A Sermon



(Of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, America,)



"Do thyself no harm." -- Acts xvi. 28.


Paul and Silas were preaching the gospel at Philippi, and Satan, it appears took new ground with them at this place, which, for a time, served greatly to embarrass them. There was a woman there who was the subject of demoniacal possession, and when the apostles were preaching she followed them from place to place, and called out after them--"These are the servants of the Most High God, which show unto us the way of salvation;" and, of course, inasmuch as she was such a character, and so well-known Paul, was very much grieved that she thus went after them, and bore testimony of this kind. He, therefore, cast the unclean spirit out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. This naturally gave great offence to those who made profit by her proceedings, and as they were influential persons they caused no small stir in the city. They brought them before the magistrates, and charged them with "turning the world upside down." After this they were sent to jail, and thrust into the inner prison, and, lest they should possibly escape, their feet were made fast in the stocks. At midnight they prayed and sang praises unto God, and all the prisoners heard them. There was a great earthquake, and the very foundations of the prison were shaken, the bars and bolts were removed, and the doors thrown open. This awoke the jailer, who was sleeping in a part of the same building. Coming from his room, and beholding the state of things around him, he concluded the prisoners had escaped; and, knowing that he should be hardly dealt with, he was greatly excited, and drawing his sword, was about to destroy himself. This was observed by Paul, who cried out with a loud voice--"Do thyself no harm: we are all here." Then the jailer called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out, and said, ["]Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house."

God is always concerned lest the sinner should do himself harm, and what Paul said to the jailer in this case needs to be said to great multitudes of people in the present day; indeed, one way or the other, God is continually cautioning them not to injure themselves. It is not because this text teaches any particular doctrine that I have chosen it to-night, but for the purpose of calling attention to certain things of great importance.





I have said that [I.] no one can do a moral agent real spiritual injury but himself. Persons can tempt others, but unless the individual tempted consents, there is no sin on his part. The tempter may sin, but to suffer temptation is no sin. Truly and properly even Satan himself cannot inflict spiritual harm upon men without their consent; for, unless they consent, they are not really harmed by temptation. In fact, although Satan never means them to do so, they are often benefitted, rather than injured by temptation, when they manfully resist it. Where individuals designedly tempt others, it is no thanks to them if it works good instead of evil. No one can inflict sin upon another; sin is a voluntary act on the part of the sinner; nobody can sin for you, or make you sin without your own consent, in any such sense as that God will hold you responsible for it.

This leads me to the next point. [II.] Sin is the greatest harm you can inflict upon yourself. Whatever else you may do it is of trifling importance compared with this. Sin is an eternal wrong to the immortal soul. But I need only to mention such points; it is unnecessary to enlarge on them. Whenever you wrong others by sin, you always do yourselves a greater wrong than you do them. Suppose, for example, that you have cheated another man, injured his character, or in some way inflicted an injury upon him; you have not inflicted any spiritual injury upon him, although you have wronged him temporally. But mark, in wronging him you have far more deeply wronged yourself; for your act was sin, but the wrong you have done him is not of so great importance--it is not so great a wrong to him as if he himself had committed a sin.

Now let me turn to [III.] the sources of danger. You are all apprized[sic.] of the existence of temptation, which the Bible divides into three descriptions--the world, the flesh, and the devil. By the world is meant all that is without--by the flesh, our own nature--by the devil, the infernal influences by which we are sometimes tempted.

But my main design is to call attention to certain things by which men are in danger of doing themselves harm, and to call on them [IV.] to be on their guard against them. First, I remark that men are in danger of doing themselves harm by the indulgence of prejudice. I have no doubt but that prejudice is one of the most common occasions of sin. Men are in very great danger of being prejudiced. For example, nearly the whole Jewish nation appears to have been ruined by prejudice. They were so committed to certain views, and so prejudiced in favour of certain doctrines which they had been taught, that when Christ came he was so completely over-against their prejudices--so different from what they expected--they had so given themselves up to their prejudices, that it had become their ruin. Who can contemplate the influence of religious prejudice without feeling inclined to warn everybody to be on their guard against it?

Prejudice is a pre-judgment, a making up of the mind beforehand without the requisite light and evidence. Now, in every age of the world this has been one of the great evils of mankind, and probably the judgment day will reveal the fact, that prejudice has ruined as many souls as almost any other thing in the world. Religion consists in believing and obeying the truth. Now, just so far as an individual is prejudiced, just so far he will, of course, not be under the influence of the truth. If he is committed to a one-sided view he will not know, do, or be sanctified by the truth, and of course, therefore, will not be saved. It is striking to see to what an extent mere prejudice ofttimes governs people on questions so infinitely important as that of religion.

I have already adverted to the history of the Jewish nation, and the same is true, to an amazing extent, with respect to nominal Christians in the church. There is, perhaps, no denomination of Christians in which you will not find individuals who give the strongest evidence that their religion, such as it is, is a mere prejudice; and, in fact, in some communities the mass of the membership appears to be in this condition; so that to attempt to preach to them contrary to their views, is useless, seeing that just so far as it is opposed to their views, in so far they deem your teaching erroneous. This is an all-powerful argument with them. So amongst the Roman Catholics, for instance; every individual who knows anything of them knows how extremely difficult it is to get them to listen to anything unless it comes to them in a certain shape. Their religion itself is a mere mass of prejudices, and not, in reality, a religion at all, and this the mass of them abundantly show in their lives.

Some years since I was called to labour in a locality in the United States, where a multitude of Germans had taken up their abode. They were strongly imbued with the peculiar views entertained by their denomination. They were taught their catechism up to a certain age, when they came before the minister, answer certain questions, and if they can do so they are admitted to communion, and then confirmed; this, they are taught to believe, is religion. I have frequently been told, when labouring amongst them--"Oh! I'm a Christian already." "Are you indeed? Who made you a Christian?" "Dr. Millenberg," was the reply in one case. "Well, but do you call that religion?" I have asked, "Oh, yes, that is our religion." Now, every drunkard I met in the streets had been to the communion, said his catechism, learned his lesson, and been received into the bosom of the church. So fatal and deep was their prejudice that it was astounding to see the masses in such a position. Their minister, for instance, would make such appeals to them as this, if there was any great revivals of religion in the neighbourhood--"Why do you go to hear such preaching as that? If you embrace that religion you will turn against your fathers, and you may as well say your fathers are gone to hell! Did they pray and do such and such things? Did they tell their religious 'experience,' and how they were 'converted?' Will you turn against your fathers, give them all up, and proclaim by your conduct that they are all gone to hell?" In this way they were harangued from Sabbath to Sabbath; and is it wonderful that while persons thus have their prejudices appealed to, that they die in their sins by thousand after thousand? No minister, who appeals to the people's prejudices, can hope to promote religion thereby; they cannot be in a more unfavourable attitude to become truly religious; for, until they become honest-hearted, as little children, they will not be converted. Prejudices against individuals is ofttimes a very great obstacle to conversion. People do not seem to see that even when convicted these prejudices prevent their being converted. In fact, this was as total a barrier to their being converted as if they were in the habit of stealing, getting drunk, or anything else of that kind. This is not sufficiently understood. People who indulge unreasonable prejudices in this way, are often surprised to find they make small progress in religion; they cannot think how it is. Some persons are apt to fall into this error from their natural temperament; and such persons are in danger of doing themselves fatal harm. This is one of the rifest sources of destruction among men. How few there are after all, comparatively, whom you do not find so unreasonably committed either in favour of, or against somebody, that they are in a perfectly dishonest state of mind. Press them with religion, if you please, such is their dishonesty you can do them no good. I say the more on this subject because, when conversing with these persons, I have often found that they had never thought of these prejudices as a hindrance of their spiritual prayers.

Another thing against which persons need to be warned, is resistance to, and trifling with their own consciences. The reason that there is so little sensibility on the subject of religion is, that persons have trifled so long with their own consciences. People complain that they have none of the influences of the Holy Spirit; this is very common. How is it? If we could see through their past history we should perceive times when they felt keenly on religious subjects, especially when they sinned; but they indulged first in one sin and disregarded the reproof of conscience, and then in another and another, till at length the voice of the inward monitor was allowed to pass unheeded, and eventually, except in very extreme cases, it scarcely spoke at all, and finally sinks down into an indignant silence!

There are two things belonging to what we generally term conscience--the mind's judgment, the moral character of the man, and that kind of feeling created by them--i.e., a feeling answerable to the mind's judgment of our moral conduct. That which is more generally understood by the term conscience is the twinge of the sensibility; for so is reason related to the feeling part of the mind that when it points out sin in an individual, (that is before he becomes benumbed by resistance) it will produce a feeling impelling the mind to avoid such things. When the mind says such a thing is right, and it is your duty to do it--that is, when the judgment of the mind says so--there is a feeling pressing the individual up to do it, or if he has done it without this it causes a deep sting of remorse, when this feeling has not been trifled with, it makes the mind bleed to the very centre; but, when resisted the impulsive part ceases, the remorse ceases, and at length even when anything is clearly seen to be a duty, not the least impulse is felt to do it. It affirms such and such to be duty, but there is no echoing feeling or tendency in the mind to go in that direction--only a cold naked judgment, that he ought to do it. He has done something wrong, oh! yes; and there is the cold judgment, and that is all, there is no remorse. When persons have thus completely silenced the impulsive voice, and there is nothing left but the cold naked judgment--what then? They complain of the "want of conviction." They have "no heart to become religious," no feeling on the subject. They know themselves to be sinners, but they feel it not, and care not for it. They know they are in danger of going to hell, but it does not alarm them. They know they have lived in sin, but they do not feel it; they are like a marble pillar. I have no doubt that some of you recognize in this picture your own past or present condition. Cannot you remember when you believed a thing to be wrong, felt strongly drawn back from it; or, if you did it, you felt a sting of remorse which made you writhe, and perhaps even led you to pray and confess it to God? But how is it now? Where is all that impulse now? Perhaps the cold naked affirmation is present--that you can never resist--but, mark, perhaps all the results which tended to life within yourself is gone. Where are you now? Ah! where are you now? I would earnestly caution you to be careful how you trifle with conscience, for when you have once stifled its voice--where are you then?

Another mode by which men are in danger of doing themselves fatal harm is by resisting the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is always true that when the conscience is resisted, the Holy Spirit is resisted, and that this impulse is often, if not always, connected with the Divine influence. When the Spirit of God is quenched and grieved away, there is the utmost danger that the conscience will become entirely silent, and that no truth can savingly reach the soul: for, observe, it is through the conscience that the Spirit of God works, and that the truth takes hold on men; but for a man's conscience, he would no more be converted than a marble pillar. If you take this away, virtually, by resisting it, there is no more hope of your conversion than if you had no conscience.

There is another thing against which persons need to be warned, and that is getting into some snare from which they can hardly escape. It is dreadful to see how men fall into such snares. It is the policy of Satan to crowd men early in life into some position from which he knows they will not retreat. Men sometimes do certain things which are almost sure to be fatal to them; Satan therefore crowds them always into these false steps--into the commission of some sin, or the assumption of some false position--they commit themselves to something which they dare not confess, and they cannot repent without confessing--how shall they get out of it? For example, who does not know the influence of telling a lie? Sometimes a sinner's telling a lie will almost certainly ruin him. He will get himself into such a position by telling this lie in order to "make everything straight," and then telling another to cover the first up, and so on, and on that the results of this one sin will often prove fatal; not that such an offence, in itself, was unpardonable, but it necessarily committed the mind to a course of lying, and it rushes on in a course involving the sacrifice of one principle after another, and onward and onward you go.

Let me ask all persons here--have you well considered this point? Did you young men ever seriously reflect on the danger of telling your employer a lie? Have you done so? What a step you have taken? You will probably be led to tell some one else a lie in order to cover it up, and then you will be led to another and another and so on. Where will you stop? The same is true of business transactions; the devil never shocks men at first by some atrocious proposition; he strives to lead them into unguarded positions--to push them into danger by committing themselves, by some apparently trifling act, to a certain course of conduct--and then he seeks to cut off their retreat. For instance, there is a young man who has taken some small advantage of his employer, and dare not confess it for fear of being thrown out of employment--what shall he do? He conceals it, and then goes on in a course of deceit to keep it concealed. Whenever it is likely to come out he resorts to some new fraud to cover it up; and thus his escape is rendered more and more difficult. Oh! sinner do thyself no harm. Do not take the first penny or first farthing! Sinners, of all persons, have most need to be on their guard against placing themselves in such a position as to cut off their own retreat.

Another thing to be guarded against is the formation of some bad habit. How many thousands of young men have come to the City of London, for example, and allow themselves to get into some bad habit! They have been taught better at home; their parents have warned them; and watched their start in London with fear and trembling. They come here, and give up their old habits of order, and keep late hours at night, give way to intemperance, and so the occasional indulgence grows up into a habit, becomes conformed, and often almost ineradicable. Persons should be on their guard against the formation of these artificial appetites; for they are always more despotic and dangerous than those which are natural. For example, the appetite for alcohol is an artificial appetite; that is, no unperverted constitution ever sought poison, loved it, and took to the habitual use of it; and if this habit once gets the mastery over an individual, how awfully dangerous is their position! The use of tobacco belongs to the same category; it, too, is a totally artificial appetite; there is nothing more odious to the taste, at first. When I walk along the streets, and see your poor ill-clad artizans with their pipes in their mouths, how I pity them! It has got such a hold on many persons, that the sacrifice, to them, would be great indeed. Let me say to all smokers, snuffers, and chewers, who are present to-night--Is this a proper use for you to make of God's money? Is this the way to treat your constitution? Is this a practice which will commend itself when you come to render an account to God? Perhaps some of you will say, these, after all, are very insignificant things to preach about; but to you, young men, they are not small things at all; for such habits invariably lead to something worse.

Men need also to be warned against engaging in any improper business. I mean some business which will ruin your souls, if persisted in. Be careful what you do in this direction. Undertake no business which is injurious to your fellow-men--nothing which is inconsistent with the well-being of society--no business, in short, that you cannot pursue honestly, with an enlightened, upright heart, for the glory of God. Now this is a very common sense thing. Every one can see that when an individual engages in a business he cannot consecrate to God, by that very engagement he has formally withdrawn his allegiance from Christ, and set up for himself. Be careful, then, for you had better have no business at all, ten thousand times, than engage in one in which you cannot keep your conscience void of offence. But you must also be careful not to err by pursuing a proper business, from improper motives; if you take the most proper business in the world, and pursue it in an improper manner, it will be fatal. It may be selling Bibles, even; if you go about it selfishly, and yet say, "I am vending Bibles,"--what if you are? Take care! Mark me, you may just as easily be selfish in that calling as in anything else. In fact, the more sanctimonious the exterior of a business, the greater your danger of pursuing it from wrong motives, without being aware of it. Take, for instance, the preaching of the gospel. You can all see at once, that a man who preaches the gospel because of the nature of the profession, might easily give himself credit for it, while it was in fact only selfishness; because he preached the gospel he might take it for granted that he was in the service of God, whereas he was serving himself in the gospel and not of the gospel. Be careful, then, that you do not prosecute your business selfishly; for if you do, it will be fatal to your souls.

Avoid dangerous companions; if they are agreeable, they are so much the more dangerous on that account. It is always a great snare to young people when they fall in with a very agreeable but unprincipled companion. That young man is a very agreeable companion; he often calls on you, treats you very politely; sometimes asks you, perhaps, to an oyster supper, or something else; but he is an unprincipled young man, though he does not at once show it--all the worse for you; the greater your danger. If he were not agreeable you would not be in so much danger of receiving fatal harm. But he is very agreeable, and the devil knows it, and loves to have him make himself agreeable; he may draw you into some snare, and you are committed for life and for death. It is just the same with books; they are often all the more dangerous because of their being agreeable.

Again--amusements. Ah! how very amusing they are! But where do they tend? You "must have some amusement," you say. How many millions have been destroyed by not being on their guard against these things! Beware also, of worldly ambition. You see a great many examples of this. Beware of the love of gain. What would it profit you to gain the whole world if you lose your own soul? Look at such a man getting rich--do you envy him? The Lord may let him have it--but what then? The richest man in America, a few years since, was called upon by a person who was employed to write his biography. (A person who knew him well, told me that he was the most wretched man he ever knew; so numerous were the calls upon him for charitable objects, that at length he became uneasy whenever he heard a knock, lest it might be some one to beg his money; and such was his state of mind when his biographer called upon him.) "On the whole, what do you think of your life, now that you have nearly done with it?" said the biographer. "I think it is a failure," was the reply. "A failure?" exclaims the biographer. "Yes, a failure," was again the response. He had more money than any man in America, yet he considered his life to have been a failure. Ah! he had been greedy of gain; he had loved money, and had got it, but he had lost his soul. He had committed himself to gain, till it had become a passion, and he was eaten up with it. Are you, any of you, doing yourselves harm in this way? Are you so intent on obtaining property that it haunts you even on the Sabbath? Indeed? Why then are you benumbing your souls--riveting your own chains. You ought to take warning, and fly from it as from the very gates of hell!

Another great danger is that when men become wealthy, they are liable to become "purse proud," and thus ruin themselves. Even intemperance itself is ofttimes not more fatal to the soul; it is manifestly inconsistent with the spirit of the gospel; but there is a great temptation to it. It is remarkable to what an extent men who succeed in acquiring property become haughty in their demeanour. Others indeed need to be warned against family pride. This is a fatal snare, by which men do themselves infinite harm.

Again. Persons often run to men for advice instead of to God. Some years since, at Detroit, in America, there lived a gentleman who belonged to one of the highest families in the place, and who was surrounded by a large circle of the very uppermost class of society. He was deeply convicted of his sins, very anxious about his soul, at length he became so intensely anxious that he could no longer refrain from speaking to me on the subject. I pressed him to submit. "I cannot do it," said he "without consulting my friends, without which I never take any important step, as they would think it unkind and ungenerous of me." "But are you going to consult unconverted men about your soul?" "Oh! Yes." "But I am certain if you do this, you will tempt the Spirit of God." But he "thought he should not." I pressed him for half an hour to make at once his peace with God. But no, he persisted to the last that his relations must be consulted; and so important a step must not be taken without their consent. Persons often thus consult their friends, and virtually commit themselves to their advice, rather than follow the dictates of their own conscience, their sense of right, and the law of God. They want no advice where the path of duty is so plain; but the fact is, they are afraid to displease their friends, and they therefore go on displeasing God! What a foolish and fatal course is this!--flesh and blood before God!

The next rock on which may split is the harbouring of resentment, and while this is done conversion is utterly impossible. They have not the spirit which God requires; for except you forgive others their trespasses, God will not forgive you yours. Some people harbour resentment more easily than others, and seem almost unconscious of it, and appear unable to see that they are injuring themselves by so doing. Have you been injured? "Yes," and therefore you entertain a spirit of resentment, and thought of retaliation if you have an opportunity. Do you, indeed? Now do you know that Satan pleases himself with these thoughts; for even if that man has ruined you, you are doing yourself more wrong than he had done; for, mark me, the wrong that he has done you could not injure your soul, if you did not harbour resentment. You pass that man by, and do not speak to him on any account; and pray, is that the spirit to be saved in? Avoid, therefore, doing yourself injury by harbouring a spirit of revenge. Be equally careful to shun feelings of envy and jealousy. I have often thought that were we to look over human society we should find, perhaps, a very great number of persons who are kept from being converted, and go down to their graves in their sins because they have been all the time harbouring ill-feeling towards some one who has injured them. Something has occurred in early youth, or even in childhood, which has placed an individual--or, perhaps, an entire family--in the position of enemies, and you go down to the grave hating them. Now the Bible teaches us plainly that this state of mind is fatal to the soul. Satan chuckles over it--avoid it! Guard against all feelings of enmity or retaliation towards anybody, from any cause whatever; I have always taken the greatest pains on this point in my own family. Parents! What kind of an example are you setting your children on this point? Consider well and examine your position in this respect.

Guard against bearing any sin on your conscience: There is some sin of omission or of commission which, perhaps, you are putting off, it may be leaving it for a death-bed. You have wronged somebody, and you think confession to them and restitution, as far as circumstances permit, will, at present, disgrace you, but that you will attend to it before you die. You are too proud, in fact to do it now; you will do it when you come to die; but will God accept the act then, think you? When death knocks you will find yourself in no such a position as you are calculating upon; if you thus deliberately refuse or neglect to confess and forsake your sins--you are all but certain to die as you have lived, for you have been tempting God. Do not, therefore, delay to attend to this matter. Many neglect to do what they know to be their duty, and yet pray to God as if they had really done all that they ought, till they eventually harden their hearts to a degree which is absolutely fatal--till they have, in fact, totally lost their religious sensibility. Beware, then, of the delusion that you can possibly be saved while you are in any respect guilty of dishonesty--beware of tempting God and ruining yourselves by the indulgence of so fatal an error. If God forgave you, while you were dishonest or insincere in any respect, he would become the minister of unrighteousness--he cannot do it.

But I must hasten to a close; I will, therefore, content myself with very briefly indicating some other things which need to be guarded against. Be careful lest, by some incautious act, you be drawn into a position which requires the practice of habitual deception--which necessitates either confession, which might perhaps disgrace you, or involves the necessity of making your life a perfect lie. Sometimes lovers deceive each other with regard to pecuniary prospects or something else, and what awful consequences have been known to result! But the wrong you are doing to yourselves is, in all such cases, even greater than the wrong done to others. Sin is the greatest absurdity in the universe, yet--only think!--here are you, selfish beings, doing yourselves the greatest injury that can possibly be done to you! All the wicked men on earth, or all the devils in hell could never have done what you will do, if you go on in your present course--they could never have ruined your soul! This will, doubtless, be the most agonizing consideration in hell--that you have done it all yourself. You, and you alone, have done this infinite harm to your immortal soul!

Suppose some of you have placed yourselves in such a position--taken some false oath, committed some theft, or done some injury in some way, and you are sorry for it, but refuse to confess to the party concerned, and do all in your power to make restitution?--and suppose that it should be told in the solemn judgment that, instead of making restitution you threw yourself on Christ? Suppose it should be found that God had forgiven you while in this dishonest state of mind? But you cannot suppose such an absurdity, for it would disgrace him before the whole universe. But you are too proud to make restitution. Indeed! Then you are too proud to be saved! Beware, then--I speak to young men particularly--beware, young men, of taking the FIRST step in a course, the results of which are so terrible! Beware of the first lie--the first dishonest act! If you have already commenced such a course, forsake it at once; no results which may ensue, can be so great an evil as your going to hell. There is no evil so great as that. But many are too proud, and prefer to go on in deceit, because they have gone on in it so long that they tremble at the sacrifice--but one hour of hell will be infinitely worse than the worst of such cases can possibly be!

Do not leave it till you come to die--after you have gone on in injustice--quenching the Spirit and stifling conscience--how do you think to make it up so easily with God at your latest moments, when the breath is just departing from your body? Oh! sinner, how awful will then be your reflections! How your weakened memory will start again into activity, and recal[l] the time when you told the lie that committed you to a course of lying to cover it up--when you indulged in the first act of extravagance, which finally led you to plunder your employers! You will then see the vast and awful importance of the counsel I now give--to avoid the first act, or, if that be too late, to come out of it while the sacrifice is yet comparatively small, and do not--let me entreat you--do not defer it till the matter becomes so serious as to render your confession and restitution next to an impossibility! Perhaps a week, or a day, longer in your present course, may lead you to some act which will render the retracing of your steps tenfold more serious than it is at the present moment; and, in fact, may thereby seal your destiny for eternity!

Sinner! Mercy yet calls. Jesus is here with the offer or pardon and salvation. No matter how great your sin. If you will now, indeed, back right out, and pour it all out before the Lord, wash you hands in innocency, bathe yourself in the blood of Jesus, and you shall be forgiven!


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