peace."
Or if it has occurred to you to look a little more closely into their characters, and to inquire of those who have had dealings with them in the world, what testimony they have to render concerning them, possibly they may tell you significantly, that though they have heard that they were very good in a prayer, they have found them to be very hard in a bargain; and it may be even that common report has superseded the necessity of all inquiry; and that they have an established reputation in the world, for being not only unmerciful but unjust. If you should see them in the church or the lecture room, you might put them down on the list of those of whom the world is not worthy; but if you should see them in the counting-room, or the exchange, you would put them down on the list of those with whom you would wish to have as little to do as possible.
Now, my young friends, I hardly need say that the obedience of the Christian life differs essentially from both these, while yet it has something in common with each of them. The true Christian will not make the performance of one set of duties an excuse for the neglect of another; but he will endeavor faithfully to perform them all. It will be equally a matter of conscience with him to perform the duties which he owes to God and to man; for he will recollect that both are enjoined by the same authority. The true Christian is a Christian in the closet, a Christian in the family, a Christian in the church, and a Christian in the world; and he who habitually neglects the duties which devolve upon him in any of his relations, has no reason to regard himself a Christian. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" 2 Corinthians 5:17
In the obedience of the Christian life, there is no exception to be made for the most difficult and self-denying duties.There are those who are willing to render an external obedience to God's commandments, when he commands nothing that involves much self-denial, who nevertheless are not willing to follow Christ, at the expense of taking up the cross. Let the command be to attend church on the sabbath, or to distribute of your property to the necessities of the poor, or to discharge any other of the common duties of the Christian life, and you will yield perhaps a prompt and cheerful compliance. But change the case, and suppose the path of duty to become a thorny path—suppose something be required of you which is like plucking out the right eye, or cutting off the right hand—suppose a beloved Isaac is to be led out, and led out by your own hand, for sacrifice—why then perhaps you will begin to hesitate, and reason, and murmur, and the result of the whole may be, that you will make some kind of compromise with conscience for the neglect of your duty.
Christian obedience, on the contrary, knows nothing of this compromising temper. There is in it a spirit of courage and inflexibility, which never agitates but this single question, 'What does God require of me?' and that being settled, nothing remains but action; no matter whether his path be strewed with flowers, or whether it be illumined by the fires of the martyr's stake.
Moreover,the obedience of the Christian life, is a persevering obedience. You see many who begin well—but their obedience does not hold out. For a while, they seem disposed faithfully to discharge the whole circle of Christian duties; but at length they find an excuse for the neglect of one, and then of another, and another, until their obedience becomes so defective, that no one can mistake it for the evidence of piety. The true Christian, on the other hand, though he may have his seasons of declension, perseveres, and on the whole, becomes more and more faithful in the discharge of duty. "The path of the just is as the shining light, that shines more and more unto the perfect day."
It is proper here to remark that, in estimating the Christian character of our fellow-men,there is some regard to be had to the variety of constitutional temperament. Some, from their original constitution, are more inclined to perform one set of duties than another; and with all the counteracting influences both of conscience and principle, it will be strange if this original bias does not, more or less frequently, discover itself.
Of two individuals possessing on the whole an equal amount of piety, one may excel most in some of the Christian graces, another in some others; while each may exhibit his peculiar corresponding deficiencies. It were rash, therefore, to question the piety of any one, who claims to be considered a Christian, without having regard to his peculiar temperament; though no peculiarity of temperament must be allowed to set aside the evidence against him, which results from the habitual neglect of any known duty, or the habitual indulgence of any known sin.
Such is the obedience of the Christian life. It has respect to all God's commandments, even those which require the most difficult duties; and it is persevering and progressive. And this, let me say, constitutes all the evidence of Christian character that we can furnish to the world.
But in judging ourselves, we are to go farther, and inquire whether, with the obedience of the life, is also associated that of theHEART; whether with the outward act, which is open to the observation of man, there is the inward principle to command the approbation of God. You perceive then that by the obedience of the heart, I mean nothing more nor less than the spirit which prompts to the obedience of the life.
The obedience of the heart implies two things:
1. An utter renunciation of every claim to personal merit.There is nothing more natural to man, than a spirit of self-righteousness. Though he has no disposition to yield obedience to the law, he is more than willing to be saved by it; and hence it not unfrequently happens that, when people who are flagrantly immoral, are interrogated in respect to their hope of future happiness, they instantly recur to something they have done, or it may be to some gross sin which they have not done—as constituting its foundation. But such a spirit does not, cannot reign in the bosom of the true Christian; for in the act of becoming a Christian, he has gained a settled conviction that there is no merit in his best services, and that after he has done all—he is an unprofitable servant. While, therefore, he engages in the faithful discharge of all external duties, while he does what his hand finds to do with his might; he realizes that it is by help obtained from above that he is able to do anything; and though indeed he expects a reward, yet he expects it, not as a matter of debt—but of grace. And the more abasing his views of himself, the more cordial his confidence in the merit of the Savior's blood, so much the more elevated are his hopes, so much the brighter the evidence that his heart has been brought under the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.
2. The obedience of the heart also implies an ultimate regard to the authority and glory of God.
The unrenewed man may perform acts externally good—as truly as the Christian. He may perform them from a regard to his reputation, or from a spirit of self-righteousness, or from constitutionally noble and benevolent feelings; but the Christian performs them because God has required them, and he delights to obey his requisitions. He regards God not merely as a righteous lawgiver—but as a most gracious and compassionate Father; and like a good child, he not only acknowledges but reverences his authority.
But the Christian, in his obedience, has respect to the glory, as well as the authority, of God. The ruling desire of his heart is, that God may be glorified; and he knows that he can glorify him only by reflecting his image, or what is the same thing, by doing his will. Hence when he puts forth his hand to any benevolent work, or when he has the pleasure of seeing it accomplished, or indeed when he performs the most common duties of the Christian life, the language of his heart is, "Not unto myself—but to your name, O Lord, be all the glory!" God is especially glorified, when the redemption of the gospel takes effect in the hearts of men; because in that work the attributes of his character are most signally illustrated. Hence the Christian not only delights to open his own heart to the influence of evangelical truth—but to procure for the same truth a lodgement in the hearts of others—in other words, to make men wise unto salvation. In a word, agreeably to the exhortation of the apostle, whatever he does, he does it "heartily, as to the Lord, and not to men."
Such is the obedience of the heart—that on which you are especially to rely, in estimating your claim to the character of a Christian. I will nowCONCLUDE with two brief remarks.
1. The subject shows usthe importance of being cautious in respect to the judgments we form of Christian character, both in regard to ourselves and others. We have seen that there is a strong tendency among men, to set up false standards on this subject; and instead of referring character to the only scriptural test, to refer it to some arbitrary test, which the Bible has not even seemed to sanction. For instance, you have a friend who has been the subject of pungent convictions, and then again the subject of glowing raptures; and you speak to that friend, and of him, as if you were absolutely certain that he had been renewed. You may indeed have reason to hope that that is the case; and there may be that in his general appearance, for which you may, with good reason, give God thanks. But from the nature of the case, you can never at that period know that he is a Christian; because you cannot search the heart; and because multitudes have, for a season, appeared, in all respects, as promising as he—who have afterwards shown themselves among the open enemies of the cross.
Now, believe me, you will be likely to render a much better service to that individual, by impressing him with the danger of self-deception, and of the importance of self-examination, and of giving all diligence to make his calling and election sure—than by inspiring him with a spirit of self-confidence. For if he is a Christian—the former course certainly will do him no harm. If he be not a Christian—the latter course may serve effectually to seal his perdition. Or it may be that the case is your own—that you are the very person who is rejoicing in the hope of having felt the power of God's grace. My young friend, I rejoice with you; but it is right that both you and I should rejoice with trembling. The act of regeneration is indeed instantaneous; but not so the evidence of it—that is to be collected by a diligent and long continued inspection of your heart and life. Beware then how you indulge a hope too soon, or too confidently. Beware how you satisfy yourself with any evidence which is nothing more than calling Christ, "Lord, Lord."
Finally:let the subject lead you to diligent self examination. You indulge a hope that you have been renewed by the Spirit of God. Answer then to your conscience the following questions. "Am I endeavoring faithfully to discharge my whole duty? In the family and in the world, in the closet and in the church, to God and to man, in all my relations and conditions—is it my grand object not only to know—but to do, what the Lord requires of me? In the obedience which I render to the commandments of God, do I make any exception in favor of those duties which involve severe self-denial—or do I as readily perform those as any other? Do I perform external duties with a self-righteous spirit—or with a spirit of self-abasement, and humble dependence on God's grace; with a disposition to arrogate the glory to myself—or to give all the glory to God? And is the spirit of obedience gaining strength in my heart; am I more and more determined that nothing shall drive me from the post of duty; and that come what will, I will ever be found on the Lord's side?"
If such is the character of your obedience, no doubt it is the operation of a principle of living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But I beseech you, be not satisfied with any evidence that you are a Christian less decisive than this: if you trust to mere conviction, or mere rapture, or mere past experience of any kind, without respect to the present—there is every reason to believe that you will be deceived. But if you have the evidence of present, sincere, persevering obedience, it is the best evidence—the only sufficient evidence, that you can possess. Therefore, my young friends, let me leave you for the present, with the exhortation of the apostle—"Add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance patience, and to patience godliness, and to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you and abound, they make you that you shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ."
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