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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
The American Baptist Publication Society
From The Baptist Manual, 1849
There is in many, a strange desire of separating what God hath joined together—the grace of God and the righteousness of man. One set of persons exalt the grace of God, and speak in the loftiest terms of the gospel of Jesus Christ; but say little of the duties of man and the obedience which is required of him. As if the bare knowledge of the gospel scheme were to be substituted in the place of true holiness; or as if it were wholly unnecessary to enter into the detail of that obedience which man ought to perform. Others equally unreasonable, insist exclusively upon the importance of moral practice, and view with jealousy every attempt to give prominence to the doctrines of grace; as if a blow were thereby aimed at morality, and as if the obligation to a righteous life were thereby undermined. Both are equally in error.
The grace of God supplies a most efficacious motive to holiness; and holiness is the inseparable result of the grace of God, when it is received into the heart. The one is the means, the other the end. Can the end be answered without the means? Look at the success of those philosophising schemes of reformation which inculcated the beauty and the excellency of virtue, but applied no adequate motive to the mind. On the other hand, can the doctrines of Christianity be of any use, except as they conduce to their proper end? To allege this would be to degrade the gospel, since its superiority above every other moral system arises from its, more powerful effects in meliorating the character and conduct of those who embrace it. In perfect harmony with this view of the subject we are told in scripture, that the Son of God gave himself for us for the express purpose of redeeming us from all iniquity, and purifying unto himself a peculiar people zealous of good works.
In order, therefore, to acquire a- just view of the Christian dispensation, we must regard a right system of faith, and a righteous and holy life as indissolubly connected. We must consider it as a vain attempt effectually to reform our con duct, unless we embrace the holy principles which Christianity inspires. And on the other hand, we must deem it unnatural, and even impious, to hold the truth in unrighteousness; to exalt the doctrines of the gospel, and to neglect the practical effects which these doctrines were intended to produce. Few indeed avowedly separate the doctrines of the grace of God from a righteous and holy life, but many do it practically.
Many, who will fully admit the holy influence of the gospel, yet act as if the bare reception of its truths were a kind of compensation for, at least, what they would call the lesser sins of man. Hence, with a strange inconsistency, they will say, such a person is, without doubt, a religious man, but he is passionate. Another is exceedingly pious, but he is sullen and morose. A third is very devout but he is worldly. Is it not plain that a separation is here made between religion and its practical influence? It is supposed that a man can be religious, and yet not gentle; pious, and yet not benevolent; devout, and yet not detached from the world.
In the same inconsistent manner do multitudes reason, who are religious on the Sunday, while they are wholly engrossed with the world through the week. Who can attend with the same punctuality the church and the theatre; who would not on any account neglect the preaching of the gospel, but in their families discover nothing of its benign influence; who very carefully settle the articles of their faith, and hold them strenuously; but take little pains to regulate their temper, evidently over-looking that necessary duty, as if it were no essential branch of religion. In a word, we are chargeable with the same inconsistency whenever the holy doctrines which we believe are not embraced as principles of action, influencing and regulating our whole conduct, teaching us how to feel, to act, to suffer, in our families, in our shops, in our retirements, in out converse with the world; in short, in all the various circumstances of life.
The inconsistency which I have been condemning is greatly supported by our resting in general ideas of religion without entering minutely into the details of its duties; and by our being satisfied with approving generally of its doctrines without a particular application of them to our own cases and circumstances. On the other hand, nothing shows more decidedly a truly upright spirit than the full and complete manner in which religion is applied, with distinctness and particularity, to a man's own case, carried through ad the business of life, and made to regulate every part of the conduct. It is an easy thing to express an admiration of the scriptures, to speak in high terms of an excellent treatise on religion, or to be loud in commendation of a pious discourse.
But the only solid proof which we can give in either case of cordial approbation, consists in the close and faithful application of what we have read or heard to our own consciences; in the alteration we are induced to make in those parts of our temper and conduct which have been shown to be wrong; and in the abiding nature of the effects which, through the blessing of God, have been produced in us. Herod knew that John was a just and holy man; he heard him gladly and did many things because of him. But when John plainly applied his preaching to Herod's own case, and said it is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife, then the insincerity of his heart appeared; he could not bear the application of the doctrine which he had previously professed to approve; and he put John to death.
The true remedy for this evil is the practice of close and diligent and daily self-examination, and the habit, not merely of reading the scriptures and hearing sermons, but of applying both, with fidelity, to our own circumstances. The words of a particular text are soon repeated; the propriety of the conduct it inculcates is easily acknowledged. But to examine its contents in detail, and to consider with attention, and with a view to ourselves, the temper and the practice which it enjoins, is a work of no small labour and self-denial. I trust that none will think me presumptuous, if with a view of lessening the difficulty, I should venture to propose a few questions which every individual may advantageously put to himself.
We acknowledge that man is a sinful and guilty creature, and that naturally his heart is "enmity against God." (Rom. 8:7) But are we conformably to this doctrine resisting that desire which we feel to be independent of God? And are we striving to bring every rebellious thought into subjection to the rules of his holy word? Do we feel that there is in ourselves an evil heart of unbelief which leads us to depart from God? And are we, therefore, afraid of loving other things better than God, of trusting to human support rather than to him, of honouring man more than God, and of valuing the world more than his favour?
Is it our grief that we have hitherto served and obeyed God so imperfectly; and is it our serious wish and our sincere endeavour to honour him for the future, by setting him ever before our eyes, by making his will the rule of our actions, and his glory our end? What pains then are we taking to do this? And wherein do we show that we are in earnest about it? Unless we are daily and earnestly engaged in resisting and subduing that enmity against God, his law, government, and authority, which so much prevails in all by nature; what proof cap we have of being right in our faith? Too many there are who, wholly selfish in their views and desires, seeking no farther to serve God than they think will be sufficient to prevent their incurring the dreadful effects of his displeasure.
But are these true Christians? Certainly not. The object of the gospel is to teach us to strive against sin, to love God with all our heart, and soul, and strength, and to make his glory our aim in all that we do. This will readily be acknowledged. But let me ask, is it our unvarying endeavour to exercise that habitual regard to God which will influence us in all we say, do, or think? Does everything bow in our esteem to the will and command of God? Do we adopt those principles and live that kind of life which we know God will approve; or is there nothing in either which we can alter for his sake? Do we labour to maintain in our minds a lively sense of his presence? Do we exercise a constant submission to his will, a constant dependence on his power, wisdom, and goodness?
Are we habitually thanking him for the mercies we enjoy, ascribing them only to his free and unmerited grace in Christ Jesus; and are we striving by some more substantial proofs than words to testify our gratitude to him? In our troubles, do we look to him alone for deliverance, resigning ourselves to his holy wilt, and even bearing affliction cheerfully for his sake? Do we value him as our chief good; as the only proper object of our happiness? And do we prove that we do so by preferring no gratification to his favour, by making every requisite sacrifice, and renouncing every evil habit, readily, for his sake? In short, do we set him before us as the witness of our actions, the judge of our conduct, the end of all that we do?
But let me now request my readers to take another view of the subject. They acknowledge, I doubt not, that this is a sinful world, and that therefore a Christian is not to be of the world even as Christ is not of the world, but is to make it his study to "mortify [his] members which are upon the earth fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry; for the which thing's sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience." (Col 3:5, 6)
Now allow me to inquire, do we really believe this doctrine? Let us bring the matter to a point with our consciences. Are we renouncing the spirit of that world, whose friendship is represented as enmity against God? Are we crucifying the flesh with its affections and lusts? Are we engaged in, a secret warfare with all our evil inclinations, and labouring to bring them into subjection, that our hearts may be as a temple sacred only to Christ? If this is the case, how do we show it? Are we daily examining ourselves? With what perverse dispositions are we maintaining this struggle? Are we as much and as earnestly engaged in subduing ourselves, as in pursuing honour, wealth, or worldly comfort? In what do we deny ourselves?
I ask not what open and public sacrifices we are making—vanity may prompt to these; nor whether we are imposing penances on ourselves—that is comparatively an easy task. But are we mortifying our vanity, curbing our pride, subduing our self-will, renouncing our love of consequence and power, giving up our own pleasure; and especially are we resisting our besetting sin? Many of the commandments of God, let it be remembered, it is both easy and creditable to fulfill. Herod himself seems to have executed these, but he would not give up the gratification of a criminal passion, from regard to those doctrines of which he acknowledged, generally, the truth.
The due reception of the gospel farther implies the attainment of a meek and quiet spirit. Do we then control our anger? Is the power of religion clearly visible in the restraint which we put upon those ebullitions of passion, and expressions of peevishness, which would otherwise break forth? Can we govern ourselves under provocation? If others are angry with us, are we calm with them?
But perhaps someone may say, "My passion is soon over." Yes, this is natural to you, but why was it not restrained by religion? "But has religion," it may be asked, "anything to do with our petty quarrels and resentments, which are soon excited and soon allayed?" Yes, for religion consists in restraining these from a regard to God, and reverence to his law. True religion is an habitual restraint on every evil temper; a powerful principle which keeps under and subdues every other which stands opposed to it. It is a principle derived from God, and it should be exercised in the resemblance of him who was meek and lowly in heart, and who, when he was reviled, reviled not again, when he suffered, threatened not.
Then as to covetousness: are our desires of worldly things moderate? Are we contented with our present station, or are we impatiently striving to be delivered from its difficulties? Are we apt to be cast down when we meet with disappointment, and easily elated by worldly success? Are we making the wealth or the happiness of this world our principal objects; or are these wholly subordinate to religion? In a word, are we more anxious to possess the favour of God and his peace in our souls, than to possess any earthly treasures? Religion, it is true, does not require that we should relax in the just and proper duties of our calling, or be less diligent, industrious, and frugal than others; but then, if we are living as men whose conversation is in heaven, and whose hearts are chiefly set on things above. We shall pursue our business with far less eagerness than others do: we shall be far more anxious that our children should be holy than that they should be rich. Our children themselves should be able to perceive that it would make us more happy to see them religious than accomplished or rich.
I would further ask, what it is from which we derive out pleasures? Knowing how impure and polluting many of the sources of earthly pleasure are, and how apt to draw away our hearts from God; are we so indifferent to them, as to renounce them entirely whenever the interests of our souls require it? Are our pleasures derived from other and purer sources, sources pointed out and sanctioned by the law of God, which in this, as in every other particular ought to be our guide and director? Do we consider eating and drinking as principal sources of gratification, or do we regard them in their true light? As necessary indeed to the support of our bodies, but at the same time as liable to become instruments of temptation, and hindrances to a holy and spiritual life, and therefore requiring to be regulated by the rules of strict temperance?
Thus also are we to guard against the inordinate love of an earthly object. We are to beware lest we should love even a wife, a husband, or a child, to such a degree, as to forget that God requires the chief place in our affections. In short, we must be habitually employed, would we really be Christians, in watching over and subduing every evil propensity; so that all the thoughts of our hearts may be brought into subjection to the will of God. To hear the gospel preached, to acknowledge its truth, to enjoy a measure of its comforts, is but a small thing. The essential business of religion consists much more in the secret warfare which I have described; in carrying our knowledge into practice, and regulating by it our daily conduct.
There is a class of duties which still remains to be noticed. I mean the duties of justice between man and man. The law of God with respect to these is, that we should do unto others as we would they should do unto us; nay more, that we should seek our neighbour's welfare as truly as our own, and some points even in preference to our own. Now how are we acting in this respect? We acknowledge the rule — are we following it? Can we withstand the temptation of profiting by the ignorance or carelessness of our neighbour? Shall we be able to say at the Day of Judgment, "It has been my rule in life to take no advantage of another"?
There will be daily occasions of exercising the principle of true righteousness, if we are influenced by it. It will lead us to judge favourably of our neighbour's actions, and to defend him when unjustly accused; to rejoice in his prosperity, to sympathise in his distress, to supply his wants as far as we are able; and, above all, it will teach us to promote the welfare of his soul. There is nothing, perhaps, in which men are apt so much to pride themselves as in the discharge of their duty to their neighbour; and yet when tried by the word of God, there is nothing in which they are generally more deficient.
If any one of my readers should object to this paper as legal, and as manifesting an ignorance of the grace of the gospel. I would entreat him to peruse the second chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to Titus. "Speak thou," says the venerable apostle, "the things which become sound doctrine." (Titus 2:1) But what were the things becoming sound doctrine respecting which Titus was instructed to preach? They were the distinct and particular duties of aged men and aged women, of young women and young men, of servants and subjects.
We see then how practical the preaching of Titus was required to be, and how particular also; not merely dwelling in generals, as too many are apt to do, and recommending holiness in a loose and vague way; but entering into the detail of the tempers which his hearers ought to possess, of the duties which they ought to practise, of the sins they ought to avoid: bringing religion home to their families and extending its influence to the ordinary business of life: regulating their whole conduct in such a manner as to adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour, and to command the admiration even of heathens.
And to confirm this view of the matter, the apostle states it to be the very design of the gospel to produce in all men such a conduct as he had recommended. For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ. (Titus 2:11-13)