The GOSPEL TRUTH
REVIVALS OF RELIGION.
WILLIAM B. SPRAGUE, D. D.
PASTOR OF THE SECOND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN ALBANY, N.Y.
TREATMENT DUE TO AWAKENED SINNERS.
Acts iii. 19. "Repent ye therefore, and be converted"
There is scarcely a period of so much interest in the life of an individual, as that in which he is brought to earnest inquiry respecting the salvation of his soul. It is a state of mind which comes between the utter neglect of religion and the actual possession of it. The dream of thoughtlessness is disturbed. Conscience wakes to its office as an accuser. This world holds the soul with an enfeebled grasp, and the realities of another weigh upon it with deep and awful impression. But then, on the other hand, there is as yet no submission to the terms of the gospel -- no melting down in penitence at the feet of mercy -- no yielding up of the heart to God -- no thankful, cordial acceptance of Christ and his salvation. But between these two states of mind there is no uniform connection; for though conviction is essential to conversion, yet the sinner who is only convinced, may, instead of being converted, return to the world; and thus his last state be worse than his first. It is reasonable to suppose, in any given case of conviction, that the sinner, who is the subject of it, is on the eve of having his destiny decided for eternity: for if he press forward, he secures his salvation; but if he linger and fall back, there is, to say the least, an awful uncertainty whether he is ever again the subject of an awakening influence.
Now you will readily perceive, that it is a most responsible office to counsel and direct an individual in these interesting circumstances. The mind is in a state to be most easily influenced; and influenced on a subject that involves all the interests of eternity: there is a sort of balancing of the soul between religion and the world, between heaven and hell; and no one can be certain, that the weight of a single remark may not turn the scale one way or the other. Of what vast importance is it, that all the suggestions and counsels that are offered at such a time should be scriptural -- seasonable -- the very instructions of the Holy Ghost!
But if it be a responsible office for an individual to direct a single inquiring sinner, what shall be said of the responsibility of the church during a revival of religion; in which there are many, on every side, pressing the inquiry, "what they shall do to be saved?" And how important is it, that members of the church should be so enlightened, as to be safe guides on this momentous subject; that thus they may never put in still greater jeopardy the interests of those whom they attempt to direct! A large part of the conduct of a revival consists in counselling THE AWAKENED: and on the manner in which this duty is performed, as much as any thing, depend both the character of the work and its results. It is proper, therefore, that, in a series of discourses like the present, this should be made a distinct and prominent topic: and this is what I am about to bring before you for our present exercise.
The direction which the apostle in our text gives to the Jews -- that they should repent and be converted -- is applicable to sinners of every description, and especially to those who are in any measure awakened. It is proper to direct every inquiring sinner to repent and turn to God, in a way of holy obedience; and this may be considered an epitome of all appropriate teaching in such circumstances: nevertheless, this direction is to be given in a variety of forms, adapted to a diversity of cases, and accompanied with many cautions and admonitions. -- My design will be,
I. To consider, in general, the treatment due to an awakened sinner: and,
II. To contemplate some of the most prominent cases which require more special counsel and instruction,
I. I am to present before you the general course proper to be taken with an awakened sinner.
When a person in these circumstances comes to ask your counsel, the first thing you have to determine is, what is his amount of knowledge, and his amount of feeling.
It is possible that he may have much feeling, and little knowledge. He may have learned so much of God's law, as to have wakened up his conscience, and brought him to a sense of danger, and made him tremble in anticipation of a fearful hell. But his knowledge even of the law may be very limited; and how to secure the forgiveness of his sins, and an escape from the tremendous doom that threatens him, he may be utterly ignorant? Of the nature of the gospel salvation, of the conditions on which it is offered, of the repentance of sin, of the faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, of the life of holy obedience, he may know almost literally nothing. Possibly his habits of life may have rendered him a voluntary exile from the means of religious knowledge: but it is by no means certain that he may not have been a regular attendant on Christian institutions; for facts prove that it is possible for an individual to sit under the faithful preaching of the gospel, during a long life, and yet to hear with such entire inattention, that there is gained no distinct knowledge of any one of the doctrines of the Bible. Yes; it has often happened, in respect to men of general intelligence, and high worldly consideration, that when they have been awakened, they have themselves acknowledged that they were entirely ignorant of Bible truth; and, with all their talents, and learning, and maturity, have had to begin at the very alphabet of the gospel. Now, wherever you discover in an anxious sinner such gross ignorance, whether he be a man of high or low degree, your first business should be to instruct him. And let your instructions be characterized by the utmost plainness; for a mind to which the subject of religion is in a great degree new, (no matter how familiar it may be with other subjects,) will find it difficult to apprehend the truth, unless it is presented in its most simple form. Teach him what God has done for his salvation, and what God requires him to do; and the reasonableness of that requirement, and the necessity of its being complied with. It may be necessary, in some cases, that these things should be presented in different forms, and by a succession of efforts, before they come to be fairly understood: nevertheless, it were wrong to withhold any thing that is essential to salvation, on the ground that the mind is not thoroughly enlightened in all those truths which have the precedence in the order of nature; for if you leave an awakened sinner without having set Christ distinctly before him, as the only foundation of hope, and without having taught him in what manner the benefits of redemption may be secured, before you see him again, he may have been brought to a stand by not knowing what to do, and may have actually settled down with a determination that he will do nothing. Or else your next meeting with him may be at the judgment; and you may be compelled to reflect, that the last opportunity which was enjoyed on earth of directing him to the cross of Christ, you enjoyed, but neglected.
It is possible, on the other hand, that you may find a good degree of knowledge, and comparatively little feeling. There may even be a correct and intelligent view of all the evidence and doctrines of the gospel, which has resulted from laborious, critical, and long-continued examination -- there may be an ability, rarely to be met with, to confound sceptics and gainsayers, -- and yet the impression of divine truth may be feeble, and the conscience only partially awake. There may be conviction enough to bring the sinner to you for counsel, when there is not enough to bring him to Christ for salvation. In this case your duty manifestly is, to endeavour to impress more deeply upon his mind the truths which he understands and admits; to bring him to examine his heart more closely by the searching light of God's law; and to look at every doctrine, in its practical bearings, in connection with his own character and destiny. The amount of conviction necessary to conversion may vary in different cases, according to the character of the mind, and its previous opportunities for acquiring religious knowledge: but conviction there must be, in every case; and wherever it is feeble and wavering, it is fair to presume, that something more is necessary in this way, in order to bring the soul to rest upon its Saviour.
The awakened sinner may be benefited by some such counsels and cautions as the following: --
Let him be admonished, first of all, that the duty of devoting himself to God, by a compliance with the terms of the gospel, is of immediate obligation; and that he is guilty, and becoming more and more guilty, in the neglect of it. -- For is not this duty reasonable? Is it not due to God, as a Creator, as a Preserver, and especially as a Redeemer, that every human being should love him with all his affections, and serve him to the extent of his powers? And if the sinner has never done this hitherto, nay, if he has never ceased from a course of rebellion against God, and has not performed a single act from a regard to his authority, surely it is reasonable that he should change his course without delay; that he should at once wake, not only to a sense, but to a performance, of the duties which God requires of him. Would it be right that a child, who had broken away from parental restraints, and set at naught parental love, when pressed to submit to a father's authority, and return to a father's aims, should plead that he had not wounded and insulted that father as long as he wished; and that though he felt the obligation to yield, yet he did not consider it as binding him to do so immediately? Would it be right for a rebel, when urged to throw down arms against a wise and benevolent sovereign, to acknowledge the reasonableness of the requisition for a future day, but to deny it in respect to the present? Let not the sinner, then, dream that he has any excuse for continuing unreconciled to God for an hour. Press him with the obligation of immediate repentance, and faith, and submission to God. Endeavour to make him feel, that, apart from all considerations of personal interest, this is a duty which he owes to God, and which ought to press upon him with the weight of a mountain, until he has discharged it.
Let the awakened sinner be admonished, farther, that the present is the best time for securing his soul's salvation, -- For then there are facilities for becoming religious which do not exist at any other period. Supposing him, as I here do, to be in the midst of a revival, there is an energy and efficiency in all the means of grace, which is, to a great extent, peculiar to such a scene. Ministers are encouraged to preach with unaccustomed earnestness, and are enabled to bring out the truth of God with great pungency and effect. Christians, too, pray with unwonted fervour, and converse with peculiar fidelity; and there is the current of example setting strongly in favour of religion; and the very atmosphere around seems to be pervaded by deep solemnity; and, with all this, the sinner's own attention is awake, and the Holy Spirit is striving with him to bring him to repentance. Let him be inquired of what circumstances can exist more favourable to his conversion than now exist. Let him be reminded, that he has no reason to expect that such an assemblage of circumstances will again occur in the course of his life; and that even if they should, the same disposition which would lead him to resist the Spirit now, might lead him to resist it then. Dwell upon the appalling fact, that trifling with divine influences must serve greatly to harden the heart; and that if he return to the world, from the point which he has now gained, he will, in all probability, go back to a point of obduracy, at which he will be left, without any farther divine interposition, to take his own way, down to the chambers of eternal death.
Admonish him, farther, that he is in danger, from various causes, of losing his serious impressions. -- This is a point, in relation to which he may not improbably think himself safe; and though he may not be able to anticipate any favourable result of his convictions, yet so pungent and overwhelming are they, that he cannot realize that there is any danger of their leaving him. But even the strongest religious impressions are sometimes driven away from the soul almost in an hour; though, in general, the process is a gradual and almost imperceptible one. Admonish him to beware of the levities of the world; for one light conversation with a careless friend may change decisively the current of his thoughts. Guard him against the influence of worldly care, even of his necessary daily employments; for any thing of a mere worldly nature, that occupies the mind, is liable to turn it off from the great subject of salvation. Caution him, also, against yielding to a false shame; for this cannot long prevail without grieving away the Holy Spirit. Urge upon him the importance of holding God's truth to his mind as constantly as possible, that thus the impressions which have already been made by it may have no opportunity to escape. And, to give the greatest effect to all these cautions, point him to examples, in the way of illustrating them; and let him know, that there are multitudes, now in the ranks of profligacy and infidelity, who once even trembled under the awakening influences of God's Spirit. In view of the tremendous evil which must result from the departure of this divine Agent from the soul, on the one hand, and of the ease with which he may be grieved away, on the other, you are to ring a monitory peal in the ear of the awakened sinner, adapted to make him cherish his impressions with the most watchful diligence.
And then, again, you are to put him on his guard against seeking salvation in a spirit of self-righteousness. -- There is no natural predilection in man for the gospel plan of salvation: on the contrary, there is a strong original bias in favour of being saved by the deeds of the law; though, unhappily, there is no disposition to perform the deeds which the law requires. Hence the sinner, when he is first awakened, almost always puts himself upon a course of self-righteous effort, and practically asks, with the young man in the gospel, "what good thing he shall do, that he may inherit eternal life." He forthwith begins an attendance upon all the means of grace, if he has neglected them before; or if he has been accustomed to attend upon them, he does it now with an increased degree of seriousness. He listens attentively to God's word -- is found in the meeting for social prayer and religious conference -- passes much time in his closet, and in conversing with Christian friends -- and, in short, aims to perform externally every duty which God requires of him. And in all this the secret feeling of his heart is, even though he may not always be sensible of it, that he is performing something meritorious, which will catch and please the eye of God, and cause his name to be enrolled in the Lamb's book of life. Now, it devolves upon you carefully to guard him against this error; for so long as it is retained, it must be an effectual barrier to a compliance with the terms of the gospel. Do not discourage him from striving, but admonish him to strive in the spirit of the new covenant, and not of the old. Tell him that there is no merit in any of his striving, and that he can never be saved till he becomes convinced of this, and falls down helpless at the feet of mercy, and is willing to accept of salvation as the free gift of God through Christ, without any respect to his own deservings. The mistake to which I here refer may be made by those who speculatively understand the way of salvation, as well as those who do not; and the only means by which it is discovered, is faithful communion with one's own heart. To the duty of self-communion, then, with special reference to this point, every inquiring sinner should be earnestly exhorted.
Counsel him, moreover, to beware of making comfort, rather than duty, an ultimate end. -- A state of conviction is a state of anxiety and alarm, and of course unhappiness. As the sinner, from the very constitution of his nature, desires happiness, it is not strange, that in the agony of conviction he should often fasten his eye upon that as an ultimate object; though nothing is more certain, than that, so long as he pursues it as such, true religious comfort will never be attained. In doing this, he places himself before God merely as a sufferer desiring to be relieved from distress; whereas the attitude which he ought to assume, is that of a guilty offender, acknowledging and forsaking his evil courses, and turning unto the Lord. What God requires of him is the discharge of duty -- repentance, faith, obedience; and in this way only has he a right either to seek or to expect comfort. He is to regard himself first as a sinner, and then as a sufferer: if he repent of his sins he has reason to expect relief from his sufferings; but if he hold fast his sins, how much soever he may supplicate God's mercy, he will either experience no relief, or none which he ought to desire. He must understand, that it is the economy of God's grace that true Christian comfort can never be gained except as it is made a secondary consideration. He must keep his eye constantly fixed on duty; he must stir himself up to do what God requires of him; and God will take care that he is no stranger to the joys of his salvation. It may be well to caution him, also, against seeking aid from too many advisers; especially where their religious views do not harmonize. -- There are among Christians, we all know, shades of difference in their views of the truths of the gospel; and though they all hold the Head, and recognise each other as members of the same family, yet on some minor points they do not speak the same language; and indeed, though the real difference may not be great, yet they may differ in their phraseology, even in respect to the essentials of religion, and may be accustomed to contemplate these great truths in different relations and combinations. The consequence of this may be, that several persons, who are really agreed on all fundamental doctrines, may counsel an awakened sinner each in his own way, and each substantially in the right way; and yet there may be, after all, to his apprehension, a disagreement, which may be the source of much painful perplexity. His mind will be liable to become confused by the variety of directions which he receives, and will be far less likely to profit by any, than if this confusion had been avoided. It were better for the awakened sinner that he should have a single judicious counseller, or at the extent a few such, than to be soliciting or receiving the advice of every one indiscriminately.
I add, once more, that he should be advised to pass much of his time in the closet. -- It is proper, indeed, that he should avail himself of frequent opportunities to hear the preaching of God's word; and that he should mingle in the social prayer meeting; and should receive appropriate counsels and instructions from Christian friends; but this can never take the place of private meditation and self-communion. The searching and probing of his own heart, and the recollection of his sins, is a work peculiarly for the closet; because there the mind is least likely to be diverted by external objects and circumstances. I know there is a strong tendency, in most persons who are awakened, to mingle continually in public religious exercises. This may be the easiest, but it is not the safest or most desirable course. I do not say, that many who adopt it do not become true Christians; but, to me at least, it appears that there is more danger of a spurious conversion, or if it be not spurious, that the principle of spiritual life will be feeble and sickly, than if there had been more of that knowledge of the hidden abominations of the heart, which is to be acquired especially by private self-examination.
While you are giving to the awakened sinner these various directions, you can hardly repeat too often the caution, that he should not mistake the design of the means which you are recommending. -- Let him understand, clearly, that the only end to be answered by them, so far as respects himself, is to bring him to the conviction, that he is all pollution, and guilt, and un worthiness, and that he can do nothing toward his salvation, but throw himself into the arms of sovereign mercy. When he is brought to this state of mind, means have done all that they can do for him as an impenitent sinner; and if, instead of yielding himself up to God, he goes on still in the use of means, there is great reason to fear, that they will prove the stumbling-block over which he will fall into perdition.
II. Having now marked out a general course of treatment adapted to an awakened sinner, I proceed. Secondly, to contemplate some of the great variety of cases which require more special counsel and instruction.
Suppose the sinner says, that though he is aware that his case is as bad as you represent it, yet he can do nothing to render it any better, and therefore must he contented to remain where he is, -- You are to endeavour, in the first place, to convince him, by a direct appeal to his conscience, that the inability under which he labours, is nothing more than a settled aversion of the heart from God; and therefore is entirely without excuse. Let him see that he has all the powers of a moral agent -- that he has a conscience to distinguish between right and wrong, and a will by which he may choose the one and refuse the other. Let him see, that in withholding his heart from God, he is as free as in any other course of action; and therefore blameworthy: and therefore condemned in the plea which he sets up for doing nothing.
But let it be admitted, as it certainly must be, that every sinner, if left to himself, will perish; that though the inability is of a guilty sort, yet it really does prevail; -- still you are to show the awakened sinner that this is nothing to him in the way of discouragement: for he is not left to himself; the Holy Spirit has already come to his aid, and is offering not only to convince him of guilt, but to renew him to repentance. What if it be true, that, by his unassisted powers, he will never enter in at the strait gate, yet so long as the almighty energy of divine grace is actually proffered to his assistance, how can he stand still on the plea of inability? Let the sinner bring his own powers into exercise to the utmost, and he need have no fear but that God will work within him both to will and to do, to secure his salvation.
But suppose he should say, that he has made thorough trial of his own powers, and yet has accomplished nothing -- Let him be inquired of in what manner he has been striving. -- Is it not more than possible, that the secret of his ill success lies in the fact that he has been trying to do too much, or rather, that he has done nothing with a right spirit; that the influence of all his exertions has been neutralized by the self-righteous notion of merit being attached to them? Or may not his striving have been inconstant; frequently interrupted by the cares of the world, and never so earnest as the object of it demands? But suppose it really appears to him, on reflection, that he has done all that he can do, inasmuch as the interests of his eternity are suspended on the result, he surely will not think it prudent to adopt a course which he knows must land him in perdition. If he give up ail effort, his case is certainly hopeless; if he continue to strive, he can but perish -- and he may be saved. It were better that he should sacrifice a thousand worlds, were they in his possession, than to forego the possibility, if there were nothing more, of his escaping hell and obtaining heaven.
But what if he should plead still farther, as a ground of discouragement, that many of his friends who were awakened at the same time with himself have apparently given themselves to the Saviour, and are rejoicing in hope: and that hence he has no reason to believe that there is any mercy for him. -- Answer this plea by showing that God has given the same powers of moral agency to him as to them; that he has made the same gracious provision for him as for them; and that in both cases the offer is equally free, equally sincere. Remind him, that God has no where promised that he shall have the comforts of a good hope at any particular time, but he has promised that they who seek in a proper manner shall find; and that promise he will certainly fulfill. If his friends have come into the kingdom before him, instead of ministering to his discouragement, let it be an argument with him to press forward; for He who has had compassion on others, is equally ready to extend compassion to him.
But suppose the sinner allege, as another ground of discouragement, the doctrine of election; presuming that he is not among the elect, and therefore all efforts to secure his salvation must be in vain. -- Take care that, in reply to this, you say nothing to bring this doctrine into question. Instead of even seeming to doubt it, or to treat it as if it were a mere speculation, admit it, prove it, and show that if it be not true, God has not spoken plainly in his word, and that he does not even exercise a providence. But show him, at the same time, that the secret purposes of God do not in the least infringe the moral agency of man. Appeal to his own consciousness for the truth of this; and then confess to him your ignorance of the manner in which these two doctrines harmonize; and at the same time, expose to him the folly of rejecting any truth which is susceptible of absolute proof, only because we cannot discover its harmony with some other proof, which is no less clearly proved. And you may go farther still, and show him that this very doctrine of election, when rightly understood, so far from being a discouraging doctrine, lies near the foundation of the sinner's hope; for if all, when left to themselves, are inclined to reject salvation, where is there hope for any, independently of God's sovereign grace? But this is nothing more nor less than the Scripture doctrine of election.
If however, the sinner, under the influence of an awakened conscience, should be disposed to indulge in cavils, respecting this or any other doctrine, it were better not to attempt to follow him. The safest course in such a case, were to appeal from the speculations of his understanding, to the honest dictates of his conscience. If you undertake to answer all his objections, and do not answer them to his satisfaction, he may regard your supposed defeat as proving the weakness of the cause you have attempted to defend; and, in this miserable delusion, he may find a refuge from his convictions. Or let the result of your conversation with him, in this respect, be as it may, the very fact of his being engaged in such a dispute, would be fitted to diminish his anxiety, and not improbably might be the first step in his return to his accustomed carelessness.
Suppose the sinner should complain of great insensibility, and should express an earnest desire that he might have more pungent convictions. -- While you endeavour to keep his thoughts fastened upon those great truths which are most fitted to convince and to dissolve, such as the holiness of God, the perfection of his law, the deep depravity of the heart, and the compassion and grace of a dying Saviour, you are to institute a faithful inquiry as to the ground of this desire; and it is not improbable that you will discover that its leading element is self-righteousness; that the sinner desires conviction, because he imagines that there will be something of merit in it, to recommend him to the divine favour. He may not, indeed, be sensible of this, and it may not be easy to convince him of it; for so deceitful is the heart, and so busy is the adversary at such a moment, that inquiring sinners are exceedingly apt to mistake their own feelings; but wherever you discover any evidences of the workings of this spirit, you must endeavour, if possible, to make the individual perceive it, that he may escape from its influence. Let him fully understand, that he is just as depraved, just as worthy of eternal death in the sight of God, when he is in an agony of conviction, as he was in the depth of his carnal security; that the difference in the two cases, is precisely the difference that exists between two criminals who are sentenced to die, one of whom views the reality of his condition, and anticipates with horror the appalling scene of execution; while the other, in the confident expectation of a pardon, gives himself up to absolute unconcern. Let him see, that in conviction he only looks at himself as he is; and let his own conscience decide, whether there can be any merit in merely beholding his guilt. The man who is convinced that his house is on fire, and that he shall be burnt to death if he remain in it, will make a hasty escape, and his conviction of danger will have brought him to it; though no one would say that there was any thing of merit in that conviction. In like manner, the sinner who is effectually convinced, that he must perish if he remain impenitent, and that he can be saved only by the free grace of God in Christ, actually throws himself, a guilty and helpless creature, into his Saviour's arms; and it is the conviction he has of his ruin that leads him to do this; but will the sinner himself say, that there is more of merit in this case than in the other.
Suppose the sinner to be sinking down, under the burden of his guilt, into a state of despair, with an impression that his sins have been so aggravated that mercy cannot be extended to him -- what you have to do in this case, is to give him juster views of the gospel. He has practically lost sight of the truth, that the blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin; and this is the doctrine which you are to hold up to him in all its extent and glory. Bring to his mind God's own declarations, "that he is able and willing to save all that come unto him; that whosoever believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and whosoever will, may come and take the water of life freely." Tell him that a bloody Manasseh, and a persecuting Saul, and even some of the murderers of the Son of God, have obtained mercy; and, if he will have it that his guilt is more aggravated than theirs, urge upon him the fact, that there is a boundlessness in the compassions of God, and an infinite value in the blood of Christ, which no measure of guilt and pollution can possibly transcend. Dwell, moreover, on the wonderful consideration, that, as God is glorified in the forgiveness of every penitent sinner, so he is most glorified in the forgiveness of the greatest sinners; for then each of his moral perfections, and especially his grace, shines forth with the brightest lustre; and hence it is the privilege of the penitent, to urge the greatness of his guilt before God, as an argument for his being forgiven. Endeavour to make him realize, that if his guilt, instead of having risen to the height of a mountain, had been limited to a single transgression, he could never have atoned for it by any exertions or sufferings of his own; but that the sacrifice which Christ has offered, forbids him to despair, notwithstanding his guilt appears so appalling. His eye has been already fixed long enough exclusively upon his guilt; it is time that it should be turned away to the cross of Christ. Hold him, if you can, to the blessed gospel. Let him see the richness, the preciousness, the freeness of its provision; that it exactly meets the exigencies of those who feel that they are great sinners, and can do nothing but sink away into the arms of mercy. Admonish him, moreover, that despair is in itself a sin of fearful magnitude; that though it may excite the compassion of man, it awakens the abhorrence of God; that one of its primary elements is cold distrust of the offers and promises of the gospel; and that the indulgence of it is only putting the soul at a more awful distance from Christ, and clouding still more deeply the prospect of its salvation.
Suppose the sinner to become impressed with the idea, that he has had no conviction of sin, and that all that he supposed to be conviction, was delusion, when at the same time he furnishes the most conclusive evidence, that he is really a subject of powerful divine operation -- in a case of this kind, I would endeavour to convince him, what is beyond all peradventure true -- that the adversary is at work, trying to drive away his convictions, by making him believe that he has none. I would show him how reasonable it were to expect that it should be so, -- that the great enemy of all good should be upon the alert, in the use of his wiles, when he sees that he is in danger of losing one of his subjects. And I would refer to the experience of many others, who have passed through similar trials, and who have at length become fully satisfied that they were suffering under a delusion, which was the effect of Satanic influence. And when the point is once gained, that the sinner really believes that this impression, in respect to his having no convictions, is from below, he is prepared to resign it; and the delusion vanishes.
It may be useful sometimes, in order to correct his views on this subject, to set him to account for his own unhappiness, on the ground that he has no conviction. The fact, that he has no peace, that he is even wretched, he will be willing enough to acknowledge. He is not as he was in other days, when his spirits were gay and buoyant, and no thoughts concerning the salvation of his soul ever rose in his mind. There is some cause in operation now, which did not operate then; else there would have been no change in his feelings -- no change in his conduct. Suppose he could exclude the subject of religion from his thoughts -- suppose he could regard it with the same indifference he formerly did -- suppose he could revert to the former impression, that there was little or no danger in his case, -- and would not all the unhappiness which he now feels, instantly fly away? If he reflects, will he not acknowledge that this would be the case? Let him say, then, what else it is, than the conviction that he is a sinner, that disturbs the peace of his mind? If he had no conviction of the truth of religion, and of the interest which he has in it, and of his exposure to the woes of perdition in consequence of having offended God, why is it that he is thrown into a state of wretchedness, from which he would give the world, if it were at his command, to be delivered?
But if the awakened sinner persevere in the mistaken notion that he has no conviction, I know of no other course than to hold up to his view those great truths which are fitted to produce it. If he will have it, that he has hitherto had no just sense of sin, we can only proclaim to him the evil of sin, and point him to the fountain that is opened for sin and uncleanness. It is desirable, however, in such cases, to dwell chiefly on the glorious provision of the gospel; for though the soul is unwilling to admit that it feels its need, yet it actually does realize it; and if Christ be continually held up, it may let go its favourite delusion long enough to embrace him; and when Christ is really received, the delusion is gone for ever.
There is yet one more attitude in which we may contemplate the awakened sinner -- I mean by gradually falling under the power of a settled melancholy, -- As this is an evil greatly to be deprecated, so the very first tendencies to it, ought, if possible, to be promptly counteracted; for unless it be early checked, it may soon become habitual, and may lead to the most disastrous, and even fatal results. Wherever this state of mind exists in connection with the subject of religion, it will usually be found to have been occasioned by an erroneous view of some particular truth. It is a matter of much importance, therefore, to ascertain what is the error to which the individual is yielding himself; and this may ordinarily be done by close and diligent inquiry. It is, however, often more easy to ascertain the error than to remove it; for the very fact that it operates so powerfully as to destroy, in some measure, the balance among the faculties, proves that it has gained a strong hold of the mind, and is not probably to be dislodged by any feeble effort. In attempting to remove it, it is often wisest to avoid coming at once to the point, lest the mind should take the alarm, and put itself into the attitude of defence. Let the effort be directed first to impress upon the disordered intellect some of the great truths which it may not be disposed to question, but which are utterly inconsistent with the notion which has plunged it into gloom; and let it be left, in some measure, to its own reflections and conclusions; and when the particular error is approached, let it be in an easy and delicate, and not in a harsh and revolting manner: and there is good reason to hope that it may be delivered from its bondage to the error; and thus the clouds of melancholy may go off, and light, and peace, and comfort, may succeed.
It sometimes happens, that the calamity of which I am speaking is connected with great physical derangement; and that it would never have existed, but for some predisposing cause in the bodily system. In this case, the mind and body have a mutual action and re-action upon each other: the mind becoming more gloomy on account of the disease of the body; and the body more diseased on account of the gloom of the mind. Sometimes important benefit may be derived from medical aid, and still more frequently, perhaps, from gentle relaxation and exercise. It has not unfrequently happened that change of scenery, change of surrounding objects, change of daily associates, has helped to restore the health of the body, while it has contributed, in the same degree, to bring back the balance of the mind.
There is one caution which ought always to be diligently observed, but which there is reason to fear is too often overlooked, in the treatment of a person in these painful circumstances -- I refer to the fact, that no measures should be taken which are fitted to carry his mind ultimately away from religion. It is not uncommon for those whose friends have fallen into this state, to manifest a strong disposition to separate them from all religious influences, to divorce them from the company of Christians, and to urge them into the society of the gay and thoughtless. But never was there a greater mistake. The contrast which, in that case, exists between the world without and the world within, between the cheerless and wretched state of the soul, and the joyous bounding of hearts amidst the vanities of life, instead of relieving melancholy, is fitted to change it into agony. But if the point be ultimately gained by such a course, let me ask, what is it that is gained? It is not merely relief from gloom; but it is freedom from all concern for the soul. It is a deliberate rushing back upon the vanities and gaieties of life. It is turning away the thoughts from God, and from Christ, and from salvation, in a manner which renders it extremely probable that they will never in this world be seriously directed to these objects again; at least not in circumstances in which reflection will be likely to be availing. If, instead of this violent course, there should be adopted one which should be fitted to break up gloomy associations on the one hand, without driving away serious thought on the other -- which should surround the individual with cheerful, and yet with religious influences, -- there might be just reason to hope, that in escaping from the dominion of melancholy, he would pass, not into the thoughtlessness of the world, but into the peace and joy of the true Christian.
Two brief remarks, by way of inference, will conclude the discourse.
1. Our subject exposes two opposite errors, both of which, it is believed, are common in the treatment of awakened sinners.
The first is the error of those who limit themselves to the simple direction to repent, or believe, or submit to God. Any thing beyond this they consider as putting the sinner upon the use of the means of grace; and they ask how they can consistently do this, when the sinner is liable to die every moment, and thus be alike beyond repentance, and beyond mercy? And then again, they say, that all that he does while he remains impenitent is sinful; and that by exhorting him to do any thing before repentance, they exhort him to sin. But it is not difficult to see where lies the mistake in this matter. All will admit that it is the duty of a sinner to repent without delay. But he cannot repent until he knows what repentance is, and until he understands those great truths, in view of which repentance is exercised. And to this end, if he be ignorant, he must be instructed out of God's word, either by reading the Bible himself, or hearing its truths presented by others; in other words, he must be put upon the use of the means of grace. True it is, that he may die before he has knowledge enough to exercise evangelical repentance; but even if it should be so, they who direct him are not responsible for the event; because some degree of knowledge is essential to repentance. And can it reasonably be said that any thing is sinful, which is necessarily involved in a compliance with God's command? If he commands the sinner to repent, he commands him to do all that is necessary to enable him to repent; and as some knowledge of his truth is necessary, if he do not possess it already, he is bound to gain it; and surely there can be nothing in that to excite the divine displeasure.
The other error is that of directing inquiring sinners to use the means of grace, without, at the same time, enforcing the obligation of immediate repentance. This direction is fitted to abate a sense of guilt, and finally to bring back to the soul its accustomed spiritual torpor. One of two results, from such a direction, you may confidently expect -- either that the sinner will lull himself to sleep in the use of means, and will soon be disposed to abandon them, or else that he will put himself upon a course of self-righteous effort, and imagine that he is going rapidly towards heaven, when he has totally mistaken the path that leads thither. Means are nothing to an awakened sinner, except to bring before him those truths which are necessary to the exercise of repentance. To exhort him to the use of means with reference to any other end than this, were undoubtedly to mistake their design, and to expose him to be dangerously and fatally misled.
Take heed then, brethren, that you avoid both these errors. Before you put off the sinner with the simple direction to repent, be sure that you are not speaking to him a language which he does not understand. Be sure that he understands those truths, without a knowledge of which, your direction, though true and good, would leave him to grope in the dark. And on the other hand, when you direct him to study his Bible, and attend on the various means of religious instruction, take care that you do not leave the impression, that this is a substitute for repentance, instead of the means of it; or, at least, that repentance will by and by come along in the train of these means, without any more direct personal effort. In short, endeavour to put him in the best way for understanding those truths which are involved in the exercise of repentance; but, at the same time, let him distinctly know, that it is of such vital importance, and such immediate obligation, that if he dies a stranger to it, he must reap the fruit of his neglect in a scene of interminable anguish.
2. Finally, Our subject teaches us what are the best qualifications for directing and counselling awakened sinners.
It is essential that a person who undertakes this office should have a good knowledge of God's word; for this is the great instrument by which the whole work is to be accomplished. It will not suffice, that there should be a mere superficial acquaintance with divine truth; but it should be deep and thorough: the doctrines of the Bible should be understood in their various bearings and connections. There should also be an intimate knowledge of the human heart -- the subject on which this work is to be performed. There should be an ability to guide the sinner in the work of self-examination; to ferret sin out from its various lurking places; to bring principles and motives to bear upon the various faculties and affections of the soul, with discrimination and good effect. In short, there should be an intelligent and devoted piety; for this secures a knowledge of divine truth on the one hand, and an acquaintance with the springs of human conduct on the other. I hardly need say, that the knowledge necessary to the right discharge of this office is especially of an experimental character; for he who undertakes to direct an inquiring sinner in a path in which he has never walked, is as the blind leading the blind. A man may be destitute in a great degree of human learning, he may be a babe in the wisdom of the world, and yet he may have that divine and spiritual knowledge, which shall render him a competent guide to inquiring souls. And on the other hand, he may be a proficient in every branch of human knowledge, he may have even studied thoroughly the philosophy of the mind, and the criticism of the Bible, and yet, from having never felt the power of divine truth upon his own heart, he may be a most unskillful and unsafe guide in the concern of the soul's salvation.
Wherefore, Christian brethren, be exhorted to larger attainments, both in knowledge and in piety. I might urge you to this, on the ground that it will increase your comfort here, and brighten your crown hereafter. I might urge you to it, also, on the ground of general usefulness; for there is no department of benevolent action for which such attainments would not better prepare you. But I exhort you now to aim at these attainments from the consideration, that your lot is cast at a period when much devolves upon you in the way of directing inquiring souls; and while, on the one hand, they may keep you from being instrumental, even in your well-meant efforts, of great evil; on the other, they may secure to you the blessing of accomplishing great good. Go then, Christian, often into your closet, and study your own heart. Open God's blessed word, and apply yourself to its precious truths. Keep your soul constantly imbued with its spirit. Then the inquiring sinner may find in you a safe and skilful guide. Then you may hope that God will honour you as an instrument of saving souls from death, and hiding a multitude of sins.
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