Lectures to Young People
William B. Sprague, 1830
TRUE RELIGION AN ALL-PERVADING PRINCIPLE
"Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown." Matthew 13:8.
One of the most awful sources of self-deception, especially among the young and inexperienced—is the disposition which prevails to take partial views of true religion. There are those who make the whole of true religion consist in a correct creed; and expect to be saved by their faith, though it neither purifies the heart, nor controls the life. There are those whose religion is made up entirely of strong emotion; who make the evidence of Christian character turn solely upon the point of powerful excitement; regarding it as only a secondary concern, what they believe on the one hand, or how they live on the other. And there are others still, with whom the morality of the life is all in all; who, while they refrain from open vice, and are honest in their dealings, and punctual to their engagements, and perhaps charitable to the poor—pronounce an attachment to the truths of the bible, to be bigotry; and the inward experience of the power of these truths, to be enthusiasm. Each of these classes has, at best—but a partial religion. They are all chargeable with separating things which God has joined together; and they despoil Christianity not only of its beauty—but of its power.
The parable from which our text is taken, is designed to illustrate the different influence which the gospel exerts upon different hearts, according to their preparation for receiving it. The text itself illustrates the influence of the gospel on a heart that has been mellowed and prepared for its reception by divine grace. By the seed, we are to understand the word of God. By the good ground, an honest heart. By its bringing forth fruit, its substantial and visible effect in a course of external obedience. The plain import of the passage then is, that the word of God being cordially believed, or received through the understanding into a good heart, becomes the principle of a holy life; in other words, that true religion IS AN ALL-PERVADING PRINCIPLE.
In illustrating this sentiment, I observe,
I. First, that true religion demands the homage of the intellect, and requires that the truth should be believed.
I am not about to plead the cause of those who will have it that perfect agreement in religious opinion is necessary to constitute the basis of mutual charity; or that absolute freedom from theological error is essential to our acceptance with God: for if the former of these were true, the Christian brotherhood would either be completely dissolved, or would be reduced almost to nothing: if we were to admit the latter, it might well be asked, 'Who then can be saved?' Nor is it any part of my design to agitate the delicate and difficult question, 'What degree of religious error may be held in consistency with a claim to Christian character?' For he who reflects at all must perceive that no general answer to this inquiry can be given; for as men are to be judged according to the light which they enjoy, the same degree of error may be incomparably more dangerous in some circumstances than in others. Without inquiring, therefore, what the leading truths of the gospel are, I am only concerned, at present, to show, that whatever they are, they are to be believed; and that he who refuses his assent to them, cannot, in any proper sense of the word, be considered a Christian.
For in the first place, I may ask, if it is not important that the truths of the gospel should be believed, why did God reveal them? If you admit that God is a Being of infinite wisdom, you must also admit that his views of things are all perfectly right; and that whatever He regards important, certainly is so. What, then, I ask, shall we infer from the fact of his having made a revelation, except that He judged it important that such a revelation should be made? And if this be a legitimate inference even from the fact, is it not still more so from the circumstances of the fact; from the astonishing expense at which this revelation was given to the world, and the wonderful interest which has been manifested for its preservation? Do you think Jehovah would have raised up a succession of men, reaching through a period of many centuries, and anointed them with his own Spirit, that they might communicate his will without the possibility of error; and would he have miraculously interposed by his providence, to preserve this inspired record amidst revolutions in which every human record has perished, if, after all, he regarded it as a matter of inconsiderable consequence? Has he not, then, by his providence, inscribed upon it his own estimate of its value?
But if Jehovah regards this revelation important, whence does it derive its importance in his estimation? Doubtless from the fact that it is designed to be instrumental of promoting his glory in the salvation of men. But how can it subserve this object, unless you believe it, any more than a system of pagan philosophy, which you have never taken the trouble to examine, or if you have, have thrown it by as bearing the stamp of absurdity or imposture? In refusing your assent to the truths of the Bible, then, you set up your wisdom against that of the Eternal; you virtually declare that the communication of his will made at an unparalleled expense, does not deserve your regard: you close against it even the doors of your understanding; and what greater affront than this can you offer to the Almighty Being who dictated it?
But you say, perhaps—that you believe the Bible, and therefore these remarks are inapplicable to you. I answer, they are not inapplicable, provided you hold the maxim that it is no matter what a man believes in respect to its leading truths; for if it is no matter what he believes, it is no matter whether he believes anything. Talk not of your belief either in the authority or the doctrines of revelation, so long as you maintain that a rejection of either is innocent; for reason herself is at no loss to answer the question whether that faith is of any value which pronounces it innocent to despise the authority of God, and slight his acknowledged communications.
Let no one here, professing to admit the claims of the Bible to be a divine revelation, repeat the hackneyed allegation against it, that its meaning is obscure; and that where there is so much room for difference of opinion, it were rash to fix a limit to our charity. In respect to minor points of Christian doctrine, let the principle, if you will, be admitted; but the moment you extend its application to the leading truths of the gospel, you virtually arraign Jehovah on the charge of trifling with his creatures. You bring against him the accusation of having professedly given a revelation to mankind—a revelation too which involves their destiny for eternity—and yet of having framed it in such a manner that it actually amounts to no revelation; because its meaning is incapable of being satisfactorily ascertained. Nor can you escape from this fearful reflection upon the Divine character, by saying that this effect is chargeable to the limited powers of the human mind; because the author of it knew well the character of the beings for whom it was designed, and the same Being who made the mind, made the revelation; and to say that he did not adapt the one to the other, would be nothing less than to charge him with a deficiency either of wisdom or goodness. I repeat, then, he who makes the obscurity of the Bible an apology for error in respect to any of its prominent doctrines, puts himself in the impious attitude of God's accuser: he lifts his arm toward the eternal throne, and insolently asks, "Why do you so?"
Another consideration which shows that a belief of the truth is an essential part of true religion, is, that all good practice must have its foundation in good principles. I know indeed there may be that which to the eye of man shall appear to be good practice—there may be an external morality so correct as to defy the most rigid human scrutiny, and yet it may all be the operation of the merest selfishness—the homage which a heart in rebellion against God renders to the good opinion of the world. But when we speak of good practice in connection with true religion, we can mean nothing less by it than that which is good in the sight of God; and as He searches the heart, surely no external actions can be good in his sight, except those which are prompted by good motives—which are built upon good principles. Men adopt the same rule, so far as they can, in judging of each other; that is, they estimate the character of actions by the supposed motives in which they originate; though from the imperfection of their views, they are always liable to be deceived. But Jehovah can never call evil good, or good evil; for every motive and principle of human conduct is perfectly open to his inspection.
Now, what do you think, in the view of God, must constitute the principles of action which he can approve? What—but the truths which he has revealed in his word? Are not the motives which they contain for pursuing the course of action which is here pointed out, not only the most rational—but the most weighty, which it is possible for the human mind to contemplate? But these truths can never become with you the principles of action, unless they are believed; so that in the rejection or the neglect of them, you actually undermine the foundation of a good life, and render your claims to pious character as baseless as the fabric of a vision.
Separate now from true religion a belief in the great truths of the bible, and see whether, in this new form, she does not seem to you maimed, and stripped of her glory. What is the religion of the heart, if the heart be not under the influence of divine truth? If it be anything that has the semblance of true religion, it is mere animal excitement. It is the fever of the soul—the fire of the passions, now breaking out furiously and now dying away: it is a gust of enthusiasm, which perhaps passes over in an hour—but is yet desolating as a whirlwind. It has in it nothing of uniformity or consistency; it yields no solid comfort; it prompts to no useful actions. It is, if I may be allowed the expression, a religion of accident; it rises and falls, it burns and expires—none can predict when, and none can imagine why. And if such be the religion of the heart, where there is any experimental religion professed, apart from the operation of Christian principle, what will you say of the religion of the life?
There may indeed be an occasional paroxysm of blind zeal; but in general you may expect to find a deplorable neglect of duty, as unlike the Christian life as the most opposite elements are different from each other. But suppose it be otherwise, and the life be most scrupulously correct, and every external duty be performed with pharisaical exactness, what is it, after all—but the body without the spirit; a professed recognition of your obligations to obey God, while yet, at the same time, you actually refuse to obey him; for this you do, let your external deportment be what it may, so long as you act from any other principles than those which he has prescribed for the regulation of your conduct.
Suppose that a fellow-creature were to render you the most essential service, and to act towards you the part of the greatest benefactor; but that you should afterwards know that in all his apparent efforts for your benefit, he had actually had no regard for you—but was aiming only at the accomplishment of some selfish purpose? Would not such a discovery materially change your opinion of his character, and annihilate every sentiment of obligation towards him? Estimate, then, on the same principle, the character of that external obedience which is rendered to God, and which is sadly misnamed a good life, when it results not from a belief of God's truth, or from a regard to his authority—but from the operation of that spirit of selfishness which is but another name for rebellion.
I appeal, finally, to the Bible itself, for direct proof that a belief of its doctrines enters essentially into the nature of true religion. The apostle, in writing to the Hebrews, declares, that "without faith it is impossible to please God." John the Baptist, whose ministry was designed as a preparation for the establishment of Christ's kingdom, exhorted those whom he addressed, to "believe the gospel." Our Savior himself has declared, "He who believes—shall be saved; but he who believes not shall be damned." And again, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, he who hears my word and believes on him who sent me, has everlasting life; and he shall not come into condemnation—but is passed from death unto life." If a belief of the truths of the gospel, then, be so important that God has thought proper to make it the subject of an express command; if he has declared that it is essential to obtaining his favor, and has suspended upon it the possession of everlasting life, who will doubt that it enters essentially into the nature of true religion?
But you will say that the faith which the passages to which I have referred, contemplate—is something more than a mere intellectual belief; that it includes the exercise of the affections. Be it so; but it involves the assent of the understanding also, and cannot exist without it: for to suppose that any truth could influence the heart, from which the understanding withheld its assent, were an absurdity. We are warranted, therefore, in applying to the faith of the intellect the passages which have been quoted, so far as to say, that without this faith (I here speak of those who enjoy the gospel) it is impossible to obtain the divine favor, or to secure eternal life. More than this is indeed necessary; but without this, nothing else can be of any avail.
Thus I have endeavored to show you that a belief of God's truth, an intellectual assent to the doctrines of the bible, is an essential part of true religion—so essential that the maxim that 'it is no matter what a man believes'—is perfectly at war with the genius of the gospel, and utterly unworthy the character of a Christian. But,
II. True religion demands the homage of the heart, and requires that the truth should be felt.Though it begins with the understanding, it does not end there: the understanding is only the door through which it makes its way to the heart.
In illustration of this sentiment, I observe thatall the great truths of revelation are directly calculated to call into exercise the affections. Is man susceptible of fear? If by fear be meant a holy reverence, what better fitted to awaken this sentiment than the scriptural character of God? Or if we understand by it a dread of evil, what better calculated to excite it, than the fearful outline which the bible has given us of the condition of the lost? Is man susceptible of gratitude? Where is to be found the record of so much condescension and love, of so much suffering voluntarily endured, and endured for enemies, as is exhibited in the word of God? Is man a creature of sorrow and of joy? What better calculated to melt him into sorrow, than a contemplation of the evil of sin, and of his own sins in particular, especially when viewed in their connection with the cross of Christ? And what can waken in his bosom a thrill of joy, if it be not a view of the glories of the divine character, and the glories of redemption, and the glories of immortality, as they are brought to view in the word of God? Is man susceptible of hope? What object in the universe ought to be an object of desire, if it be not the incorruptible inheritance which is reserved in heaven for the faithful; and what more could be done to place it within his reach, and to make it a proper object of expectation and of effort, than the word of God assures us has actually been done? In short, I will venture to say, that there is not an emotion of the soul, which it is right to indulge, which the truth of God, in some or other of its parts, is not fitted to awaken. Surely, then, the author of our religion must have designed that it should be a religion for the affections, else its truths would not have been so adapted to call them into exercise.
Again:true religion is designed to promote our happiness; but it can do this only as it influences the affections; for happiness has its seat in the affections. No exercise of the understanding can yield any enjoyment, apart from the influence which it exerts upon the feelings. It is possible that a mathematician may be enraptured in the contemplation of lines and angles; but the enjoyment consists not in the abstract contemplation—but in the feeling of admiration and interest which is awakened by it. There is enjoyment in the operation of many of the affections of the soul—in hope, in love, in gratitude, in submission, yes, and even in godly sorrow; but there is no enjoyment in the bare operation of the intellect, because the intellect is not the seat of enjoyment. feeling
If then true religion will answer the great purpose which it proposes, that of making man happy, it must address itself to him as a creature of feeling; and it must bring before him considerations which are fitted powerfully to affect his feelings; and any religion which should not do this, would mistake the character of man, and would be altogether inadequate to the exigencies for which it was intended to provide. As we here assume the fact that our religion is of divine origin, and that it is intended to make men happy, and as all experience proves that happiness has its seat in the affections, we are brought instantly to the conclusion that it claims the homage of the heart, not less than of the understanding; and that he whose religion terminates in the intellect, has not a true religion to render him happy.
Moreover, let the word of God be brought to testify to this point, and you will find that its testimony is equally decisive and abundant. I have already alluded to the fact that the faith which the gospel makes a condition of salvation, is not merely the faith of the understanding—but of the affections. Accordingly, when the eunuch inquired of Philip in regard to the propriety of his being baptized, the reply was, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may.' Is the exercise of repentance also a condition of salvation? But who does not know that repentance is chiefly a work for the affections? Does the word of God require that we should "rejoice in the Lord always;" that we should be "patient in tribulation;" that we should be "meek and lowly in heart;" that we should "love one another with a pure heart, fervently;" that we should "be spiritually minded, which is life and peace?" In making these requisitions, do you not perceive that it has identified the very existence of religion with the exercise of the affections? And what testimony shall be regarded as decisive, if this be pronounced insufficient?
Is it not manifest, then, that let your religion embrace as much truth as it will, and as much external morality as it may—it can never be the true religion which God requires, or which your own eternal interests demand, unless it reaches the heart! I proceed to a—
III.Third, and the only remaining consideration to which I shall call your attention, which is—that true religion demands the homage of the life, and requires that the truth should be obeyed. And on this article, a few hints, surely, may suffice; for however men may deny the importance of a correct creed, or of experimental piety, there are none but the grossly abandoned, who would dare to deny that it is essential to true religion, to live what is commonly called a godly life. If I have succeeded in the preceding part of the discourse, in showing that correct faith and correct feeling are essential parts of true religion, you will perceive that the proposition which has just been announced, is only an inference from what has already been proved; for a godly life is just as certain to result from good principles and good affections, as a stream is sure to proceed from a fountain.
Correct principles alone do not indeed insure correct conduct; for every day's experience shows that men whose moral and religious opinions are the most unexceptionable, flagrantly violate their own convictions, and rush into the haunts of iniquity. But where correct opinions are allowed to have their legitimate influence on the affections, where faith in the truths of true religion purifies the heart—there you may look for a holy life with as much confidence as you can calculate on any effect from its known cause. And let me say that all external reformation which is not produced in this way, is of little value. If it be the effect of correct principles united with correct feelings, if it be the fruit of the good seed sown in good ground, you may expect not only that it will be lasting—but that it will become more and more complete. But if it be brought about in any other way, let it be apparently ever so promising, you cannot depend upon its continuance; for it has no root in itself; and while it does continue, it is, to the Searcher of hearts, only a clean outer covering thrown over a heart principle of hostility and rebellion.
Moreover,it is the genius of the gospel, that it is in the highest degree practical; for while a cordial belief of its truths forms in man the spirit of obedience, it minutely prescribes for him a course of external duty, and leaves him at no loss in respect to what he ought to do in any of the relations of life. Be your rank high or low, be the measure of your responsibility comparatively great or small, be your circumstances in life what they may—open the bible, and here the path of duty is so plainly marked out, that you can have no apology for mistaking it. It is marked out too by a divine hand, and comes to you under the sanction of divine authority.
Thus I have endeavored to show you that true religion takes cognizance of the whole man; that it claims the homage of the intellect, the homage of the heart, the homage of the life.
I have discussed this subject, my young friends, the rather, as it seems to me that there are some features in the religious character of the present age, from which you are peculiarly exposed to the adoption of a partial religion. The present is an age of controversy; a period in which there are a thousand conflicting opinions in respect to religious truth; and there is great reason to fear that, instead of referring these opinions to the law and the testimony, to ascertain what is right, you will hastily conclude from the contradictions and absurdities which many of them involve, that none of them can be very important, and that there can be no great hazard in remaining unsettled upon a subject which admits of such variety of speculation. Or else, on the other hand, there is danger that, in the heat of controversy, you will attach so much importance to your own opinions, as to make you feel that true religion is a matter of opinion and nothing else; and that the correctness of your creed may atone for the sins of your heart or life.
The present also is an age of revivals, when the operations of the Spirit of God in awakening and converting sinners seem to be more powerful and rapid than in ages that have gone by; and there is so much said, and properly said too, of the state of the feelings in connection with the evidence of Christian character, that you are in danger of taking up the delusion that true religion is only a set of emotions, and that the great end of true religion is accomplished in mere animal excitement.
Moreover, the present is an age of action; there is a stirring almost throughout the church of God, in behalf of the interests of Christ's kingdom, such as has never been witnessed before; and there is something so noble in the project of extending the gospel through the world, that millions of hearts are beating high for its accomplishment. But may there not be danger, while you are putting forth your hand to this high and holy enterprise, that you will come to imagine that what you are doing for others, is a substitute for what you are neglecting to do for yourself; and that while your hands are so busy in the cause of man's salvation, you may be safe in neglecting to ascertain the holy truths of the gospel, and in neglecting to yield your hearts to their influence?
I advert to these dangers, that you may think of them, if you have not; and that you may think more of them, if you have; for if I mistake not, neither their reality, nor their magnitude, admits of question. I counsel you, that you may effectually avoid them, to become established in the truth. But remember that, if this is all that your religion does for you—it will leave you to perish. Advance farther, then, and let the truth have its legitimate effect upon your heart; in melting you into penitence, in renovating your affections, in imparting to you the spirit of adoption—the confidence, the submission, the humility, of a child of God. And finally, let the holy principles and feelings which you have drawn from the word of God, be acted out in the life; in whatever things are pure, and lovely, and honest, and of good report. Such a character as this would attract the homage of the world, the admiration of angels, the benediction of God. It would be the pledge of the highest happiness to be enjoyed on earth—and of an exceeding and eternal weight of glory in heaven!
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