by John Angell James, 1834
1. Do not seek to relieve your solicitude, or settle your religious peace, by making a profession of religion, and receiving the sacrament.This is done by many people, who, after having remained for a long time in unrelieved solicitude, and after having tried all methods of gaining peace but the right one, determine to enter into church fellowship, and to receive the Lord's supper, with the hope of obtaining that comfort which they have hitherto sought in vain. But does not this look like a self-righteous dependence upon duties? In what way can the sacrament give relief to a burdened conscience? Is there anything more meritorious in that ordinance than in any other? Perhaps you say, that the emblems of the body and blood of our Lord will more deeply and powerfully impress the mind through the medium of the senses. So they will; but then the mind must be in a state of knowledge and faith to receive the impression—and I am now supposing that you are not yet in that state; that you have never yet committed your soul into the hands of Christ for full and free salvation. And in such a state of mind, to go to the sacrament or the church for peace is to expect that it can do that for you, which the work of Christ cannot do. Is not the blood of Christ able to take away your sins? Is anything necessary for your justification to be added to the righteousness of the Savior? What can the sacrament do for you, if that be insufficient to save you? The sinner who seeks to lose his burden of guilt anywhere, whether it be in the prayer-meeting, or at the sacramental table, except at the cross of Christ, is in delusion. It is possible, nay probable, that by going to the Lord's supper you may feel for the time an abatement of your solicitude; your imagination may be excited; your feelings moved; and, mistaking this for faith, you may have peace; but it will be a false or a transient one. Either you will fall asleep in self-deception, or your concern will soon return, increased by an apprehension that you have added sin to sin, by receiving the Lord's supper in an unprepared state of mind.
This institution is intended, not to give peace to unbelievers, but consolation and edification to believers; not to bring us into a state of faith, but to be received in faith; not to remove the burden of sin from the conscience, but to keep in remembrance that Great Sacrifice by which the burden is removed. True it is, that God may reveal himself to the sinner in the breaking of bread; but the question is not what he may do, but what he may be expected to do—and even in case he does, what is it that relieves the conscience of its burden, and gives peace to the mind? Surely not the sacrament itself, but the great truth of Christ's sacrifice for sin, as set forth by it. I do not intend by these remarks to insist on the necessity of a full assurance of hope, as a necessary qualification for a right reception of the Lord's supper; but certainly there ought to be real, even if it be but weak, faith; for how else can we discern the Lord's body? Nothing, no, nothing, can give the guilty conscience peace, or take away our sins, but the atoning blood of Christ. And to pass by the cross of the Redeemer, without peace of mind, in the hope of finding it in the sacrament, is unquestionably to depend for acceptance with God upon our own religious duties, instead of the work of the Savior. The frame of mind in which we should receive the memorials of redeeming love, is that of a humble, thankful, and peaceful reliance upon the mediation of our Divine Lord for pardon and eternal life.
2. It is of great consequence, that in the early stages of your religious experience, you should abstain as much as possible from a spirit of CONTROVERSY.
Your great concern is to find out the path of eternal happiness, and enter upon it. Salvation is your great object, or rather the way of obtaining it. Your cry is, "Life, eternal life;" and your course should be directly to the cross of the Redeemer. Nothing but what relates immediately to your reconciliation with God should be allowed to engage your attention. Do not allow your mind, then, to be diverted from such subjects as the new birth, or the justification of your soul before God—to the thorny controversies about baptism, church government, or even the doctrines of theology. Take up nothing controversially. The subjects of disputation are strong meat for adults, which will choke and destroy the babe in Christ; and even the former cannot feed much upon it, without having their spiritual health impaired, and their souls filled with rank and unhealthy distempers. Or, to change the metaphor, the man locked up in the condemned cell, under sentence of death, but who has hope of pardon, and is taking steps to obtain it, does not allow his mind to be drawn aside from his condition, by the questions which may be very properly discussed by the citizen and the patriot. If anyone were to carry him a newspaper, and endeavor to engage him as a partisan in some political strife, he would reply, with a look of astonishment that such topics should be intruded on his notice, "What are these matters to a man condemned to die? Assist me in gaining a pardon, and you will do me some service—but do not engage for such matters a moment of that time, which should be devoted to save me from death. When I am restored to liberty, I can think of politics, but not now."
So let the inquirer act, and say, in reference to those proselyting but injudicious zealots, who by controversy would meet and turn away the solicitude which is seeking the way to salvation. You can study these topics hereafter, but at present, "Stand in the way, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein; and you shall find rest for your souls." Read your Bible and plain practical books, rather than controversial ones; be much in prayer and silent meditation; preserve a tranquil and unruffled mind, for it is in the stillness of devotional feeling, and the peace of holy reconciliation, and the quiet of untroubled thoughts, that the true light shines into the soul, and the small still voice of the Spirit of peace is heard. Many, adopting a different course, have plunged into the depths of controversy as soon as they became concerned about religion, and have lost charity in their professed pursuit after truth; and instead of becoming humble, holy, peaceful Christians, have turned out conceited, stormy, and restless polemics. In an early stage of their career the penitent was lost in the zealot; in their subsequent progress they took up with a religion of opinions, instead of pious feelings; and finished their course, it may be feared, not amidst the light and love of heaven, but in the world of 'unsanctified knowledge', where the devils believe and tremble.
3. It is necessary to caution you against a spirit of CURIOSITY, as well as controversy.
You ought to seek after knowledge, as I have already stated. The Scripture abounds in admonitions on this head, and in reproofs to those who repose in indolence upon the lap of ignorance. Diligence in endeavors to grow in knowledge has the promise of success. "Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord." But this is altogether distinct from a spirit of unhallowed curiosity. The temper which I am concerned to guard you against shows itself in various ways; sometimes in rambling about from place to place of public worship. In some cases, this arises from that restlessness and uneasiness of mind, which is common to people in their first religious experience. Like Noah's dove, they wander about, seeking rest, but find none; or, rather like a person in a fever, forgetting that the cause of disquietude is in themselves, they continually change their place, in the vain hope of obtaining that rest which can never come until their condition is altered. Finding no comfort under one preacher, they impute the blame to his sermons, and ramble off to another, under whose ministry they gain a little ease for a while; but merely by having their attention drawn away for a season from its usual track of thought. The novelty soon ceases, and he is forsaken for another, until they have gone the whole round of places within their reach; and they leave the last as far from peace as they were when they left the first.
Guard against this error, and learn that it is in Christ, and Christ alone, and not in any particular place of worship, or under any particular ministry, that you can find rest and peace. It is the glorious doctrine of a free, full, and present salvation in Christ, that must be the pillow of your poor aching and restless head, and not any particular manner or method of representing that doctrine. But this rambling spirit is sometimes merely the eagerness of curiosity. Some young converts are ever to be seen in any place where anything out of the ordinary course is going on; they are to be seen at all times, all places, and all occasions, when and where a popular preacher is to be heard, or any of the stimulating varieties which abound in the religious world are to be found. This habit, however, is not friendly to the growth of religious feeling, or the progress of a work of grace in the soul. Even the public meetings of our religious institutions are not altogether the best atmosphere for infant piety to breathe. There is a tenderness, a delicacy, and a pensiveness, in the feelings of a mind recently awakened to a state of religious concern, which finds little that is congenial in the comparatively secular aspect of those assemblies. Eloquence and anecdote, as they are usually employed on such occasions, have but little that is calculated to deepen conviction, or relieve anxiety, but often much to diminish the one, and divert the other. If, indeed, our anniversaries were or could be conducted with that solemnity and seriousness which their object seems to require, then might inquirers after salvation attend them as one of the means of grace; but perhaps this can hardly be looked for, and therefore do I deliberately say to them, Do not at present attend such meetings too frequently; you ought rather to court retirement, to nurse reflection, to seek to grow in deeper seriousness, and to surrender yourselves to the dominion of conscience, and the teaching of God the Holy Spirit. Your present business is your own salvation; and when you have found that, and as one of the evidences of having found it, you must feel concerned for the salvation of others, and unite with your fellow-Christians in the various schemes of benevolent enterprise.
But curiosity may be indulged in another way, I mean a disposition to pry into the deep mysteries, the hidden things, the unrevealed secrets of God. Even the most established Christians, yes, the profoundest and most philosophic divines, may and do sometimes push their inquiries too far, and presumptuously put forth their hand to draw aside the veil of the holy of holies. But you especially should abstain from this; such questions as the origin of moral evil; the reconcileableness of God's foreknowledge with the freedom of man; the Divine decrees; the symbolical and unfulfilled prophecies, with other subjects of equal difficulty, are most unsuitable for you in your present state of mind. What you have to do with is, the simplest and plainest truths of the gospel. Your concern is, to obtain pardon, peace, and hope; and to do this you must not raise philosophic mists and clouds around the cross, but look at it as it is presented in the word of God; and as it there appears, clearly, simply, and alone. It has been said, that "in the Scripture there are depths in which an elephant may swim, and shallows which a lamb may ford." Your business is at present with the 'shallows', and to venture into the 'depths' is a perilous attempt, which I would not advise you to make.
4. You should beware of setting up other standards of personal religion than the word of God, and making the religious experience of other Christians a test of the truth and reality of your own.
The Bible, and the Bible alone, is the true standard of godliness; and provided your views, feelings, and conduct are conformed to this, it is of no consequence that they do not harmonize exactly with what others experience. Not that there is any radical disagreement in the real piety of genuine Christians; but, with substantial agreement, there may be circumstantial differences; there may be unity of genus, yet variety of species. All true Christians love God, hate sin, feel Christ precious, give themselves to prayer, live holily; but they may not have been brought to this state by the same methods, or carry it forward to the same degree of perfection. In reading religious biography you will see great dissimilarity in the experience of God's people, and will be sometimes in danger of sinking into great distress, because you do not feel in all points as the saints did whose lives are before you. When you meet with instances of more than usual elevation of personal piety, of nearer approaches than common to perfection, do not conclude that you have no piety because you do not equal them, but rather see what you may become; be humbled that you are no more like them, and let their examples stimulate your energies, but not extinguish your hopes, or paralyze your efforts.
5. I caution you not to allow your convictions to be shaken, nor your mind to be staggered, by those instances of backsliding or apostasy which sometimes occur among professors of religion, and even such as were once accounted eminent professors.
It does, indeed, often give an solemn shock to the feelings and the steadfastness of inquirers, to witness the fall of those who once stood high in the estimation of believers, and the esteem of the world. Not a few, it is to be feared, have from that time gone back, and walked the ways of God no more. But how irrational, how guilty is such conduct! Did not Christ forewarn us to expect such instances, when he said, "Woe to the world because of offences, for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence comes?" Such cases, therefore, are but the accomplishment of a prophecy, and prove, like other fulfilled predictions, the inspiration of Him by whom they were delivered. And they prove, in another way also, the Divine origin of the Christian religion; for if it had not been of God, it must have been destroyed long since by the misconduct of its professed friends, from which it has stood in far greater danger than from the enmity of its avowed foes. Counterfeits are a presumptive proof of the excellence of that which they profess to imitate, for who is at the trouble of imitating what is worthless? Do not, then, permit your mind to be affected by the conduct of false professors; at least, in any other way than that of deep grief that such things should occur to them; and of concerned, prayerful care, that they may never be repeated in you. Be this your supplication—
"Lord, let not all my hopes be vain,