The Christian Professor

John Angell James, 1837



It is obvious, both from the nature of piety, and the metaphors employed in the word of God to describe it, that it may exist in various degrees; just as physical life may be found in all stages, from the feebleness of approaching death—to the full vigor of glowing health; from the sickly infant—to the vigorous adult. So it is in piety, there may be the bud—and the fruit; the dawn of day—and the decline of day; the glimmering spark—and the full blaze. All true Christians are really converted—but all are not equally sanctified. There is an essential difference of nature between the least eminent Christian and the most excellent worldling—but it is not always perceptible to us. My object in this chapter, is to excite the aspiration of professors to seek after high attainments in piety. The present race of Christians can scarcely be considered eminent ones in some things. This has already been touched upon in a previous chapter. Politics and trade have an unhappy tendency to lower the tone of spiritual piety, and even the spirit of enterprise in benevolent and religious institutions, may, without care, call off our attention too much from our own personal piety. The dew of divine grace, and the fine aromas of devotional feeling may wither from the soul, by the warmth of a bustling zeal, as well as by the ardor of secular pursuits, and the fervor of party politics.

Perhaps it may be well to state what is meant by eminent piety. Real personal godliness consists of the union of scriptural knowledge—spiritual affections—a tender conscience—biblical morality—and Christian love. Eminent piety, therefore, means all these same elements united and carried on to a high degree.

A great regard for, and relish of, evangelical sentiment and opinions is necessary—a discriminating mind that attaches much importance to right opinions, in opposition to that 'spurious toleration' and destructive latitudinarianism—which thinks it of little consequence what a man believes, provided he acts well.

With this must be accompanied by a large measure of spiritual affections, or what in common discourse is called spirituality of mind; a great and prevailing taste for divine and heavenly things; a walking with God; living by faith; setting our affections on things above; being dead to the world; a proneness to devout meditation; a delight in prayer; a fondness for the Scriptures; a disposition to retire from company to hold communion with God; an ardent love to religious ordinances; an enjoyment of the peace that passes understanding, and a frequent experience of the joy that is unspeakable and full of glory. This is eminent piety.

Eminent piety must contain much laborious and painful mortification of sin in the heart. The New Testament everywhere supposes the indwelling of sin in believers, and everywhere enjoins its mortification. There is "still a law in our members warring against the law of our mind, seeking to bring us into captivity to the law of sin which is in our members." "The flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other, so that we cannot do the things that we desire." Hence, we are called upon "to crucify the flesh, with the affections and lusts thereof; to mortify the deeds of the body," "to strive against sin," "to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." He is, therefore, most eminent in piety, who is most engaged to the work of mortification of sin; who deals with his heart as a most meticulous and cleanly woman deals with her house, not enduring that one filthy room or one unclean spot should be found in it. This struggle after universal holiness, inward holiness, perfect holiness, this is eminent religion—a desire and endeavor after purity of heart; a real and vigorous pursuit after absolute perfection.

It includes, also, an exquisite tenderness of conscience; a mind that trembles at sin; and shrinks like the pupil of the eye from slight irritations, as well as greater ones; a holy watchfulness against sins of the tongue, and of the imagination, and of the heart, as well as of the life; a constant penitential frame for our manifold imperfections.

Nor must we omit to mention as essential to eminent piety, a high-toned morality; a sense of honor; an inflexible integrity, not to be seduced by the greatest temptations, and most flattering prospects.

Liberality for the cause of Christ proportioned to our circumstances, is also necessary to exalted religion; a mind so penetrated and filled with a sense of God's love in Christ Jesus to us, as shall make us willing to give freely to the cause of God, of that property which he has first given to us.

Nor is the description complete without mentioning a large portion of that charity which the apostle so beautifully describes in the 13th chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians. The spirit of love must be in us, or there is no religion; there must be much of this spirit, or there cannot be eminent religion. This, this is piety. Love is religion, and the man who is greatly lacking in this, let him have what else he may—is low in personal godliness.

Connected with all this must be the prevalence of evangelical motive; a constant impulse supplied to the soul from the belief and sense of the love of Christ. The moral excellence of Christianity is not an abstract system of ethics, a mere sense of propriety leading to a cold, heartless, though still well formed character; it is a constant movement of the heart to the splendor and attraction of the cross of Christ. "The love of Christ constrains us," is the spring and reason of all Christian piety. He is eminent in piety in whose heart Christ dwells by faith; who is rooted and grounded in love; who knows the love of Christ which passes knowledge, and to whom this divine love is as the warmth of its spiritual life, the pulsation of the heart, the source of healthful action. He is eminent in piety who loves his wife, as and because Christ loved him; who forgives his enemy; because Christ forgave him; who is benevolent to others, because Christ was full of grace to him; who lives in all holiness, because Christ died for this purpose in reference to him. This is eminent piety, to be always in sight of the cross, having fellowship with Christ in his sufferings, and being made conformable unto his death; so that we shall truly comprehend the meaning and feel the force of the Apostle's words, "for me to live is Christ!"

The symmetrical union of all these constitutes eminent piety. It is not a great prominence of any one of them, to the neglect of others; but the combination in tolerably equal proportions of these varied excellencies. Symmetry means beauty; and symmetry means the union of many good features or parts in due proportions. One good feature, though of surpassing loveliness, if combined with others, that are as much below mediocrity, as this is above it, will not make a beautiful countenance. One striking excellence, if associated with defects and deformities, instead of throwing them back into shadow, serves only to render them more conspicuous and more offensive, by the power of contrast. This applies strictly to religion. A man, though seemingly eminent for spirituality, yet if low in morality; or if deficient in liberality, yet lukewarm in spiritual affection; or if very upright, and also devotional, yet of known bad temper, cannot be eminent in religion.

Great and lamentable errors on this subject have prevailed in the Christian world, and it is necessary that they should be rectified. It has been too commonly supposed, that spirituality alone, apart from the other things mentioned, constitutes a high degree of religion; and hence many have passed for eminent Christians simply on the ground of fervid feeling, although perhaps lamentably deficient in tenderness of conscience, a sense of honor, or Christian charity. It is the symmetrical union of all the varieties of Christian excellence that forms moral beauty; the association of high devotion with justice and truth; the character that ascends the mount to commune with God, and then comes down to reflect the light of the excellent glory upon man in moral virtue; the blending of the dispositions that prepare us for heaven with those that fit us to adorn our stations and bless our species upon earth.

The Apostle in speaking of the church says, "From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted with that which every part supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, takes increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love." Eph. 4:16. As far as it can, this may be applied to individual personal religion. We must not pay attention to one part, and endeavor to carry that to perfection, to the neglect of the rest—but seek eminence in all. If it were lawful to make comparisons on such a subject, we would say that mediocrity in all, without the absence of any one part, is better than great attainments in one to the total neglect of several others. But our obvious duty is to seek after perfection, both of parts and of degrees.

There seems to be too much of the distribution of the various Christian excellences among many people, and not enough of the concentration of all of them in each professor. Sometimes we see an individual, generous and public-spirited—but he is perhaps austere and tyrannical at home; or else he is lacking in a delicate sense of honor in his commercial transactions; or his personal religion is lukewarm or defective.

Here is a second individual, he is a partaker of a zealous and enlightened attachment to orthodox sentiment—but he is too covetous, or too much given to unsubdued temper.

A third individual is upright and honorable as a tradesman, a pattern of all that is just, true, honest, lovely and good report—but he is sadly deficient in spirituality of mind and pious affections.

A fourth individual is spiritual above most, fond of meditation, and much given to prayer—but is at the same time somewhat puffed up with pride, censorious, and sadly lacking in zeal for the spread of Christ's kingdom in the world.

Thus, we find, in looking round on the Christian church, that the various excellences and beauties of the New Creature, seem rather shared by many—than possessed by each. It is true, that we may conceive it possible that one grace may shine forth in more conspicuous glory in the Christian character than the rest—but still it may be assumed as an indisputable fact, that it is barely possible to have one excellence in great and rare perfection, without the rest being in some measure in considerable strength also. And much less is it possible to have one towering virtue, associated with many imperfections of equal strength and stature. Eminence in piety, then, signifies, as I have before said, our having all the parts of the Christian character in considerable strength, and in attractive proportions.

If MOTIVES are necessary to urge you to obtain this eminence in piety, how many, and what cogent ones, are at hand. But motives to what? To saving religion? No! you, as professors have, or are supposed to have that already—but to eminent religion; to high degrees of piety; to vigorous, fervent, and exalted devotion!

Consider, then, how the subject is enjoined upon you in the word of God. "You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart and soul and strength." "Be zealous of good works." "Be filled with the fruits of righteousness.'' "What manner of people ought you to be, in all holy living and godliness." "Be perfect as your Father who is in heaven is perfect." Astounding idea! To be perfect—not as perfect as glorified saints—not as perfect as angels—but as perfect as God. Oh! this is almost overwhelming; almost enough to throw us into despair!

Eminent piety is the way to HAPPINESS. It is joy, and peace, and bliss—the sunshine of the heart, the Sabbath of the soul, the resting-place on which the heart lays down its load of cares, and anxieties, and sorrows. There is happiness in faith—but it must be strong faith. There is happiness in hope—but it must be lively hope. There is happiness in love—but it must be fervent love.

The religion of many Christian professors is useless to them. It does nothing for them. They derive no good from it. They are neither comforted in trouble, grateful in prosperity, nor sustained in anxiety by their religion. They hear some talk of their joys, and hopes, and seasons of communion with God—but they themselves, are strangers to these things. In short, their religion is a mere dead form.

In the case of some other professors, their religion is an actual incumbrance—a hindrance to their happiness, rather than a help. They are spoiled for the world, without being fitted for the church. They cannot go to fashionable amusements, and yet they have nothing in the place of them to produce happiness. Their soul dwells in a wilderness—a bleak and cheerless desert, where no pleasant plant grows, not even the noxious flower of sinful pleasure.

The happiness of religion is reserved for those whose piety is sincere; and the higher degrees of its happiness is reserved for such as have large measures of holiness. God is the fountain of life; and in his light only you can see light—you must press nearer to him, if you would enjoy him. His dwelling is in the holy mount, and you must ascend to him there—if you would have joy and peace in believing. You have read the biography of eminent saints, and sometimes have exclaimed in almost an agony, "Why am I a stranger to their delights?" The answer is easy, "Because you are a stranger to that elevated piety from which their joys have sprung!" The same measure of faith would have been attended in your case—with the same degree of holy joy. You are too worldly, too proud, too irritable, too prone to violate the rule of Christian duty in little things, too careless in your life and walk; and must therefore grow in grace, before you can increase in pious comfort!

The CONTINUANCE of religion in the soul, is exceedingly precarious—if it be not eminent. In many cases, piety is so superficial, feeble, lukewarm, and undecided—that it soon dies away amidst the cares, the comforts, and the pursuits of life! It has not root, strength, or vitality enough, to resist the influence of the calm, much less the shock of the tempest. It is like a lamp, that needs not the gust of wind to blow it out—but which expires in still air, for lack of oil to keep it burning. We see many and melancholy exemplifications of this. Young females, who in single life seemed to have religion—have lost it all amidst the cares of a family. Many a servant, who in his dependent situation, was a consistent, though not an eminent professor—has become a confirmed worldling upon entering into business as his own master. Many an individual whose piety was sustained by the aid of quickening and powerful preaching—has relapsed into utter carelessness, when taken away from these refreshing ordinances. In all these instances, religion withered away for lack of root. In other cases, it has been destroyed, laid prostrate at once, by a violent attack of temptation, or some sudden change of circumstances. There is, therefore, no safety—but in a heart established by grace; a clearness of view, a strength of principle, a deep-rooted conviction, and a peace that passes understanding, keeping the heart and mind in the fear of God.

Oh what disclosures would days of persecution make, if they were to come again; in such 'sifting times' how many professors who now excite no suspicion of their sincerity, would then be blown away as the chaff! We see this in part exemplified now, by the influence of ordinary troubles upon some of these professors. In prosperity they are cheerful, regular, and apparently consistent. But see them in adversity—what poor, dispirited, despairing creatures they are. Not a ray of comfort reaches their heart; not a smile is on their countenance; every pleasant prospect is vanished, every hope is extinguished, and they are as bleak, desolate, and forlorn, as the greatest worldling on earth, in the wreck of his fortune. Would it be thus if there were eminent piety?

And who is it that does honor to the Christian religion, and raises its credit and reputation in the estimation of the world? Not he whose piety is so feeble, so fluctuating, and attended by so many imperfections—as to leave it quite doubtful whether he can be truly a godly man. Not he who on being named as a church member excites the astonishment of the bystanders, that 'he' should be accounted a Christian. No, the little piety he has, does more harm than if he had none at all. He had better give up the name of Christ, for nothing but that remains, and the very name acquires reproach by being associated with so much that is unworthy of it. Such people had better abandon their profession altogether, if they are resolved not to improve it. It is the eminent Christian, the man whose religion makes him obviously holy, happy, and useful; whose piety not only proves its own sincerity—but its own strength; who is decided, consistent, and earnest; this is the man of whom it may be said, "wisdom is justified of her children."

How will your USEFULNESS be increased by eminent piety. Pure zeal is the outflow and emanation of true godliness, and in proportion to the strength of the latter, will be the fervor of the former. It is the love of Christ constraining us, that will keep us steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. Excitement from other causes, impulses from other sources, will subside. It is eminent piety—and this only, which can supply a constant spring of activity and liberality. Eminent piety will give permanency and regularity to our efforts, and will be likely to give success also by bringing down, through the instrumentality of fervent prayer, the blessing of God on all we do.

And then—grace and glory are inseparable; grace is glory begun— and glory is grace completed, grace is the seed—glory is the crop, and in proportion to the seed will be certainly the harvest; for what a man sows that shall he also reap. That there are different degrees of honor and felicity in the heavenly world, is clearly a doctrine of scripture, and it is proposed there as an incentive to seek after high attainments in godliness. Our future happiness or misery, though the former is strictly a gift of grace, and the other an award of justice, will unquestionably spring out of the character we attain to in this world. A very large proportion of both heaven and hell, will consist of something within us; will arise from what we are; in one case from perfect holiness, and in the other from absolutely matured sin. There will be, of course, external objects that will contribute to the exercises of these different states of mind—but the 'states of mind' themselves, will be the seat of misery or bliss.

Hence then it is evident, we are now continually fitting for one or other of these conditions, and so close is the connection between grace and glory, that it is probable that not a single act of true piety, not an effort, not a motive, not a feeling—is without its influence upon our eternal state. Every holy desire, volition, word, purpose, and action—is something carried to the formation of the eternal character; just as every little dot of the painter's pencil is something contributed to the completeness of the picture. So, on the contrary, every single sin on earth is an addition to the character and torment of a damned spirit in hell. What a motive, then, is this consideration to exalted piety, to high degrees of religion. All you acquire in this world—is an accumulation going on for the future eternal world. This is laying up treasures in heaven, growing rich towards God, and becoming 'affluent for eternity'. The eminent Christian is preparing for some high post in the kingdom of God, and for a station of double honor in the realms of immortality!

O professors, let me, with all the earnestness of which I am capable, or which I am able to express, exhort and entreat you to seek after higher attainments in piety, than you now possess! You are living too low, far too low! You are living beneath, far beneath your duty, your privilege, your principles, and your profession! Your religion is too much a religion of mere opinions, and forms, and ceremonies; of mere abstinence from gross immorality, coupled with an attendance upon an evangelical ministry. Where, O where, I ask again, do we see—the life of God in the soul, the heavenly mind, the work of faith, the tender conscience, the image of God, the mind of Christ, the impress of eternity? Who have conquered the world by faith? Who have set their affections on things above? Who are making it their great business to prepare for the coming of Christ, and their blessed hope to look for his arrival? Where are the 'epistles of Christ' known and read of all men? Where are the 'peculiar people'? Where the witnesses for God? Where are they to whom we can point and say, "Behold the men and women who look not at seen and temporal things—but at things not seen and eternal!" Awake! Arise! Shine! Listen to the fearful language of Christ to a Christian church of antiquity—"I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth!'' (Rev. 3:16.) Tremble at this solemn denunciation, lest it should come upon you!

Begin, from the perusal of these pages, to seek after higher degrees of personal religion. Do not be satisfied with present attainments. Even the apostle Paul resolved to forget the things that were behind, in a desire to press on to greater excellence. And can you be satisfied? Beware of making the perilous, yet frequent experiment—of ascertaining with how little piety you can reach heaven. Those who are seeking just enough religion for this purpose, will find out to their eternal confusion, that they had not enough. The love of God, like the love of money, is never satisfied with its possession. Real grace in the soul is ever seeking after increase! Any approach to contentment with the grace that you presently have, is a proof you have none. You must grow. It is your solemn duty. God demands it! Your happiness and your safety require it. It is as much your duty to be eminent Christians, as it is that of others. No reason for this applies to them, which does not equally apply to you. A higher degree of holiness is attainable by you. The grace that is necessary for this is within your reach. You are not to imagine that there is any peculiarity in your case, which forbids the hope of improvement. God's grace is all-sufficient; the Holy Spirit is omnipotent. You are commanded as matter of duty, and invited as matter of privilege—to be eminent in religion. O take up the wish, the purpose, the determination. Make it an object that you must accomplish, an attainment you must secure. Set about it in earnest. Give yourself to reading, to meditation and prayer. Set apart time, sufficient time for all the purposes of private devotion; for communion with your own heart, and for communion with God.

Christian! You must resist the encroaching, absorbing, and destructive influence of the world in all its many fascinating forms! Consider that you have a soul to be saved, a hell to avoid, a heaven to obtain! Your profession cannot do this for you—rely not upon that; feel as if the work were all to be begun; let there be the same earnestness, the same diligence, the same solicitude, as there were when you commenced the pursuit of eternal life.

Adopt the Bible afresh as the Book of books—let nothing supplant this precious volume. One great cause why the piety of this age is so feeble and so languid, is because the Bible has in many cases been swept away by a flood of uninspired publications. The pure milk of the word has been neglected, or has been so diluted, as to leave but little nourishment in the mixture; and the new-born babe, as matter of course, has remained dwarfish and sickly. Even the biographies of the most distinguished saints, which ought to form a part of the Christian's reading, and is eminently calculated to fan the flame of devotion in the soul, ought not to be allowed to displace the word of God. Again, I say, professors, awake! Arise! Shine! "To be carnally minded is death; to be spiritually minded is life and peace." Rom. 8:6. "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things which are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory!" Col. 3:1-3.