The GOSPEL TRUTH
REVIVALS OF RELIGION.
WILLIAM B. SPRAGUE, D. D.
PASTOR OF THE SECOND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN ALBANY, N.Y.
OBSTACLES TO REVIVALS.
1 Corinthians ix. 12.
-- "Lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ"
It is impossible to contemplate either the life or writings of the apostle Paul, without perceiving that the ruling passion of his renewed nature was a desire to glorify God in the salvation of men. For the accomplishment of this end there was no service which he would not perform -- no earthly comfort which he would not surrender -- no suffering which he would not endure. A charming illustration of his disinterestedness in the cause of his Master occurs in the chapter which contains our text. He maintains, both from Scripture and from general equity, the right which a minister of the gospel has to be supported by those among whom he labours; and then shows how he had waived that right in favour of the Corinthians, that the purpose of his ministry might be more effectually gained. -- "If others be partakers of this power over you," says he, that is, "if it is the privilege of ministers in general to receive their support from those for whose benefit they labour, are not we rather entitled to this privilege -- we who have been instrumental not only of instructing and comforting you, but of leading you to the profession of Christianity? Nevertheless we have not used this power, but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ: we cheerfully submit to many inconveniencies and deprivations, that our success in winning souls to Christ, through the gospel, may not be in any degree hindered by the cavils of those who are always on the alert to misrepresent and censure us."
The text takes for granted that there may exist certain hinderances to the influence of the gospel. As every genuine revival of religion is effected through the instrumentality of the gospel, it will be no misapplication of the passage to consider it as suggesting some of the obstacles which often exist in the way of a revival: and in this manner I purpose to consider it at the present time.
What then are some of the most common hinderances to a scriptural revival of religion?
I. Ignorance or misapprehension of the nature of true revivals.
It is not to be concealed or denied, that much has passed at various periods under the name of revivals, which a sound and intelligent piety could not fail to reprobate. There have been scenes in which the decorum due to Christian worship has been entirely forgotten; in which the fervour of passion has been mistaken for the fervour of piety; in which the awful name of God has been invoked not only with irreverence, but with disgusting familiarity; in which scores, and even hundreds, have mingled together in a revel of fanaticism. Now unhappily there are those, and I doubt not good men too, who have formed their opinion of revivals from these most unfavourable specimens. These perhaps, and no others, may have fallen under their observation: and hence they conclude, that whatever is reported to them under the name of a revival, partakes of the same general character with what they have witnessed; and hence too they look with suspicion on any rising religious excitement, lest it should run beyond bounds, and terminate in a scene of religious phrenzy.
There are others, (I here speak particularly of ministers of the gospel, for their influence is of course most extensively felt on this subject,) who are led to look with distrust on revivals, merely from constitutional temperament, or from habits of education, or from the peculiar character of their own religious experience; and while they are hearty well-wishers to the cause of Christ, they are perhaps too sensitive to the least appearance of animal feeling. Besides, they not improbably have never witnessed a revival, and, as the case may be, have been placed in circumstances least favourable to understanding its nature or appreciating its importance. What is true of one individual in this case may be true of many; and if the person concerned be a minister of the gospel, or even a very efficient and influential layman, he may contribute in no small degree to form the opinion that prevails on this subject through a congregation, or even a more extensive community.
Now you will readily perceive, that such a state of things as I have here supposed must constitute a serious obstacle to the introduction of a revival. There are cases, indeed, in which God is pleased to glorify his sovereignty, by marvellously pouring down his Spirit for the awakening and conversion of sinners, where there is no special effort on the part of his people to obtain such a blessing; but it is the common order of his providence to lead them earnestly to desire, and diligently to seek the blessing, before he bestows it. But if, instead of seeking these special effusions of divine grace, they have an unreasonable dread of the excitement by which such a scene may be attended -- if the apprehension that God may be dishonoured by irreverence and confusion, should lead them unintentionally to check the genuine aspirations of pious zeal, or even the workings of religious anxiety -- there is certainly little reason to expect in such circumstances a revival of religion. I doubt not that a case precisely such as I have supposed has sometimes existed; and that an honest, but inexcusably ignorant conscience, on the part of a minister or of a church, has prevailed to prevent a gracious visit from the Spirit of God.
II. Another obstacle to a revival of religion is found in a spirit of worldliness among professed Christians. The evil to which I here refer assumes a great variety of forms, according to the ruling passion of each individual, and the circumstances in which he may be placed. There are some of the professed disciples of Christ, who seem to think of little else than the acquisition of wealth; who are not only actively engaged, as they have a right to be, to increase their worldly possessions, but who seem to allow all their affections to be engrossed by the pursuit; who are willing to rise up early, and sit up late, and eat the bread of carefulness, to become rich; and whose wealth, after it is acquired, serves only to gratify a spirit of avarice, or possibly a passion for splendour, but never ministers to the cause of charity. There is another class of professors, whose hearts are set upon worldly promotion; who seem to act as if the ultimate object were to reach some high post of honour; who often yield to a spirit of unhallowed rivalry, and sometimes employ means to accomplish their purposes which Christian integrity scarcely knows how to sanction. And there is another class still, not less numerous than either of the preceding, who must be set down, in a modified sense at least, as the lovers of pleasure: far enough are they from encouraging or tolerating any thing gross or offensive to a cultivated worldly taste; but they mingle unhesitatingly in scenes of amusement, from which they know beforehand that every thing connected with religion must be excluded; and they talk afterwards with enthusiasm of the enjoyment they have experienced in such scenes; and if the consistency of their mingling in them with Christian obligations happens to be called in question, not improbably they will defend themselves with spirit against what they are pleased to call a whimsical or superstitious prejudice. There are professors of religion among those who take the lead in fashionable life: they seem to breathe freely only when they are in circles of gaiety; and if they were taken out of the ranks of pleasure, the language of their hearts, if not of their lips, would doubtless be, "Ye have taken away my gods, and what have I more?" I am willing to hope that the number to whom this can apply, in all its extent, is, at this day, comparatively small -- certainly it is becoming smaller; but there are many who are ready to make a partial compromise with conscience on this subject, and who, in keeping aloof from the extreme of too great strictness, slide too near, to say the least, to the confines of the opposite error. All these different classes, if their conduct is a fair basis for an opinion, have the world in some form or other, uppermost. They are quite absorbed with the things which are seen and are temporal. Their conversation is not in heaven. It breathes not the spirit of heaven. It does not relate to the enjoyments of heaven, or the means of reaching these enjoyments. The world take knowledge of them, not that they have been with Jesus, but that, like themselves, they love to grovel amidst the things below.
That the evil which I have here described existing in a church, must be a formidable obstacle to a revival of religion, none of us probably will doubt. Let us see, for a moment, how it is so.
The individuals concerned constitute the church, or a portion of the church -- the very body in which, according to the common course of God's providence, we are to expect a revival to begin. But the prevalence of this worldly spirit of which I have spoken, is the very opposite of the spirit of a revival, and can have no more communion with it than light with darkness. So long as it exists, then, it must keep out that general spirituality and active devotedness to the cause of Christ in which a revival, as it respects Christians, especially consists; and of course must prevent all that good influence which a revival in the church would be fitted to exert upon the world.
But suppose there be in the church those who are actually revived, and who have a right estimate of their obligations to labour and pray for the special effusion of divine influences, how manifest is it that this spirit of worldliness must, to a great extent, paralyze their efforts! How painfully discouraging to them must it be, to behold those who have pledged themselves to co-operate with them in the great cause, turning away to the world, and virtually giving their sanction to courses of conduct directly adapted to thwart their benevolent efforts! And how naturally will careless sinners, when they are pressed by the tender and earnest expostulations of the faithful to flee from the wrath to come, shelter themselves in the reflection, that there is another class of professors who estimate this matter differently, and whose whole conduct proclaims that they consider all this talk about religion as unnecessary -- not to say fanatical! I know that a few Christians have, in some instances, been enabled by God's special blessing to stem such a current as this, and have been permitted to witness the most glorious results from their persevering labours; but I know too that nothing is more disheartening to a few devoted disciples of Christ -- nothing more directly fitted to render their exertions of no effect, than for the mass of professors around them to be buried up in the world; to be found with them at the communion-table, commemorating the death of Christ, but never to go with them in any effort for the advancement of his cause. But while this spirit of worldliness mocks in a great degree the efforts of the faithful, it exerts a direct and most powerful influence upon those who are glad to find apologies to quiet themselves in sin.
I know that it is a miserable fallacy, that the inconsistent lives of professed Christians constitute any just ground of reproach against the gospel; nevertheless it is a fact, of which no one can be ignorant, that there are multitudes who look at the gospel only as it is reflected in the character of its professors, and especially in their imperfections and backslidings. These are all strangely looked at, as if religion were responsible for them; and whether it be a particular act of gross transgression, or a general course of devotedness to the world, it will be almost sure to be turned to account in support of the comfortable doctrine, that religion does not make men the better, and therefore it is safe to let it alone altogether: or else it is inferred, that if religion be any thing, it may be safely delayed; for it is so small a matter that it may be taken up at any time: or possibly the individual, referring his own character to the low standard which he may observe among professors, may charitably conclude that he is already a Christian; and thus, by playing off upon himself the arts of self-deception, may lull himself into a lethargy, out of which he will never awake, until he is roused, by the light of eternity, both to conviction and despair. None surely will question, that whatever exerts such an influence as this on the careless and ungodly, must constitute a powerful barrier to a revival of religion.
But this worldly spirit is to be looked at, moreover, in the relation which it bears to the Spirit of God; for God's Spirit, let it always be remembered, is the grand Agent in every revival. What then do professing Christians virtually say to the Holy Spirit, when they lose sight of their obligations, and open their hearts and their arms to the objects and interests of the world? Do they thereby invite him to come, and be with them, and dwell with them, and to diffuse his convincing and converting influences all around? Or do they not rather proclaim their indifference, to say the least, to his gracious operations; and sometimes even virtually beseech him to depart out of their coasts? But it is the manner of our God to bestow his Spirit in unison with the desires, and in answer to the prayers of his people; can we suppose, then, that where the spirit of the world has taken the place of the spirit of prayer, and the enjoyments of the world are more thought of than the operations of the Holy Ghost -- can we suppose, I say, that He, who is jealous of his honour, will send down those gracious influences which are essential to a revival of religion?
Whether, therefore, we consider a worldly spirit among professed Christians in its relation to themselves, to their fellow-professors who are faithful, to the careless world, or to the Spirit of God, we cannot fail to perceive that it must stand greatly in the way of the blessing we are contemplating.
III. The want of a proper sense of personal responsibility among professed Christians, constitutes another obstacle to a revival of religion. You all know how essential it is to the success of any worldly enterprise, that those who engage in it should feel personally responsible in respect to its results. Bring together a body of men for the accomplishment of any object, no matter how important, and there is always danger that personal obligation will be lost sight of; that each individual will find it far easier to do nothing, or even to do wrong, than if, instead of dividing the responsibility with many, he was obliged literally to bear his own burden. And just in proportion as this spirit pervades any public body, it may reasonably be expected, either that they will accomplish nothing, or nothing to any good purpose. Now, let this same spirit pervade a church, or any community of professed Christians, and you can look for nothing better than a similar result. True it is, as we have already had occasion to remark, that in a revival of religion there is much of divine agency, and of divine sovereignty too: but there is human instrumentality also, and much of what God does, is done through his people; and if they remain with their arms folded, it were unreasonable to expect that God's work should be revived. Let each professor regard his own personal responsibility as merged in the general responsibility of the church, and the certain consequence will be that the church, as a body, will accomplish nothing. Each member may be ready to deplore the prevalence of irreligion and spiritual lethargy, and to acknowledge that something ought to be done in the way of reform; but if, at the same time, he cast his eye around upon his fellow-professors, and reflect that there are many to share with him the responsibility of inaction, and that as his individual exertions could effect but little, so his individual neglect would incur but a small proportion of the whole blame -- if he reason in this way, I say, to what purpose will be all his acknowledgments and all his lamentations? In order that God's work may be revived, there must be earnest prayer; but where is the pledge for this, unless his people realize their individual obligations? There must also be diligent, and persevering, and self-denied effort; but where are the persons who are ready for this, provided each one feels that he has no personal responsibility? Who will warn the wicked of his wicked way, and exhort him to turn and live? Who will stretch out his hand to reclaim the wandering Christian, or open his lips to stir up the sluggish one? Who, in short, will do any thing that God requires to be done in order to the revival of his work, if the responsibility of the whole church is not regarded as the responsibility of the several individuals who compose it? Wherever you see a church in which this mistaken view of obligation generally prevails, you may expect to see that church asleep, and sinners around asleep; and you need not look for the breaking up of that slumber, until Christians have come to be weighed down under a sense of personal obligation.
Moreover, let it be remembered, that the evil of which I am speaking is fitted to prevent the revival of God's work, inasmuch as it has within itself all the elements of a grievous backsliding. Wherever you find professors of religion who have little or no sense of their own obligations apart from the general responsibility of the church, there you may look with confidence for that wretched inconsistency, that careless and unedifying deportment, that is fitted to arm sinners with a plea against the claims of religion, which they are always sure to use to the best advantage. And, on the other hand, wherever you see professing Christians realizing that arduous duties devolve upon them, as individuals, and that the indifference of others can be no apology for their own, there you will see a spirit of self-denial, and humility, and active devotedness to the service of Christ, which will be a most impressive exemplification of the excellence of the gospel, and which will be fitted at once to awaken sinners to a conviction of its importance, and to attract them to a compliance with its conditions. In short, you will see precisely that kind of agency on the part of Christians which is most likely to lead to a revival, whether you consider it as bearing directly on the minds of sinners, or as securing the influence of the Spirit of God.
IV. The toleration of gross offences in the churchy is another serious hinderance to a revival of religion.
We cannot suppose that the Saviour expected that the visible church on earth would ever be entirely pure, or that there would not be in it those who were destitute of every scriptural qualification for its communion, or even those whose lives would be a constant contradiction of their profession, and a standing reproach upon his cause. He himself hath said, "It must needs be that offences come;" though he has added, with awful emphasis, "Wo unto that man by whom they come." And the whole tenor of God's word goes to show that it is required of the church -- of the whole body, and of each particular member -- that they keep themselves unspotted from the world; that they have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness; that they exhibit, in all respects, that character which becomes "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people." And inasmuch as there was danger, from the imperfection and depravity of man, that the church would embody a greater or less amount of hypocrisy and corruption, it pleased the great Master to prescribe rules for the maintenance of her purity. Hence Christians are exhorted to stir up one another, by putting each other in remembrance; to reprove and admonish each other with fidelity as occasion may require; and in case of scandalous offences persisted in, or not repented of, the church, as a body, is bound to cut off the offender from her communion. In performing this last and highest act of discipline, as well as in all the steps by which she is led to it, she acts not according to any arbitrary rules of her own, but under the authority, and agreeably to the directions of her Head.
Now it is impossible to look at the state of many churches, without perceiving that there is a sad disregard to the directions of the Lord Jesus Christ, in respect to offending members. It sometimes happens, that professors of religion are detected in grossly fraudulent transactions -- that they grind the face of the widow and orphan -- that they take upon their lips the language of cursing, and even profanely use the awful name of God -- not to speak of what has been more common in other days, their reeling under the influence of the intoxicating draught, -- I say it sometimes happens that Christian professors exemplify some or other of these vices, and still retain a regular standing in the church, and perhaps never even hear the voice of reproof, especially if the individuals concerned happen to possess great worldly influence, and the church, as it respects temporal interests, is in some measure dependent upon them. But rely on it, brethren, this is an evil which is fitted to reach vitally the spiritual interests of the church, and wherever it exists, it will, in all probability, constitute an effectual obstacle to a revival of religion.
For its influence will be felt, in the first place, by the church itself. The fact that it can tolerate gross offences in its members, proves that its character for spirituality is already low; but the act of tolerating them must necessarily serve to depress it still more. It results from our very constitution, and from the laws of habit, that to be conversant with open vice, especially where there is any temptation to apologize for it, is fitted to lessen our estimate of its odiousness, and to impair our sense of moral and Christian obligation. If a church tolerates in its members scandalous sins, it must know, as a body, that it is in the wrong; nevertheless, each individual will reconcile it to his own conscience as well as he can; and one way will be, by endeavouring to find out extenuating circumstances, and possibly to lower a little the standard of Christian character. Thus it will almost of course come to pass, that that deep and awful sense of the evil of sin, which the Christian ought always to cultivate, and which is essential to a high degree of spirituality, will no longer be found; and in place of it there will be, if not an exhibition of open vice, yet a disposition to regard iniquity in the heart, and a readiness to partake of other men's sins.
Besides, the neglect of one duty always renders the neglect of others more easy; not merely from the fact that there is an intimate connection between many of the duties which devolve upon Christians, but because every known deviation from the path of rectitude has a tendency to lower the tone of religious sensibility, and to give strength to the general propensity to evil. Let the members of a church do wrong in the particular of which I am speaking, and it will make it more easy for them to do wrong in other particulars. A disregard to their covenant obligations in this respect will render them less sensible of the solemnity and weight of their obligations generally: in short it will lead, by almost certain consequence, to that state of things which is characterized by spiritual insensibility and death, and which is the exact opposite of all that belongs to a revival of religion.
But the evil to which I refer is not less to be deprecated in its direct influence upon the world, than upon the church. For here is presented a professing Christian, not only practising vices which, it may be, would scarcely be tolerated in those who were professedly mere worldly men, but practising these vices, for aught that appears, under the sanction of the church. Wherever this flagrant inconsistency i« exhibited, the scoffer looks on and laughs us to scorn. The decent man of the world concludes, that if the church can tolerate such gross evils, whatever other light she may diffuse around her, it cannot be the light of evangelical purity. And even those who feel the weight of Christian obligation, and who desire to join in the commemoration of the Redeemer's death, will sometimes hesitate whether they can become members of a community in which the solemn vows of God are so much disregarded. Need I say that there is every thing here to lead sinners to sleep on in carnal security to their dying day?
But observe still farther, that this neglect to purify the church of scandalous offences, is an act of gross disobedience to her Head -- to Him who has purchased for her all good gifts, and whose prerogative it is to dispense the influences of the Spirit. Suppose ye then that he will sanction a virtual contempt of his authority, by pouring down the blessings of his grace? Suppose ye that, if a church set at naught the rules which he has prescribed, and not only suffer sin, but the grossest sin, in her members, to go unreproved, he will crown all this dishonour done to his word, all this inconsistency and flagrant covenant-breaking, with a revival of religion? No, brethren; this is not the manner of Him who rules King in Zion. He never loses sight of the infallible Directory which he has given to his church; and, if any portion of his church lose sight of it, it is at the peril of his displeasure. Disobedience to his commandments may be expected always to incur his frown; and that frown will be manifested, at least, by withholding the influences of his grace.
V. Another powerful hinderance to a revival of religion, is found in the absence of a spirit of brotherly love among the professed followers of Christ.
Christianity never shines forth with more attractive loveliness, or addresses itself to the heart with more subduing energy, than when it is seen binding the disciples of Jesus together in the endearing bonds of a sanctified friendship. Let it be said of Christians, as it was in other days, "Behold how they love one another;" let them evince a strong regard to each other's interests, and a tender sympathy in each other's woe, and a ready condescension to each other's infirmities, and a willingness to bear each other's burdens; and, rely on it, this kindly spirit will diffuse a grateful influence all around; and even the enemies of religion will not be able to withhold from it at least the homage of their respect and approbation; and, there is good reason to hope, that it may be instrumental of subduing many to the obedience of the truth. But, on the other hand, let the professed followers of the Saviour manifest towards each other a jealous or contentious spirit -- let them appear more intent on the advancement of their own personal, or selfish, or party ends, than upon the promotion of each other's edification and benefit, -- and those who see them, instead of taking knowledge of them that they have been with Jesus, will take knowledge of them that they have imbibed the very spirit of the world. The influence of such an example upon the careless, must be to lower their estimate of the importance of religion, and furnish them an excuse for neglecting to seek an interest in it. Oh, how often has it been said by infidels, and the enemies of godliness, to the reproach of the cause of Christ, that when Christians would leave off contending with each other, it would be time enough for them to think of embracing their religion!
But the want of brotherly love operates to prevent a revival of religion, still farther, as it prevents that union of Christian energy, in connection with which God ordinarily dispenses his gracious influences. It prevents a union of counsel. As the Saviour has committed his cause, in a sense, into the hands of his people, so he has left much as respects the advancement of it to their discretion. And they are bound to consult together with reference to this end, and to bring their concentrated wisdom to its promotion. But if there be a spirit of alienation and discord among them, either they will never come together at all, or else their counsels will be divided, and they will do little else than defeat each other's purposes. The same spirit will prevent a union in prayer. This is the grand means by which men prevail with God: and the prospect of their success is always much in proportion to the strength of their mutual Christian affection; for this is a Christian grace; and if it is in lively exercise, other Christian graces, which are more immediately brought into exercise in prayer, such as faith, repentance, and humility, will not be asleep: and as concentrated effort is the most powerful in all other cases, so it is in this -- let the united prayers of many hearts go up to heaven for the revival of God's work, and they may be expected to exert an influence which will tell gloriously on the destinies, perhaps, of many dinners. But, on the other hand, if there be not this feeling of brotherly-kindness among professed Christians, even if they come together to pray for the outpouring of the Spirit, their prayers will at best be feeble and inefficient, and their thoughts will not improbably be wandering, and unchristian feelings towards each other kindling, at the very time they are professedly interceding for the salvation of sinners. And the same spirit is equally inconsistent with a union of Christian effort; for if they cannot take counsel together, if they cannot pray together, they surely cannot act together. Who does not perceive, that a spirit of mutual unkindness among the professed followers of Christ, thus carried out into action, must, if any thing, oppose a powerful obstacle to the revival of God's work?
But suppose some, whom you should regard as Christians, should adopt measures in relation to revivals unauthorized by God's word, and, to say the least, of very doubtful tendency, and you should decline to co-operate in such measures, and your conduct in this respect should be considered as evincing the want of brotherly love -- where, in this case, would the blame really rest? Most unquestionably not on you, but on those who accused you. There is nothing in the obligation of good-will which Christians owe to each other, to set aside the paramount obligation which they owe to their Master, to take his word as the rule of their practice. Whatever you conscientiously believe to be unscriptural, you are bound to decline at any hazard; and if you do it kindly, (no matter how firmly,) and the charge of being wanting in brotherly love is preferred against you, you have a right to repel it as an unchristian accusation. If, in such a case, evil result from the want of concentrated action, and the measures adopted are really unscriptural, the responsibility rests upon those who, by the adoption of such measures, (however honestly they may do it,) compel you to stand aloof from them. You may indeed, in other ways, give evidence of not possessing the right spirit towards them; and it becomes you to take heed that, you do not give such evidence: but the mere fact of refusing your co-operation certainly does not constitute it. And it would be well if they should inquire, whether they are not at as great a distance from you as you are from them, and whether their departure from you does not indicate as great a want of brotherly love as is indicated by the fact of your refusing to follow them?
But it may be asked, whether a spirit of brotherly love may not exist between Christians whose views on points not fundamental may differ? I answer, yes, undoubtedly; it may and ought to exist among all who trust in a common Saviour. We may exercise this spirit even towards those whom we regard as holding errors, either of faith or practice, provided we can discover in them the faintest outline of the image of Christ. They may adopt opinions in which we cannot harmonize, and measures in which we cannot co-operate, and the consequence of this may be, a loss of good influence to the cause of Christ, and perhaps positive evil, resulting from disunion in effort; nevertheless, we may still recognise them as Christians, and love them as Christians, and cordially co-operate with them wherever our views and theirs may be in harmony. The right spirit among Christians would lead them to make as little of their points of difference, and as much of their common ground, as they can; and where they must separate, to do it with kindness and good-will, not with bitterness and railing.
I must not dismiss this article without saying, that the Spirit of God, who is active in awakening and renewing sinners, is the Spirit of peace; he dwells not in scenes of contention; and we cannot reasonably expect his presence or agency, where Christians, instead of being fellow-workers together unto the kingdom of God, are alienated from each other, and sell themselves to the service of a party. In accordance with this sentiment, it has often been found, in actual experience, that the Spirit of God has fled before the spirit of strife; and a revival of religion, which promised a glorious result, has been suddenly arrested by some unimportant circumstance, which the imperfections of good men have magnified, till they have made it an occasion of controversy. While they are yet scarcely aware of it, their thoughts, which had been engrossed by the salvation of their fellow-men and the interests of Christ's kingdom, are intensely fastened upon another object; and they wake up, when it is too late, to the appalling fact, that the work of grace among them has declined, and that sinners around are sinking back into the deep slumber of spiritual death.
VI. The last hinderance to a revival which I shall notice is, an erroneous or defective exhibition of Christian truth.
As it is through the instrumentality of the truth that God performs his work upon the hearts of men, it is fair to conclude, that just in proportion as any part of it is kept back, or is dispensed in a different manner from that which he has prescribed, it will fail of its legitimate effect. It is not at the option of God's ministers to select one truth from the Bible and omit another; but they are required to preach the whole counsel of God: and where they neglect to do this, it were unreasonable to expect a blessing. In the exercise of their own judgment on this subject, they may come to the conclusion, that particular parts of divine truth are of little importance, and that even some of the peculiar doctrines of the gospel may well enough be lightly passed over; but this is an insult to the Author of the Bible, which they have good reason to expect he will punish, by sending them a barren ministry.
There is a way of preaching certain doctrines out of their proper connection, which is exceedingly unfriendly to revivals of religion. Suppose, for instance, the doctrine of God's sovereignty be exhibited in such a partial or insulated manner as to leave the sinner to infer that it is but another name for tyranny -- or suppose the doctrine of a divine influence be preached in such a way as to authorize the inference, that man has nothing to do in respect to his salvation but wait to be operated upon like a mere machine -- or suppose the doctrine of man's apostacy be so exhibited as to lead sinners to deny their responsibility for their transgressions, and to take refuge from the accusations of conscience in the relation which they bear to the father of our race, -- in either of these cases, there is little probability that they will be converted, or even awakened. It is natural for them to find excuses for remaining in a state of sinful security as long as they can; and so long as they are furnished with such excuses as these, and by the ministers of the gospel, there is not the least ground for expecting that their consciences will be disturbed. The evil to which I refer has, I have no doubt, often existed, in all its extent, where the minister has actually believed all the truths of God's word; and yet he has exhibited some in such a manner as to neutralize the power of others, and even to prevent the legitimate effect of those he has attempted to enforce.
There is also an unnatural mixing up of human wisdom with God's word, which, so far as it has any effect, must be unfriendly to the influence of divine truth. Let the naked sword of the Spirit be brought home to the consciences of men, and the effect of it must and will be felt, and the anxious inquiry will be heard, and sinners, in all probability, will be renewed. But let the wiredrawn theories of metaphysicians be substituted in place of the simple truth, or even let the genuine doctrines of the gospel be customarily exhibited in connection with the refined speculations of human philosophy, and though I dare not say that God, in his sovereignty, may not bless the truth which is actually preached, yet I may say, with confidence, that but little effect can be reasonably expected from such a dispensation of the word. And the reasons are obvious; for God has promised to bless nothing but his own truth; and the refinements of philosophy are to the mass of hearers quite unintelligible.
I may add, that a want of directness in the manner of preaching the gospel, may prevent it from taking effect on the consciences and hearts of men. It is only when men are made to feel that the gospel comes home to their individual case, that they are themselves the sinners whom it describes, and that they need the blessings which it offers -- it is only then, I say, that they hear it to any important purpose. Suppose that its doctrines, instead of being exhibited in their practical bearings, and enforced by strong appeals to the consci3nce, are discussed merely as abstract propositions, and with no direct application, the consequence will be, that though the great truths of the Bible may be presented before the mind, yet they will rarely, if ever, sink into the heart. Sinners will hear them, and, instead of realizing that they involve their immortal interests, will probably be as indifferent as if they were matters of idle speculation. So it has been in a multitude of instances; and so, from the very nature of man, it must continue to be.
I might mention, also, as another important hinderance to a revival, the want of a simple dependence on God; but as this will come up in another form in a subsequent discourse, I shall waive, for the present, a distinct consideration of it.
In closing this view which we have taken of the obstacles to a revival of religion, I know not, my Christian brethren, how we can use the subject, in a single word, to better purpose, than to gather from it a deeper impression of our own responsibility. Christians, ye who profess to desire a revival of religion, and to make this a commanding subject of your prayers, let me ask, whether, in view of what you have now heard, you have no reason to fear that you may yourselves be standing in the way of the bestowment of the very blessing for which you profess to plead. The great obstacles to the revival of God's work are no doubt to be sought in the church: what these obstacles are, at least some of the more prominent of them, you have now heard; and I appeal to each of your consciences, as in the presence of the Searcher of the heart, whether the guilt of hindering God's work, in some or other of these ways, does not lie at your door? Wherefore is it that the Holy Spirit is not now as manifestly in the midst of us, by his awakening and converting influences, as he has been in other days? Is it not because you have relapsed in some measure into a habit of worldliness; or because you value the blessing less; or because you are less united and vigorous in your efforts to obtain it? Or is it for any other of the reasons which have now been spread before you? Christians, awake, one and all, to a deeper sense of your responsibility. Let it not be told in heaven that God's people on earth are opposing obstacles to the salvation of perishing men. In doing this, ye parents, you may be keeping your own children out of heaven! In doing this, ye who have unconverted friends, sustaining to you the tenderest earthly relations, you may be assisting to fix their doom in woe forever! In doing this, ye Christians of every class and of every condition, you are opposing the interests of God's holy kingdom, opposing the design of the Saviour's death, opposing the salvation of immortal souls! But you cannot do this, and think what you are doing. It must be that you are acting incautiously. Awake then to solemn reflection. Awake to earnest prayer. Awake to faithful and persevering action. Else there may be sinners who will greet you at the last day, as the stumbling-blocks over which they fell into eternal perdition.
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