John Angell James, 1853
The MEANS of Christian Progress
This is of unspeakable importance. I will suppose
that some by the reading of the foregoing pages begin to see this subject in
a light in which they never saw it before. I will suppose that a new
concern has come up in the mind now the old one is allayed, and that the
great question at present is not, "What shall I do to be saved?" but "What
shall I do to be sanctified?" We have already said that means must be used.
But what means?
1. There must be a deep conviction of the necessity
and importance of progress, and an intense desire to attain it.
The subject must lay hold of the mind and possess the
heart. Will a man increase in knowledge, in wealth, in influence—who has no
desire after it? What object of value ever was, or can, be obtained without
a conviction of its value or a wish to secure it? Is it not the desire that
originates the effort, and will not exertion ever be in proportion to the
intensity of desire? What prodigious and wonderful efforts have men put
forth after an object upon which their hearts were set?
Look at the tradesman—how will he toil, rising up
early and sitting up late, and eating the bread of anxiety, to increase his
trade. Look at the student panting after knowledge—how will he
consume his days and trim his midnight lamp to increase his scientific
stores. Look at the hero—braving all the dangers of the field, and
the hardships of the campaign, to increase his 'fame' and to acquire
glory—which is but the name 'vanity' turned into an idol. Why, why all this
intense energy? Because they have a deep—but mistaken sense of the
importance of the object of pursuit, and an absorbing and overheated desire
to possess it.
And on the contrary, why is it that so many professing
Christians do not make progress, and indeed make no efforts to obtain it?
Why? Because they care nothing about it. To take up a profession is all they
desire—but to proceed from one degree of piety to another—to grow in
grace—to go on unto perfection—is no part of their ambition. How many are
there to whom if we were to say, "Well now, you call yourself a Christian,
and wish others to consider you as such; and you are of course eagerly
desirous of making continual advances in knowledge, faith, and holiness; and
we shall see you evidently becoming more and more like Christ." Who, I say,
if we should thus address them, would look wonderingly in our face as if
they did not comprehend our meaning; or reproachfully, as if we questioned
their sincerity; or contemptuously, as if we were indulging in enthusiasm,
or mysticism, and wished them to be as visionary as ourselves. Of course
such a frame of mind, and such views as these, are adverse to all progress.
There must then be concern about the matter. And shall
there be none? What! No solicitude to have more experimental knowledge of
truth, faith in Christ, likeness to God, fitness for heaven! No desire to
advance in such things! Is it possible to be a Christian and yet destitute
of this desire to grow in grace? No, it is not! I tell you, it is not. If
you have no concern to grow in grace, there is no grace in you! You are
a piece of dead wood—and not a living branch; a spiritual corpse—and not a
living man. In this state there can be no growth, for dead things never
grow! While on the other hand, the very desire will ensure the
possession of its object.
2. You must enter deeply into that beatitude of our Lord,
which says, "Blessed are those who HUNGER and THIRST after righteousness—for
they shall be filled." Matthew 5:6. This is
a passage too much overlooked and forgotten by most professing Christians.
Its terms are exceedingly strong, its sentiment amazingly important. Among
all the appetites of our animal nature none is so strong—none so imperiously
demands supply—none so constantly returns—none inflicts such suffering when
not supplied—as that of hunger and thirst. And this is
the appetite which, in the figurative language of Scripture, is selected to
express the vehement desire we should feel after righteousness or holiness.
And it is not only one of our natural instincts of this kind—but both
hunger and thirst, that are spoken of. It is not the faint and feeble desire
which by one filled almost to engorgement is felt after some luxury, which,
if it be not obtained, the person can do very well without. Oh, no! but the
insatiable, unappeasable desire of the empty, hungry stomach, after
necessary food—that is employed as the figure Jesus uses.
Such should be the longing of every renewed soul after
holiness. Godliness should be to it that which is bread is to the body, and
in reference to which we should say, "Evermore give us this bread!" Instead
of those longings after earthly trifles which characterize the worldly
mind—those pantings after wealth, honor, and pleasure, which excite such
energies and call forth such activities; the mind of the believer should be
intent on spiritual blessings. No measure of holiness to which he has
already attained should satisfy him. There are sins yet to be mortified, and
he must not be content until they are dead. There are heights of moral
excellence above him which he has not reached, and he should long to climb
up to them. What he has yet attained to, are but as crumbs to a hungry man,
who longs for the full meal; or drops of water to a thirsty one, who pants
for the copious draught. It is astonishing and affecting to see with what
low degrees of piety some professors are satisfied. How little they seem to
have of the spirit of holiness. How very little is there of
forgetting the things that are behind, and pressing forward to greater
things yet! How many are there who are contented with the average piety of
the church and the age, and seem only anxious to stand well in the
estimation of their fellow Christians, who are no better than themselves.
How few are there whom nothing can satisfy but an ever-growing conformity to
the divine image!
Perhaps there is in some people a sad disposition to
pervert and abuse a passage of most instructive, and encouraging, and
cautionary import—I mean the question which was asked concerning the small
beginnings in the erection of the second temple at Jerusalem, "Who has
despised the day of small things?" Zech. 4:10. This has been applied also in
a spiritual way to the commencement of true religion in the soul; and we are
told that little grace is better than none at all—that faith is still faith
though it is weak; just as diamonds are diamonds and gold is gold, though it
is in small pieces. Or, to return to the idea already dwelt upon, life is
life though it be but that of a babe, and therefore is not to be despised.
We know it and admit it. But then if little things are not to be despised,
ought great ones to be so treated? And is not satisfaction with
little things, when great ones may be obtained, to despise the
latter? Be it so, that fragments of gold and diamonds are not to be
rejected, yet who are contented with the dust of either when they might have
ingots of the one, or large and costly jewels of the other?
No! the least measure of holiness is not to be
despised. It contains a powerful principle of expansion and enlargement.
Does the gardener despise the germ of the flower, or the seed of a plant, or
the acorn of the oak? Or does the parent despise the day of small things in
the life of his babe? No! but then neither the gardener, nor the parent, is
satisfied with the day of small things. So neither should the Christian. It
is well, therefore, to consider, as Barnes, the commentator, remarks, that
there is no piety in the world which is not the result of cultivation,
and which cannot be increased by the degree of care and attention bestowed
upon it. No one becomes eminently godly, any more than anyone becomes
eminently rich or learned who does not intend it; and ordinarily men
are, in religion, what they intend to be. They have about as much
religion as they wish, and somewhat possess the characters which they
design to possess. When men reach extraordinary elevations in religion,
like Baxter, Payson, and Edwards, they have gained only what they meant
to gain; and the gay and worldly professors of religion, who have little
comfort and peace, have in fact the characters which they designed to
3. Great attention to self-cultivation,
spiritually considered, is a means of growth.
By this I mean what is expressed in one or two passages
of Scripture; such, for instance, as the exhortation, "Keep your heart with
all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life." Prov. 4:23. It is the
heart, the great vital spring of the soul—the fountain of actions—the center
of principle—the seat of motives; the heart, where are the thoughts and
feelings out of which conduct comes. It is this that must be the first,
chief, constant object of solicitude to the Christian. It is this which God
sees—and as God sees it, and because God principally looks at it—that must
be ever uppermost in our concern. To keep the heart must mean exerting
ourselves with great earnestness, in dependence upon Divine grace, to
preserve it in a good state; laboring to preserve its vitality, vigor, and
purity. We must often ask the question, "In what state is my heart?
Are my thoughts and affections in a good spiritual condition?"
The heart is, in another view of it, the citadel of the
soul—if this be neglected, the enemy at the gates will soon be in and take
possession. Set a watch, therefore, upon the heart. Let the sentinel be
never off duty, nor sleeping at his post. Keep out evil thoughts, and unholy
affections, and vile imaginations. Without great vigilance they will elude
observation. As soon as an enemy of this kind is detected, he must be seized
and made captive, until every thought is brought into subjection to Christ.
As the state of the heart is, so is the man in reality, and before God.
Discipline the heart then.
But there is a second passage well worthy the attention
of all young converts, I mean where Paul exhorts Timothy thus, "Exercise
yourself unto godliness." 1 Tim. 4:7. The word in the original is very
strong, and might be rendered by a free translation, "practice gymnastic
exercises in religion," like the ancient competitors in the Olympic games.
We say also of soldiers in the early stage of their training, "they are
practicing their exercise." They are being trained in what they do
not previously know, and cannot perform without being taught; and to learn
which, and do it well, requires a great deal of labor. So it is with the
Christian, he must in all that concerns true godliness, learn his
exercise, and be often thus engaged.
True godliness, and progress in piety, cannot be acquired
without great pains. As a man cannot be at once a good soldier, while he is
a young recruit, and before he has been drilled upon the parade ground, so
no one can be an eminent Christian as soon as he is converted, and before he
has been at his drilling. Self-improvement in knowledge by the student, and
in business by the tradesman, are the result of great painstaking. No one
can expect advancement without labor. It is astonishing and sad, to see how
little concern there is among many to improve themselves in true godliness.
4. One great means of progress is a constant, earnest,
and spiritual attendance upon all the appointed means of growth.
is essentially necessary. "And you, when you pray, enter into your closet,
and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret; and
your Father who sees in secret shall reward you openly." Matt. 6:6. A
'spirit of prayer' is so essential to personal religion, that it may as
certainly be said that it is a dead soul in which there is not this spirit,
as it may of the body that it is a corpse in which there is no breath.
Prayer is the most secret communion of the soul with God—the converse of one
heart with another. Prayer requires retirement—a real Christian must be
often alone with God. No one can make progress without much prayer. True
religion is a plant that for growth must be often removed into the shade. It
will be scorched and wither, if it is always kept in the broad sunshine of
publicity. It is the private communion of friends that increases their
friendship. None can progress in love to God without this private communion.
There must be time found and fixed for prayer, and the time fixed must be
kept. That which is left to be done at any time, is likely to be done at no
time. There is nothing about which a young Christian should be more
concerned, than maintaining the spirit, the love, the practice of private
prayer; and nothing which should more seriously alarm him than any
disposition to neglect this. He who makes any excuse for omitting the
appointed hour of visiting a friend must be in a fair way to lose all regard
But there are also public as well as private means to be
observed. You must "Remember the
day to keep it holy." How necessary a right,
though not a gloomy or superstitious, observance of this day is to the
preservation and strengthening of our piety is attested by the experience of
others, and not less so by our own. It is true it is a feast, and not a
fast, day; and should be kept in the spirit of the New and not of the Old
covenant; that is, with joy and freedom, and not with gloom and bondage.
Still it must be serious joy. He who passes his Sabbaths in frivolous
conversation, and levity of spirit; who is not devout in his attendance upon
the means of grace; who does not make the best of the precious opportunity
to improve his religious condition; who conducts himself much as on other
days, except that he does not buy and sell, and goes once or twice to the
house of God, cannot expect to get on in true religion. Tell me how a
professor spends his sabbaths, and I will tell you in what state his soul
A Christian ought to be, and I am supposing he is, a
communicant at the
table of the Lord.
If he is not, he ought to be. It is by way of eminence, the
ordinance. Apart from any superstitious notion of it, it is a solemn and
impressive solemnity. As creatures formed to be moved, as well as
instructed, through the medium of the senses, we are likely to be affected
by those symbols of the body and blood of Christ, which, with such awesome,
though silent eloquence, speak to the ear of faith of him who is thus set
forth crucified before us. Perhaps there is no ordinance of God, which when
observed in a proper frame of mind speaks so forcibly to our hearts, and
operates so powerfully upon our whole souls as this. There, believer, there,
renew your faith in the crucified Savior; there, increase your love as you
see his love so strikingly exhibited; and, there, by the mercies of God,
present your bodies a living sacrifice—holy, acceptable, and well-pleasing
to God. There, consecrate yourself afresh each time to his service as his
faithful devoted servant. What progress can you expect to make if you
neglect this institute so expressly set up, that through feeding by faith on
the great sacrifice offered for you upon the cross, you might be
"strengthened with all might by the Spirit in the inner man?"
Connected with this, is an attendance upon the
solemnities of public
None who make any pretensions to true religion can altogether neglect these.
But is it not too obvious to be denied, that modern habits of suburban
residence in large towns are introducing a most injurious partial
neglect of public worship. Once on the Sabbath-day, and never in the week,
is all the attendance some give at the house of God. Can there be progress
where this is the case? Can the soul be strong and healthy upon such scanty
fare as one meal a week? They who would grow in grace, must love the
habitation of God's house—must have the one desire of David to see God's
power and glory in the sanctuary—must know something at least of what he
felt when he said, "As the deer pants after the water-brooks, so pants my
soul after you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God—when
shall I come and appear before God?"—Psalm 42:1, 2. It is the man who loves
the house of God; who will put himself to some little inconvenience, and
will make some sacrifices of ease to be there; who is likely to profit by
the appointed means. It is those that are planted in the courts of
the Lord who shall flourish—and not those who are only occasionally
And then how much depends upon the frame of mind
in which, and the purpose for which, this attendance is carried on.
There is a manner of attending upon the means of grace, which instead of
benefiting the soul—does it great harm. Gospel sermons and the richest
devotional services may harden the heart instead of sanctifying it, and be a
savor of death unto death, instead of life unto life. Let us never forget
that to be profited, that is to be spiritually improved in
knowledge, faith, holiness, joy, and love, is the end of hearing sermons,
and not merely to have our taste gratified by genius, eloquence, and
oratory. I know scarcely anything of more importance to put before a
young Christian than the necessity, in order to a healthful state of true
religion, of a right end and object in hearing the Word of God. We live in
an age when talent is idolized, and genius adored. This is, "the image of
jealousy which makes jealous" in the temple of the Lord. With too many it is
not the truth of God that is thought of, valued, and delighted in—but the
talent of man with which it is set forth. Now we admit that it is almost
impossible not to admire, and be affected by, genius. Mind must admire the
nobler exhibitions of mind—and cultivated intellects cannot put up with the
crude effusions of ignorance or dullness. To such people, it is not only
offensive to taste—but to piety, to hear such sublime and glorious themes as
the gospel contains set forth in the base and tattered habiliments of vulgar
language and scattered thought. Who would like to have the richest
delicacies served-up on dirty or broken dishes?
Even in regard to books, elegant typography and good
paper add to the pleasure of reading, even where the matter is instructive,
and the subject of perusal is interesting. But it would argue an
ill-regulated mind, in the one case, to be fonder of the elegance of the
dish than of the good food which it contains; and in the other, of the type,
paper, and binding of the book, than of the momentous subject on which it
treats. It is scarcely possible to give a more important piece of advice to
one setting out on the ways of God than our Lord's words, "take heed how you
hear!" We should hear sermons with something of the same state of mind, and
for the same purpose, as we should directions from a physician concerning
our health—or from a lawyer how to avert an impending sentence of death.
Intimate converse with the Word of God
is essential to progress. We must neither neglect nor idolize the preacher.
The sermon in the house of God, must not displace the Bible from our hand.
To be contented with the public ministry, without the private searching of
the Bible, is virtually so far to turn Papists, or at any rate to act like
them. It is painful to think how little use multitudes make of their Bibles.
It is a question which might bring a blush, or ought to do, upon many a
professor's cheek, "How many chapters of God's holy Word have you read the
last week—or month?" Not that the Scriptures should be read, merely for the
sake of being read. Some no doubt prescribe to themselves the task of
reading so many chapters every day—and perhaps with much the same motive as
the Papist repeats his 'Ave Marias', or his 'Paternosters'—as a kind of
penance. This is not what we mean—and we would at once suggest, that as in
eating it is not the quality of food taken into the stomach—but the quantity
that can be digested, which keeps up our strength and promotes our health.
So it is not the quantity of Scripture read—but the quantity studied,
understood, and applied, that does us good. One verse pondered upon, felt,
and applied, is better than a whole chapter or book, read negligently,
thoughtlessly, and without self-application.
Not that a verse a day is enough spiritual food for
anyone. It may be feared that not a few have abused those little manuals of
piety got up for the edification of people who really cannot command time
for much reading; I mean the "Text-a-day" books, which are now so common.
Surely those who can command time, should hardly be satisfied with such a
crumb of the bread of life as this. A real, devout, and intelligent study of
the Scriptures, then, is essential to great progress in the life of God.
"Man lives not by bread alone—but by every word that proceeds out of the
mouth of God." To every young convert, therefore, we say, "SEARCH the
Scriptures daily. Meditate on the law of God day and night. Try how much
of the Word of God you can understand, and what is more, try how much you
can practice. Study the Word of God with prayer for divine teaching. Take up
David's petition, 'Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of
Remember this also—there is much corruption in your heart
generating a false bias—and beclouding your judgment, and likely therefore
to lead you to misconception and error. Beseech of God to send forth his
Spirit into your heart to purify it from depravity, that your understanding
may be better preserved from error. Enter deeply into the meaning and marrow
of that remarkable saying of our Lord, "If any man chooses to do God's will,
he shall know of the teaching." In this important passage we are taught that
the disposition of the heart has much to do with the views and opinions of
the intellect. In all moral questions it must be so. A sincere wish and
purpose to do the will of God, will be our best way to know
the mind of God. An honest heart is the most likely means to gain a correct
judgment. True it is, that we must in some degree know the mind of God in
order to do his will—but a desire to do his will, is also the way to know it
more perfectly. We must have knowledge to produce holiness—but holiness will
prepare us for more knowledge. And the knowledge we acquire in this
way will be of a spiritual and experimental kind. We must give up all
preconceived ideas, all prejudices, all pride of intellect, and go in
humility to the Scriptures as learners.
5. A deep conviction and ever-present sense of the
need of the HOLY SPIRIT, accompanied by a constant dependence upon him,
is indispensable to progress in the divine life.
Without this the soul can no more grow in grace, than
the produce of the earth can be brought forth without the genial influences
of the heavens. Whatever means are used, and all promised and
appropriate ones must be used, still our dependence for their
efficiency must be upon God's blessing. Hence says the apostle, "If we
live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit." Gal. 5:25. First,
as in the body, there must be the principle of life, then the activities of
that principle. And in both natural and spiritual existence, it may be said,
in God we live and move and have our being.
Agreeably also to this, is the other exhortation of the
same apostle, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is
God who works in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure." Phil.
2:13. This is one of the most instructive and important passages of the New
Testament. Now, it must be observed that this was addressed to those who
were supposed to be Christians, who were already saved, though not formally
and finally possessed of salvation; and yet they are commanded to work out
their salvation. Of course, therefore, it did not mean 'works for
justification', for this was already completed. It means, "Go on working in
your sanctification, with a view to the end of your faith, the salvation of
your souls. Go on earnestly in the way of holy walking, even to the close of
life, for though you cannot be saved by and for your works—-yet you cannot
be saved without them—nor can you be saved unless you continue in them to
the end." This is also to be done with "fear and trembling," that is with
all that deep solicitude which he might be supposed to feel, who knows he
has so important an interest at stake as his immortal soul. The most
confident hope that we are in a state of salvation should not, in the
smallest degree, abate our solicitude about our salvation.
But now observe the motive, "For it is God who works
in you both to will and to do." God's working is not mentioned as a
reason why we should not work ourselves—but as an inducement to engage us in
an earnest and diligent cooperation with him. The meaning is, God exerts a
certain influence upon our minds to produce a certain effect on us—that
effect is, "to will," that is to "choose" to be holy; "to do," that is to
perform holy actions. This effect in us is the end and purpose of his
influence upon us. It is not God who wills and acts for us—but we who
will and act ourselves, under his influence. The mode of this divine
influence we cannot explain. It is not a physical force, such as is
exerted on passive unintelligent matter; nor is it the mere moral
force of persuasion, such as one man exerts upon another by mere argument
and entreaty; but it is an influence of a peculiar kind, and peculiar to
this subject, the operation of the Divine Spirit upon the human mind,
causing it to understand and yield to the power of truth as set forth in the
Gospel, and addressed to man's intellect.
We see in this passage, then, what every young convert
should very distinctly notice and constantly remember, the union of human
activity and divine agency. We can do nothing good for ourselves without
God's grace working in us, and God's grace never works in us but to lead us
to do that which is good ourselves. We are not to sit down in indolent
inactivity waiting for God's grace to set us upon working; but are without
delay to begin working in a spirit of dependence upon God's grace. The
husbandman sows his seed in expectation of the cooperation of the influences
of the heavens; and so must the Christian go to his work. God's grace comes
not upon the idle—but upon the diligent.
Christians in the early stage of their religious
experience are but too apt to fall into one or other of the extremes of
leaving God to do all, or attempting to do all themselves. The most common
error is the latter. Full of the ardor of first love, they make resolutions,
lay down plans, enter upon a course of action, too often in their own
strength. They soon meet with checks and defeats. Their resolutions are
broken, their plans frustrated, and their course impeded by unsuspected
difficulties or successful temptations. Disheartened and discouraged, they
are ready to give all up, and walk the ways of God no more. Let them rather
learn the lesson of the great apostle who said, "When I am weak—then am I
strong," or that other lesson, "Yet not I—but the grace of God in me." "Be
strong in the Lord and in the power of his might." You cannot
be too active as regards your own efforts; you cannot be too dependent as
regards divine grace. Do everything as if God did nothing—depend upon God as
if he did everything. Hence, do all in a spirit of prayer. Go to every
sermon, every book, especially the Bible, every effort—in a spirit of
prayer. This is to pervade everything. Prayer is the golden thread that
is to run through all our actions, stringing them all together, and
suspending them all upon the hand of God.
6. The company, conversation, and fellowship of
established and earnest Christians, will be of great service to the
young disciple. "As iron sharpens iron, a
friend sharpens a friend." Proverbs 27:17. The allusion is familiar—but it
is very illustrative. The knife whetted upon the steel acquires a sharper
edge. By the communion of friends of congenial minds, knowledge is
communicated from the more intelligent—to the less intelligent; animation,
encouragement, and courage from the lively and the optimistic—to the dull,
the timid, and the gloomy; caution, wisdom, and modesty, from the more—to
the less prudent and discreet; and exhilaration from the joyful—to the sad.
Thus the sympathies of friendship are made conducive to the advantage of
those who enjoy them. Sharpening indeed must have been the communion with
Christ on the way to Emmaus, when the hearts of the disciples burned within
them, as he opened their understandings to know the Scriptures. Even the
Apostle Paul himself, great and illustrious as he was, did not feel himself
lifted above these sympathies of Christian friendship; even he was so
cheered by the conference and countenance of friends, that he longed to be
"somewhat filled with their company," and when, in a moment of dejection, on
his way to Rome, he saw the three brethren who had "come to meet him as far
as Appii Forum and The Three Taverns," he recovered from his depression,
"thanked God, and was encouraged."
Hence, then, the necessity and advantage of Christian
fellowship and godly friendship—and I seriously and earnestly advise all
young converts to cultivate it. They should not remain in solitude, having
none with whom to exchange their thoughts, feelings, and solicitudes on
those momentous topics which have lately possessed their minds. It is not
good for them in this situation "to be alone." Solitary and secluded
piety, like the fire of a single coal, burns feebly; but like that is more
easily kept alive and kindled to a flame by contact with other coals. Great
care, however, is necessary in the selection of companions. This is true in
reference to all stages of our Christian pilgrimage—but especially to the
first. Those who are established in the divine life can bear with less
injury, the influence of people whose taste, habits, and conversation are
uncongenial with the spirit of true piety—than can the young convert. It is
therefore important he should choose for his associates not only those who
are truly godly—but those who are eminently godly. There is
among those whom we may hope to be sincere in their profession, a very great
difference as regards the degree of their personal godliness.
As there are those who are only almost Christians,
there are others of whom it may be said, they are only just
Christians. While the former seem only just outside the line of
separation between the converted and unconverted, the latter only just
within it. Their attainments are so slender—their religion is so
feeble—their conversation and spirit are so worldly and trifling—that it is
difficult to determine their real spiritual character. These are not
the associates which will help on the young believer. They will dampen his
zeal and cool his first love. It will be like plunging his knife into earth,
which instead of sharpening it, will take off its edge; or like bearing his
newly-lighted candle into foul air, which will cause it to burn dimly, if it
does not extinguish it. Instead of this, the inquirer after holiness and
higher sanctification should associate with those who are as earnest as
himself, or even more so, whose understanding will instruct him; whose
example will guide him; whose conversation will inspire him; whose cautions
will warn him. Let him seek companions whose society will be as a prop
around which his own young plant can entwine itself for support and growth,
and by whose friendly aid his yet feeble tendrils shall be well sustained.
7. The reading of godly BOOKS, is of great service
to all, whether old or young in the Christian life.
The Bible, I know, is the book of books, and should be
supplanted by no other. But we would not imitate the conduct of the Caliph
Omar, who committed the library of Alexandria to the flames, under the
absurd idea that if the books contained only what was approved by the Koran,
they were useless; if what was contrary to it, they were pernicious. Our
religious literature is as valuable, as it is extensive. If it contains no
other religious truth than that which is in the Bible, which if it is
orthodox, of course it cannot, it is still immensely valuable, as explaining
and enforcing that which is in the Bible. It is one part of the creed of
Popery that the Bible does not contain the whole Word of God, for tradition
is a part of it; and we scruple not to aver that their oral law is in many
things opposed to the written one. We reject all such unauthorized and
wicked attempts to corrupt the Divine testimony—and we abide close to the
written law or holy Scripture.
But though we deny authority to the works of men,
we attach great importance to them as eminently useful in helping you to
understand the Word of God, and therefore earnestly recommend the perusal of
them. To pretend to select from the flood of publications which is flowing
in upon us in this extraordinary age, any works that might be recommended,
would be difficult and unnecessary, and had better be left to the counsel of
those ministers with whom all young disciples are connected, and who, from a
knowledge of their state of mind, or advance in religious subjects, might be
supposed better to understand what is suitable for them. Those who are
really anxious for progress in the divine life, will not content themselves
with the reading of whatever religious books or periodicals may happen to be
thrown in their way—but will have some devotional work, as a kind of closet
companion, the pages of which will be prayerfully read in those seasons of
retirement when the soul secludes herself from all human society to converse
8. Occasional seasons of EXTRAORDINARY devotion,
self-examination and humiliation—will be found eminently conducive to
progress in godliness. I am of course
supposing, for I have already prescribed it, that a regular course of
private prayer is kept up. But we all know that regularity is apt to
degenerate into formality; and what is customary, into mere routine. There
may be the most exact order, and the most constant observance of religious
exercises, and yet there may be nothing better than a dull round of
observances. Hence it is indispensable that there should be occasional
seasons of unusual devotion, when the soul shall take as exact account as it
can, of its state and condition. What has been already said on the subject
of an excessive anxiety about our growth, leading to almost a neglect of the
means of progress, in an inquiry into the reality of progress,
should be borne in mind. But still, occasional examination into the state of
our profession cannot be wrong—but must be right. A tradesman who is always
taking stock, under a fidgety anxiety about his trade, would only divert his
attention from that industry and persevering effort which are essential to
success. Still he ought occasionally to do this, or how else can he know how
he is going on, or whether he is not going backwards. So also a nervous
person always fearful about his health, and ever inquisitive into symptoms,
and poring into books to see how ill he is, instead of using all the means
of obtaining and preserving health, is not very likely ever to be well. Yet
sometimes, provided it does not occur too often, or hinder him from present
duties, he may inquire whether some chronic complaints are giving way, and
whether his constitution is strengthening.
We surely ought not to be less anxious about our soul's
health than we are about that of our body; and though a religious
nervousness about their soul, which really does distress some good people,
should not be fostered, still an occasional examination into our spiritual
condition ought to be instituted, and is really essential to progress. I
don't see how we are to know what corruptions exist and are to be
mortified, or what graces languish and need to be revived—without
occasional more minute inspection than we give to the subject in our
ordinary conduct. In this age when secular matters are so pressing, I may
say, so engrossing and absorbing; when business so encroaches on devotion,
and the time formerly given to the closet is taken away to be given to the
shop; when all men are living in a hurry, and life itself is one constant
bustle; surely, I say, at such a time as this, it is necessary sometimes to
step out of the busy circle, and to enter the closet for pressing home upon
the conscience the momentous question, "How I am going on in my heavenly
course?" Such seasons may be found, and if it can be at no other time, and
in no other way, it is worthwhile to occasionally skip a sermon, and to
spend the hour or two which would be otherwise devoted to that exercise—in
solitary communion with our own heart—with our Bible—and with our God.
9. This enumeration would be incomplete were I to leave
out from it, as a means of progress,
those various AFFLICTIVE events
with which it pleases God sometimes to try,
to shake, and ultimately to settle and strengthen the faith of his people.
Plants and trees not infrequently, in very dry seasons, require watering at
the time of planting, or soon after their planting; and, indeed all
vegetable life depends much on the rain and the dew for their growth. Hence
God said to the Jews, "I will be as the dew unto Israel." Constant sunshine,
especially for early vegetation, is unfriendly to fruitfulness. Hence God
sometimes sees it necessary to darken the soul with cloud shadows, and cause
the clouds themselves to pour down their contents on the young convert.
Disappointed hopes of a worldly nature, frustrated schemes of happiness, and
bodily sickness, come on some people—all the more painful and depressing
because occurring at the outset of life.
"What," says the young sufferer, "must I so soon prove
how treacherous are the smiles of the world? So soon learn by experience
that man is born to sorrow as the sparks fly upward? Must my very 'morning
of life' be overcast, and the first stage of my journey be amid storms? Is
my destiny so soon developed to be one of grief and lamentation?" Hush those
complaints—dry those tears—dismiss this foreboding, my young friend. It is
wisdom, though you cannot understand it; and mercy, though you cannot at
present see it. Have you never read what is said by the weeping prophet, "It
is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth." Lam. 3:24. Observe,
it is not said, it is "pleasant," but "good." At the very outset of life
take up the conviction that everything is good for us, which is good for our
souls; and that God is the best judge of what is good for our souls.
That very disappointment, or other kind of affliction,
which cost you so many tears—such sleepless nights—such distress by days,
was just the thing which your heavenly Father saw to be necessary at that
time for your spiritual benefit. You were concerned about true religion, and
seemed in earnest; but you were in danger of being too much taken up with
the world which had come out to meet you on your way—with smiling face and
open arms. The siren song had sent its music into your ears—and you were all
but ravished and ruined by the sweet melody. And then God, by the affliction
he sent upon you, warned you of your danger, and plucked you from its jaws.
Many in your situation have been treated in the same manner, and have at
length been compelled to say–
"Foolish and vain I went astray,
Before I had felt your scourges, Lord;
I left my guide, and lost my way,
But now I love and keep your word."
You recollect, perhaps, what God said to the Jews, "I
spoke unto you in your prosperity; but you said, 'I will not hear.' This has
been your manner from your youth, that you obey not my voice." Jer. 22:21.
It required a change of circumstances to bring them to a right mind—and that
change came and effected its own gracious purpose. Perhaps this may have
been the case with you. Full of the buoyancy and eager expectation of youth,
it was not likely that true religion could flourish in such a state of mind
as that, and as God had purposes of mercy towards you. he sent trials, that
he might effect his gracious designs. How strikingly is it said of Israel,
"I will go and return to my place until they acknowledge their offense, and
seek my face; in their affliction they will seek me early." Hos. 5:15. Yes,
many, very many, will have cause through eternity to say–
"Oh, had you left me unchastised,
Your precepts I had still despised;
And still the snare, in secret laid,
Had my unwary feet betrayed."
I entreat you, therefore, to enter into God's gracious
purpose, and thus gather grapes, as it were, from thorns—and figs from
thistles; by rendering all your sorrows a means of progress in the divine
life. Turn all these painful events to a good purpose to check your vanity,
to curb your levity, and to establish you in the ways of the Lord. Let them
show you the need of true religion as a source of consolation amid the
vicissitudes of life, the power of true religion to support you under them,
and its ineffable sweetness to console as well as to support. I just now
compared affliction to water, for so is it often represented in the Word of
God; but not less frequently is it compared also to the action of fire.
Perhaps you know that in enamel painting upon china, fire is employed. The
colors are laid on, and then the article is put into a small furnace, and
subjected to considerable heat, which at once brings out some of the colors
more vividly, and gives fixedness and perpetuity to them all. In delineating
the divine image upon your soul, something like this method of painting may
by the divine hand be adopted, and the spiritual coloring may be burnt in
and perpetuated by the furnace of affliction. Consider it a mercy to have
the work of grace carried on, though it be by a process so painful as this.
It will be very clearly and it may be hoped impressively
seen by these particulars, that real religion is a very great thing—a matter
of immense importance and requiring great exertion. No doubt many who have
made a profession of it have formed very inadequate ideas of it, and are
fearfully deceiving themselves, and it behooves all who shall read these
pages, to inquire what they know of these things. True religion, as we have
shown you, is a battle which requires complete armor, and the constant use
of weapons, in order to secure a doubtful victory—a race in which many
run—but in which few will gain the prize—a narrow path by which many shall
seek to pass through the gate of life, and by which the few only who strive
shall make good their entrance into the paradise of God. It is only by dint
of painful and assiduous striving that salvation is at length secured, and
just as the racer may be said scarcely to have won, who with the utmost
power and fleetness makes good his distance by a hair's breadth of space, or
within a moment of time.
So is it said of the righteous by the apostle, that they
are but "scarcely saved." 1 Pet. 4:18. This is a tremendous passage,
and is enough to awaken "fear and trembling" in us all. The righteous are
scarcely saved! They escape from the fire into safety—but as by a hair's
breadth. How great is the difficulty of bringing them first—to be in earnest
about salvation. How great the difficulty of keeping them from turning back
and away amid the temptations to sin, and the allurements of the world, by
which they are surrounded. How difficult to rescue them from the power of
the great adversary of souls. Through the internal struggles of the mind,
and outward conflicts of life, it often seems a matter of doubt whether,
with all their efforts, they will be saved. And when they are saved, they
will appear to themselves as mariners who have been rescued from shipwreck,
who are amazed to see how near they seemed to destruction, and how unlikely
to all human appearance it seemed at one time they would be saved at all.
Oh, is this true? then how comparatively few are in the
way to be saved. Where, we ask, are those who are behaving themselves in a
way answerable to such a representation? Eagerly, anxiously as for their
lives, striving to flee from the wrath to come, and conscious that if they
are saved, it will be so as by fire? Amid the multitudes who in this day are
making a profession of religion, how rarely are they to be seen, who are
diligently plying at the task-work of Christianity? Who are making a real
business of their growing sanctification? Who are laboring for heaven as if
pursued by a conviction that without effort they will never reach it, and
that even after their utmost labors they will but scarcely reach the goal to
which they are tending? Is it not time to sound the alarm, and especially in
the cases of those who are just, according to their own declarations,
setting out in the pursuit of eternal life?
If any on reading this should say, as did the apostles,
"Who then can be saved?" I adopt our Lord's reply, "With man it is
impossible, but with God all things are possible." To every earnest soul,
Jesus says, "My grace is sufficient for you."
ADDRESS TO THE READER
Now turn back your attention upon the contents of this
chapter, with even more solicitude, because of the greater importance of the
subject, than you would in a time of bodily weakness upon some directions
which had been given you concerning your health. First of all however, ask
with serious and earnest concern the questions—
Am I really so concerned to grow in grace, as to be using
all the necessary means for that purpose? Am I serving my soul as I do my
body, that is, by being careful about my spiritual health, and adopting all
proper measures, and diligently employing them to promote it? Have I
solicitude enough about this matter to be active and earnest in the use of
Do I really want to grow?
Do I hunger and thirst after righteousness?
Do I take pains for this self-cultivation?
Do I most constantly and seriously attend all the means
of grace, public as well as private, and weekdays as well as Sabbath days?
Do I constantly, devoutly, read and study the Holy
Scriptures, not allowing other books to supplant the Bible? And do I search
them to be made more holy?
Do I feel my need of the Holy Spirit's influence, and am
I constantly wrestling with God to bestow it upon me?
Do I court the society of the more established and
spiritual members of the family of God?
Do I set apart special times for self-examination,
humiliation, and prayer?
Am I improved and made more holy and spiritual by my
afflictions, disappointments, and vexations?
Reader, I beseech you, bring yourself to this touchstone.
You cannot progress unless you are ardent to do so—and use the means.