Lectures to Young People
William B. Sprague, 1830
EXCUSES FOR THE NEGLECT OF TRUE RELIGION
"I ask you, have me excused." Luke 14:18.
The great principles of human nature, though modified in their operation by circumstances, are substantially the same in all ages. Hence there is a considerable degree of uniformity in the manner in which the gospel is treated, at different periods, and by all classes. When the invitation was sent abroad by the man who had made a feast, instead of being cordially and thankfully accepted, the servants returned, charged with the most flimsy and foolish excuses. When the apostles went forth and preached the gospel to the Jewish nation, here again there were reasons, or rather excuses, offered for not accepting it; and they were even more preposterous than those by which they were represented in the parable. And so too when the servants of the Lord Jesus, at the present day, go forth proclaiming a universal invitation to the gospel feast, and tell sinners of the rich provision made for them, and of the expense at which it has been made—Oh how often are they virtually answered in the language which you have just heard—"I ask you, have me excused." Lend me your attention then, my young friends, while, from this passage, I endeavor to show you how totally futile are the excuses with which, from time to time, you are putting off the claims of true religion. I am aware that most of the excuses which I shall notice are urged by others as well as youth; but while I would commend the subject to the serious consideration of all, I desire that you especially would ponder it with earnest attention and self-application.
What then, my young friends, are some of the EXCUSES, by which you are attempting to keep conscience quiet in the neglect of true religion?
1. The first which I shall notice is, that it is impossible, amidst all the conflicting opinions which exist on the subject of religion, to ascertain what true religion is; and hence it is inferred that they are the most prudent, who trouble themselves with it the least.
That there are different opinions in respect to true religion, admits not of question: the world is full of contradictory speculations on this subject; and some of the grossest absurdities which the human mind ever conceived, have been found in systems of doctrine professedly derived from the word of God. If indeed you were required to frame a system of truth for yourself, out of materials supplied by the various systems of religion in the world, without recourse to higher authority, you might well complain that it was an unreasonable and embarrassing requisition; and that your best efforts to come at the truth must result in nothing better than conjecture. But no such task is imposed upon you. You have access to the very fountain of divine knowledge: you are not only permitted—but required, to search the scriptures for yourself, using the writings of uninspired men only as helps to enable you to ascertain the mind of the Spirit.
And you cannot plead as an apology for neglecting to search the scriptures, that there is any lack of explicitness in respect to the great truths which they reveal; for the Bible was designed equally for all; and of course for the poor and illiterate, who constitute a large part of mankind; and to suppose that its leading doctrines are hidden under a mass of obscure and technical phraseology, were to charge the adorable Author of this revelation with trifling with the needs of his creatures. What then, my young friend, becomes of your excuse for neglecting true religion, that you cannot ascertain what true religion is? Open your Bible, and you will there find what it is, written in letters of light—all its great doctrines and precepts so perfectly intelligible, that the most simple and unlettered need not mistake them.
But suppose we admit that there are some things in the Bible which are hard to be understood—and to a certain extent no doubt this is true—but is this a reason why you should reject or disregard what is plain? Does the fact that you may not easily comprehend all the reasonings of Paul on the doctrine of justification, or all the allusions of the inspired writers to the then existing state of things, furnish any apology for your neglecting those plain precepts which require you to repent of your sins, and exercise faith in the atonement of Christ? Before you plead the obscurity of the Bible as a ground for neglecting true religion, you must, to be consistent, show yourself ready to receive the truths which you cannot but acknowledge are clearly revealed; and ready to practice the duties which you cannot fail to perceive are explicitly enjoined.
Say not then any longer, my young friend, that you do not know what true religion is. If you do not know, rely on it, it is your own fault. In giving you the revelation of his Son, God has not been mocking your necessities, by saying one thing, and meaning another. Will such an excuse as this stand the test of the final day? Is there one among you, who would not shudder at the thought of standing before the omniscient Judge with such an excuse?
2. Youth often excuse themselves for the neglect of true religion, on the ground that it is gloomy—that it throws a damp on all the joys of life. This certainly is a very serious charge, and deserves to be particularly examined.
Suppose, however, that this representation were just, I would still maintain that it did not amount even to the semblance of an apology for neglecting true religion; for it is never to be forgotten that it is true religion, and that only, which saves the soul from eternal death, and secures to it everlasting life and glory. What then though true religion were that chilling and comfortless thing which its enemies would sometimes represent it; what though it did require us to sacrifice all the enjoyments of social life, or even to undergo the most painful penance—the severest lacerations that nature can bear; what would all this be, compared with the loss of the immortal soul—the tortures of the never-dying worm—the ceaseless convulsions of the second death? I say then, that let true religion require of us whatever present sacrifices it might, that man would be a fool who would not rather make them than expose himself to the agonies of perdition: for in the one case, the poor and pitiful pleasures of a moment, would be succeeded by scenes of undying anguish and despair: in the other, the privations and sufferings of this short life would be followed by everlasting ages of glory. Admitting this charge, therefore, which you bring against true religion, in its full extent—we maintain that your conduct in neglecting it, is, on principles of reason, utterly indefensible.
But let us see whether there be any validity in this charge; whether it can be sustained either on the ground of reason, or on the ground of experience.
I admit indeed that the process preparatory to the sinner's conversion is often a very painful one, and is always accompanied by serious reflection and deep anxiety: for it were impossible that a soul should wake to its condition as lost, and exposed to the wrath of God, and remain unaffected by the woes of that condition. But this, though indispensable as a preparative for becoming pious, is not true religion itself; and it were not more absurd to talk against the blessing of health, because the sick man must submit to some unpleasant prescriptions in order to regain it, than to condemn true religion as gloomy, because you cannot partake its joys until you have felt the burden of conviction, and drank of the bitter waters of repentance.
Moreover, I am willing to admit that there are some gloomy Christians—people who really have the love of God in their hearts, who are yet subject through life to a deep and settled melancholy. But this, instead of proving that true religion is the parent of gloom, only proves either that some of the truths of religion are misapprehended, and thus perverted to minister to a gloomy habit, or else that the principle of true religion is too feeble in its operations to counteract the various causes which may produce this effect. Nothing can be more unjust than to make true religion answerable for the existence of evils, which, on account of the limited influence it has gained over the heart, it does not remove. Moreover, it admits of no question, that what is called religious depression is often to be referred to constitutional temperament, and the operation of other physical causes. So far as religion is concerned with it at all, it may safely be said that it is not true religion—but the lack of it, which operates to produce this effect.
In speaking of the delightful influence which true religion is fitted to exert on the heart, I am aware that we labor under one disadvantage: it is, that we are supposed to be speaking to people who are not only strangers to the joys of true religion—but who actually have no relish for them. But if I mistake not, even such people, if they would examine the gospel impartially, would find in it no tendency to a spirit of gloom.
The gospel does indeed announce to man his ruined and wretched state; but then it does nothing towards bringing him into that state—but on the contrary, it makes provision to bring him out of it. It cannot be denied that it speaks to the impenitent sinner the language of terror; but its practical tendency is to be estimated by its effect on those who do, and not upon those who do not, yield their hearts to its influence.
And now let me ask you, what there is in it which is adapted to diffuse gloom over a sanctified soul? Is there anything in the character of God—in his wisdom, goodness, mercy, or holiness, which is fitted to damp the Christian's joys? Is there anything gloomy in the thought that wherever he may be, he is surrounded by Jehovah's watchful care; and that even the most apparently untoward dispensations will finally redound to his greatest benefit? Is the glorious work of redemption by Christ—that work in which all the amiable and venerable attributes of the Godhead shine forth with transcendent luster, fitted to shed gloom on the best comforts of the soul? Is there the semblance of gloom in the precious promises of the gospel—in the promise that Jehovah will guide the Christian by his counsel; that he will sustain him in the valley of death; and finally be his everlasting portion? If these and other kindred subjects are not fitted to dispel gloom, and inspire the soul with serenity and cheerfulness, I ask what subjects are adapted to produce this effect? The gospel then is not calculated to make men gloomy—how is it in experience.
I speak not here of those who merely bear the name of Christians—but of those in whom true religion is a living, acting, reigning principle; and of such I venture to say, that they are more consistently and uniformly cheerful than any other class. I do not mean that you will find them throwing themselves into the current of worldly levities; but I mean, that in all the various circumstances of life, you may see in them a dignified cheerfulness, equally remote from an unsocial austerity, or forbidding gloom, on the one hand; and from a spirit of mirthful frivolity, on the other.
Place such a person in the humble walks of life, and if you please, let the night clouds of adversity gather around him, and let him see one friend after another carried to the grave, and one fountain of earthly comfort after another dried up, until, to the eye of sense, his last hold of earthly enjoyment seems to be broken; and tell me whether you can imagine that peace and even joy can find its way into such a scene as this. I tell you, my young friend, that that Christian is not bereft of consolation, though he may be bereft of everything else: amidst all this desolation without, there is a peace that passes understanding within: there is a holy confidence in God, a hope sure and steadfast, which is an anchor to the soul amidst all the storms of trouble that beat upon it.
I speak not here, blessed be God, of rare occurrences; and I doubt not that some such cases as that which I have supposed, may have come under your observation; that you may have seen Christian faith rising and triumphing under a weight of calamity which seemed to you absolutely insupportable. Surely, then, if true religion is gloomy, she imparts no such influence in the day of adversity. She has, at least, one bright side; one friendly, helping hand, to wipe away the tears from the eye of the mourner, and to carry consolation to the heart, whose sorrows the world is utterly powerless to assuage.
But there is another and still darker scene through which we must all pass, in which true religion is, by no means, an idle attendant. It is in that hour when all the poor helps that nature can yield us, are failing, and the soul that has not God for its refuge, is put upon its own naked resources, that true religion most triumphantly refutes the charge of being gloomy. Did you ever, my young friend, see a Christian dying in the exercise of a strong and elevated faith? Then I venture to say, you do not in your heart believe this charge against true religion, which I am considering. Draw near, you incredulous ones, who have been accustomed to regard Christianity as only the damper of human joy—draw near to that scene of mingled agony and triumph, in which a disciple of Jesus is taking his departure for the eternal world. What now is the world any longer to him? And what can it do for him, in this hour of his extremity? Nothing! The chill damps of death are already upon his countenance; and the sinking, fluttering pulse proclaims that the conflict with the destroyer has begun. Friends may weep and break their hearts around his dying bed; though even they can do nothing to enable him to retain his hold on life a single hour. But amidst all the complicated natural horrors of the death scene, you may see that Christian fearless and joyful. You may behold a lingering smile of triumph on the countenance over which the icy hand of the king of terrors is passing; and perhaps you may hear the praises of redeeming love—the hosannas of an almost disenthralled spirit, trembling on the tongue which, a few moments hence, will be motionless in death. And will you say, after all this, that true religion is the parent of gloom? Go then to the dying bed of the sinner, and contrast what you have just seen with what you will there see: go and mark the phrenzied look, and listen to the frantic exclamation, and measure, if you can, the woes that are clustering on that departing spirit; and then say, if it is a gloomy thing to die with true religion, what is it to die without it?
Thus I have endeavored to expose the fallacy of the plea that true religion is gloomy, by showing that, if the charge were true, it would amount to no apology for the neglect of it; because it is this alone which secures our eternal happiness: but that, so far from being gloomy, it is in itself essentially a system of consolation; and that all experience proves that it yields support which can be derived from no other source, and in circumstances in which everything else is completely unavailing.
And has not enough been said under this article to remove the delusion, if it has existed in any of your minds, that true religion is too grave a concern for the buoyant spirits of youth; that though old age, or even manhood, may reasonably enough be brought under its claims, yet the young have a fair right to be exempted. Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing in true religion that renders it unsuitable to your period of life. Its tendency is, not to repress the ardor of youth—but to give a right direction to it; not to dry up the sources of youthful enjoyment—but to enlarge and purify them. If you are told that, in becoming pious, you must yield yourself a victim to melancholy, believe not the slander for a moment. Be assured, on the other hand, that the "ways" of piety "are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace."
3. Another excuse which youth, in common with others, often plead for the neglect of true religion, is drawn from the infirmities and failings of professed Christians. These are often triumphantly pointed at as evidence that true religion does not make men the better, and as an argument for treating it with indifference, if not with contempt.
But admit the fact that many who profess true religion apostatize, and many others, in various ways, dishonor a Christian profession, and all discover remains of moral corruption. Before you can use this as an argument to disprove the truth of the gospel, you must be able to show that the gospel has either expressly, or by implication, declared that all who profess their faith in it are sincere Christians; in other words, that there is no such character as a hypocrite. But the gospel has made no such declaration: on the contrary, it was the master's own prediction that the tares and the wheat should be found together; and it is agreeable to the uniform tenor of the gospel, that Christians in the present life are sanctified but in part. The alleged fact, then, of the imperfections of professed Christians, instead of being an argument against the truth of our true religion, furnishes strong presumptive evidence in its favor; because it exactly verifies the declarations which the gospel has made in respect to the character of its professors.
But this notion which I am endeavoring to expose, is as much at war with common sense, as with scripture. Is it rational to infer from the fact that there was a Judas in the family of our Lord, that the disciples were all nothing better than a band of traitors? Or because there are professors of true religion, at the present day, who prove themselves hypocrites, are we hence to infer that there are none in whom true religion has its genuine operation? Or that the gospel itself is only a miserable forgery? What would you say of that kind of reasoning which should infer that the science of medicine or law was only a piece of imposture, from the fact that some men professing a knowledge of it were quacks or deceivers; or which should make every individual in the profession responsible for the ignorance or mismanagement of a few of its members?
The truth is, that common sense decides that the character of each professed Christian is to be judged independently of every other; and that the character of the gospel is to be estimated by its practical tendency. Examine the gospel, then, and see whether it does not condemn sin in every form, and in every class; and in no class more explicitly than in those who profess to be the followers of Christ: and in view of this fact, say whether the imputation which I am considering is not a foul slander on our holy true religion.
And what, after all, is the amount of the fact alleged in this charge against true religion? It is only that some of its professors dishonor the Christian name; while it virtually admits (and certainly the most unblushing malice against the gospel cannot deny) that a considerable proportion of them adorn their profession by a holy life. And if the instances of apostacy, or lamentable declension, which occur among professing Christians, prove that true religion is all a cheat, I ask, what, on the other hand, is proved by the fact that so large a number persevere, and exhibit, to the close of life, a holy conversation and deportment? The truth is, that the former of these facts proves nothing against true religion in any way; for it is not to true religion—but to the absence of it, that it is to be referred: whereas the latter furnishes decisive evidence that true religion does exert a benign and controlling influence over the heart and life.
Say now, my young friend, will you dare to plead this apology for the neglect of true religion any longer? Is it not a reflection upon your reason that you should have ever ventured to plead it all? That there are false professors we admit; but your situation as a sinner is just as alarming, as if there were not a false professor on earth. They indeed will suffer a tremendous doom: but whatever that may be, certain it is that the Bible denounces tribulation and anguish upon you; and if you continue in your present course, you may find, when it is too late to profit by the discovery, that the time you had spent in caviling about the imperfections of professors, had been far better employed in mourning over your own sins, and gaining an interest in the great salvation.
4. The plea of INABILITY is also urged to justify the neglect of true religion.
I would ask the person who urges this plea, in the first place, whether he really believes that he has done everything toward the work of his renovation, that is in his power? Have you reflected daily and habitually on your guilt and danger, and stedfastly resisted the temptations of the world, and sought fellowship with God's people, and availed yourself of every means within your power for becoming acquainted with your true condition and character, and yielding up your heart to God? And have you persevered in this course up to the present hour? If your conscience does not tell you that you have actually left nothing undone which it was in your power to do towards the work of your salvation, then you have no right to urge the plea of inability. Nor have you a right, even in that case, to urge it; for who has told you, if your past efforts have been unavailing, that a persevering repetition of them may not accomplish the great object to which they are directed. If it is ever to be urged with even a semblance of plausibility, it must be in the last moments of your life, after all that has been in your power has been done, and to no purpose.
But this plea may be shown to be false in another way. The whole duty of man is summarily comprehended in love to God. But the reason why the sinner does not exercise this love, is not because he is destitute of affections; for he actually bestows them on objects innumerable, and infinitely less deserving of them than God. Nor is it because, in the exercise of these affections, he has not all the powers of a moral agent; for in all his moral exercises, he is conscious of perfect freedom. He can love the world with intense affection; and he can roll sin as a sweet morsel under his tongue: but when the most glorious being in the universe claims the homage of his heart, he coldly refuses the offering, and shelters himself behind the plea of inability.
And what is the obvious construction of this conduct? Why manifestly this—that he is so bitter an enemy to holiness, and has such an aversion to the character of God, that he cannot be reconciled to him. What would you think if your neighbor should insult you with such an apology for an injury he had done you? What would you think of the wretch who had burnt down your dwelling, or the assassin who had murdered your father, that should enter a court of justice, and plead his innocence on the ground of his malevolence towards your family? And do you think that such an apology as this will satisfy the great God for the contempt poured upon his character? You surely dare not think of carrying this excuse to the judgment, unless you have made up your mind to encounter the agonies of perdition.
But if this plea were admitted, look at the consequences to which it would lead. If that kind of inability which consists in a simple aversion to the character and service of God, justifies the sinner in opposition to his character, and in declining his service, we arrive instantly at the absurd conclusion, that the more a man hates God, the less guilty he is; and he who hates him with perfect hatred, is perfectly innocent.
Moreover, this plea is not only false and preposterous—but, in the highest degree, insincere. Could you hear the honest language of the sinner's heart, at the very moment this plea is upon his lips, it would be that he did not believe a word of it. For observe that this plea proceeds upon the supposition that heaven and hell are realities: the plea itself is nothing less than that he who offers it, is exposed every hour to suffer the pangs of the second death; and yet that by the iron bars of fate, he is prevented from making his escape. If your dwelling were on fire, and some wretch had chained you down in such circumstances that you could not escape the devouring element, would you amuse yourself with the awful grandeur of the scene, or would you be distracted with terror at the anticipated horrors of the death that awaited you? When we find you frantic with agony while you are offering this plea, we may acknowledge that there is at least some appearance of sincerity; but until then, wonder not if we regard the plea as merely the suggestion of a spirit of rebellion.
But do you inquire whether the work of your salvation is to depend entirely on yourself: and whether the Spirit of God has nothing to do in bringing you to repentance? I answer, the Spirit has a most important part to perform in this great work; insomuch that without his agency, it would never be accomplished. But the Spirit, in his operations, contemplates you as active; and if you remain with your arms folded, waiting for a visit from this divine agent, you may expect to wait until you die, and then die in your sins. The way to enlist his renewing influences in your behalf, is to arise, and shake off your sluggishness, and plead mightily with God to have mercy upon you.
5. The only remaining excuse for the neglect of true religion which I shall notice, is, that there is time enough yet. And what is it, my young friend, for which you are so sure that you have time enough remaining? Is it merely a momentary turning of your thoughts away from the world, or yielding yourself for an hour to the impression of eternal things, or performing a little lip service which you call prayer, or doing the drudgery of a few external duties? Oh no, it is nothing like this: it is the breaking off right hand sins: it is the mortification of evil affections: it is the yielding up the whole heart to God: it is the consecration of the whole man to his service and glory. And is this a work of so small moment that you can safely put it off to another day, on the ground that there is time enough yet for the performance of it?
Besides, let it not be forgotten that true religion lays its demands upon all your faculties and affections, through every moment of your existence. Have you time enough then for doing that hereafter which devolves upon you at this moment, when each future moment will bring with it its own appropriate duties? If all that you can possibly do in the next hour, is demanded of you during that hour, how will you find time then for doing the duties which devolve upon you now? Perhaps, however, you only mean that there is time enough yet—that is, some more convenient season than the present—for exercising that repentance of sin which is necessary to secure your salvation.
But there are two things of which you ought to feel absolutely assured, before you make up your mind to defer repentance to any future period. In the first place, in order to justify such a resolution, you must be certain of the continuance of life. You must have gained an assurance that, notwithstanding the arrows of death are thickly flying around you, and every day numbers its victims for the tomb; yet, amidst all this desolation, your life, for some indefinite period, shall certainly be preserved. And this you must know on the authority of Him in whose hand your breath is; for He only who fixes the bounds of our habitation, is competent to assure you of the continuance of life even for a moment.
And then again, you must be assured that God will grant you grace to repent, and will accept your repentance at a future day. You must be able to point to some declaration in the Bible, which makes it certain that the Holy Spirit, whose influences you now resist, will hereafter visit your soul again; and if he should, that you will be more disposed to cherish his influences than you are now. But on both these points, you cannot but know that the evidence is all against you. There is a voice from a thousand graves, admonishing you that you cannot presume on the continuance of life, even until tomorrow; and there is the practical testimony of many a sinner, whose heart, by procrastination, has become as hard as the nether millstone, that in calculating on the future efficacious operations of the Holy Spirit, you have all probability against you.
But if you persevere in saying that there is time enough yet, let me ask you to define the particular period which you have allotted to the performance of this work. Is it the period of middle age? Look then, I pray you, to the man who has actually reached that period, and judge candidly whether his advantages for becoming pious are increased beyond what they were in the season of youth. Is there anything in the pressure of worldly care, in the claims of a rising family, in the numerous and distracting demands upon time, which that period so commonly brings with it, that is favorable to the work of repentance—a work which demands reflection, and self-communion, and abstraction from the world. And if middle age does not furnish better advantages than youth for becoming pious, let me ask again, is it more likely to bring with it the disposition? Is it in accordance with the known principles of human nature, that a habit of any kind should grow weaker by being cherished? Or may not the exact opposite of this be anticipated, with as much confidence as any effect can be looked for from its appropriate cause?
And if experience be consulted, where are the individuals to testify that familiarity with the world has strengthened the resolution or the desire to become pious? No, my young friends, the difference between the period to which you are looking forward, and that through which you are now passing, is altogether in favor of the latter: If, therefore, you leave the season of youth strangers to true religion, it is more than probable, if your life should be spared, that you will leave the season of manhood with the same character.
But possibly when you say that there is time enough yet, you are looking forward to a period still more distant—to the season of old age. I cannot forbear saying, at the outset, that it is only possible that you may live to that period; the chances, according to the principles of human calculation, being altogether against you. But suppose, by a comparatively rare dispensation, your life should be protracted even to fourscore years, I ask you what there will be in your condition then to facilitate the great work to which I am urging you? With a mind not improbably broken by age, or paralyzed by disease; with habits which have been the regular growth of almost a century; with little of the power, and still less of the disposition, to reflect closely or for a long time upon any subject—is there not little probability that the great work of repentance will ever be seriously thought of—still less, earnestly attempted—least of all, actually performed? I know there is here and there a miracle of mercy wrought in the conversion of an aged sinner; but when such instances occur, they occasion surprise, and every Christian is ready to exclaim, "What has God wrought!" Dare not, my young friend, to stake your immortal interests on such a fearful uncertainty!
But I am not certain that there are none of you, who, in pleading that there is time enough yet, may not be secretly flattering yourselves with the hope of a death-bed repentance. But do you really think that you shall be able to meet and answer the claims which God makes upon you, by the convulsive efforts of your last hour? Who then has told you that, after you have spent a life of rebellion against God, he will grant you grace to repent, while the last moments of your probation are on the wing? Or where has God promised that he will listen to that cry for mercy which is prompted by the terrors of an opening retribution? Or how do you know that you may not, like multitudes of others, die in a state of spiritual insensibility, being actually abandoned of God to a reprobate mind? Or what evidence have you that your last sickness may not be the sickness of a moment, and your passage into eternity in the twinkling of an eye? Or if it should be protracted, who can tell but that you may be given up to the wild horrors of delirium, and be utterly insensible to your condition, until death has actually done its work? I say nothing in respect to particular instances of death-bed repentance; but in general, there is everything to show that little or no dependence is to be placed upon them. Oh beware how you defer the concerns of true religion until your closing hour!
What then, my young friends, is the great practical inference from all that has been said under this article, and from the general tenor of this discourse? It is this: "Behold now"—now in the days of your youth—"is the accepted time." We have examined the excuses with which you are prone to put off true religion, and have shown you that they amount to nothing. Dismiss not, I entreat you, the practical contemplation of this subject, until the effect of it has been to make you realize that there is no time to be lost in securing your immortal interests; to prepare you to ask with agonizing earnestness, the momentous question, "What must I do to be saved?"
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