By John Angell James
Our minds when we approach the table of the Lord, should be filled with various graces, all of them holy; so as to render our devotion like the cloud of incense in the temple, which was compounded of many ingredients, all of them exceedingly precious, and all of Divine appointment. Deep humiliation for sin should be one of them, accompanied, of course, but not extinguished, by faith in the great sacrifice for pardon. It is an interesting and momentous question, "In what way should the mind of a professing Christian be affected by a sense of his sins?" In answering this question I shall classify his sins.
First. There are thesins of his UNCONVERTED state—those which he committed before he was justified by faith in Christ. If he really is a believer as well as a professor, he has received from God the full, free, everlasting forgiveness of all these. Jehovah holds up the book of his omniscient justice, in which these were once written down against the transgressor, and says to him, Behold, "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember your sins," Isaiah 43:25. Now since God has thus cancelled the debt, and will have nothing more to do with these sins since he regards them as though they had not been, and treats us as if we had never committed them—may not we have as little to do with them as God has, and think no more about them than he does? Certainly not, and it would be abusing his great mercy if we did so. What then have we to do with them, and how should we regard them?
We are not to remember them in any such manner, as would seem to imply that they are not forgiven. The burden of guilt should be lost from the conscience; the tormenting sense of it should cease; and the mind should really confide in God's declaration, "I am pacified toward you for all that you have done," Ezek. 16:63. There should be a sweet consciousness of pardon, an assurance of God's forgiving love, the witness of his Spirit concurring with the testimony of our own, that we are received into favor. Such a persuasion of forgiveness as gives peace, and diffuses a holy serenity through the soul. There should be no looking back upon the past with still shuddering horror, as if it were to be reckoned for, however dark the scene may have been, for God no longer "requires the past."
And then, of course, we should not ever be praying for the pardon of these sins, as if they had not been pardoned. Many professing Christians seem never to arrive at a confidence that their sins are forgiven. To be ever importunately supplicating that forgiveness which God has bestowed, savors of great ignorance of their state, or great disbelief of God's promise. What would a kind parent feel and say, if an offending, yet penitent and pardoned child, were ever to be coming to him, and with tearful entreaty to look in his face and cry, "Dear father, do, do forgive me?" "Forgive you, child?" would the father say, "I have forgiven you. Cannot you believe my word? Have I not treated you, and in everything behaved towards you; as though I had forgiven you? Your continued importunity for pardon wounds my paternal love for you."
And is it not thus with your heavenly Father? Ought you to be ever praying for the pardon of already pardoned sins, as though they were still written against you? Instead of this, you ought to abound in peace, and gratitude, and love—for the forgiveness you have received. True it is, that when you have fallen into fresh sin, so as to make it doubtful to you whether you were formerly sincere in your professions of repentance towards God, and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; or when you have sunk into such a state of lukewarmness as raises the same doubt. In either of these cases, such believing prayers, for the pardon of all the sins of your past life, are very proper; but for a believer, who is not in either of these conditions, but who is walking humbly with God, to be ever doubting of his acceptance, praying for his justification, and looking back with dismay upon the sins of his state of ignorance and unbelief, is to deny himself the comfort which belongs to him, and to withhold from God the tribute of gratitude which is due to him for the exceeding riches of his grace.
But still a believer has much to do in other ways with even his pardoned sins. He must ever remember them—they must not be to him, as though they had not been. He must ever remember them—to magnify the mercy which forgave them, even as the blessed apostle PAUL did; 1 Cor. 15:9. 1 Tim, 1:12-16. He must remember them often, to confess them afresh to God, especially at seasons set apart for deep and protracted humiliation. Confession is by no means incompatible with the fullest sense of pardon. The child who has received his father's forgiveness, and knows he has it, may still ever and anon say to him, and will please him by the expression—"O my father, though you have forgiven me, and I do not doubt it, I must again repeat my sorrow that I have so offended you." It seems as if even in heaven, we could scarcely forbear in this way to remember and confess our sins. You may look back upon them for the purpose of producing that deep humiliation and self-abasement towards God, and that profound humility in the sight of man, which are so essentially necessary to the formation of the Christian character, and such bright ornaments of it.
Never, no never forget, that though you are a child of God—you once were his enemy; though now you are a justified believer—you once were a condemned rebel, and are still a pardoned sinner. Look back often and penitentially, until you feel that though a throne of glory is preparing for you in heaven—the 'dust' is your station upon earth. Call to recollection the lengths in iniquity you once ran; the aggravations which once entered into your sins; and the patience which was once manifested by God in bearing with you. Remote from you be that manner of looking back upon past sins, and of speaking of them, which is seen in many, who seem almost to glory in the greatness of their transgressions, and to manifest a sort of pleasure in talking of them, under the pretense of magnifying the grace of God in pardoning them.
Remember your sins, also, to produce caution. The very kind of sins you committed before conversion, you are likely, without watchfulness, prayer, and God's help—to commit after it. Grace changes your moral nature, but not your physical one. It alters your spiritual relations and circumstances, but not your civil and social ones. You have the same body, appetites, and propensities; perhaps the same situation in life; and consequently the same temptations. Remember your former course, therefore, to see how you fell, and how you are liable to fall again. The working of your deceitful hearts, the artifices of your spiritual foes, your lapses, your surprisals, and your sinful compliances during that dark period of your life, when you knew not God, may be of immense service to you now, when you profess to be the children of light. It is a dreary waste, a moral blank, on which the eye loves not to dwell, and over which the heart aches; but still it is a scene not barren of topics of improvement—materials in abundance may be gathered from it, to produce a grateful, humble, watchful, and devoted life.
Thus let your past history come up often before you—not to rob you of your peace and joy in believing; not to put out the light of salvation; not to take from your bosom the roll of your assurance; no—the sins of that period are all clean blotted out forever; are cast into the depths of the sea, never to be weighed up; are none of them reserved by God to bring against you again. But let the past be reviewed, to mingle with all your blessed confidence of acceptance with God, a spirit of penitence, and meekness, and circumspection.
Secondly. Another class of a professed Christian's sins, are those which he still sometimes commits through a lack of watchfulness, and the power of temptation.BACKSLIDING from God, in all its degrees and stages, is, alas! no uncommon thing in any age, or in any section of the Christian church. That triple alliance of the world, the flesh, and the devil; "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life;" is but too often successful against the high-minded, self-confident, and unwary professor. We witness in our own time, as well as read upon the page of inspired history, many melancholy falls of those who call themselves by the name of Christ; and it is well, and an unutterable cause of thankfulness to sovereign grace, if we do not give sad proof of such frailty in ourselves. To those who have fallen, I say—
Beware of a self-defending, self-excusing spirit. You will never either repent of your backslidings or return from them, as long as this spirit is in you. Do not endeavor to blame extenuating circumstances, nor gain peace from doubtful palliations. Your safety, as well as your duty, lies not in thinking the best you can of your case, but the worst. God will never justify you until you condemn yourself; nor ever speak pardon from his throne, until you cry, "guilty," from the dust. Confession is the only way to peace—the sin will lie like a burning coal upon your conscience, until it is acknowledged with ingenuous grief to God. So DAVID found it, as you will learn by reading the thirty-second Psalm. Confession of sin is like opening a vein, and letting out blood from an inflamed part of the body; it will give considerable relief to a wounded, bruised, and feverish conscience. Do not, instead of this, endeavor to gain peace by persuading yourself that there is nothing in what you have done inconsistent with the reality of grace, the sincerity of your profession, and the character of a Christian. It is a delusive opiate to say, "It is merely one of the spots of God's children, and need not give me much concern."
Equally beware of brooding in an unbelieving and desponding frame of mind over your guilt. You have fallen, but not irrecoverably—you have sinned, but may repent, believe, and arise. Some passages of Scripture may here be presented to you as pre-eminently suited to your case—I can only refer to them, and beg you to turn to them, and read them, not only with a penitent but a believing mind; Psalm 51; 130. Jer. 2; 25; 32; 38. Hos. 14. Luke 15. But, perhaps, one short passage, after all, may contain in it more to relieve your conscience, to restore your confidence, and to establish your comfort, than more lengthened portions; then read, ponder, and apply to your own case, in all the assurance of faith, that precious declaration of the apostle, "THE BLOOD OF JESUS CHRIST HIS SON CLEANSES US FROM ALL SIN." That one brief, simple proclamation has saved thousands of broken-hearted penitents, wounded spirits, and trembling, self-reproaching backsliders from despair! And no wonder, for there is enough in it to drive despair out of our world, and shut it up in hell, its native place. Faith, backslider, faith is as much your duty as repentance; and whatever you may think, there can be no true repentance without it. Honor God's law and justice by repenting; but, at the same time, honor his mercy and his gospel by believing. Glorify the great and good Physician of souls, and his precious balm for wounded spirits, by believing he can heal the backslider, as well as the yet unpardoned sinner; that he can cure a second, yes a third time, as well as a first; that he can bring back from a relapse, yes even a repeated relapse.
Do not limit the mercy of his heart, the skill of his hand, the efficacy of his blood, by doubting of his ability or willingness to pardon you. You offend him as much by doubting, as by sinning. He takes pleasure, not only in them that fear him, but in them that hope in his mercy. Read, in addition to all that I have quoted, that exquisite passage in the prophecies of Micah 7:18, 19—"Who is a God like You, removing iniquity and passing over rebellion for the remnant of His inheritance? He does not hold on to His anger forever, because He delights in faithful love. He will again have compassion on us; He will vanquish our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea." These wondrous words were addressed to a backsliding people; and they are preserved upon record to encourage backsliders, down to the end of time, to forsake their sins, and hope for mercy. Every word is intended to send hope into the backslider's heart. Only believe, then, and your sins will all be forgiven you.
"Be contented with nothing short of a full and complete restoration to hope and peace. Until you have recovered that holy rest and confidence in God, that sweet peace which arises from confessing our sins with faith upon the head of the gospel sacrifice, there is no security against their revival. SIN is to be opposed, not only by direct resistance, but by opposing other principles to it which shall overcome it. It is not by contending with the fire, especially with combustible materials about us, that we shall be able to quench it, but by dealing plentifully with the opposite element. The pleasures of sense will not be effectually subdued by foregoing all enjoyment; but by imbibing other pleasures, the relish of which shall deaden the heart to what is opposite. It was thus that the apostle became dead to the world, 'by the cross of Christ.' Do not, therefore, reckon yourself restored, until you have recovered communion with God. David, though the subject of deep conviction, was not content without gaining this important point. Until then the poison would still at times be rankling in his imagination. Hence arose the following petitions—'Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.' Make these petitions your own; and if God grant you the thing that your heart desires, go and SIN no more, lest a worse thing come upon you."(Fuller on Religious Declension, published by the Religious Tract Society. I recommend this admirable little work to all Christians in a state of declension.)
Let the restored backslider, in all his deportment, cultivate and manifest a spirit appropriate to his condition. What profound humiliation before God; what gentleness and meekness towards man; what a penitential sense of his failings; what gratitude and love to his Restorer; what watchfulness, circumspection, and caution through all coming time; what entire dependence on the grace of the Holy Spirit for future holiness; what concern to avoid whatever led him astray from God; what diligence in the use of all appointed means for security—should he cultivate and manifest.
And who is there that has not been guilty of the SIN of backsliding, if not in conduct, yet in heart? Let not my remarks be considered as applicable only to those who have disgraced their profession by public scandals; these are comparatively few. But how many are there upon whom the eye of the Searcher of hearts looks down as having departed widely from him in secret, and to whom the directions of this part of the address are fearfully applicable. Many will be found, at last, to have backslidden from God, who never broke their connection with the church, and were never suspected by their fellow Christians to have left their God.
There is a third class of sins appertaining to all believers. I mean, thoseDAILY INFIRMITIES which are found in the best of men. These include the sins of ignorance, inadvertence, omission, defect, and negligence, which in such numbers are continually being committed, and which though they may not impeach the sincerity, impair the luster of the Christian profession, and keep the believer from that high degree of piety which it is his duty to obtain. These are the sins alluded to by the Psalmist, when he says, "Who can understand his errors? cleanse me from secret faults," Psalm 19:12. Few Christians are sufficiently aware of the number, magnitude, and amount of their imperfections. They admit as well as know that they are far off from perfection, but how far they little imagine. The first thing, therefore, for them to do is to become more intimately acquainted with those daily sins of their hearts, lips, and lives. How is this knowledge to be acquired?
By closely and devoutly studying the holiness of God. The perfection of the Divine character is the best mirror in which to see reflected the imperfection of our own—and the sinfulness of man never comes out so fully and so impressively to view as when seen in contrast with the holiness of God. Accustomed to look on the imperfect displays of spiritual excellence which are to be found in the church, and imperfect indeed they are, and on the total lack of all that is holy in the men of the world, we are apt to form very low ideas of that piety which is required of us; and at the same time to entertain too high ideas of what we have attained. And thus, comparing ourselves with ourselves, and with each other—we have neither the knowledge of our sinfulness, nor, of course, the due humiliation on account of it, which we ought to have.
It is only when we fix our gaze upon the HOLY ONE, and contemplate his infinite purity, that we become properly sensible of our deep depravity, and our still remaining corruption. This was the effect of a clearer manifestation of God's glory upon the mind of JOB. He who had been considered, and called, 'a perfect man', comparatively, thus describes the influence upon his mind of a clearer manifestation of the Divine glory—"I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees you. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes!" Job 42:5, 6. A similar effect was produced on the mind of the prophet Isaiah, by the vision of God's majesty in the temple—"Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips—for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!" Isaiah 6:5.
A clear and impressive view of the purity, spirituality, extent, and perfection of the law, will have the same effect in discovering to us our numberless and great imperfections. By that law everything sinful is forbidden—even to an unholy feeling; and everything holy is required—even to absolute moral perfection. Oh, when the blazing, searching light of that holy rule of action shines into and fills the mind—what corruption is disclosed, what depravity is unveiled! Our sins appear like the particles of matter which float in the sunbeam that enters a dark room, small, perhaps, as compared with actual vices, but absolutely innumerable. Study God's holy character, then, and his holy law, and you will soon find out that your sins are more in number than the hairs of your head!
Do not think lightly of these sins, nor excuse them on the ground of their comparative smallness, and because they are found in the best of men. It is true they ought not, except they are indulged, defended, and allowed to remain unopposed and unmortified—to unsettle your confidence in Christ, and your hope of personal saving interest in his salvation; for if assurance could rest only on perfection, who could possess it? But what deep penitence should they produce, what profound humiliation before God. Here is matter for daily abasement, confession and prayer. If a pardoned sinner, conscious of being such, need not pray while this assurance is in his mind, for the forgiveness of the sins of an unconverted state, he may still daily and hourly pray for the sins of a converted state. If he need not to ask God as a Judge to justify him, he has cause to ask God as a Father to forgive him. If he has not to ask for the curse to be removed, he has to solicit that the rod may be averted. Though we are not to conceive of God as actually looking after causes and grounds for the condemnation of his children, but as knowing their frame, and remembering that they are dust; still they are never to lose sight of their imperfections, nor to cease abasing themselves before him on account of them. Far remote are this humiliation and penitence, from a spirit of bondage and dread; it is the humility, and meekness of a child, that does not doubt his own sonship, or his father's love, but who has such a sense of his father's excellence and claims, that he is even disposed to condemn himself for the defects of his gratitude and love, of his devotedness and obedience. His sense of his daily sins does not take from him the peace of believing—but it sends him to the throne of grace with tears of penitence, mingling with those of joy.
How prevailing an ingredient should humility be, in the composition of the Christian character! For what is he? A pardoned rebel, and still the subject of innumerable imperfections. How inconsistent is pride of every degree and every kind, with such a character! And how preposterous and absurd, as well as wicked! How humbly should he be, and how softly should he walk! How strangely must he forget what he was, and how ignorant must he be of what he is—if his heart is lofty, or his eyes be lifted up!
How much is there yet to be done in the work of sanctification, and how diligently should we be employed in doing it. If even an apostle could say of himself, "Not as though I had attained, or were already perfect," how much more truly and emphatically may we say the same thing. What a height of holiness is there above our head, which we have not yet reached; and what a depth of obligation we have scarcely yet sounded. How much is there yet for us to do, by the help of God's blessed Spirit, in these hearts of ours. Yes, in these hearts, for to shut out sin from the outward LIFE, may after all be but a refined selfishness—if there is not equal solicitude to put it out, and keep it out, from the HEART. For vice would degrade us and disgrace us in the estimation of our fellow Christians, and fellow men; would in consequence be felt as a calamity, as well as a crime; and may by possibility be avoided on other grounds than a love of holiness for its own sake.
If therefore it is only great sins we are seeking to avoid, while we give ourselves no concern about mortifying and avoiding lesser ones; if it is the outward LIFE only we are striving to keep pure, while the HEART is left uncleansed and unwatched. If it is the sins of commission only which trouble us, and not those of omission, we are certainly deceiving ourselves, and what seeming holiness we possess, is for the love of self, and not for the love of God. Dear brethren, bear about with you a sense of those lesser sins, which though they do not disprove your conversion, diminish your sanctification, and hinder your perfection. Feel like a person who, though he had no loathsome defilement on his clothes, which would render him an object of disgust to all who witnessed it, was conscious that there was much dust, which, though it did not render him offensive, would blemish his garments, and which he was anxious to remove.
Watch against little sins; pray against them, yes, pray to understand them, and to see them—for many are so dull and indistinct in their spiritual vision that they do not properly discern them. A professing Christian's state may be much more accurately tested, and safely decided upon, by the way in which he is affected by these, than by his feelings towards greater ones. Natural conscience, the force of education, and a regard to his own reputation, may induce an abhorrence of open "presumptuous sins." But the detestation, dread, and mortification of "secret faults," is a pretty sure indication of a mind under the illumination, and a heart under the guidance of the Spirit of God.
How much you need the help of the Divine Spirit, and how earnestly should you pray for it to keep alive a due sense of your daily sins. The number and frequency of them have a tendency to produce a hardness of heart and an dullness of conscience, which greatly hinder our sanctification, and from which nothing can effectually preserve us but the grace which comes from above.
How delightful is the prospect, and how habitually should we contemplate it, of that state, where there will be no past sins unpardoned, no present ones committed, and no future ones dreaded. Nothing will remain of SIN but the remembrance of it, and even that of a kind which will not interfere, in the smallest degree, with the fullness of joy in God's presence, but which will in fact give new raptures of gratitude and love to the song of the blessed, who, in the possession of perfect holiness and perfect happiness, fall before the throne of Him from whom they have received both, saying, "You have redeemed us to God by your blood!"