Lectures to Young People
William B. Sprague, 1830
"We want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up!" Daniel 3:18.
There is not perhaps recorded in the sacred volume a more signal instance of human pride and impiety, than we find in the narrative with which our text is connected. Nebuchadnezzar, the haughty and infatuated king of Babylon, having greatly enriched himself by his conquest of the surrounding nations, and especially the Jews, erected a monstrous golden image to his God Belus in the plain of Dura. Having convened his princes, governors, captains, judges, and other officers under him, to the dedication of this idol, he issued a decree that, at a certain signal, every man should prostrate himself before it in token of adoration; and that, if anyone refused to obey the mandate, he should do it at the fearful expense of being cast into a fiery furnace!
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three men who were originally of the princes of Judea, and were carried captive to Babylon in their youth, refused, from conscientious considerations, to submit to this horrible requisition; upon which they were immediately summoned into the king's presence, to answer for their disobedience. On their appearing before him, they were again offered the alternative of rendering homage to the idol—or of being cast into the furnace. But they hesitated not a moment. With a noble firmness which could face the frown of a mighty monarch, and even the most appalling horrors of martyrdom, they replied, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." Daniel 3:16-18
In the conduct of these men on this occasion, we have a noble instance of genuine CHRISTIAN DECISION. I design, in this discourse, to avail myself of the declaration in the text, to recommend the cultivation of this trait of character to young Christians. And in doing so, I will call your attention briefly to its nature and its advantages.
I. In respect tothe NATURE of Christian decision, I observe that it is something entirely different from mere native firmness of character. Everyone knows that the original constitutions of men, intellectual and moral, as well as physical, are exceedingly diverse. One, for instance, is originally irritable; another, so placid as scarcely to be moved by any provocation. One is constitutionally ingenuous; another, inclined to concealment. One is timid and wavering; another, firm and resolute. Now this latter quality, mere natural firmness, differs from Christian decision in this important particular—that it is not of course subject to the dictates of conscience, or directed by a regard to duty. The resolution of the man of the world may prompt him to deeds of injustice, deeds of cruelty—as well as to acts of generosity and compassion; and where this trait happens to be associated with an overbearing and revengeful spirit, instead of being a blessing to its possessor or the world, it is sure to be a curse to both. Many a bad man has been a scourge to the community in which he has lived, and even to the world, who, without this native heroism of character, would have been comparatively harmless.
Christian decision may beDEFINED, in general, as that quality which resolutely determines a man to do his duty, at all times, without an improper regard to consequences.
What are some of theELEMENTS of which this spirit is composed?
1. A clear conviction of duty.No man is prepared to act at all, much less with decision, so long as he is at loss where the path of duty lies; and the certain consequence of being confused on this point, will be, that his efforts, at best, will be feeble, inconstant, and inefficient. The very reflection that he is acting without a settled conviction of duty, and still more, the reflection that he may be acting contrary to the will of God, taking it for granted that he is a good man—will be fitted to wound his conscience, and weaken his resolution. Let him then who would possess genuine Christian decision, make it his first object to ascertain the path of duty. Let him do this by attentively considering the leadings of God's providence, by faithfully consulting an enlightened conscience, and above all by earnestly looking for divine guidance and teaching. And having once gained a clear and impressive conviction of what duty is, he is prepared for resolute and decided action.
In most cases in which we are called to act, the path of duty, to an honest and well directed mind—is plain. For instance, when Nebuchadnezzar commanded the three men to worship his idol, there was no cause for a moment's hesitation; nor did they wish for a moment to enable them to decide that they would not do it. And far the greater part of the cases of duty upon which Christians at the present day have to decide, are as clear as that which was presented to the consideration of these men. And where it is otherwise—where there are circumstances to confuse us in our inquiries and our decision—this only constitutes a demand for more earnest consideration and prayer. It may safely be said, that there are few instances in which the Christian, after using all the means in his power to ascertain his duty, is still left in the dark respecting it.
2. Another of the elements of Christian decision, and that in which it especially consists, isan unyielding purpose to act agreeably to our sincere and enlightened convictions. It is one thing to know what we ought to do—and quite a different thing to do it. And it is to little purpose that we gain the knowledge of our duty—unless we reduce that knowledge to practice. The individuals whose example is exhibited in our text, were not only settled in the conviction that they ought not—but in the purpose that they would not, bow down before the idol. And the language in which they refused to do it, shows that they were inflexible in their determination. And so it is with every truly decided Christian. You may threaten him with the loss of everything he holds dear on this side heaven; you may kindle a fiery furnace, and tell him he shall have his portion in it; you may bring before him the horrors of the prisoner's dungeon, or the martyr's stake—but you will not shake his constancy in the course of duty. There is a holy resolution in his soul, kindled up by the breathing of God's Spirit, which the terrors of death itself cannot horrify.
3. Another element of Christian decision, isa firm confidence in God. This the three men strikingly exhibited in their refusal to yield to the king's impious command. What if they should be thrown into the fiery furnace, which was made ready to receive them? They had full confidence that their God would preserve them unhurt, even amidst those fearful perils. And if he did not, they knew what their duty was, and that in some way or other God would bless them in the discharge of it. And they doubted not that, if their bodies should be consumed in such a cause, they would be abundantly compensated for the sacrifice by the glories of eternity.
What they felt and exhibited, was, by no means, peculiar to themselves: every truly decided Christian exemplifies the same spirit. If the duty to which he is called is difficult, he confides in God for grace to enable him to discharge it. If he is doubtful in respect to consequences, he trusts in God to give them such a direction as will be most for his glory. If he has reason to believe that, in obeying the divine will, he shall involve himself in distressing worldly calamities, here again he confides in God to deliver him out of them in his own best time, or to cause them to work out for him an exceeding and eternal weight of glory. No one accustomed to attempt the discharge of duty in his own strength, ever possessed true Christian decision. A nobler principle of action—a constant reliance on the Lord our strength, is absolutely necessary to constitute the truly decided Christian.
II. I proceed, secondly, to consider some of theADVANTAGES which Christian decision secures.
1. And, first,a decided course is the most SAFE course. It was so in the case of the three men whose decision is exhibited in our text. There was indeed in that case, to the eye of worldly calculation, the most appalling danger hanging over the path of duty. Nothing appeared but that their lives were in fearful jeopardy, and that they were on the eve of suffering a most agonizing death. The king's anger was excited to fury, and he commanded that the impious order which he had given for their destruction should be executed without delay. Accordingly they were thrown into the fiery furnace which was made ready for them; and doubtless not the king only—but everyone who was present, expected to see them instantly become victims to the flames. And what was the result? Why that these three men were seen walking in the midst of the furnace unhurt, under the protection of one whose form is said to have been like the Son of God; and the king rose up in astonishment, and immediately commanded them to come out of the furnace, acknowledging the power of Jehovah in their preservation.
And as it was in that case, so it is substantially in all others—a decided course is the safe course. Not that Christians, in ordinary cases, can expect a miraculous interposition in their behalf when they are brought into circumstances of danger; but God does usually extend to them his special care and protection. If difficulties rise and seem to hedge up their path, they are usually brought out of them in some way which they had not anticipated. And even if their decision leads them to encounter death in the cause of duty, it is the safe course still; for it is most emphatically true in this case, that "he who loses his life, shall find it." It is perfectly safe to die in the cause of duty; but it is unspeakably hazardous to live at the expense of denying Christ. The three men would have been safe, in the most important sense of the word, if the flames had instantly consumed them; for that true religion on account of which they had died, would have been a certain passport to heaven. And so is every Christian safe who yields up his life in similar circumstances; for the crown of martyrdom here, will be exchanged for a crown of glory hereafter.
2. A decided course is the most EASY course.I do not intend here to imply that a professing Christian may not sometimes, in consequence of his decision, be subjected to severe trials; or, on the other hand, that by a timid and temporizing course, he may not sometimes avoid trials: but I mean that, on the whole, the decided Christian will be far less perplexed in the discharge of duty, than any other.
Would Nebuchadnezzar, do you imagine, after having witnessed the decision of these men, and the consequences of it, have been likely to repeat the experiment which he made, or to have tried any other means to induce them to worship his idol? Would he not rather have abandoned it as a hopeless case, satisfied that they were determined to adhere to the worship of Jehovah, and that Jehovah would assuredly preserve and bless them in it? And the same effect, substantially, is produced upon the world by every instance of decision in Christians.
Let the Christian, when the world spreads its temptations before him, show himself determined and able to resist them: let him, when solicited by his former careless associates to the haunts of sin, exhibit a firmness of opposition, which their cavils, or sneers, or flatteries do not shake; and let him repeat this in a few instances, and he will probably have occasion to repeat it no more. For they will become convinced that their efforts are unavailing, and will think it best to retire from the conflict. Let him, on the other hand, when he is tempted, show himself half inclined to yield; let him manifest a disposition to conform to the world so far as he possibly can without sacrificing his Christian character; let him look with some degree of indulgence on forbidden pleasures, and often be found amid scenes of thoughtlessness, and you may rest assured that that individual will be perpetually and painfully perplexed. Every instance in which he yields to the claims of the careless and wicked, will encourage them to renew their demands upon him; and it will be strange if they allow him to rest, before he has practically disavowed his regard for true religion, and sunk the character of the Christian—n that of the worldling.
3. A decided course is the most USEFUL course.This is evident from the fact that many of those deeds which are followed by the most important and permanent benefit to the world, could never be performed without Christian decision. Witness, for instance, the conduct of Moses in turning his back upon the rich temporal advantages which were held out to him as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. Nothing but genuine decision could have influenced him to the course which he adopted; and yet, what immense benefits were derived from his conduct, under God, to the Jewish nation and to the world! And what was true of the consequences of his conduct, has been true, in a greater or less degree, in thousands of other cases. And besides this, the decided Christian, by his general character, exerts an influence of the most beneficial kind, which is peculiar to himself. All who see him, take knowledge of him that he has been with Jesus; and wherever he goes, he leaves an impression in favor of the true religion he professes.
The undecided professor, on the other hand, is continually making the cause of true religion bleed. He may indeed, when he is in the company of Christians—appear like a Christian: you might even think him zealous and active. But in the presence of the world, he seems as indifferent to true religion as the world itself. If any severe cross is to be taken up in the path of duty, he has no resolution for such a service. What the influence of such an example, and such a character must be, no one can be at loss to determine.
Let the appeal be to facts. Look around you, and tell me whether you really believe that professing Christian exerts the happiest influence, whose life is a perpetual scene of unwarrantable compliances with the maxims of the world; who dares never to take a decided stand on the side of duty, when duty happens to be the unpopular side. Or whether it is not he who is steadfast and immoveable; who fearlessly discharges the most difficult duties, and resolutely resists the most powerful temptations? I know there is not one of you, whose conscience must not return an answer in favor of the decided Christian.
4. A decided course is the most HONORABLE course.That it actually is so in the view of God, and all godly people—none can question. For the decided Christian faithfully conforms his conduct to God's will, and makes it his unceasing object to promote God's glory, and to advance the interests of his spiritual kingdom. But I venture to go farther, and assert that he is the most honorable man in the view of the world; and even of the most wicked part of it. For wicked men, let it be remembered, have eyes and ears; have reason and conscience; and they know what is right, and what is wrong, as well as others. I do not say indeed that their hearts will relish the decision of the devoted Christian; but I do say that their consciences will approve it: I do say that they will have a secret reverence for such a character, corresponding to the contempt which they feel towards its opposite: and there are a thousand cases in which they have an opportunity to manifest, and actually do manifest, their preference, in their conduct. If, for instance, the wicked man has any important trust which he wishes to put in charge with one of his fellow-men, to be executed after he is dead, rely on it, he will be far more likely to leave it with the man of unyielding pious principles, than any other person; thus proving that the contempt with which he might sometimes have appeared to regard such a character, was mere affectation; and that he actually regarded it with respect and veneration.
5. A decided course is the most HAPPY course.It is so, because it is the only course that keeps a man on good terms with his own conscience; and without an approving conscience, the universe could not make him happy. Just in proportion as a professing Christian is undecided, he loses the approbation of his conscience, and of course, in the same degree, forfeits his enjoyment.
Moreover, it is a source of rich enjoyment to the decided Christian, to see the benefits which result from his decision; the influence which he thereby exerts in building up the cause of Christ. It is a delightful reflection that, in all his efforts, God is glorified in some way or other; and that he may hope to be instrumental in saving souls from death and hiding a multitude of sins.
By maintaining a decided character, the Christian also lays a foundation for a peaceful and happy death. He may expect indeed that large measures of peace and comfort will be granted him from above, during his life: but especially has he a right to expect that this will be realized when flesh and heart are failing. Not that anything which he has done will be regarded by him, as constituting the least part of the ground of his acceptance. Still he will look back, and he will have a right to look back upon his life, with gratitude to that God who has enabled him to stand firm amidst all the temptations to which he has been exposed, and with joy unspeakable, that his imperfect services may be crowned with the benedictions of his Lord. It was especially this trait of character upon which we have been meditating, which put such rapture and triumph into the dying expressions of the apostle—"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth, there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me at that day."
And as a decided course is the most happy in its progress, it is also the most happy in its result: for though the rewards of eternity will all be of rich grace, yet they will be proportioned to the zeal and fidelity which have here marked the Christian's labors. While the timid and worldly-minded Christian (if the expression be not a contradiction) will be saved so as by fire—the truly decided one will have an abundant entrance ministered to him into the kingdom of our Father. Nay, he will shine as the brightness of the sun, and as the stars forever and ever.
Enough, I trust, has been said, my young friends, to convince you that decision in your pious course is most intimately connected with your usefulness, your comfort, and your character.
Let me now conclude with a single remark—it is that if you do not become decided now, there is little probability that you ever will. Decided indeed you must be, in a degree, or you cannot be a Christian; but I speak here of that degree of decision which, according to the common understanding of the term, shall entitle you to be considered a decided Christian. And I repeat—unless you acquire this character now, at the commencement of your Christian course, there is little reason to believe that you ever will acquire it: because every step that you take in the way of conformity to the world, will multiply the temptations around you, and will diminish your strength of resistance. On the other hand, if you begin right, and fix upon an elevated standard of duty, though it may cost you a severe effort at first, your course will soon become easy and delightful.
Dare then, my young friends, to do your duty at all times and at all hazards. Never be afraid to stand alone in a good cause. If the world spreads before you its brilliant and tempting scenes, remember that you are not of the world, and that you are to have no communion with its sinful pleasures. When difficulties and trials throng the path of duty, remember that you have professed to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus, and that the motto of a disciple is "self-denial." In short, wherever you are—whether among the friends or the enemies of Christ, act consistently with your profession and your hopes. In this way, you will secure to yourself the full amount of blessing which true religion is fitted to impart. In this way, you will travel onward to the grave, cheered by the tokens of God's gracious presence—and beyond it, you will walk over the plains of immortality, in the full radiance of the Redeemer's throne!
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