The Young Man's Friend and Guide
Through Life to Immortality

John Angell James (1785—1859)

"You guide me with Your counsel, and afterward
You will take me into glory!" Psalm 73:24



"What is truth?" John 18:38

Such was the momentous question which Pilate proposed to the illustrious and holy Martyr who then stood as a prisoner at his bar. It has been said there are two things in the Scripture account of this circumstance which surprise us—the silence of Christ, and the indifference of his judge—that Christ would not answer such a question, and that Pilate should not press it until he obtained an answer. One of these wonders is the cause of the other, and if you consider them in connection, your astonishment will cease. The levity of the querist was the cause of the silence of the oracle. Truth, in awful majesty, though veiled and insulted, stood before him, and indignantly refused to unfold its secrets and its glories to one who discovered frivolity on such a subject. On his lips it was the question of idle curiosity, not of deep solicitude; it came from the surface, and not from the lowest depths of the heart. He did not think truth of sufficient importance to inquire after it a second time. Christ did not gratify his curiosity.

The conduct of Pilate to Jesus and of Jesus to Pilate is repeated every day. Multitudes, by a little attention to religion and their Bibles, ask, "What is truth?" but it is in such a careless and undevout manner, that Jesus Christ leaves them to wander in their own dark and miserable conjectures. Hence so many prejudices; hence so many erroneous opinions in religion; hence so many dangerous delusions, in what is called the Christian world. Still there have been very many who in sober and solemn inquisitiveness have asked the question, "What is truth?" Myriads of human intellects of the highest order have engaged in the pursuit of this great object; and, as regards scientific knowledge, have by demonstration and experiment echoed in unison, and with something of the rapture with which it was originally uttered, the 'Eureka!' of Archimedes.

But in reference to moral and religious truth, how multitudinous and how contradictory are the voices which answer the inquiry. If we may judge from the present state and aspect of Christendom, the day is far distant when, in answer to the question, all tongues shall proclaim one doctrine, and triumphantly reply, "This is truth." Hence the perplexities of many young people at the outset of their religious life.

Many things, young men, will perplex you at the outset of a religious life, and tend, in the early stages of your inquiry into this momentous subject, to confuse you. The mysterious nature of the whole subject of religion, so far as it relates to divine, heavenly, and eternal truths; the general neglect of it, to all practical and serious purposes, by the multitude around you; and the lukewarmness and inconsistency of many of those who make a profession of it—will all be apt to produce an unfavorable impression upon your mind, to shake your resolutions, and render your steps hesitating and faltering.

There is also another cause of perplexity, I mean the number of religious sects, the diversity of creeds, and the ceaseless and yet unsettled controversies which prevail throughout all Christendom. Bewildered by such diversity, and distracted by such contentions, you are ready to abandon the subject in hopeless despair of arriving at the truth. I sympathize with you, my young friends, in your difficulties, and this chapter is intended, by God's blessing, to extricate, relieve, and guide you—and if it does not remove the difficulty (for what can remove it?) may do something to lessen it.

I. I will state particularly what it is that perplexes you. I descend into the depths of your secret thoughts, and I find there some surprise that on such a subject as true religion, especially after a revelation from God, there should be any controversy, or any room for controversy at all. You may be ready to suppose that all would be so plain as to preclude the possibility of diversity or mistake. But do men think alike on any other subject? Is there consensus of opinion on any one topic that is sustained only by moral evidence? Was there ever a statute or law passed, (they are usually so framed as to exclude, if possible, all difference of opinion,) about which lawyers can not, as to some of its clauses, raise doubts and difficulties.

Now, is not a written revelation from God, inasmuch as it relates to subjects foreign to ordinary matters, remote from our senses, and out of the usual track of our thoughts, just that one thing about which, beyond all others, diversity of opinion might be expected? Consider the thousands of propositions contained in the Bible; the imperfections of language to correctly convey thoughts; the mysteriousness of the subjects; the endlessly diversified temperament of human minds, and the various circumstances in which those minds are placed; and you will see at once that nothing short of an astounding and constant miracle could produce absolute uniformity of opinion.

Nor is this all; for such is the corruption of man's heart, that his mind is not only on this ground likely to go wrong in its judgments, but it is actually opposed with very strong dislike to many of the truths revealed, and on that account it really wishes and attempts to pervert them, as being too humbling for his pride, too pure for his depravity, and too authoritative for his love of independence. Here again we see reason to abate our surprise at the diversity of opinion.

The young enquirer about true religion is frequently repulsed by the bitterness of sectarianism, and the rancor with which controversy is conducted. He sees the evil passions of our corrupt nature, "malice, wrath, and all uncharitableness," as rife in the writings, and therefore in the hearts, of religious debaters, as they are in those of the fiercest political antagonists; and he says in thoughtful seriousness, "Was not Christianity sent to produce peace on earth, and good will to men? Is it not said that love is its cardinal excellence? Can these men, any of them, really believe in the Christian religion—which places charity at the top of the Christian virtues?" I admit to you without hesitation, all this bitterness is wrong, cannot be justified, and is condemned by the volume about which these men contend! To speak the truth in love is one of its own injunctions.

But recollect that even the best of men are imperfect, and that nothing so strongly appeals to our imperfections, and brings them into such activity, as contradiction and controversy. It is not true to say there is more bitterness in theological controversy than in any other kind; but it is true that there ought to be less. One thing should not be forgotten, that the importance of the subject naturally renders men more earnest than any other does, and that earnestness, it must be admitted, too generally degenerates into improper severity and bitterness. There is in every human heart, however morally excellent and holy, some corruption lying underneath its excellences which by controversy is too often brought to the surface; just as sediment at the bottom of clear water is stirred up by agitating the vessel containing it.

The equal mental power with which opposing systems are maintained, is to a mind unskilled in debate, and unable to detect the fallacies which lurk, and the sophistry which abounds in erroneous argumentation, often very trying. It is admitted, it is impossible to question it—that great ability is possessed and displayed by all parties in the arena of religious strife—by the combatants for error as well as by those who support truth. And who can wonder at this, since the father of lies has perhaps the highest intellect in the universe, next to the Deity. In contending armies upon the field of battle, equal courage, skill, and prowess, are often displayed for a long time by both sides, the wrong as well as the right; and a spectator of the awful conflict might be at a loss to determine which would gain the victory, and which deserved to gain it. There is no error so palpable even to common sense, but it may be defended by arguments so ingenious as to defy ordinary minds to detect their fallacies and expose the sophistry by which they are urged. Truth is often with the weaker party, I mean weaker in the use of weapons of debate. A skillful polemic may often make error appear more plausible than truth.

The apparent equality of moral excellences in the advocates of opposing systems of opinions, is sometimes perplexing—and in some cases, even greater amiability may seem to be with those who advocate error, than with those who contend for truth. It must not be forgotten that saving faith is intended to produce two results, love to God and love to man—in other words piety and morality. Remember this, for it is of vast importance you should remember it. Penitence, faith, inward holiness, devoutness, heavenliness, are all parts of true religion, without which the fairest morality, and most beautiful amiability, are, in the sight of God, worth nothing, and will be found totally unavailing to salvation. There may be much general amiability and morality, without an atom of genuine piety. The only true standard of moral excellence is the Bible, and that places God before us as the first object of regard. Systems, as well as men, are to be judged of by their fruits; but then we must always ask what kind of fruits they are designed to produce. Bible truths must produce Bible fruits, and these are something more than the moralities, amiabilities and courtesies of life—valuable, and necessary, and important, as these are.

The present unsettled state of controversy completes the perplexity. It would seem as if we were no nearer the adjustment of our differences than ever. Sects are as numerous, their creeds as various and as diverse, and their contests as eager as ever, after all the reasoning which has been employed, and the volumes which have been written through so many ages. But surely this should not add much to your difficulty, for if diversity of opinion exist at any time, it may be expected to exist at all times. Men's minds are constituted in one age as they are in another, and may be expected to differ in all ages. It may, however, be hoped that, under the prevalence of a more earnest piety and the establishment of sounder principles of interpretation, aided by the dispensations of Providence, and a more copious effusion of the Holy Spirit—a greater approximation of sects and opinions will take place; and for such a state of things all should devoutly pray and hope.

In looking at this prevalence of diversified opinion, and seemingly endless controversy, let us enquire if, while admitting it to be an evil, we may not discover some good, which, by the ordering of Providence, will be eventually, and even now is, brought out from it. Does not this diversity of sects, and sharpness of controversy, effectually tend to preserve the purity of the sacred text of the Bible? Suppose there were in some large town one public reservoir, from which all the inhabitants drew their supplies of water; and suppose, further, there were some considerable diversity of opinion as to the real qualities and properties of the water, while all considered the water to be necessary; would they not all watch each other that no liberty whatever was taken with the common source, to corrupt it by infusing into it anything which would make it more agreeable to the purposes and tastes of any party, or any individual, or to diminish the supply, or any way to interfere with the general benefit? They might sometimes dispute, and very sharply too, about the quality of the water, and some bad feeling might be generated in the course of their disputes; but still their natural jealousies would make them all protectors of the reservoir, and guardians of its purity and preservation.

Something like this occurs in the diversity of sects; they have the Bible common to them all, and they all profess to be founded upon it. They differ in opinion as to its contents, but this very difference makes them keep a sharp lookout upon each other, to see that none of them corrupt the text, either by way of interpretation, addition, or subtraction. Such attempts were indeed made in earlier ages, but they were detected and exposed. And copies multiplied by millions, in various languages, and held in the hands of various churches and denominations, prevent this now. The existence of sects and controversies guarantees to us, therefore, a pure and uncorrupted Bible.

Then, does it not tend to make the Bible more examined and thoroughly searched? How little is this book explored in Popish countries, where differences of opinion are repressed and controversy forbidden! How much more gold is brought up in California, where anyone may dig and explore for himself, than in those places where the mines are a royal monopoly, and none may dig but by authority! What additions are made to the stock of scriptural knowledge, where the stern voice of the church forbids the exercise and right of private judgment, the publication of individual opinion, and the existence and maintenance of controversy? Even if error by this means could be shut out, how much of truth is excluded with it! How little, as compared with Protestant writers, have Roman Catholics added to our stores of Biblical knowledge!

Has not God overruled the zeal of party for the spread of his cause? Do not the sects quicken each other's zeal by the power of rivalry? Is not this the case both at home and abroad? I acknowledge that in this zeal there is an infusion of sectarianism, and so far it is a corruption; but there is nothing absolutely pure in our world, and this very infusion may stimulate the efforts of the zealot. A propagator of Methodism, Church of Englandism, Presbyterianism, or Congregationalism, may be stimulated by sectarianism in his efforts to spread his particular opinions, but still with these he carries something more and something better, for he carries with him the gospel of salvation. I have no doubt that sectarianism does add something to our zeal, even in our home and foreign missions, and so far may seem to corrupt it—but on the other hand, it prevents us from sinking into a state of inertness and stagnancy.

The Roman Church tells us she can do this without the rivalry of sects. This is not quite true. It is this very rivalry which has in part enabled her to gain her wide extent and dominion. Witness the controversies as to doctrine between the Jesuits and the Dominicans, and between the Jesuits and the Jansenists, the conflict of the Gallican and Ultramontane opinions, and the disputes between her various missionary orders as to their respective proceedings in the East. The existence of this diversity gives opportunity also (alas that so few should be forward to avail themselves of it!) for manifesting our forbearance towards each other, and bringing into exercise that "charity which is the bond of perfectness."

It would be difficult to say which would be the most beautiful spectacle, a church uniform in opinion, or a church somewhat multiform in sentiment, yet maintaining a unity of spirit in the bond of peace. We thus see that some good may be brought out of the evil of controversy and the prevalence of sectarianism.

The entrance of moral evil into God's wise, benevolent, and holy administration, seemed to be evil, and only evil; yet how has God overruled it for a brighter and completer manifestation of his character!

II. I shall now advert to the wrong methods which many adopt to relieve themselves of the perplexity occasioned by this diversity.

In some cases it leads, or tends to lead, to general skepticism, and a total abandonment of all inquiry, under despair of ever finding out the truth. Men are apt to say, "We will give it all up, for who amid such endless diversity can hope to find the truth?" But is this rational? Do men act thus in other matters about which much diversity prevails? Do they give up politics because of the numerous parties into which, on that controverted subject, men are divided? Do they abandon the subject of finance, political economy, or the arts and sciences, on this ground? And why should they do it in true religion? How many have found out the truth—and are reposing in peace upon their convictions! And why may not you? Abjure then the idea of abandoning true religion on this ground. You will find this to be no excuse at the day of judgment.

God has given you an intellect capable of investigating the subject, and will hold you responsible for the exercise of it in this particular. Men are divided in opinion upon food, medicine, and the best means of promoting health; and will you therefore give up all care about the best way to maintain your life, health, and comfort? Truth is to be found somewhere, and it is an indolent disposition which leads us to give up the pursuit, because we do not by a kind of intuition, or a hasty first view of the subject, know what it is, and where it is to be found. You must search after it. Your salvation depends upon your finding and embracing those truths with which it is connected. Multitudes have found truth—and so may you.

Some people, unable to decide upon the truth as regards doctrines, have contented themselves with observing, as they suppose, the practical parts of true religion, and have relinquished all concern about doctrine. They have attempted to construct a religion to be irrespective of the peculiarities of sect or creed, and to consist wholly of moral duties, with perhaps a few exercises of general devotion. This is deism. It is true they thus get rid of controversy, but at the same time they get rid of Christianity also! The Scriptures are set aside entirely, and all the great facts and truths of revelation are repudiated. The Bible is not merely a code of morals to be obeyed and practiced—but a declaration of facts and truths to be believed. Scripture ethics rest on Scripture doctrines. Faith, as well as practice, is the demand of revelation.

But the great and effectual relief from the perplexities of controversy, is supplied, say Papists, by Roman Catholicism. The Church of Rome professes that it is by its doctrines and discipline, as set forth in its councils, canons and creeds, a perpetual living tribunal, to decide all matters of religious faith and practice, and thus to prevent all controversy. All doctrines are settled and determined for its members by the church as the authoritative and infallible expounder of the truth. This is the lure it holds forth to those who are without its pale, who are perplexed with controversy and distracted by religious strifes, and the multitudes of religious sects, "Come with us, we are the true church, possessing authority and infallibility to decide upon doctrine, which is thus provided for you, without the labor of inquiry, the pain of suspense, the disquietude of doubt, or the peril of being mistaken. Receive the faith of the church, and believe as the church believes; it guarantees your safety in all that you receive with this implicit faith. You will thus be taken out of the divisions, distractions, and controversies of Protestantism, and find rest for your weary soul in the lap and on the bosom of your holy mother, the Church."

This is somewhat attractive, it must be confessed, and if it were true would be quite satisfactory; but it is awfully deceptive. Where in the Scripture is any church invested with the authority to be a living umpire, and to decide all controversies? Where is there any allusion to such a tribunal? Is it not to the Scripture—and not to a church—we are everywhere directed for settling the question, "What is truth?" Even if a church were this living tribunal, we contend that the Papacy, so far from being the true church, is a dreadful apostasy, and repugnant to every part of the New Testament. Instead of being the judge of truth, it is a false witness, whose testimony is a compound of the most obvious falsehoods and soul-destroying errors—whose voice continually speaks lies and nonsense!

The claim of the Church of Rome to infallibility, which is the basis of its living tribunal, is repugnant alike to reason, to Scripture, and to the facts of its own history. It acknowledges that infallibility is not the attribute of its individual members—but only of the Pope or of the collective body of the church, assembled in a General Council. But is it not an universal law of logic, that what is in the genus must be in the species? If, therefore, the collective body is infallible, so must be its individual members. How can a collection of fallibles, multiply them as you will—make up an infallible? Besides, it is not yet decided, and never has been, where this infallibility resides—whether in the Pope without a General Council, a General Council without a Pope, or a Pope and a General Council. Thus the claim is repugnant to reason.

It is equally so to Scripture, which in a thousand places proclaims the liability of all men to err, except such as are under Divine inspiration.

Nor is the claim less contradictory to the history of Romanism, which records that one Pope has often been against another Pope—the same Pope would often contradict himself—and one Council would often be against another Council. There is scarcely a doctrine of Popery which has not been the subject of controversy within the bosom of the Papal community. The variations of Popery have been almost as numerous as those of Protestantism. Where, then, is its infallibility?

The claim of the Church of Rome to be this living tribunal, which is to settle once for all and for everybody what is truth, and to prevent all controversy by forbidding the exercise of private judgment, is in direct contradiction to the Word of God, which calls upon every man for himself to "search the Scriptures," to "prove all things, and hold fast that which is good." To constitute the church the tribunal which is to decide for us what is truth, without our examination of the Scriptures for ourselves, is to make all its members believers in the church rather in the Word of God, and thus to put the church in the place of the Bible as the object of faith.

This method of deciding controversies, and settling the question what is truth, renders the Scriptures all but useless for the people; and therefore is only consistent with the prohibition of the free use of the Scriptures by them. This scheme is an utter degradation of man's nature as a rational being, and is a plan never adopted in reference to anything else. Who would endure such a method of determining questions of literature, science, politics, law, or art? Why, therefore, should a man be debarred from engaging on the most momentous of all topics, and he be exposed to the consequences of eternal ruin by implicitly trusting to the judgment of others? How is any man to know whether he really believes what the church believes, and all it believes? Who can search the numberless folios which contain the faith of the church, and be satisfied that he has not omitted something which the church requires of him? And though creeds drawn up by Popes, and catechisms and manuals by learned doctors and eminent bishops, may be put into the hands of the people, yet as no individual man, however elevated, even the Pope himself, is infallible—how is anyone to be satisfied that there is no error in these compositions? Besides, as no one can have access to the church except as it is represented to him by some individual priest, who is in the place of both God and the church to him; how can anyone be sure, since that individual priest is fallible, but that he may err in the views he may give of the church's doctrine?

This 'living tribunal', by suppressing controversy, destroys liberty, and turns the whole subject of religion into a matter of slavish submission to human authority. And with liberty, piety also to a considerable extent expires. The dull uniformity produced by the compulsion of authority, is no compensation for the loss of that activity and spirit which are kept alive by the brotherhood and zeal of rival sects. "The Gallican Church no doubt looked upon it as a signal triumph when she prevailed upon Louis XIV to repeal the Edict of Nantes, which repeal, by refusing toleration to the Huguenots, suppressed the voice of controversy and the existence of sects. But what was the consequence? Where shall we look, after this period, for her Fenelons and her Pascals? Where for the distinguished monuments of piety and learning, which were the glory of her better days? As for piety, she perceived she had no occasion for it, when there was no luster of Christian holiness surrounding her—nor for learning, when she had no longer any enemies to confute, or any controversies to maintain. She felt herself at liberty to become as ignorant, as secular, as irreligious as she pleased; and amid the silence and darkness she had created around her, she drew the curtains and retired to rest. The accession of numbers she gained by suppressing her opponents, was like the small extension of length a body acquires by death; the feeble remains of life were extinguished, and she lay a putrid corpse, a public nuisance, filling the air with pestilential exhalations." (Robert Hall's "Zeal without Innovation.") Such then are the objections to a living and infallible tribunal for the decision of controversy—as claimed by the Church of Rome.

But perhaps it will be asked whether all denominations even of Nonconformists, do not put forth creeds, articles, and catechisms, which they not only teach, but require their members to believe? Certainly, as acknowledged compendiums of their views of the Word of God; but they allow every man to test them by the Scriptures, and to reject them if he sees fit. They are held forth to guide—but not to compel. They are proposed, but not imposed. They are submitted for examination and instruction to the judgment, but they are not made to bind the conscience.

You see, then, young men, that the perplexities of controversy cannot be avoided by surrendering up your judgment into the hands of priests; but that you are to employ it diligently for yourselves in coming to a conclusion upon the various questions which divide and agitate the religious world.

III. The question, however, comes back—"What is to be done?" How is the mind to be relieved from its perplexity in listening to the contradictory views which reply to the question, 'What is truth?' Is an inquirer to set about to read and study the religious opinions of all the denominations in existence? That would be an endless and needless labor. It would be a useless consumption of time, and would only end in still deeper and more painful perplexity. Take the case of any other book than the Bible; a legal statute, or a history, or any other document about which a great diversity of interpretation existed, and which was in your own hands; would you, in order to know its true meaning, think it necessary to read all the conflicting opinions? No! You would say, "I will read and study the document itself. I have it in my possession in the vernacular tongue, and I will read and judge for myself." Act thus in reference to the Bible and religious differences.

Study the Scriptures. Search the Word of God for yourselves. Be intimately acquainted with your Bibles, especially the New Testament. But there is a right and a wrong way of doing this. The exhortation to search the Scriptures is expressive of a particular state of mind, as well as of an outward duty. Carry to the Bible no preconceived notions with which it is your previous determination to make everything square. Read the Word of God with a simple and sincere desire to know its real meaning. In reading the Scriptures there must be no attempt to try what, by the aid of ingenuity and a previous bias, they may be made to say; but a simple desire to know what they do say. Read with entire and absolute impartiality, just as you would the prescription of a physician who had given you directions for food and medicine, to restore and preserve your health. Let there be an humble and teachable disposition. "Receive with meekness the engrafted word." "The meek will he guide in judgment, the meek will he show his way." "Except you be converted, and become as little children, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of God." And whatever exercise of our intellect may be carried on, and however convinced we may be that the intellect must be exercised, there should always be a humble and wholesome distrust of our own understanding.

In searching the Scriptures we must consider their design as well as their meaning; that they are intended not only to communicate knowledge—but faith and holiness. The Bible is a book to make us wise unto salvation. It contains a "doctrine according to godliness." "Sanctify them through your truth," was the prayer of Christ for his disciples. Divine truth is intended to produce a divine life. To read in order to know a system of theology—or to support and defend a system—is a low and unworthy end. To search the Scriptures aright, you must give up and abstain from all sinful indulgences. "Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you," is the injunction of the apostle. The lusts of the mind, the pride of intellect, the love of wealth, thirst after human applause, as well as the lusts of the flesh, impair the mental vision, and smite the soul with spiritual blindness, insomuch that holy truth, however plain, remains undiscovered.

There is another disposition to be carried to the Scriptures in our perusal of them, and that, on account of its importance, I place by itself, that it may be very conspicuously seen, as seriously considered, and as vividly and practically remembered; I mean that suggested by our Lord, where he says, "If any man will do his (God's) will, he shall know of the doctrine which I speak, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself." A real obedience to the will of God, as far as we at present know it, united with a sincere and hearty determination to do it upon all further discoveries of it, to whatever risks, sacrifices, and inconveniences such obedience may expose us, is the best way of coming to a right knowledge of the truth. We must love truth, not only for its own sake, but for its holy tendency and effect—and he who is most anxious to obtain holiness by truth, is most likely to ascertain truth for the sake of holiness. Right dispositions are the way to obtain right opinions. Divine truth, unlike scientific knowledge, is intended, as well as adapted, to produce moral results; and if we are not anxious to obtain these, we are not likely to come to a knowledge of the truths themselves.

There must also be very earnest prayer for the teaching of the Holy Spirit. There are undoubtedly some things in the Bible hard to be understood; but in what pertains to salvation, all is as clear as crystal. But if there be light in the Bible, there is darkness in us. "The natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." The safe and proper, and only safe and proper manner of approaching the heavenly oracle, is that which David manifested, when he thus prayed, "Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law." So also the Apostle entreated for the Colossians, "We do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that you might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding."

It may not strike some, that although we have the book, it is necessary, in addition, to have the teaching of the Author—and if it were not absolutely necessary, yet surely this would be considered a privilege, even as regards a human production. But it is in this case necessary. How powerful is the influence of our inward corruption in blinding and bewildering our judgments! How liable are we to err! How momentous a matter is it on which to mistake! How numerous and how fatal are the mistakes that are made! Unless, therefore, we not only pray, but give ourselves to prayer for divine illumination, we are likely, even with the Bible in our hands, to go wrong. That the meaning of the Bible may be mistaken, and is so, no one can doubt. The subject of this chapter proves it. How many errors are there in the world on the subjects of divine revelation!

As your safest guide amid the diversities of religious opinions which exist, and as the best mode of relieving your mind from the perplexity occasioned by controversy, acquire the elements of decided personal godliness. These lie within a very narrow compass, are common to most denominations of professing Christians, and, with whatever other sentiments they may be associated, will secure the possession of eternal life. Be sure to be right on great and fundamental points. Be upon the foundation, and then, though you are a little off the perpendicular, yet you will not fall. And what are these grand essentials, without which no man can be saved, and with which every man will be saved, whatever in other respects may be his creed or his church? Repentance towards God, faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and evangelical holiness. I do not mean to say that these constitute all that God has revealed, and therefore all that we need concern ourselves about. By no means. There are innumerable other matters which are found in the Word of God, but these are the substance of it, the great essentials to salvation.

Personal godliness is the great preservative from serious error. As there are instincts in irrational creatures which lead them to select good and wholesome food, and to refuse and reject such substances as are noxious; so there are certain sentiments and systems as to which it is scarcely necessary to prove to the spiritual mind that they are false—for the spiritual taste pronounces them to be bad. The holy life within refuses and rejects them at once as repugnant to its nature; and the stronger and healthier that life is, the greater is the force of this repugnance. Hence the necessity, not only of our being possessed of true personal godliness, but of high degrees of it. He who feels all the vitalizing power of sound doctrine in making him holy, heavenly, and happy—will be in small danger of mischief from other doctrines, and feel little necessity to inquire into other sentiments. The man who finds his strength firm, his health glowing, his spirits buoyant—upon good, plain, nutritious food—will have no need to study the various systems of medicine and dietetics. He may let physicians wrangle on, without troubling himself about their conflicting opinions. So the man strong in faith, lively in hope, and ardent in the love of God and man—he who has joy and peace in believing—he who is able to mortify his corruptions, and invigorate his graces—by the views of divine truth which he has gained, need not read through a book of religious denominations to find out what is truth, for he has the "witness in himself."

It would be of material service, and a great help to you in deciding for yourself in matters of controversy as to what is truth, to gather from the Scripture, by a devout and careful perusal, some broad comprehensive views of its general purport and design, in reference to doctrine, ceremonies, and government. Broad and general views on any subject greatly assist us in understanding its minuter parts and details. Survey the system of divine truth in the Bible as you would a vast and complicated piece of machinery, not by first of all examining each particular part, but by taking a view of it as a whole, in its general design and larger combinations. Faith in the truths of revelation is not to be obtained by the separate examination at first of its various points, historical, doctrinal, or practical; and no one would be likely to become an intelligent and firm believer in Christianity, if he endeavored to make every fact, every doctrine, and every precept, clear, certain, and beyond dispute—before he adopted the whole as a divine revelation, and before he had become acquainted with its general design and more important and fundamental truths.

Those are most likely to understand details who are best acquainted with generals, as from them light comes upon particulars. Lord Bacon compares the conduct of those students and defenders of Christianity, who act upon the principle of beginning with particulars, and going on to generals, to those people who would light a large hall by placing a candle in each corner, instead of hanging in the middle of it a large chandelier, which would send its light into the darkest recesses. Or, to change the metaphor, he who seizes and keeps possession of the great whole of Christianity, in its general truths and designs, is like a confident and successful victor, who seizes and keeps possession of the metropolis and the citadel; while he who spends his chief time, or his first pains, in getting a knowledge of mere details, is like the soldier who wastes his strength on the frontier, without ever making any grand attempt to possess the whole country.

As regards what are usually called doctrines, the Scriptures everywhere assert the lapsed, corrupt, and condemned state of human nature—in other words, that man is a guilty and unholy creature, who has fallen from his original state of righteousness, and who, if recovered from this condition and restored to the favor of God, must be saved by some aid from without—that the design of the incarnation and death of our Lord Jesus Christ is to effect man's redemption from sin, guilt, and death, in a manner harmonious with the perfections of the divine character, and the principles of God's moral government—that the blessings consequent to man upon this system of mediation are pardon, peace, and holiness here, and eternal life hereafter—and that the conditions on which (as a sine qua non, but not as a meritorious cause,) these blessings are bestowed, are repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; in short, the salvation of sinners, and at the same time the manifestation of the glory of God's moral character.

Now this, one would think, must be conceded by every one who has obtained the least acquaintance with the Word of God. What a guide would these views prove to the settlement of many controversies! Through what labyrinths of opinion would these first principles of the Christian scheme lead you in safety! How many details would they include, and how many connected doctrines would they unfold, and establish, and render evident! Let them, then, be deeply rooted in your minds as so many fundamental truths, and be made to bear on all the controversies of which you may hear or read. Bring all other sentiments to the tribunal of this question, "Do they profess or deny the corruption of human nature, so clearly laid down in the Word of God—and its recovery from guilt and depravity, by a system of mediation through Christ, which unites the redemption of man and the manifestation of God's glory?"

A similar general reference to the ceremonial of the New Testament will help you to settle many controversies on this subject. You cannot possibly read the Gospels and Epistles without observing the contrast in one striking point of view presented between Judaism and Christianity, the former exhibiting so much that was ceremonial, the latter so little—the one being eminently a ritual system, the other no less eminently a spiritual one. When Christ suffered on Calvary, and expired with that triumphant shout, "It is finished!" he changed the whole aspect of revealed religion. On one side of the cross you behold the Law, with its priests, its sacrifices, and its rites, retiring from sight; on the other, you behold the Gospel, with its simple and spiritual institutions, coming forward into view. From that hour the great design of Christianity was to form a character, of which a new, divine, and inward life should be the animating soul, and holiness in all its branches and beauties, be the external manifestation. Christianity was intended, if not to put an end to ritualism, yet so to subordinate it to spirituality, holiness, and love, that it should be but as the wreath round the brow, or as the bracelet upon the arm, of piety. Christianity has left us nothing, in the form of ceremony, but baptism and the Lord's supper, and has said so little even about them, as to lead us to suppose it considers them of very inferior importance to what is moral and spiritual.

Just ask the question again, "What kind of religion does the New Testament chiefly design to teach—a ritual or a spiritual one?" Here again you will be furnished with a test of many a system. Connected with ceremony is priesthood. Observe what is said in the New Testament about this. How very little is said about religious officials, or functionaries of any kind, compared with what is said of other things. Christ is our Great High Priest, and all Christians are the priesthood. No other priest is mentioned. And as to bishops, pastors, or elders, their only functions mentioned are teaching and ruling. A priestly order and priestly acts, are nowhere referred to. It nowhere appears the design of the apostles to make much of man, or to invest him with domination or spiritual authority in the church. Even they disclaimed being lords of God's people.

So again with regard to ecclesiastical polity; it will be well to take a general view of this question, as furnished by the New Testament. I say, the New Testament, for the Old was the code of law for Judaism, as this is for Christianity. It would be no more proper to look to the constitution of the Jewish theocracy for the model of the Christian church, than it would be, to look to the temple, its priests, and sacrifices, and ceremonies, for the regulations of Christian worship. The same difference is observable in the ecclesiastical character of Judaism and Christianity as is evident in their ceremonial. The Divine Author of our religion has furnished, by his confession before Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world," that which is the key to all social religion, and ecclesiastical organization. The elaboration, complexity, and secularity of earthly kingdoms do not appertain to His church—of which the characteristics are simplicity and spirituality. The design of the church is not so much the conversion of men's souls, as the fellowship, edification, and comfort of those who are already converted. The church of Christ, consisting of the company of believers, must in all its institutes be adapted to spiritual men, and have respect to their order, harmony, and mutual helpfulness. It has nothing worldly in its nature or design. It is in the world—but not of it. The more spiritual and simple a scheme of ecclesiastical polity is, the more likely, upon the general principle now laid down, does it seem to be that it is an approximation to that which was set up by our Lord Jesus Christ. The more clearly it exhibits the church as a separate community, like the Jews amid surrounding nations, dwelling apart by itself, governed by its own laws, animated by its own spirit, and pursuing its own objects, the more does it accord with all which the New Testament teaches us on this subject.

An attention to these general aspects of Divine revelation will greatly assist us in coming to a conclusion upon most points of religious controversy.

Having made up your minds, upon evidence, as to what is truth, then have as little to do with religious controversy as you can. Seek a practical religion—rather than a disputatious religion. Treat it as a something rather to be done—than to be talked about. Be not fond of disputation. Be no religious knight, fighting against every one who differs from you. A pugnacious disposition, whether it be from natural combativeness, or prevailing vanity—is a dangerous thing to piety, which, like the dew, falls only in a still atmosphere, and lies longest in the shade.

"Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." If you are much taken up with obedience to this command, you will have little desire or time for strife and contention.

Let it be your great concern to eat of the Bread of Life, pure and unadulterated—rather than mix up with it the grit and chaff of controversy; and to drink, and not trouble and foul, the clear Water of Life. Avoid a taste for curiosity in things that are unrevealed in Scripture—a speculative bias concerning mysterious things—and a distempered zeal for what, if true, is comparatively little. "There is," says an old author, "a kind of intemperance in most of us, a wild and irregular desire to make things more or less than they are in themselves, and to remove them well-near out of sight by our additions and deductions. Few there are who can be content with truth, and settle and rest in it as it appears in that nakedness and simplicity in which it was first brought forth. But men are ever drawing out conclusions of their own, spinning out and weaving speculations—thin, unsuitable, and unfit to be worn—which yet they glory in and defend with more heat and animosity than they do that truth which is necessary and by itself sufficient without this speculation. For these are creatures of our own, shaped out in our fantasy, and so dressed up by us with all minuteness and curiosity of diligence, that we fall at last in love with them, and apply ourselves to them with that closeness and adherence which dulls and takes off the edge of our affection to that which is most necessary—and so leaves that neglected and last in our thoughts, which is the main thing."

Love the 'closet of devotion' more than the 'arena of contention'—study the Bible more than the 'volume of angry discussion'—and seek the company of the sons of peace, rather than association with those who say, "We are for war." It is well, of course, to make yourselves acquainted generally with the subjects of controversy, especially those of the leading controversies of the day. No young man, for instance, should be ignorant of the evidences of Christianity, or of the great principles of Evangelical truth—as opposed to Rationalism or Unitarianism; or of Protestantism as against Popery, in all their range and bearing. These are the questions of the day. And in order to contend earnestly for the "faith once delivered to the saints," we must know what the faith is, and both how it is assailed, and how it can be defended. Every man should know what he believes, and why he believes it; and thus "be able to give a reason, with meekness and fear, of the hope that is in him." He should take his side, and valiantly keep it.

All this is proper and necessary, but it is a different thing to our reducing true religion to a mere matter of controversy. How many are there whose whole godliness is a mere contest for a creed, or a church, without their having any true faith in Christ, or their being members of the church which he has purchased with his blood! What multitudes are now fierce for Protestantism, who have never embraced with their whole hearts one great and true Protestant principle! Oh, that men were more anxious to practice Christianity than argue about it! That they were as zealous for holiness as they seem to be for truth, and as anxious to imbibe the spirit and exhibit the image of Christ in their disposition, character, and conduct—as they are concerned to embody his doctrines in their creeds! Young men, be ardent lovers of the truth, diligent seekers after it, constant followers of it, and impassioned admirers, valiant defenders, and zealous promoters of it—but at the same time, not pugnacious, restless, bitter, and bigoted disputants for it.

Having received, upon satisfactory evidence, the system of doctrine which you believe to be Scriptural, do not allow your convictions to be shaken, or your faith to be staggered, on account of any difficulties with which it may seem to be attended; nor by any cavils and objections brought against it, which you may not be able to answer. It is of great importance for you to remember, that there is no truth, however evident and certain it may be, against which an ingenious and dexterous sophist may not advance some plausible objections; and in connection with which, its most assured believers may not see some difficulties which they are not able to explain. Mathematical science is the only department of human inquiry which excludes all doubt and difficulty. The scientist often finds many difficulties in his path which he is unable to clear up; some ultimate laws which perplex and confound him; and some results which baffle him. Does he abandon himself to skepticism? Certainly not. He credits his proofs, he relies upon his ascertained facts, and says, "I am puzzled, I see a difficulty which I cannot yet explain, but I hold fast my conviction of the truth of what I have proved, and wait for further light to clear up what is now dark. I cannot give up evidence, because of difficulty, and thus relinquish what I do know for what I do not know." Is not this perfectly rational and entirely philosophical? In this way I am anxious that you should act in reference to true religion, its doctrines, and its controversies. Receive whatever truth revelation makes known, and because it makes it known, no matter with what difficulty it may be attended, and wait for further light to enlighten what is now dark.

By "difficulty", I mean something that you cannot perfectly understand—something that you cannot entirely harmonize with your previous notions; something that you cannot make quite to agree with some other portions of divine truth; something which may have been objected to by others, whose objections you feel yourselves in some measure unable to answer. If convinced that any doctrine or fact is revealed, let not any difficulty connected with it confound you or shake your convictions. It may be well sometimes, when startled and perplexed with difficulties on one side of a question—to look at the difficulties on the other side. Suppose you reject a doctrine, or a system, because of something that you cannot explain—should you not encounter difficulties far more formidable in the opposite system? Have you not more evidence and less difficulty on the side you have taken, than you would find if you were to pass over to the other side?

There is a one-sided way of looking at these matters practiced by some people, which you should avoid. In very many cases, conviction must rest upon the balance of evidence and difficulty, there being some seeming proof and some sound objection on each side, and our business is to determine which side has more of the former, and less of the latter. I cannot, therefore, give you a more important piece of advice than this, never abandon 'evidence' to follow 'difficulty', for it is like turning away from a lantern, somewhat dim it may be, but still a steady light; or from the moon, in a mist perhaps, to run after a temporary glimmer.

And at the same time, do not allow yourselves to be driven from your convictions, because you cannot refute all the arguments, or remove all the difficulties, or meet all the objections, which may be brought against them. There are men, I repeat, of such subtle minds, of such logical power, and so clever in argument, as to make the worse appear the better cause; who can by fallacy and sophistry sustain the most palpable error, and make that truth doubtful which has to you the luminousness of the sun. Never be ashamed to say to such an opponent, "I cannot refute your arguments, nor meet your objections, but I am unmoved by them." And I would reiterate the advice I have already given—avoid controversy! Having found truth—believe it, love it, enjoy it, practice it—but do not be eager to dispute about it.

Whatever may be your convictions of the truth of the religious opinions you have embraced, cultivate with a love of truth, a spirit of love. There is a medium which it should be your concern to discover, between 'indifference to truth' and a 'distempered zeal for truth'—between 'latitudinarianism' on the one hand, and 'bigotry' on the other. There are some who make truth everything in religion, others who make it nothing—the former are the advocates of an unsanctified orthodoxy; the latter of an equally unsanctified charity—the one are the worshipers of a creed, the other, the iconoclasts of all creeds—the former say, "No matter how well a man acts, if he does not hold these opinions;" the others reply, "It is no matter what opinions he holds, provided he acts well." Both are wrong. There can be no right belief of the truth, which does not lead to holiness—and there can be no holiness which does not spring from right belief of the truth.

Be therefore, the zealous advocates of truth—for error is sin. Error cannot sanctify. If a man may disbelieve one truth, and be innocent, he may disbelieve two; if two, ten; if ten, half the Bible; if half the Bible, the whole. Affect no false candor, no spurious charity, as if all sentiments were equally true. This is treason against truth, and the God of truth. Let not all the various sects, denominations, and creeds, appear in your eye as the beautiful colors of the rainbow. It is a false and bad figure, and the very seed of infidelity.

But, at the same time, guard against the opposite extreme of a lack of charity towards those who differ from you. It is not your business, nor mine, to fix the boundary line of religious opinion which divides those who will be saved from those who will be lost. The Church of Rome, with insufferable arrogance, and a daring invasion of the prerogative of Heaven, has fixed that line in the pale of her communion. Imitate not this impious assumption.

And while you avoid this highest of all pretensions, of determining who shall or shall not be admitted to the kingdom of heaven, guard against the lesser mischiefs of controversy. I mean that bitterness of spirit and exclusiveness of feeling which we are but too apt to cherish towards those who in lesser matters differ from us. Charity is as much a part of truth as doctrine. No man believes the Bible who rejects charity. The lack of charity is as truly a heresy as a disbelief in the divinity of Christ. The lack of love will as certainly exclude a man from heaven, as the lack of faith! "Now abide faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." With one hand, lay hold of faith; with the other, lay hold of charity; then and then only, may you cherish hope.

And now, Young Men, let me endeavor at any rate, to impress upon you the infinitely, eternally, and therefore inconceivably, momentous nature of that subject about which all these controversies are carried on. Oh, what interests and what consequences, beyond the compass and the power of any mind, but that which is Infinite, to grasp, are comprehended in that word, Religion! Science, art, literature, politics, law, medicine, all appertain to time, to earth, to the body; but true religion relates to the soul, to heaven, to eternity. What are all the questions which have been asked, the parties that have been formed, the controversies which have been carried on, in reference to the former of these classes of subjects—but matters of momentary interest and trifles light as air—compared with true religion? Of what importance are all the questions, the sects, the parties, the controversies, of an earthly nature, to the inhabitants of the unseen world, to the spirits of just men made perfect—or to the lost souls in prison? What will they all be to you a few years hence? what may they be to you next week?

But the great controversy about true religion has in all three worlds—heaven, earth, and hell—an interest that will continue through all eternity! This is a controversy in which you, each one of you, are personally interested. It involves your eternal destiny, and will be a matter of infinite moment to you millions and millions of ages hence. Surely, surely, this consideration, if anything can do it, will throw over your mind an air of deep and solemn seriousness. The levity and frivolity you carry to other questions; the carelessness and half-heartedness with which you regard other controversies, must be checked here. You must ask the question, "What is truth?" with a mind looking—up into heaven—down into the bottomless pit—and abroad upon eternity! And with a recollection that, various as are the answers to that question returned from those around you, your torment or your happiness forever and ever will be influenced by the answer to it, on which you decide. Oh, if you would but enter thus seriously, anxiously, and prayerfully, into the subject, there would be little danger of your going wrong on this momentous topic.

Still you must expect, notwithstanding all your solicitude, to be the subject of some perplexity, as long as you are an inhabitant of this world. Be thankful, however, that what is essential to salvation is so plain, that he who runs may read. Repent, believe, love, be holy—Is there any mystery here? How many sects agree in this! Of how many creeds this is the essence! How much of the strife of controversy lies outside of this circle! How many minor truths a man may not believe, and yet be saved—if he believes these great fundamentals. How many lesser errors he may have unhappily embraced, and yet not be lost—if he is in no error on these great fundamentals! He who keeps his eye upon the pole-star and the greater constellations, will steer his vessel safely, though he may not be intimately acquainted with the stars of lesser magnitude and brilliancy. To adopt, in conclusion, the directions and words of Saurin—"Buy the truth, which requires the sacrifice of amusement, of indolence, of hastiness, of prejudice, of obstinacy, of curiosity, of the passions.
We sum up the matter in seven precepts—
Be attentive.
Do not be discouraged by labor.
Suspend your judgment.
Let prejudice yield to reason.
Be teachable.
Restrain your greed for knowledge of the secret things.
In order to edify your mind, subdue your heart."

"But shall we always live in shades and grope in darkness? Will there always be a veil between the porch and the sanctuary? Will God always lead us between chasms and gulfs? Shall we forever dwell near the battle-field of religious controversy, and be within sound of its artillery and the range of its shot? Shall we always hear the confused noise of its warriors, and the cry of defeat, mingling with the shouts of victory? Shall we always have to struggle with argument from without—and with doubt and suspense within? O, no!

Presently this night of our ignorance, this dark night, will end, and we shall enter into that blessed world where there is no need of the sun, because the Lamb is the light thereof. In heaven we shall know all things by blessed intuition. We shall repose around the fountain of celestial radiance, where the sound of controversy will be as unheard as the din of weapons. In heaven, we shall understand all mysteries in nature, providence, grace, and glory! All difficulties will be solved. All objections will be silenced. How will this perfect light fill us with perfect joy! How delightful will it be to drink knowledge forever from its divine source, with the assurance that it is pure from any admixture of error! How blissful thus to spend eternity! This is the revelation of God to us, and there is not in true religion a more joyful and triumphant consideration than this perpetual progress which the soul makes in the perfection of its nature, without ever arriving at an ultimate completion. Here truth has the advantage of fable. No fiction, however bold, presents to us a conception so elevating and astonishing as this interminable line of heavenly excellence. To look upon the glorified spirit, as going on from strength to strength; adding virtue to virtue, and knowledge to knowledge; making approaches to goodness which is infinite; forever adorning the heavens with new beauties, and brightening in the splendors of moral glory, through all the ages of eternity—has something in it so transcendent and ineffable, as to satisfy the most unbounded ambition of an immortal mind! Young men, have you this ambition? If not, take it up from this moment; it is the noblest which God can inspire, or the human bosom receive!