The GOSPEL TRUTH
REVIVALS OF RELIGION.
WILLIAM B. SPRAGUE, D. D.
PASTOR OF THE SECOND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN ALBANY, N.Y.
GENERAL MEANS OF PRODUCING AND PROMOTING REVIVALS.
Philippians i. 27.
-- "Striving together for the faith of the gospel"
The apostle uniformly manifested a cordial regard and complacency towards all who loved the Lord Jesus Christ. But there were reasons why the Philippian Christians occupied a higher place in his affections than many others. It was through his instrumentality that they had been converted to the faith of the gospel. They had manifested a faithful adherence to their principles in the midst of much opposition. They seem, moreover, to have given some special evidences of sympathy and attachment towards him during his imprisonment at Rome -- such as became the relation they sustained to him as his own children in the gospel Hence it is not strange that he should have honoured them with an epistle; or that it should have been characterized by expressions of most affectionate regard, and of the deepest concern for their spiritual welfare. At the date of the epistle he was still confined in prison; and it does not appear that the time of his release was then fixed: hence, in exhorting them to fidelity and perseverance, he alludes to the fact, that he might or might not make them a visit; but in either case, he earnestly desires that they may continue steadfastly engaged in the cause to which they were devoted: "Only let your conversation be as becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel."
The direction contained in the text may properly be considered as pointing, in a general manner, to the duty of Christians in relation to a revival of religion. In a preceding discourse we have contemplated the agency of God in a revival: in the present, we are to contemplate the agency of man; in other words, we are to consider some of the more prominent MEANS, in the hands of the church, which the Holy Spirit honours in reviving, and sustaining, and advancing his work.
These means may be considered as of two kinds: those which are expressly prescribed by God -- and those which are adopted by men, professedly in accordance with the spirit of the gospel.
In respect to the former, namely, the instituted means of grace, we must suppose that they are fitted to accomplish their end in the best possible manner. He who devised them made the mind, and is perfectly acquainted with all its moral disorders, and knows by what means it can be best approached, and what kind of instrumentality is most in accordance with its constitution. Unquestionably then, in all our efforts to cure the disorders of the mind, or, what is the same thing, to produce or promote a revival of religion, we are to depend chiefly on the means which God himself has appointed; and we are to expect the greatest and best effect from them when they are used in their greatest simplicity -- precisely in the manner in which God designed they should be used. It is possible, no doubt, that a divine institution may be so perverted, that nothing more than the form of it shall be retained; and it is possible that it may be so encumbered with human additions, that though the substance of it may be said in some sense to remain, yet it loses in a great degree its life and power. In opposition to this, we are to retain both the substance and the form of God's institutions: let his word be preached -- let his worship be celebrated -- let all the appointed means of grace be used, exactly in accordance with his own directions, -- and then we may expect, with the greatest confidence, that he will honour them with his blessing.
But God has not limited his people, in their efforts to advance his cause, to what may properly be called divine institutions: he permits them to adopt means, to a certain extent, of their own devising; though, in exercising this liberty, they are to take heed that they depart not at all from the spirit of the gospel. In all the departments of benevolent action, the invention of man is, in a greater or less degree, laid under contribution: the great system of moral machinery which has been put in operation, in these latter days, for evangelizing the world, is to be attributed immediately to the wisdom and energy of the church; and every one knows that this has been crowned with the special favour of God. In the same manner, he permits his children to exercise their own judgment, to a certain extent, in the adoption of measures for carrying forward a revival: and if those measures are in accordance with the general tenor of his word, though not in all cases expressly enjoined by it, they have a right to expect that he will affix to them the seal of his approbation; but if they are contrary to the spirit of the gospel, they must inevitably incur his displeasure.
What, then, are some of the general characteristics of those measures which the Bible authorizes in connection with a revival of religion? The true answer to this question may not only enable us to distinguish between right and wrong measures of man's devising, but also to decide when the instituted means of grace are or are not used in a scriptural manner.
1. All the means which God's word authorizes are characterized by seriousness.
It will be admitted, on all hands, that if any subject can be presented to the mind which claims its serious regard, it is religion; or if any occasion ever occurs in which the semblance of levity is unseasonable and revolting, it is a revival of religion. For then the world, for a season at least, falls into the back ground, and the interests of the soul become the all-engrossing object. Then men are letting go the things which are seen and are temporal, and grasping after the things which are not seen and are eternal. The work which is attended to then is deep reflection, and earnest prayer, and agonizing conviction, and effectual repentance, and the forming of holy resolutions, and the renewing of spiritual strength. Many sinners are coming into the kingdom; and saints, and no doubt angels, are looking on with deep concern, lest others should abandon their convictions, and provoke the Spirit to depart from them for ever. I may appeal to any of you who have been in the midst of a revival, whether a deep solemnity did not pervade the scene; whether, even if it is your common business to trifle, you were not compelled to be solemn then? And if you have wished at such a moment to be gay, have you not felt that that was not the place for it; and that before you could get your mind filled with vain thoughts, and your heart with light emotions, you must withdraw, and mingle in some different scene?
Now then, if there be a high degree of solemnity belonging essentially to a revival of religion -- if there never be a scene on earth more solemn than this,-- surely every measure that is adopted in connection with it ought to partake of the same character. It were worse than preposterous to think of carrying forward such a work by any means which are not marked by the deepest seriousness, or to introduce any thing which is adapted to awaken and cherish the lighter emotions, when all such emotions should be awed out of the mind. All ludicrous anecdotes, and modes of expression, and gestures, and attitudes, are never more out of place than when the Holy Spirit is moving upon the hearts of a congregation. Every thing of this kind is fitted to grieve him away; because it directly contradicts the errand on which he has come -- that of convincing sinners of their guilt, and renewing them to repentance. Nor is the case at all relieved by the occasional introduction of what may be really solemn and weighty; for its legitimate effect is almost of course neutralized by the connection in which it is presented; and that which might otherwise fall with awful power upon the conscience, is thus rendered utterly powerless and unimpressive. And not only so, but there is often, in this way, an association formed in the mind, which is exceedingly hostile to subsequent religious impressions; an association between solemn truths, which ought to make the sinner tremble, and ludicrous expressions, which will supply him with matter for jests.
I doubt not, that, in reply to this, I shall be referred to the wonderful success of Whitfield, and a few others, whose preaching has been characterized by what 1 have here set down as an exceptionable peculiarity. But I would say, that these cases constitute exceptions from the common course of human experience. God had given to these men a power over the human passions altogether peculiar; so that they could sometimes make use even of the lighter feelings, in giving to divine truth its deepest impression. But they are not in this respect an example for other men. All experience proves, that when men of common minds attempt to tread in their footsteps, they accomplish nothing to any good purpose: and, even in the case of the individuals referred to, it may reasonably be doubted, whether the good effect of their labours Was not often diminished, rather than assisted, by the use which they made of this extraordinary power; certainly this was true in every instance in which the lighter emotions were ultimately left to preponderate.
But surely no one will say, that the Bible treats the subject of religion otherwise than in the most serious manner. Every thing that is there said respecting it, takes for granted that it is a concern of the deepest moment. So, too, in all the accounts which the Bible records respecting revivals of religion, there is nothing that even approaches the confines of levity. All that is recorded as having been spoken or done on these occasions was of a deeply serious character; and as these revivals were conducted by inspired men, we have a right to conclude, that the course which they adopted was, in all respects, most in accordance with the designs of infinite wisdom.
2. Another characteristic of those means for promoting a revival, which are authorized by God's word, is order.
The apostle, in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, dwells at length on the importance of avoiding all irregularities in religious worship; declaring that "God is not the author of confusion;" and exhorting that "all things be done decently and in order." And what the apostle hath said on this subject is in entire correspondence with the general tenor of God's word; and I may add, with all just and rational views of the divine character. In every thing that God has done there is perfect order; insomuch that it has been said by a poet, with inimitable beauty, that "order is heaven's first law." In the pure and elevated worship of heaven, though there are ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, who join in it, yet each harp and each voice is in unison with every other; and there is not the semblance of disorder in that whole glorified community. Surely, then, in all our religious services, and in all the measures we adopt for co-operating with the Holy Spirit in the great work of saving men, it becomes us to take heed that we never violate even the spirit of the apostle's precept; that we do every thing not only with sincerity and zeal, but with that reverent decorum, which so well becomes us when engaged in the immediate service of the infinite God. And hence we are obliged to look with strong condemnation on that indecorous familiarity which is sometimes manifested in prayer; on expressions which, to say the least, border upon vulgarity, and would scarcely be regarded decent in common intercourse between man and man; on every thing like groaning, or shrieking, or shouting, during a religious service; on the praying of females in meetings composed of both sexes; on the speaking, whether in prayer or exhortation, of several individuals at the same time; on every thing, in short, which contributes to render a religious exercise in the least degree boisterous or irregular. We do not doubt that many of these evils may exist, not only where there is sincerity, but more or less of genuine Christian feeling; but we insist, that they are totally inconsistent with the decorum that belongs essentially to religious worship; and therefore ought to be discouraged.
But possibly it may be asked, whether the fervour which often exists in connection with these irregularities is not to be admitted as an apology for them; and whether we ought not to be slow in condemning the one, lest we should seem to pass sentence against the other? I answer, unhesitatingly, No. The highest degree of genuine religious fervour, even that which the redeemed experience, while they cast their crowns at the Saviour's feet, is consistent with perfect order; and I venture to say, that their worship, full of elevated rapture as it is, is associated with a degree of reverence of which even Isaiah and Paul could here form no adequate conception. But that kind of fervour which is the parent of irregularities, which makes an individual apparently forget that he is on earth, and the Being whom he addresses, in heaven, is, to say the least, of exceedingly doubtful origin; and there is too much reason to fear, that it will be found at last to have been a mere earthly affection. But even if it be admitted, that a truly Christian fervour may be associated with gross irregularities, we maintain that there is no natural connection between them: the one is right, and the other wrong; and whenever they are found together, the true way is to hold fast the one, and let go the other. -- I observe,
3. That another characteristic of the means which God authorizes, in connection with a revival, is simplicity: and by this I mean the opposite of all parade and ostentation.
It is admitted, that, under the Jewish dispensation, there were many things connected with religious worship which were adapted to make a strong appeal to the senses; but all that machinery was abolished at the introduction of the Christian economy. Now, every thing in relation to the worship of God is simple; even the ordinances which are addressed to the senses, though they are full of meaning, are yet capable of being understood by a child. And all the means which are adopted for the advancement of religion, ought surely to correspond with the general spiritual character of the dispensation. And wherever there is a departure from this principle in reference to a revival, there is not only a palpable violation of Scripture precept, but there is a bad influence exerted, as well upon those who are Christians as those who are not. The effect upon Christians is to awaken or cherish spiritual pride, and to lead them to lose sight of the great Agent, in their own self-complacent instrumentality. Its effect upon those who are mere spectators will probably be, to lead them to pass severe judgment on the revival itself, or else, admitting what they see to be scriptural, to lower their views of the humility of the gospel. And if it be admitted, that, in the use of such means, persons become truly regenerated, is there not much reason to fear, that they will be born into the kingdom with an overweening self-confidence, and that they will exhibit from the beginning a cast of character, not the most favourable either to Christian enjoyment or Christian usefulness? Let all our means for sustaining and advancing revivals be simple and unostentatious, and while we shall be acting in consistency with the spirit of the gospel, we may hope to do most, and do best, for our Master's honour, and the salvation of our fellow-men.
4. Another characteristic of the means which God approves for carrying forward a revival, and closely connected with the preceding, is honesty: by which I mean, the opposite of all worldly artifice.
It is true, indeed, that mere sincerity does not constitute religion; because a man may be very sincere in that which is very wrong: nevertheless, there is no religion without sincerity; and while the gospel abounds in direct exhortations to cultivate it, the general tendency of the gospel is to form a perfectly honest character. Now, in accordance with this general feature of Christianity, every measure which is adopted for bringing sinners to repentance, ought to be marked by entire Christian sincerity. The maxim, that the end justifies the means, has sometimes been adopted in this department of Christian duty; and there is reason to fear, that ministers, and good ministers too, have acted under its influence; and, instead of preaching God's truth in all its length and breadth, have selected some particular parts of it to the exclusion of others, thus separating things which God hath joined together; and instead of preaching God's truth just as it is, they have made high-wrought and overstrained statements, which the Bible does not authorize: and this they have done from a conviction, that such statements are best adapted to produce powerful impression; as if the word of God would be tame and powerless if it should come forth in its native simplicity. I confess I know not how to characterize this in juster terms, than that it is "handling God's word deceitfully." It were presumption in any one to suppose that God has revealed any thing which is not profitable, or that he has omitted any thing which is important. What God requires his ministers to do, is not to frame any thing new, or even to correct or revise his own word, but to dispense it just as they receive it at his hands: and if they do this, he will take care for consequences. But if they adopt any different course, they may fairly expect, that, in some way or other, the divine displeasure will be visited upon their presumption. And what is true of the preaching of the word is equally true of all other means for carrying forward a revival -- they must all be characterized by Christian honesty; honesty as well towards God, in whose service they are professedly employed, as towards the immortal souls whose salvation they are designed to effect.
5. The last general characteristic which I shall notice of the means which God's word authorizes for promoting a revival, is affection.
The gospel is pre-eminently a system of benevolence. The great object which it designs to accomplish, namely, the redemption of sinners, is the most benevolent object for which the heart of man or angel ever beat. And it is directly fitted to form in man a spirit of benevolence. It enjoins the exercise of kindness and good-will, in all circumstances and all relations. And surely if there be any occasion on which the tenderness which the gospel inculcates ought to be exercised, it is in the efforts which are made to bring men to conviction and repentance; in other words, to carry into effect the gracious purpose of God in their redemption. Witness the exhibition of this spirit in the ministry of the holy apostle, who, with all his firmness and energy, (and no man ever had more,) was uniformly courteous and affectionate. Witness, too, a greater than Paul -- even our great Model and Master: observe the meekness and gentleness that characterized all his conduct -- listen to his pathetic exclamation over the guilty city of Jerusalem, and to the inimitably tender petition which he offered in his last moments in behalf of his enemies and murderers, -- and then say, whether the benevolent spirit which he inculcates in his instructions does not shine forth with unparalleled brightness in his character? But who does not know, that all this is the exact opposite of what has sometimes appeared among the professed followers of Christ, even in their labours to advance his cause? And who does not see, that it conveys a pointed rebuke to all those ministrations which are characterized by unhallowed severity -- to all addresses, whether public or private, designed to waken up the bad passions, and draw forth expressions of resentment -- to every thing, in short, which is not according to the meekness and benevolence of the gospel?
Let no one suppose that I am pleading for a temporizing course, either as it respects ministers or private Christians, or that I object to the use of great plainness of speech. I would have the naked sword of the Spirit brought directly in contact with the sinner's conscience. I would have no covering up, or softening down, of plain Bible truth. I would have the terrors of the invisible world, and the fearful depravity and doom of the sinner, held up in the same appalling terms in which they are represented in God's word. But never was there a greater mistake, than to suppose that all this may not consist with an affectionate and inoffensive manner. Let the benevolent spirit of the gospel have its legitimate operation in a minister, and it will lead him to proclaim the most solemn and alarming truths with a tenderness which will be well fitted to open a passage for them to the heart. Let the same spirit possess the breast of a private Christian, and he too will earnestly exhort sinners to flee from the wrath to come; but while he commends himself to their consciences, on the one hand, by his fidelity and honesty, he will ordinarily commend himself to their feelings of good-will, on the other, by his kindness and affection.
Having thus noticed some of the characteristics of those means which God's word authorizes in connection with a revival of religion, we are now prepared to inquire more particularly what those means are. We shall consider, indiscriminately, those which are of divine appointment, and those which are not.
1. And the first we notice is, the faithful preaching of God's word.
As divine truth is the instrument by which the work of sanctification is accomplished, so we have a right to expect its greatest influence, when it is wielded by means of an institution which God himself has ordained. Accordingly we find, that God honours the preaching of the gospel in the conversion of men more than all other means; and if this institution were to be abolished, even though the Bible should still be left in the world, there is no reason to doubt, that the great cause of moral renovation would be arrested, and a darkness that could be felt speedily settle over the earth.
But in order that the preaching of the gospel may exert its full influence, especially as a means of promoting revivals, it is necessary that the institution should be maintained in all respects agreeably to the design of its author. Particularly, it is essential that the great doctrines of the gospel should be distinctly and fairly exhibited; in opposition to human philosophy, on the one hand, and to mere exhortation, on the other. I acknowledge, that by earnest and impassioned addresses, in which there is little or nothing of God's truth, there may be produced a feverish excitement of the mind, and that, through the influence of sympathy, may be extended over a congregation; but if the great doctrines of the Bible are not brought in contact with the conscience and the heart, I expect to look in vain for any thing like an intelligent conviction of sin, much less for the peaceable fruits of righteousness. It is when the law of God is exhibited in all its extent and spirituality, and the gospel in all its grace and glory, that we may expect to see men brought to a sense of guilt, and believing on the Lord Jesus Christ that they may be saved. Other things being equal, you may calculate, with confidence, on the best effect of the preaching of the gospel when its distinguishing doctrines are exhibited with the greatest prominence.
But then these doctrines must be held up in their practical bearings. They may be stated ever so clearly, and defended ever so skilfully, in the form of abstract propositions, and yet all this will be to little purpose, unless men can be made to feel that they describe their own character, and condition, and relations, and prospects. When the law of God is exhibited, the aim should be, to bring it home to every conscience as the standard of duty, and to make each one estimate his own character in view of it. When the doctrine of depravity is proclaimed, it should be in that spirit of direct and personal application, which is adapted to bring up before the sinner his own pollution and guilt. When the great doctrine of Christ's atonement is held up, it should be exhibited in its most practical relations, and brought directly in contact with the feelings of the heart, and urged as a rebuke to impenitence on the one hand, and an encouragement to exertion, and a foundation of hope, on the other. It is only when men are brought to contemplate the gospel as a practical system, bearing directly on all the interests of both worlds, that it can become, in respect to them, the power of God unto salvation.
Much also depends on the right adaptation of divine truth. In a season of revival, especially, one of the most difficult duties which devolve upon a minister, is the selection of appropriate topics of public instruction. Suppose, at such a time, he were to bring before his people that fundamental truth in all religion -- the existence of a God, and should attempt, by a process of reasoning, to vindicate it against the objections of atheism, or, suppose he were to discuss, in an elaborate manner, the historical evidence of Christianity, this, in certain circumstances, might be very proper; but it would be ill adapted to guide inquiring souls to the Lord Jesus Christ, or to prevent them from grieving away the Holy Spirit. It is obvious, that the great peculiarities of the gospel should, in some form or other, at such a time, constitute the whole burden of a minister's public instructions; nevertheless, there is great wisdom requisite to determine in what form, and in what combinations, these truths will be likely to come with the greatest power; what proportion of effort should be employed to alarm the careless, to guide the inquiring, and to prove and establish those who are hopefully born of the Spirit.
In order to prepare the way, under God, for a revival of religion, it is proper that those truths should be urged with special prominence, which involve most directly the great subject of Christian obligation, and which are best fitted to awaken sluggish and backslidden professors to a sense of their duty: for so long as Christians remain asleep, it cannot be expected that sinners will be awake; so long as Christians do not pray, or pray only in a formal manner, there is little reason to hope that sinners will begin to inquire. And in the progress of a revival, the duties of Christians should still be frequently pressed upon them, that they may not become weary in well-doing; and the law should be proclaimed with all its thunders, that there may be a constant waking up from the dreams of self-security among sinners; and the gospel should be constantly exhibited, in all the richness and adaptation of its provision, and in the full extent of its conditions, that inquirers may not mistake the way to the fountain of atoning blood. I do not say, indeed, that God in his sovereignty may not work, and work powerfully, where his ministers fail exceedingly in rightly dividing the word of truth; nevertheless, as the truth is the instrument by which he works, and as particular parts of it are adapted to particular ends, we have a right to conclude, that when it is preached in its right adaptation, and with a judicious reference to circumstances, it will ordinarily be preached with the greatest effect. And, if I mistake not, this remark is confirmed by the history of revivals. Wherever ministers have selected their subjects with the greatest wisdom, addressing different classes with proper discrimination, and in due proportion, there have usually been witnessed the greatest displays of divine power, in the conviction and conversion of sinners, in the edification of Christians; in short, in a consistent and glorious revival of religion.
I only add farther, under this article, that, during a season of revival, a larger amount of public religious instruction is demanded than in ordinary circumstances. For then there is a listening ear; and the understanding and conscience are awake; and the truth of God tells with mighty effect upon all the powers of the soul. Indeed men will hear the gospel preached at such a time; and if they cannot hear it in one city, they will flee to another; and, if they cannot hear it in its purity, take heed lest they should put themselves under the ministrations of some fanatic or heretic. And this demand for religious instruction must be met, -- not indeed, in all cases, to the full extent; for it is possible, even in a revival, that public services maybe multiplied to such a degree as to prevent their good effect; and men under the influence of strong excitement, are not always best qualified to judge: nevertheless, while there is room here for the exercise of wisdom, it admits not of question, that the truth ought to be kept, so far as may be, constantly before the mind; and this is to be effected principally by means of public instruction.
It has long been a practice in some parts of the church, and has recently become common in this country, to hold a succession of religious exercises, through a period of several days. In respect to this measure, though I am aware that it is liable to great abuse, yet, in itself considered, I confess that, in certain circumstances, and with certain limitations, it seems to me unobjectionable. One principal reason why sinners are not converted, is, that the impression which the truth makes upon them in the house of God, yields almost instantly to the cares and levities of the world. Now then, if, before this impression can have time to escape, it be followed up by another exhibition of truth, and another, there is reason to hope that it may become permanent, and that the result may be a genuine conversion to God: and this effect, it cannot be denied, is likely, in many cases, to be secured by a succession of several public religious services. But while I am free to express my conviction that such a meeting may be -- has been, an important means of good, I think it cannot be questioned, that the benefit to result from it must depend greatly on the circumstances in which it is introduced, and the manner in which it is conducted. Let it be regarded as an extraordinary measure, not frequently to be repeated -- let it be held when the minds of a congregation are waking up to God's truth -- and let it be conducted with solemnity and decorum, becoming the exercises of the sanctuary on the Sabbath, -- and I doubt not it may be rendered truly, and even greatly subservient to a revival of religion. But, on the other hand, let it be regarded as a common measure, often to be repeated -- let it be held without any reference to the peculiar circumstances of a congregation -- and, especially, let it be conducted with an irreverent disregard to the order of religious worship, or in a spirit of forwardness, or censoriousness, or fanaticism, -- and then it becomes a measure which the adversary wields with powerful effect against the purity of revivals, and the interests of the church.
2. Another important means to be used in connection with a revival, is, private and social prayer.
It is in the closet, especially, that Christians must expect to get the flame of devotion enkindled; and if the closet be neglected, whatever of a devotional frame they may suppose themselves to possess while mingling in public exercises, they have great reason to suspect is the mere operation of sympathy or animal feeling. And while that spirit of prayer in which a revival begins, usually originates in the closet, there the Christian may wrestle in behalf of Zion with as much earnestness as he will: there he may pour out his whole soul in tears, and sighs, and broken petitions, and the ear on which his importunity falls will never be offended by it. There, too, he may bring before God the cases of his individual friends, and even plead for them by name, and mention minute circumstances of their condition, (which would be entirely inconsistent with the decorum of public worship,) and earnestly supplicate for them the convincing and renewing influences of the Spirit. It is probable that, during every true revival, the most fervent and effectual prayers that are offered go up from the closet, and are never heard by any other ear than that which hears in secret.
But there should be much of social, as well as private prayer, connected with a revival. Much may be effected by the frequent meetings, for this purpose, of a few friends, whose hearts are closely joined together, who have a common interest not only in regard to the general cause, but in respect to particular individuals; and whose communings together serve to increase that interest, as well as to heighten in each other the spirit of earnest intercession. The record of these retired meetings, noiseless and unknown to the world, will, I have no doubt, show, at the last, that there was often mighty energy there, and that the Spirit made intercession with groanings which could not be uttered. And in larger circles, too, God's people are often to meet, for the express purpose of supplicating the influences of his Spirit; and though, on these occasions, the prayers must necessarily be more general, yet they should have direct reference to the advancement of God's work. And these prayers, instead of being offered in the spirit of formality, should be the deep and earnest longings of the soul, should go up from hearts bathed with the reviving influences of the Holy Ghost.
Prayer, as a means of grace, or a means of promoting revivals, is distinguished, in one respect, from every other: all other means are addressed immediately to men -- this, directly to God. And all others are dependent, in no small degree, for their success on this; for ministers and Christians may labour, no matter how faithfully, and it will be to no purpose without a divine influence; and that influence is to be secured only by prayer. God has said, that he will be "inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them." Prayer, then, let it never be forgotten, secures the blessing on every other means which the church employs. Prayer, too, may reach individuals whom the preaching of the gospel could never reach; because they will not come within the sound of it. You may have irreligious friends, to whom you dare not open your lips concerning their salvation; and yet you can go and pour out your whole soul before God in their behalf: and that prayer, for aught you can say, may carry the Holy Spirit to their hearts, to work a genuine work of conversion. Believe me. Christians, you cannot, at any time, estimate prayer as a means of saving the souls of your fellow-men too highly. Though it cannot take the place of other means, it is that without which all others would be utterly in vain; and besides, it has a direct influence, the extent of which it is impossible fully to estimate. -- Therefore, brethren, pray without ceasing.
3. Much is to be done, in producing and sustaining a revival, by means of conversation.
This is a duty which devolves not only upon the minister and other officers of the church, but upon all private Christians, according to their ability. And it is a duty which may be performed in a great variety of circumstances. There may be frequent opportunities for it in the common intercourse of life; and, no doubt, a suitable degree of attention would discover many opportunities which are suffered to pass without observation. But this is a duty which, especially in a season of revival, should hold a distinct and prominent place among Christian duties; and should not be left to the control of any contingency. There should be, so far as possible, a regular system of visiting, especially on the part of church officers, with a view to alarm, to direct, or to quicken, according to the circumstances of each individual with whom they may converse.
It belongs to Christians, on these occasions, to stir up the minds of each other; to endeavour to make each other feel more deeply their responsibility, and the value of the souls around them, and the danger of their being lost; and if there be among their number any who are sluggish, and disposed to excuse themselves from coming up to the help of the Lord, they are to be entreated affectionately, yet earnestly, to shake off their apathy, and give themselves actively to the great work. And, while Christians are to be faithful in their conversation with each other -- to encourage, to arouse, to quicken, so also are they to be faithful in warning the wicked of his wicked way, and in endeavouring to open his eyes on the destruction that threatens him. And those whose consciences are awake, they are to press with the obligation of immediate repentance; explaining to them, if need be, the terms of the gospel, and endeavouring to lead them without delay to the cross of Christ. They have an important duty to perform, also, in respect to those who have professedly come out of darkness into light; in assisting to detect false hopes, and confirm good hopes; to guard against temptation, and establish principles of holy living, and form plans for future usefulness. Many a Christian has had occasion through his whole religious life to reflect, that much of his usefulness, and much of his happiness, was to be referred, under God, to an unreserved intimacy, or perhaps to a single conversation, with some judicious Christian friend, at that critical moment subsequent to his conversion, when he was adopting principles for the regulation of his conduct.
You will not understand me here as recommending that every one should assume the office of a religious teacher, or that all Christians indiscriminately should take it upon them to give particular counsels and directions to the awakened sinner. The general direction, to exercise repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, it may come within the scope even of the humblest intelligence to give; but to counsel an inquiring sinner aright, sometimes becomes an exceedingly delicate and difficult duty, and may well put in requisition the experience and wisdom of the most advanced and judicious Christians; and the assumption of this office by those who are inadequate to it, it is easy to see, must greatly jeopardize the souls of men. While, therefore, every Christian, however circumscribed his field, or however limited his attainments, has something to do, by his conversation, in helping forward God's work, let every one take heed that he attempt nothing in this way which his knowledge or experience will not justify.
4. Another important means for producing and sustaining a revival, is Sabbath-school and Bible-class instruction.
As the work of sanctification is begun and carried forward by means of the truth, it is manifest that the greater the degree of truth that is lodged in the mind, the greater the probability, other things being equal, that the individual will become a subject of conversion. And as the mind is far more easily impressed and directed in the period of childhood and youth, than after it has reached maturity, and its habits have become fixed, so it is in the morning of life that the truth is likely to exert its greatest influence. Now then, as it is the design of the Sabbath school to throw the light of truth into the mind, and into the youthful mind -- in other words, to wield the great instrument of moral renovation in circumstances most favourable to its success, -- it cannot be doubted, that this institution is a most powerful auxiliary to the cause of revivals. A child who could gain but little from the ordinary instructions of the pulpit, in consequence of their exceeding his capacity, may, from the more simple and familiar instructions of the Sabbath school, be learning at least the elements of Bible truth; and at a very early period, no one can say how early, may have truth enough in his mind for the Spirit to use in the sanctification of his heart.
But there is a still more direct influence exerted by Sabbath schools in favour of revivals. It ought to be, and we doubt not, is, to a great extent, regarded as the duty of every teacher, not merely to enlighten the understanding, but to impress divine truth upon the heart and conscience of each of his pupils; aiming at nothing short of a thorough moral renovation. Here is the best possible opportunity for the teacher to find his way to the heart. If, in the intercourse which he holds with his pupils, he is amiable and conciliatory, he will almost of course secure their confidence; and this is a most important preparation for their listening to him with attention and profit. And then let him, from time to time, commune faithfully with their consciences; let him show them how the truths which he inculcates involve their interests and destiny for eternity; let him press them frequently with those considerations which are most fitted to make them feel that religion is the one thing needful, and that there is no apology for neglecting it. Let him carefully watch every serious impression, following it up by suitable admonitions and counsels, and, finally, let him bear the interests of these children before the throne of the heavenly grace, and he has good reason to expect that such instrumentality will be honoured in saving souls from death. It is' familiar to you all, that the records of Sabbath schools, and the records of revivals, are to a great extent identified; that the noblest triumphs of God's grace have often been found in these nurseries of knowledge, virtue, and piety.
There is another point of view in which the influence of Sabbath schools on revivals appears most desirable -- I refer to the fact that they contribute to their purity. One principal reason why revivals are sometimes corrupted is, that there is so much ignorance and error at work in the midst of them; and every one knows that this is the natural food of fanaticism. Let the Sabbath school exert its proper influence in imbuing the minds of children with a knowledge of God's word, and in establishing them in the great principles of the gospel, and it will constitute the best security against those false and fanatical notions which tend so directly to fatal self-deception. Let God's Spirit be poured out upon a community well instructed in the truths of the gospel, and the happiest results may confidently be expected; for here is the natural preparation for a revival, on the one hand, and the best pledge against all perversion and abuse, on the other.
The remarks which have been made in respect to Sabbath schools, apply, in general, with equal force, to Bible classes. Indeed, the latter may, in one point of view, be considered as more intimately connected with revivals than the former; inasmuch as those who attend them are usually somewhat more advanced, and of course more capable of understanding and improving doctrinal instruction. Hence, revivals have perhaps, of late, more frequently commenced in Bible classes than any where else; and not a few instances have occurred, in which all, or nearly all, the members of a class have become hopefully the subjects of renewing grace; while the work, which had its beginning here, has extended on the right hand and on the left, till multitudes have experienced its quickening and renovating influence.
5. The faithful discharge of parental duty, is another important means of promoting a revival.
There is no human influence ever exerted in forming the character, more decisive, whether for good or evil, than that of parents; and if it be a well directed religious influence, we have a right to expect, both from the nature of the case, and from actual experience, that it will secure the happiest results. Let a parent train up his children in the way which the Bible prescribes -- let him faithfully instruct them in the truths of God's word as soon as they are capable of being taught -- let him render his instructions as familiar and practical as possible, mingling with them appropriate counsels and admonitions -- and let him pray with them, and for them, and teach them to pray for themselves, -- and if all this is not immediately instrumental of their conversion, it will, at least in all ordinary cases, render them peculiarly promising candidates for converting grace; will be a happy preparation for the effectual work of God's Holy Spirit.
I know it has been sometimes said, that the subjects of revivals are most commonly selected from the haunts of open irreligion and profligacy; while those who have been educated under the benign influences of Christian instruction and example, more commonly remain entrenched in a habit of mere morality and self-righteousness. But I appeal to the whole history of revivals, for evidence that this is not so. I know, indeed, that God glorifies his sovereignty, by extending his renewing grace to some who would seem to be at the greatest distance from him; but as a general rule, he puts direct and visible honour upon his own institutions, by bringing those to experience the sanctifying influence of his truth, who have been in the way of hearing and studying it. If it be asked, whence come the greater number of the subjects of our revivals, we answer, from our Sabbath schools, and Bible classes, and from families in which the parental influence is decidedly religious; and the reason why some have held a different opinion, is, that when a profligate or an infidel is hopefully converted, it excites much attention and remark; and thus the number of such conversions is frequently estimated far higher than it should be. Go into any place you will, where the Holy Spirit has been extensively and powerfully at work, and you will find that the families which have been specially blessed, are those in which God has been honoured by the faithful discharge of parental duty, and the general influence of Christian example; while only here and there one is taken from those families in which there is no parental restraint, nor instruction, nor prayer; and in which, as a natural consequence, the youthful mind is pre-occupied with sentiments and feelings most unfriendly to the work of the Holy Spirit.
It deserves also to be remarked, that much devolves upon Christian parents, in immediately sustaining and carrying forward a revival. If they see their children, at such a time, manifesting an indifference to the things of religion, they are to press them most earnestly and affectionately with its obligations. If they see in them the least anxiety, they are to endeavour, by every means, to cherish it, and put them on their guard against grieving away the Holy Spirit, and take them by the hand, and lead them, if possible, to the Lamb of God, If they see them rejoicing in the hope that their sins are forgiven, they are to aid them, by lessons from God's word and their own experience, to ascertain the true character of their religious exercises, and to avoid the hope of the hypocrite. It is a reproach to many Christian parents, that they suffer a false delicacy to prevail against the faithful discharge of their duty in these most interesting circumstances. As God has constituted them the guardians of their children, it devolves upon them to be especially watchful in respect to their immortal interests; and never is neglect more culpable, than when the Holy Spirit is offering to cooperate with them to secure their children's salvation.
6. The last means for promoting a revival which I shall notice, is, an exercise designed particularly for awakened sinners.
It is generally admitted, I believe, by those who axe friendly to revivals, that there should be some occasion on which persons of this class should be distinctly addressed; and which, by bringing them together as inquiring souls, may serve in a measure to get them over their indecision, and commit them to a course of successful striving, to enter in at the strait gate; though special care should be taken that this act of commitment is not perverted to yield aliment to a self-righteous spirit. What the precise character of this exercise should be, you are aware, is a point in relation to which there is a diversity of opinion. I confess the result of ray own reflection and observation on this subject, has been a conviction, that no better course could be adopted than that with which you, as a congregation, are already familiar. At the close of a public service, in which God's truth has been exhibited and enforced, let those who have been impressed by it, and who wish to have their impressions deepened, and to be instructed in reference to their duty and salvation, be requested to remain after the rest of the assembly have retired. And then let the minister, or some other competent person, address them earnestly and affectionately in reference to their peculiar condition; connecting with the address one or more prayers; and afterwards, so far as circumstances may admit, or occasion require, let them be met in a more private way, and let the particular state of each mind be ascertained; and let each receive appropriate counsel and instruction. In all this there is nothing ostentatious, nothing which peculiarly exposes to self-deception, while yet the individual commits himself, as truly as he could by any more public act, to cherish his serious impressions, and places himself in a condition in which the prayers of Christians, and scriptural instruction and counsel, are effectually secured to him. I do not say that some different course may not appeal more strongly to the passions; but I confess, that I know of none which seems to me better adapted to impress upon the conscience and heart Bible truth; and thus subserve a genuine revival of religion.**From the experience I have had on this subject, I am inclined to think that this mode of treating inquirers is to be preferred to that which has been common, and which I have myself formerly adopted -- of holding a meeting of a more public nature, for the express purpose of inquiry. It is no doubt of great importance, that an opportunity for inquiry should be given; but the more private, other things being equal, the better. In an extensive revival of religion, however, especially where the burden of conducting it devolves chiefly on a single individual, it may sometimes be a matter of necessity for him to meet a greater number of inquirers at a time than would otherwise be desirable.
With two or three remarks, by way of inference, we shall conclude the discourse.
1. Our subject may assist us to form a correct judgment of any particular measures which may he proposed in connection with a revival.
There may be danger, on this subject, of erring on the right hand and on the left. It is wrong to decide against any particular measure, merely because it is new; and it is equally wrong to adopt it merely because it is new. It would be strange, when the invention of the church is so constantly in exercise, if there should not be some new things connected with religion which are good; and it would be strange, in view of the waywardness and extravagance that pertain to human nature, if there should not be others of evil tendency. Here, then, is an argument for our examining carefully every measure, or course of measures, that is proposed to us, and referring it to the proper standard. If it will abide that standard, it were an unworthy prejudice not to adopt it. If it will not abide that standard, to adopt it were at once a weakness and a sin. It were to refuse the privilege which God has given us, of judging for ourselves what is right.
If you will know, then, whether it is safe and proper to adopt any particular measures in connection with revivals, which may be comparatively new in the church, bring them to the test which has been presented in the former part of this discourse. Are they characterized by seriousness; by the entire absence of every thing that approaches to levity? Are they marked by that order, and decorum, and reverence, which God requires in every thing connected with his worship? Is there the absence of all ostentation, of all pious fraud, of all unhallowed severity; and is there godly simplicity, and Christian honesty, and sincere affection? If these be the characteristics of the measures proposed, then you may safely adopt them; but if any of these characteristics are wanting, they are not in accordance with the spirit of the gospel, and you cannot consistently, in any way, give them your sanction.
But it may be asked, whether there is not a much better test than this; whether the effect produced by particular measures does not more clearly determine their character? I answer, if the entire and ultimate effect be intended, the standard which it furnishes will always be in consistency with that to which we have just referred; though it must after all, furnish an inadequate rule for judging; for in many cases, at least, it is so general in its character that it is not easy to be traced. If only the immediate and partial effect be intended, then I insist that this is no standard at all; for it admits not of question, that there may be a violent religious excitement, which, at the moment, may seem to many to be doing good, which, nevertheless, may pass over like a hurricane in the natural world, marking its course with the wrecks even of God's own institutions. Judge not then by this uncertain standard. If you are to judge of any great change by effects, you must wait till they are fully developed, till you can see not only the more immediate, but the more remote effects; the latter of which are often the most important: and these are usually developed gradually. Hold fast, then, to the law and the testimony as your rule of judging; and as, in so doing, you will honour God most, so you will be most likely to be kept out of the mazes of error.
2. Our subject may assist us to discover the causes of the decline of a revival.
I admit that there is more or less of sovereignty here; and that the Spirit of God operates whenever and wherever, in infinite wisdom, he pleases. I acknowledge, too, that the strong excitement which often attends a revival, cannot, so far as respects the same individuals, be kept up for a long time; nor is it at all essential, or even desirable, that it should be. But so far as a healthful and vigorous state of religious feeling is concerned on the part of Christians, and I may add, in view of the promises of God to answer prayer, so far as the conversion of sinners is concerned, it is not irreverent to say, that while he is himself the great Agent, he commits his work, in an important sense, into the hands of his people; and if it decline, there is blame resting upon them. It is because they have grown weary in their supplications, or because they have relaxed in the use of some other of the means which he has put within their reach. Let Christians, then, tremble in view of their responsibility; and when God is sending down his Spirit to work with them, let them take heed that they render a hearty and persevering co-operation. Let them take heed that they grieve not this divine agent to depart, either from their own souls, lest they should be given up to barrenness, or from the souls of inquiring sinners, lest there should fall upon them the curse of reprobation.
3. Once more: How great is the privilege and the honour which Christians enjoy, of being permitted to co-operate with God in carrying forward his work!
When you are labouring for the salvation of sinners around you, when you are using the various means which God has put into your hands to waken them to conviction and bring them to repentance, you are labouring in the very cause which is identified with the success and the glory of Christ's mediation. Nay, you are a fellow-worker with the Holy Ghost; and, while he honours your efforts with his saving blessing, they are set down to your account in the book of God's remembrance. Yes, Christian; all that you do in this cause brings glory to God in the highest, contributes to brighten your immortal crown, and subserves the great cause of man's salvation! What remains, then, but that you take these considerations to your heart, as so many arguments to labour in this holy cause with more untiring zeal, with more holy fidelity? Is it a cause that demands sacrifices? You can well afford to make them, for it brings happiness, and glory, and honour in its train. Let it be seen on earth, and let the angels report it in heaven, that you are co-workers with God, in giving effect to the purposes of his grace, and in training up immortal souls for the glories of his kingdom.
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