A YOUNG CHRISTIAN,
THE IMPORTANCE OF AIMING
AN ELEVATED STANDARD OF PIETY
BY A VILLAGE PASTOR
AN INTRODUCTORY ESSAY,
BY THE REV. DR. A. ALEXANDER
OF PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY
"FEED MY LAMBS"
AMERICAN TRACT SOCIETY,
150 NASSAU-STREET, NEW YORK. 1843
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Reprint and digital file December, 2000.
Willison editor’s note: We are certain that Dr. Alexander’s essay bears much fruit that the church of the 21st century needs to appropriate presently. Therefore we have scanned this volume including Letter I through 10, and a following file with Letters 11through 30.
As a serious devotional study, they are a superlative guide today, as they were 157 years ago!
To the lambs of Christ’s flock, whom Peter was enjoined by the Good Shepherd to feed, I dedicate this little book. The letters which compose it were written to instruct one of their number, the daughter of a highly valued friend. Since they are now made public, it is the ardent prayer of the author, that they may comfort and edify many more.
As revivals of religion have become so frequent, and have embraced in their sanctifying influence so many youth of both sexes, these letters are given to the public with the hope, that under God, they may stimulate such youth to activity in the cause of Christ, and awaken a desire for those exalted spiritual attainments which it is their object to recommend.
The age in which we live demands a high standard of Christian character. Any thing which contributes to elevate it must be useful.
In presenting this little volume, the author has no apologies to offer. Not that he supposes it free from defects, or impervious to the shafts of criticism; but be-cause, if it is calculated to be useful, apologies are unnecessary: if it is not, none, however labored or eloquent, can atone for so grand and radical a defect.
ON THE NATURE OF VITAL PIETY—ITS SAME NESS IN ALL AGES AND COUNTRIES—AND ITS VARIOUS ASPECTS IN DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES.
TRUE religion not only enlightens the understanding, but rectifies the affections of the heart. All genuine feelings of piety are the effects of divine truth. The variety and intensity of these feelings depend on the different kinds of truth, and the various aspects in which the same truth is viewed; and also, on the distinctness and clearness with which it is presented to the wind. In a state of moral perfection, truth would uniformly produce all those emotions and affections which correspond with its nature, without the aid of any superadded influence. That these effects are not experienced by all who have the opportunity of knowing the truth, is a strong evidence of human depravity. In a state of moral depravity, the mind is incapable alike of perceiving and feeling the beauty and excellence of divine truth. The dead neither see nor feel, and man is by nature "dead in trespasses and sins." Hence, the of the agency of the Holy Spirit to illuminate and regenerate the mind. The nature of divine agency, in every case, is inscrutable by mortals. "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, or whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." We know, however, that the work of the Spirit, in the regeneration of the heart, is adapted to the rational nature of man. The thing to be accomplished is not the creation of some new faculty; it is a moral renovation; and all moral changes must be effected by understanding and choice. To put the soul, therefore, in that state in which it will rightly understand the truth, and cordially choose the highest good, is the end of regeneration. Truth, therefore, must be the means by which actual conversion to God takes place. "Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever." "Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth." "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth." Although piety in the heart is the effect of a divine operation, yet all its exercises take place agreeably to the common laws of our rational nature. The understanding is enlightened, the judgment is convinced, motives operate on the will, and conscience approves or disapproves. That the soul, in the exercises of piety, is under the renovating influences of the Holy Spirit, is not known by any consciousness which it has of these divine operations, but by the effects produced in a change of views and feelings; and this change is ascribed to God, because no other is able to produce it; and his word assures us that he is its author.
Now, as all men are endowed with the same natural susceptibilities, and as all Christians contemplate the same fundamental truths, the work of grace in the hearts of all must be substantially the same. All have, by the knowledge of the law, been convinced of sin; have been made to feel sorrow, shame, and compunction, upon the recollection of their transgressions; and to submit to the justice of the sentence of condemnation, which the law denounces against them. All have been made sensible of their own inability to save themselves, and under the influence of these humbling and penitent feelings, have been led to seek refuge in Jesus Christ, as the only hope of their souls. This plan of salvation appears glorious and suitable to all believers; so that they not only acquiesce in it, as the only method of salvation, but they are so well pleased with it, that they would not have another if they could. And in the acceptance of Christ as a complete Saviour, there is, in every case, some experience of joy and peace. Connected with the views which the tine believer has of Christ as a Saviour, there is also a discovery, more or less clear, of the glory of the divine attributes, especially of those which are most conspicuously manifested in the cross of Christ. Holiness, justice, mercy, and truth shine, in the view of the sincere convert, with a lustre surpassing all other excellence; and God is venerated and loved for his own intrinsic excellence, as well as for the rich benefits bestowed upon us. But although these views may be distinguished, yet, in experience, they are not separated. The brightest discovery of divine excellence ever made, is God’s love to our miserable race. The law of God is also viewed to be holy, just, and good, by every regenerated soul. The unrenewed heart never is, nor ever can be, reconciled to the law; "it is not subject to it, nor indeed can be: " but the "new man" delights in the law of God, and would not have one precept of it altered; and while it condemns all his feelings and works as imperfect, he approves of it still, and blames himself for his want of conformity to a rule so perfect.
Another thing in which the experience of all Christians is uniform, is, that they all are brought to a deliberate purpose to be on the Lord’s side. On this point there is no hesitancy. Many are affected, and much agitated with religious impressions, and yet never come to a full decision to choose God and his service. They halt between two opinions, and have a divided mind. Such persons, however lively their feelings, are not yet truly converted: all true converts, after counting the cost, have settled this point for ever. And they can say with the Psalmist, ‘My heart is fixed, 0 God, my heart is fixed". They are, therefore, prepared now to comply with the terms of discipleship laid down by Christ himself They are willing to "deny themselves, to take up their cross, and follow him; to forsake father and mother, wife and children, houses and lands, yea, also their own lives, for the sake of Him who gave himself for them."
Out of such views and feelings as have been described, arises an ardent hungering and thirsting after righteousness, an intense desire to know more of God, and to be admitted into closer union and more intimate communion with him. These habitual desires of the renewed soul and their proper expression in prayer, and lead to a patient and earnest waiting upon God in all the ordinances and means of his appointment. True piety, however, does not stop in mere desires, or in attendance on religious duties; it seeks to glorify God by action. The earnest inquiry of every soul inspired with the love of God, is, "Lord, what wouldst thou have me to do ?" And wherever there is piety towards God, there will exist benevolence towards men. One of the most sensible emotions of the young convert is, "good-will to men;" a sincere for the welfare and eternal salvation of all, not even excepting its most inveterate enemies. And towards the children of God, there springs up a strong and tender affection. Such seem to be brethren indeed, because they are the brethren of Christ, and hear something of his image, in the humility, meekness, and benevolence of their character. In short, genuine piety disposes and determines all who are its subjects, to obey and respect all the commandments of God, and to hate and avoid all sin, according to that declaration of David, "I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right, and hate every false way."
In all the above-mentioned essential characteristics of piety, there is a sameness in the exercises of all true Christians. The same impression has been made on every renewed heart, and the only difference is, that it is imprinted more deeply on some than others; but still, the characters are identical; and therefore the evidences of a work of grace, contained in the holy Scriptures, are equally applicable to all persons who have been brought from darkness to light. There often is, moreover, a striking resemblance in those accompanying exercises and circumstances which are not essential. Awakened sinners are liable to the same erroneous conceptions, and usually fall into the same mistakes, They are all prone to think, that by reforming their lives, they can restore themselves to the favor of God. They commonly apply to the works of the law for relief, in the first instance; and when driven from this false refuge, by a clearer view of the spirituality and extent of the law, and the depth of their own depravity, they are apt to give up all for lost, and seriously to conclude that there is no hope in their case. They are all prone to misapprehend the nature of the Gospel: of its freeness they can at first form no conception; and therefore they think it necessary to come with some price in their hands—to obtain some kind of preparation or fitness, before they venture to come to Christ. And when it is clear that no moral fitness can be obtained until they apply to him, this legal spirit will lead the soul under conviction to think, that very deep and pungent distress will recommend it to Christ; and thus many are found seeking and praying for a more deep and alarming impression of their sin and danger. It is also very common to place undue dependence on particular means; especially on such as have been much blessed to others. Anxious souls are prone to think, that in reading some particular book, or in hearing some successful preacher, they will receive the grace of God which bringeth salvation; in which expectation they are generally disappointed, and are brought at last to feel that they are entirely dependent on sovereign grace; and that they can do nothing to obtain that grace. Before, they were like a drowning man catching at every thing which seemed to promise support; but now, they are like a man who feels that he has no support, but is actually sinking. Their cry, therefore, is now truly a cry for mercy. "God be merciful unto me a sinner." "Lord save, I perish." And it has often been proverbially said, "Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity," which is commonly realized by the soul cut off from all dependence on itself—the arm of the Lord is stretched forth to preserve it from sinking; the Saviour’s voice of love and mercy is heard; light breaks in upon the soul, and it finds itself embraced in the arms of the Saviour; and so wonderful is the transition, that it can scarcely trust to its own experience.
This similarity of feelings in the experience of the pious has often been remarked, and has been justly considered a strong evidence of the divine origin of experimental religion: for how, otherwise, can this uniformity of the views and feelings of the pious, in. all ages and countries, be accounted for? Enthusiasm assumes a thousand different shapes and hues, and is marked by no uniform characteristics; but scriptural piety is the same now as in the days of David and Asaph; the same as when Paul lived; the same as experienced by the pious fathers of the Christian church; the same as described by the Reformers, by the Puritans, and by the evangelical preachers and writers of the present day. When the Gospel takes effect on any of the heathen, although it is certain that they never had the opportunity of learning any thing of this kind from others, yet we find them expressing the same feelings which are common to other Christians. Persons from different quarters of the globe, ‘whose vernacular tongue is entirely different, yet speak the same language in religion. Members of churches, which hold no communion, and which, perhaps, view each other, when at a distance, as heretics, often, when brought together, recognize in one another dear brethren, who are of one mind in their religious experience.
The late eminently pious and learned theologian, the Rev. Dr. Livingston, related to me, not many years before his decease, a pleasant anecdote, which will serve to illustrate the point under consideration; and which I communicate to the public the more willingly, because I do not know that he has left any record of it behind him. While a student at the university of Utrecht, a number of pious persons from the town, and from among the students, were accustomed to meet for free conversation on experimental religion, and for prayer and praise, in a social capacity. On one of these occasions, when the similarity of the exercises of the pious, in all countries and, ages, was the subject of conversation, it was remarked by one of the company, that there was then present. a representative from each of the four quarters of the world. These were, Dr. Livingston from America, a young man from the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, another student from one of the Dutch possessions in the East Indies, and many natives of Europe of course. It was therefore proposed, that at the next meeting, the three young gentlemen first referred to, together with an eminently pious young nobleman of Holland, should each give a particular narrative of the rise and progress of the work of grace in his own soul. The proposal was universally acceptable; and accordingly, a narrative was heard from a native of each of the four quarters of the globe—of their views and feelings, of their trials and temptations, etc. The result was highly gratifying to all present; and I think Dr. Livingston said, that it was generally admitted by those present, that they had never before witnessed so interesting a scene. And since I have taken the liberty of mentioning the name of that venerable and distinguished theologian, I beg leave to add, that I have never seen a man who appeared to love vital piety more, or to understand its nature better.
But the identity of religious feeling which has been described above, is consistent with a great variety in many of the accompanying circumstances. Indeed, it seems probable, that each individual Christian has something distinctly characteristic in his own case; so that there exists at least as much difference in the peculiar features of the inner as of the outward man. The causes of this diversity are manifold: as first, the different degrees of grace received in the commencement of the divine life; secondly, the extent to which they have respectively run in sin, and the suddenness, or gradual nature of their change; thirdly, the degree of religious knowledge which is possessed; and finally, no small diversity arises from the various constitutional temperaments of different persons, which must have a powerful effect in giving complexion to the exercises of religion. To all which may be added, the manner in which persons under religious impressions are treated by their spiritual guides; and especially the manner in which the Gospel is preached to them.
It has been remarked by men of exact observation, that particular revivals of religion are often marked by something peculiar in the exercises, and in the spirit of those who are the subjects of them. In some revivals, convictions are more pungent and awful, or continued for a longer time, than in others; and the converts, in some revivals, appear to acquire a much deeper and more abiding impression of the reality and glory of divine things, and are evidently more under the constraining influence of the love of Christ, than is observable in other cases. These are subjects which deserve a careful investigation; and as revivals are increasing in frequency and extent in our churches, and as different modes of conducting them are in use, it is highly important, that some man of deep experience, and sober, impartial judgment, should make observations extensively, and communicate them to the religious public; which is, in many places, perplexed and distracted with the different methods of treatment recommended by different persons, and different parties. It may, however, be laid down as a sound maxim, that in proportion as the truth of God is clearly brought to view, and faithfully applied to the heart and conscience, the good effects will be manifest. Erroneous opinions, although mingled with the essential truths of the Gospel, will ever tend to mar the work of God. The good produced on any individual, or on a society, must not be judged of by the violence of the feelings excited, but by their character. Men may be consummed by a fiery zeal, and yet exhibit little of the meekness, humility, and sweet benevolence of Jesus Great pretenders and high professors may be proud, arrogant, and censorious. When these are the effects, we may, without fear, declare, "that they know not what manner of spirit they are of." Any religion, however corrupt, may have its zealots; but true Christianity consists in the fruits of the Spirit, which are, "love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.
Piety seems also to assume an aspect somewhat different, in different ages and periods of the church There is in human nature a strong tendency to run to extremes; and from one extreme, immediately to the opposite. And as the imperfections of our nature mingle with every thing which we touch, so piety itself is not exempt from the influence of the tendency above mentioned. In one age, or in one religious community, the leaning is to enthusiasm: m another, to superstition. At one time, religion is made to assume a severe and gloomy aspect; the conscience is morbidly scrupulous; things indifferent are viewed as sins; and human infirmities are magnified into crimes. At such times, all cheerfulness is proscribed; and the Christian whom nature prompts to smile, feels a check from the monitor within. This alloy of genuine piety is also often connected with bigotry and censoriousness. Now, when true religion is disfigured by such defects, it appears before the world to great disadvantage. Men of the world form their opinions of the nature of piety from what they observe in its professors; and from such an exhibition of it as we have described, they often take up prejudices which are never removed. There is, however, an opposite extreme, not less dangerous and injurious than this. When professors of religion conform to the world so far that no clear distinction can be observed between the Christian and the worldling. If the former error drives men away from religion, as a sour and miserable thing, this leads them to the opinion, that Christians are actuated by the same principles as they are; and therefore they conclude that no great change of their character is necessary. It is sometimes alleged by professors who thus accommodate themselves to the fashions and amusements of the world, that they hope by this means to render religion attractive, and thus gain over to piety those who neglect it but this is a weak pretext, for such conformity always tends to confirm people in their carelessness. When they see professors at the theatre, or figuring in the ballroom, their conclusion either is, that there is no reality in vital piety, or that these professors act inconsistently.
The religious habits of some serious professors of religion are adapted to make a very unfavorable impression on the minds of sensible men. They assume a demure and sanctimonious air, and speak in an affected and drawling tone; often- sighing, and lifting up their eyes, and giving audible utterance to their ejaculations. Now, these persons may be, and I doubt not, often are, truly pious; but the impression made on most minds, by this affectation of religious solemnity, is, that they are hypocrites, who aim at being thought uncommonly devout. It appears to me, that religion never appears so lovely, as when she wears the dress of perfect simplicity. We ought not, indeed, to be ashamed of our religion before the world; but it behooves us to be very careful, not to give to others an unfavorable opinion of serious piety. The rule is," Let your light so shine, that others seeing your good works, may glorify your Father who is in heaven." "Let not your good be evil spoken of."
But the aspect and character of the piety of one age may differ from that of another, more from the peculiar circumstances in which Christians are placed, than from the prevalence of erroneous views or incorrect habits. In one age, vital piety seeks retirement, and runs in hidden channels. At such a time, the attention of Christians is turned chiefly on themselves. Much time is devoted to devotional exercises; often whole days. The secret recesses of the heart are explored with diligence and rigor; in. dwelling sin is detected in its multiform appearances, and is mortified with invincible resolution; the various means of personal growth in grace are studied, and used with persevering assiduity; and much useful knowledge of the nature of the spiritual life in the soul is acquired. But while vital piety is thus carefully cultivated, and the attention is earnestly turned to the exercises of the heart, there may be very little display of active, enlarged benevolence; there may be few vigorous efforts made to meliorate the condition of the multitudes perishing in sin. Under the influence of these defective views of the nature of religion, many pious persons, in the early ages of Christianity, withdrew entirely from the world, and lived in the wilderness; which mistake occasioned innumerable evils to the church, the effects of which are not yet obliterated.
The spirit of piety among the Reformers seems to have been pure and vigorous, but not as expansive as it might have been. They seem scarcely to have thought of the hundreds of millions of heathen in the world; and of course, made no efforts to extend the knowledge of salvation to them. Indeed, they were so much occupied at home, in contending for the faith against the Romanists, that they had little time left for benevolent enterprises at a distance; but if that zeal which was worse than wasted in controversy with one another, had been directed to the conversion of the heathen, their usefulness would have been far greater than it was.
The Puritans, also, although profoundly acquainted with experimental religion, seemed to have confined their attention too exclusively to themselves. Their ministers were, it is true, silenced, and driven into corners and into exile, by an ungrateful and tyrannical government; but it seems wonderful to us, that when prevented from preaching the Gospel to their own countrymen, they did not turn to the gentiles. But the era of missions had not yet arrived, and probably they had but small opportunity, in their persecuted state, of uniting their counsels, or combining their energies in schemes of distant benevolence. One thing, however, is now manifest that the providence of God overruled the retirement and leisure of those godly ministers who were ejected from their charges, so as to render their labors more useful to the church than if they had been permitted to spend their lives in preaching the Gospel for when deprived of the liberty of employing then tongues, they betook themselves to their pens and they have left to the church such a body of practical and casuistical theology, as all ages, before or since, cannot equal. I have no doubt, that such men as Owen, Baxter, Flavel, Bunyan, Goodwin, Manton, Howe, and Bates, have effected much more good by their practical writings, than they could possibly have done by their preaching, supposing them to have been ever so successful.
But our lot is cast in a different age, and in a different state of the church. After a long slumber the attention of Christians has been aroused to consider the perishing condition of the heathen. We live in a period when great designs are entertained and plans formed for the conversion of the whole world; when one benevolent enterprise or institution follows another in rapid succession, until the Christian community begins to exhibit an entirely new aspect from what it did within our own remembrance. Christians have begun to feel, that by a combination of effort, they have power to accomplish much. The public attention is kept awake by the frequent recurrence of public meetings of an interesting kind, and by that more potent engine, the wide circulation of religious periodicals by which, interesting intelligence is conveyed to almost every corner of our extensive country. The duty of Christians to be active, is now inculcated in almost every form; Tracts are multiplied; the Scriptures are circulated; the young and ignorant are instructed by new methods; and many are found running to and fro to promote the propagation of evangelical truth. Revivals of religion, also, are exerting a mighty influence on the church. The number of serious Christians is vastly increased; and many youth are brought forward to a course of preparation for the gospel ministry. A spirit of liberality also is witnessed, unknown to our fathers; and the duty of consecrating to the Lord a reasonable proportion of all their increase, is beginning to be extensively felt among serious Christians. And such is the spirit of enterprise, that no undertaking appears too arduous, which has for its object the advancement of the Redeemer s kingdom: and such is the favor of heaven towards benevolent enterprises in our day, that scarcely one has failed of accomplishing some good; and although the schemes of benevolence are so various and so multiplied, yet there has occurred no sensible interference of one with another. As they all aim at the same object, so they are all viewed as parts of the same great system of operations. Now, in all these favorable appearances and benevolent exertions, every pi6us heart must and will rejoice.
But is there no danger, that many who feel interested in the operations of the day, and contribute to their advancement, should be mistaken as to their true spiritual condition? When a powerful current takes a set, many will be carried along with it, whichever way it may run. And is there no danger that Christians themselves, while they seem to flourish in external profession, zeal, and activity, may be decaying at the root, for want of sufficient attention to their own hearts, and to the duties of the closet? There is, indeed, much reason to fear that many professors now exist, who confine their religion too much to those external acts which may be performed from motives no higher than those which operate on unrenewed men. The danger now is, that the religion of the heart will be neglected, and that many will feel well satisfied with themselves, on account of their activity and zeal, who are yet strangers to a work of grace. This being the point on which Christians of the present day are liable to err, it is a matter of congratulation, that some writers seem disposed to turn the attention of the Christian public to the importance of diligence and punctuality in performing the duties of the closet. The following letters are well calculated to produce this effect. They were forwarded to me by an esteemed young clergyman, who is settled as a pastor in a distant and retired village. They were addressed, as the author has stated in his preface, to a young lady of highly respectable connections, upon the occasion of her making a public profession of religion. The father of this young lady, who is distinguished for his benevolence and evangelical piety, was unwilling that the pious and judicious counsels, and affectionate exhortations which they contain, should be limited to an individual, since they are so well adapted to be useful to Christians generally, and, especially to the young, placed in circumstances similar to those of the person to whom they were originally addressed. A request was therefore made for their publication. The author, through modesty, has withheld his name, but has requested me to introduce them to the public with some preliminary essay of my own; with which request I have here complied, believing that the letters of my young friend are seasonable, judicious, and pious, and that as they are written in an ornate and animated style. they will be extensively perused by the young.
Princeton, N. J.
A YOUNG CHRISTIAN.
FORMING AN ELEVATED CHRISTIAN
DEAR YOUNG FRIEND—YOU are very young to profess the high character of a Christian; but your youth, while it serves as a caution, should not operate as a discouragement. Many a person of fewer years, and with less advantages, has not only given satisfactory evidence of conversion, but proved, in subsequent life, to be of that number whose "path shineth more and more, unto the perfect day."
It becomes you, however, to look narrowly into the evidences of such a change. A mistake here will prove fatal. The word of God and prayer are the great means, which, if faithfully applied, will in due time develop your true moral character, if you have been deceived, if yet in your sins, these duties will ere long become irksome, and be loosely performed or utterly neglected. If you have been regenerated, you will not only persevere in these duties, but will find that they elicit more and more of your interest, until you arrive at a well-grounded hope of eternal felicity.
Taking for granted that you do not make this profession on slight grounds, nor with inadequate or erroneous views, my object, in a few letters which I shall address to you, will be to urge you to the formation of an elevated Christian character. You profess to have taken the first step in the strait and narrow way; but recollect, it is only the first step. The concentrated gaze of many eyes is upon you. Some would exult in your downfall—others rejoice in your advancement. Invisible and wicked spirits will tempt you to ruin. Good and guardian angels will watch around your steps, and rejoice in your victories. To sustain yourself you have already been convinced is impossible. If you are regenerated, you are not perfectly sanctified; nor will you be until, death shall be swallowed up in victory. But as Paul could do all things, by the strength of his Master, so can the weakest believer; and you must ever feel that the same grace which brought you out of nature’s darkness,’ must enable you to overcome your enemies, and "persevere unto the end"
As I have touched upon this point, I am forcibly reminded of the beautiful dream of the Rev. John Newton, while lying at anchor in fire harbor of Venice, and within sight of a part of the Alps. For the particulars I refer you to his volumes. The substance is as follows.
The anxiety of mind which he endured in his waking hours, seemed to give a coloring to his night-vision, he felt himself in great perplexity and horror. While musing on the wretchedness of his condition, there appeared suddenly a celestial figure, who presented to him a ring, which she said, if preserved with care, would, on every difficult occasion, resolve his doubts, and extricate him from trouble. He was overjoyed at the reception of it. All his fears seemed to subside, and a heavenly serenity to succeed. While in this tranquil and happy frame of mind, another personage, of less inviting aspect, made his appearance, and, after many flattering words and artful insinuations, prevailed on him to part with the ring. He deliberately dropped it over the side of the vessel, and it sunk to the bottom. The flames, in an awful manner, immediately burst from the mountain, and he seemed threatened with instant destruction. At this moment of horror, his celestial friend again appeared, and, with a frown of mingled love and reproof upbraided him for listening to the voice of the tempter. She then descended into the water, and soon returned bearing the ring, and thus addressed him: "As thou art unable to keep this token, I will preserve it for thee, and it shall be secure for ever."
I have only given you. from memory an outline of this beautiful vision. The interpretation which the author put upon it is full of spiritual instruction. If left for one moment to our own strength, how soon do we abandon the "ring" even at the first suggestion of the tempter. Then the soul is affrighted and dismayed. But Jesus, our guardian, is able to restore the " ring,’ and lest we should lose it, he, in condescension to our infirmities, deigns to keep it. "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee," is his language. Thus, my dear young friend, intrust the "ring" to Him who alone is able to preserve it. When the tempter comes, whether in the artful guise of what the world calls innocent pleasure, or the bold assaults of blasphemy and despair, look upwards to him who is charged with the care of all that is precious to the soul. Wait not until you are overwhelmed by the consciousness of contracted guilt, but flee—oh, flee, as for your life, to Jesus You cannot trust him too confidently, he will permit you to sit even at his feet. There is honor, there is safety, there is happiness.
I congratulate you on the favorable circumstances m which you are placed for the formation of Christian. character. The work of divine grace in which you profess to be a participant, is, I understand, still in progress. Doubtless you find some congenial spirits, with whom you can mingle feelings, unite in mutual prayer, and converse on the sweetest of all topics, the love of your Lord and Master. Let it be a principle with you, to select as your companions the most heavenly-minded of your sex. If such can be found in the higher walks of life, very well; be they your bosom friends: but, alas, how seldom, in the higher circles, does religion, in its native simplicity and purity, appear. You must seek it, I apprehend, in the low vale of obscurity, and often amid the homely attire of honest poverty. If you have the spirit of Christ, you will love his image, though arrayed in an humble garb. I know it has ever been the design of your parents to make you estimate character, not by riches, nor fashionable appearance, but by intrinsic moral worth; and I am persuaded that you must now feel, that if Providence has given you advantages of wealth and education above the plainest rustic, it is a ground of humility, inasmuch as it lays you under the greater obligations. Where "much is given’ ‘—oh, never forget it—" much will be required." On this principle, are you not bound to be humble, benevolent,condescending?
In closing this letter, I must say to you as I lately said to a youth in my congregation, who is about making a public profession of her faith in Christ, "I hope you will not be satisfied with being half a Christian." So, my young friend, I would exhort you to aim high.. It is a day to elevate the standard of piety. We want more Newels, and Huntingtons, and Ramsays, and Smelts. These were devoted souls. It was not halfway work with them. Religion was "all in all" For this they lived, they suffered, and, supported by its consolations, they died. They have left a bright track for you to follow. Tread closely in their steps; and then, though you share in their sufferings, you shall also inherit, with them, the "crown of glory."
AMONG the first temptations which you will probably experience, will be an effort, on the part of your spiritual enemies, to seduce you back to the pleasures of the world. Sometimes it will be a direct and powerful attack. The ways of religion will be represented as difficult, whilst those of
worldly pleasure will be strewed with flowers. "What," the tempter will exclaim, "shall one so young, so susceptible of enjoyment from all the varied delights of sense-one who has it in her power to command almost any imaginable happiness—shall she put on the grave aspect of piety, and thus debar herself from every innocent pleasure? Look abroad, see thy young companions, how their hearts beat with rapture, as they float amid the circles of beauty and of fashion. Why shouldst thou become a sober religionist, when thou art ripening for so much bliss?
In such false and flattering colors will the tempter array the world knowing that vanity is one of the strongest principles of our depraved nature, he will constantly, and often successfully, appeal to it. His flatteries will respect your person, your accomplishments, your fortune. He will suggest, that with such advantages the world must pay you homage, and become a sort of perpetual paradise.
Had you, my young friend, been one of pleasure’s gay votaries, as I have been, he could not, and probably he would not, thus address you. I could say, from experience, Thou seducing spirit, what thou sayest is false. Have I not mingled in the festival ? Have I not courted pleasure in the brilliant assembly and the crowded theatre, where beauty and wealth have poured around their shining and fascinating attractions ? And what did I ever gain? A momentary rapture, I admit; an exhilaration of spirits, and a temporary oblivion of my cares. But this was all. And even these transitory joys were not unalloyed. Jealousy, and envy, and hatred, and disappointment, would occasionally let fall the bitter drop, as the cup was passing to the lip; and satiety, distrust, and self-loathing would succeed. But conscience was more powerful than all. What restless hours of wakeful solicitude, what anticipated wrath, what vain resolutions, what unavailing regret!. And shall the tempter tell me that the pleasures of the world are worthy to be preferred to the calm delight of communion with God, and the high enjoyments of religion? "He was a liar from the beginning;" and when, my young Christian friend, he assaults you with such suggestions, or when, through his emissaries in human form, he would seduce you from your allegiance, recollect his character, resist his suggestions—and, according to the promise, "he will flee from you."
But it is far more probable, that his insinuations will be almost imperceptible. A direct and powerful attack may throw a Christian on his face, and overwhelm him with agony but Judah’s lion shall appear, and affright the bold adversary. It is when your spiritual enemies are making a gradual advance on your purity and devotedness, that they are most to be dreaded, as most likely to be successful. Now, you are, I trust, conscientious in the discharge of the duty of private devotion. You love to retire from human observation, to commune with God. I would fain believe, that you are never so happy as when thus engaged that you have a consecrated spot, which you call your Bethel, where the soul daily drinks in the waters of life.
Happy, dear youth, happy will you be, if that Bethel is always thus attractive and interesting. But
the great danger is, that it will be neglected, and perhaps forsaken. You are ready to exclaim, "Impossible, I shall never cease to pray. I could sooner dispense with my daily food, than forego the privileges of a throne of grace." This is the language of sincerity, I doubt not. You verily think so; but how little do you know the temptations which surround you, and the deceitfulness
of your own heart ? You have much to fear.
When called myself from nature’s darkness, and made, as I hope, to taste the sweetness of redeeming love, I was of the same opinion. I had waked up in a new world. "Twas as if" the Creator had formed a new being, akin to the happy spirits in heaven, and dropped him on the earth in the spring-time of nature’s magnificence and beauty. The foliage seemed greener and fresher than ever. The dew-drops glittered more brilliantly, the sky looked purer; and every thing seemed to shine and wave in silent but emphatic praise of God their Creator. My soul beat in happy
unison with these silent worshippers, and methought I could never cease to sing and pray. My very being seemed to consist in it. But has it been so ever since? Oh, ye hours of anguish, ye days of sensuality, ambition, and folly; ye can say how guilty, how careless, how ungrateful I have been. Little did I then dream of loving and serving the world. I thought I could have spent an eternity of happiness on some lonely rock in the ocean, if God were with me there. I thought my soul would never forsake him, nor my voice ever be silent in his praise. But I knew not my own heart, nor the power of’ the world’s allurements.
Now do not suppose, that because I and others have been tempted to backslide, and have yielded to the temptation, you must necessarily follow our disgraceful defection. I hope you never will. If you are a child of God, you need not. You may go "from strength to strength." You may accomplish victory after victory. God grant that you may.
But should you, by mournful experience, have to look upon yourself as a backslider, you will remember this warning, and wish you had heeded it. Like the prodigal, you will be in spiritual beggary. I know of no condition, except that of hardened impenitence, more pitiable than the condition of a backslider. Conscience is too quick to allow him to enjoy the world; and religion is too much neglected to yield him the smallest comfort. He lives in disquietude and anguish, until he repents, and finds anew the favor of his God.
DANGER OF BACKSLIDING.
IN my last, I touched upon the subject of temptation. I am constrained to add a few words more on the same subject. It has been too common for those who have betrayed their Lord by a disgraceful return to the world, to predict the same defection in others. Hence, you often hear professors of religion address the youthful convert in such language as the following " Your present ardor is no proof that it will continue; now you are all joy, all devotion; by and by the scene will be changed. I once felt as you now feel; perhaps I enjoyed more ecstatic pleasure; but I soon lost the glow of my first love, and so will you. A few years will cool you down, and show you that such engagedness cannot always last."
When I hear such language addressed to the young Christian, I am indignant. It is not necessarily true; my young friend, it is not true. The Bible, which is the only "lamp to our path," gives no warrant for such a prediction. True, it represents the cases of many who at first bade fair, but subsequently apostatized. It records the cases of such, as a flaming beacon, to warn those who should come after them. But does it not represent the path of the just, as "the shining light, which shineth more and more unto the perfect day?" Does it not say, that he who hath clean hands, shall grow "stronger and stronger ?" Does it not urge us to "grow in grace," to "forget the things which are behind," and "reach towards those which are before?" To make Christ our mark, and press towards it, with all the energy of an Olympic racer, struggling in competition for the goal?
Now, I warn you not to listen to such cold predictions. They who make them from their own experience, may have been hypocrites. They may have felt something, which they called spiritual joy but perhaps it was "Satan transformed into an angel of light :" perhaps it was the workings of their own imaginations, and not the legitimate fruits of the Spirit. Let them take heed to themselves, lest they have been deceived; and not allure others on, in their down-hill course, by their disgraceful example But suppose them to have been Christians—and I allow that a Christian may grow cold, and backslide in the service of God—is such language warranted by the word of God? Is it likely to urge forward the young convert in the path of holiness? Is it likely to raise the standard of piety in the souls of others? No; far from it. Young converts are prone to copy those who are older and more experienced If they are persuaded that it is consistent with the existence of piety to grow cold in feeling, they will probably yield to the seductions of the world, and the temptations of Satan. They will not press forward; they will recede. They will take the cold, dead level of their predecessors.
But, my young friend, be you warned by this, not to listen to such language for a moment; nor to suppose it must be true in your case. I do assure you, your Bible holds a different language. As you value your comfort, your peace of mind, your immortal hopes, your character as a Christian, your influence as a follower of the Lamb, press forward. Strive every day to make some new attainments in knowledge and holiness. You are engaged in a conflict. You have put on the armor of God; and put it off for a moment you must not. Your enemies are numerous, vigilant, and powerful. You must contend every day nor must you think of rest or relaxation. When death shall unbind for you the gospel armor, and you hear the dark waves of Jordan lashing these mortal shores, then, and not till then, will your struggles be ended, and your victory complete. You have counted the cost; do not shrink at the cross. Christ will be with you. Christ will support you. Under his banner you contend. His arm will shield you, and his grace bring you off more than conqueror.
I have digressed a little from the point at which I aimed. I wished to caution you particularly, concerningthe first step in a backward course. The first step in the retreat is an important one It is needful, therefore, to say, that generally, that step commences at the closet. Prayer is the strong hold to which the young Christian generally resorts. In doubts and difficulties, a throne of grace is his refuge. If the "devouring lion " roar, thither the lamb will flee, and house itself in the bosom of its shepherd. If the world entice, and for a moment soil his purity, thither he repairs, and the stain is washed out in the blood of Jesus. If the path of duty be not obvious, if perplexity attend his course, at a throne of grace there is light and direction. Hence, it will be an important advantage to your enemies, if they can draw you from this palladium, this strong tower of defence. Keep alive, then, I beseech you, to the first symptom of declension in prayer. Prayer is a difficult, often an arduous work; but it is the life and soul of a Christian. It is not only his incumbent duty, but his most precious privilege.
Now, it will be the aim of the tempter, to withdraw you from being "instant in prayer." He knows what a powerful weapon it is; and therefore he will endeavor to wrest it out of your hands. He will represent it as an irksome duty. He will suggest that fewer and shorter prayers will answer. He will interpose obstacles between you and your closet. He will divert your attention while there, and then taunt you with your coldness and your folly. He will say that your prayers are hypocritical—insincere—an abomination to God. He will suggest, that now you are not in a good frame—advise you to put it off until you feel in a better. Thus will he try every art, and use every machination to draw you from this refuge of your soul. But, "Get thee behind me, Satan,’ must be your reply to all such suggestions. You must cling closer to the "horns of the altar." You must "bind the sacrifice with cords," if you cannot keep it there. You must give yourself to prayer, and to the word of God. Like the vestals, you must live at the altar.
I FEEL constrained, my young friend, to add something more on the subject of PRAYER. This duty, in my view, is of such importance as to warrant a few more remarks; although I do not intend enlarging on a subject upon which so much, and such excellent things have been written.
You were taught by your pious parents, to utter a form of prayer, as soon as your infant mind could comprehend, and your infant tongue enunciate a sentence. In looking back upon these juvenile devotions, you doubtless see wherein they were deficient. Your ideas of the Being to whom they were addressed, were confused and inadequate. You could not then comprehend the necessity of a Mediator; for as yet you had not discovered the evil of sin, and the wrath of God, as revealed against it. You had too deep a sense of obligation, to neglect prayer entirely; but of the real nature and efficacy of prayer, you had little conception. To your mind, prayer was a form of words to be repeated at stated intervals. When thus repeated, the obligation was discharged. This was probably all you knew about prayer.
But shall parents omit to inculcate this duty on their children, because they cannot comprehend the nature of it? Certainly not. How can they tell but that, when they have taught the little prattler to compose himself to rest with his familiar and simple petitions, the Spirit of God may enlighten the child into the spiritual import of his prayer, and make it a means of leading him to more enlarged petitions, offered up "in spirit and in truth?" No person can estimate the advantages of early imbuing the youthful mind with a sense of its obligations to God. Such instructions should commence with the first dawn of intellect; and sure I am, that in subsequent life, the subject of them will generally be the better and the happier.
To illustrate this, I will recur again to my own case. I was taught by one of the best of mothers, never to close my eyes without repeating my prayers. This I conscientiously adhered to, until about thirteen or fourteen years of age, when I began gradually to omit them. Whether I felt that they were too childish, or whether, as is most probable, my conscience was becoming seared in the down-hill course of iniquity, I cannot now remember. But at all events, my prayers were no longer offered; and 1 went to sleep and rose up like a brute. With the omission of these prayers commenced a retrograde movement in morals, until I hung over the abyss of ruin, ripe for the judgments of God. And what do you suppose occurred first to rouse me from the fatal slumbers of death? As I was retiring one night, the recollection of my former punctilious attention to prayer rushed upon my mind. I paused. "What," said I to myself, "am I going to lie down without one thought of God, or offering one prayer for the safety of my soul? Did I not once repeat my prayers; and at a time too when I was far less guilty than now? Why have I omitted them so long? Suppose I should die this night, where then would my soul be ?"
With such reflections I became impressed; and although I did not kneel that night, vet in a recumbent posture I began again to repeat my juvenile devotions. I was nearly seventeen years of age when I resumed them. I had almost forgotten them. A few days and nights rolled away, and convictions grew heavier on my soul. I thought a repetition of these forms was not enough. My soul began to sink in the deep waters; and a few more days brought me on my knees at the bedside, with the prayer of the publican, "God be merciful to me a sinner.
Thus, my young friend, were my mother’s early instructions among the means, under God, of rescuing me from ruin, temporal and eternal. Thus it is evident, that the sooner children are taught to pray, the better; and no assiduity can be too great to impress on them the obligation and the necessity of prayer.
Still, I believe that the Christian only prays the acceptable prayer. Until the Spirit of God convince of sin, the soul will not see its odiousness, nor pray for its removal. The danger to which it is exposed here and hereafter, it may see; and it may deprecate the punishment to which it is subjected; but it is only when the soul is renewed in the image of God, that "sin appears exceeding sinful," and that the effectual fervent prayer for sanctification is offered.
If you are a Christian, my young friend, the throne of grace is yours. Your Father is seated on it. Your Saviour has sprinkled it with his blood. The Holy Spirit draws you sweetly to kneel before it; and the promise, when there, is, " Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it." What an honor thus to approach the King of kings. Were we to have audience with an earthly monarch, we should deem it an era in our history, and boast of it through life. But you, and I, and others, may have audience with the King of the universe. Nay, we have liberty to approach him at any time, and under all circumstances. Have we wants, he can supply them. Are we in trouble, he can extricate us. Do afflictions press our souls, he can mitigate and remove them. Does sin pollute our joys, with him is the fountain of cleansing. Does Satan vex our souls, he invites us to his arms as our refuge. All relief and every blessing is with God.
There is nothing which so elevates a character, and especially a female character, as deep and intimate communion with God. She seems then to be allied to angelic natures. A sort of mellow radiance is poured into her character, as if some particles of heaven’s glory had been let fall upon her. She moves in a higher sphere than the generality of her sex. She is another being than those idle, sickly daughters of pleasure, who waste their lives in dreaming fanciful visions of happiness, sporting a while amid life’s tumultuous joys, and then sinking unblessed into a wretched eternity. She converses with God. At a throne of grace she acquires a benevolence, a dignity, a humility, which throw around her an attractive lustre, put sweetness into every action and expression, make her contented in every condition of life, patient under every affliction, faithful in the discharge of every duty, and which even grace her dying hours, and make her "death-bed privileged beyond the common walks of life"
There are three inquiries, my young friend, respecting prayer, which every conscientious Christian will be likely to institute. How ought I to pray, when, or at what times, and for what things? These are important inquiries. A full and satisfactory answer I feel myself unable to give. I shall, in my desultory way, barely touch upon each.
Those who worship God, are bound to "worship him in spirit and in truth." In spirit, as opposed to the mere external ceremonies. The Jews and the Samaritans, at the time our Lord uttered the prediction just alluded to, were reposing an unfounded confidence in the mere forms and ceremonies of their religion; while, in the emphatic language of inspiration, their "hearts were far from God."
We must pray, then, with the spirit. The heart must be in the work, or it will be insincere and ineffectual. The Quakers, you know, reject all external forms. They may be regarded as on one extreme. The Jews and Catholics, having a multitude of forms, are on the other. I would not insinuate, that among Quakers and Catholics, there are no sincere worshipers; far from it. I believe there are many devout Christians among both. I am persuaded, for my own part, that some attention to form and circumstance is an important auxiliary to in poor weak mortals, in our attempts to worship God. In my own experience, 1 have found the benefit of it. For example, when I have a particular room allotted to my devotions—a certain place in that room, where I am accustomed to kneel—a degree of obscurity shed over the place by the exclusion of too great a glare of light, all these circumstances are a help to me, by the power of mental association. There is nature in this: and God permits us to have recourse to every lawful auxiliary in worshipping him. The great point is, to worship " in spirit and in truth."
True worship is distinguished from false, inasmuch as the one is scriptural, but the other is not. A true worshipper views the character of God as it is delineated in the Bible. The omniscience, omnipresence, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth of God, are attributes of delightful contemplation; and centering in one eternal, unchangeable, and incomprehensible Spirit, they excite his reverence, his confidence, his humility, and his love. He looks into his Bible to learn the character of God; and, as there found, worships him in spirit and in truth.
But can a guilty creature, who has violated every obligation he is under to his Creator, approach him without the intervention of a Mediator? I bring this question home to myself, and inquire, would I dare, as a suppliant, to approach my God and my Creator in all my uncovered, aggravated guilt? This, my young friend, is the hinge of salvation The Socinian will tell me, Certainly you may. But my own conscience would give a different verdict. I see naught in my life but sin—sin of the most aggravated kind: I repeat these sins, and confess them; and again repeat them. Now I say, is God holy? Is he opposed to sin? Then must I fall under his wrath and curse. Then how can I expect to escape his indignation? He is merciful, says the Socinian. True, he is merciful; but is not that mercy exercised in a peculiar way? Is it indiscriminate, unconditional mercy? Must not something be done to show God’s abhorrence of my sins? Must not some sacrifice be made? Now I am brought to the delightful, soul-cheering feature of the Gospel: "God in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them." "He so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life." "He was wounded for our transgressions." On this foundation my soul finds firm footing, and I rest secure in the promise of eternal life. Whosoever cometh unto the Father, therefore, must come through Christ; and so coming, shall not be cast out.
All acceptable prayer is rendered so by the merits and intercession of the divine Saviour. He is our merciful and faithful High-priest. His own blood was shed for the remission of our sins and the apostle says "If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." When you pray, therefore, never lose sight of the Mediator. "His name is like ointment poured forth." The sinner’s friend, he pleads the sinner’s cause. He knows your infirmities, your temptations, and your trials, and is ever ready to afford you relief.
The doctrine of the Trinity is, I know, offensive to many who are governed more by carnal reason than by Scripture; but to me, if I am not deceived. it is one of the most comforting, cheering, and elevating truths of the Bible. I see the persons of the Godhead harmoniously engaged in my deliverance. In prayer, the Spirit seems to lift my lagging affections, and to carry them upwards, pouring light into the dark chambers of the mind. Jesus the Mediator pleads my cause, even when my own tongue is dumb with grief, and my soul overwhelmed with conscious guilt. Then the throne of grace is precious, and the soul is replenished as with marrow and fatness.
I pity those whose scepticism has blotted out the glory of our Immanuel. Their religion is cold. It warms not the heart; it pacifies not the conscience; it prompts to few acts of self-denial; it almost obliterates the line between the righteous and the wicked; and it makes retribution a farce. After all, it is only a substitute, and a very poor one, for the glorious Gospel of the Son of God.
Having been inadvertently led, by the subject, to there remarks, I must now return. In prayer we must be earnest—we must be sincere—we must have faith in the promises. The "fervent prayer availeth much." "Jacob wrestled" what a strong expression. Jesus, in prayer, sweat drops of blood. Paul prayed with tears. Hannah wept at the altar. All these examples, and numerous others, such as the widow pleading with the unjust judge, show the necessity of earnestness in prayer. This, I know, is often difficult. You will come to the mercy-seat with a cold heart and wandering thoughts; and how, at such times, can you be fervent? "The Spirit helpeth our infirmities," is the only reply I can offer. And this is sufficient. In such a frame of mind there is the greater need of earnestness. Tarry not until your thoughts take a more elevated and spiritual tone. I have always found that the best way of proceeding in such a case, was to apply immediately to a throne of grace. There wrestle; renew the supplication, and still renew it; until, as is often the case, the fire of heaven descends, and the sacrifice is enkindled. The Lord give you the spirit and the success of the patriarch Jacob.
SINCERITY IN PRAYER.
SINCERITY, my dear young friend, is an essential ingredient in prayer. Without it, no prayer can be acceptable. Indeed, if we are insincere, we cannot be said to pray. A mere form of words is not prayer.
Prayer is the desire of the heart for something which we judge to be necessary or beneficial. It implies a knowledge of our wants, and an urgent wish to have them supplied. If, therefore, the heart be roving after one object, while the lips are employed in asking for another, we are insincere and unacceptable worshippers. Such conduct is an insult to our Creator—a game of deception on ourselves. Such were the petitions at which God, in old times, declared himself indignant; when his professing people drew "nigh" unto him with their mouth, and honored him with their lips, while their heart was far from him." Such was the religion of the scribes and Pharisees; fair and beautiful without, but within all rottenness and corruption.
Reflect a moment ere you bend the knee at the throne of grace. I am not now about to approach an earthly monarch, who, though surrounded with the pomp and circumstance of royalty, is but a worm of the dust like myself; but I am to have audience with the King of kings—the Lord of the whole earth. I am about to come into the presence, and to utter the name of Him at whose fiat all creation sprang into existence. Were I in the presence of a finite being, I might, perhaps, conceal my feelings under a form of words. I might utter one thing and mean another. But can I thus practise deception with God? Are not all things "naked, and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do?" Does not he search the hearts of the children of men? Will he be satisfied with any thing but "truth in the inward parts?" "If I regard iniquity in my heart," says the sweet singer of Israel, " the Lord will not hear me." And again, in his bold and beautiful interrogatories, "He that formed the eye, shall he not see? He that created the ear, shall he not hear?"
Let such be your meditation when you are about to kneel at the throne of grace. Not that I would array the character of God in terrors to your mind, or send you to tremble like a slave at his feet. No, he is a God of love, of compassion, of long forbearance; more beneficent and tender than the kindest earthly parent. You may go to him, and you must so go, in the confiding simplicity of a child and a favorite. When you take to him the name of Christ your Mediator, you take, so to speak, a passport into his very bosom. You may unburden your whole heart; tell him things which you could confide to no mortal ear; make confession of sins which, you dare only whisper in your closet; and in the ingenuous frankness of-faith and penitence, humbly cast yourself in his all-supporting arm. He is your covenant God; and, when alone with him, you may indulge even a holy familiarity.
Reflect on your own character, as well as on that of the Being whom you address: the thought of
both will humble you in the dust, and prepare you, in your approach to the mercy-seat, to appreciate the all-glorious, divine, and compassionate Mediator. Be careful to inquire into your wants. Say within yourself, Why have I now retired? What errand have I at the throne; what sins
to confess, what mercies to acknowledge, what wants to be supplied? For whom, besides myself, should I pray? What temptations appear to be most formidable? Let me not cover one sin, nor keep back one confession. Let me not ask for holiness, if I would retain a single lust; if I am not resolved to crucify all. Let me not ask for a revival of religion, if I do not secretly and sincerely wish for it. "Search me, 0 God, and know my heart, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting," should be your be your wish and your petition. Let your sincerity be such that you can ever thus appeal to the heart-searching God. Nothing is so well calculated to foster the spirit of devotion, as to be enabled to say with Peter, "thou knowest", to make the familiar appeal, although I cannot, by reason of infirmity, express the number and aggravation of my sins, yet, oh Lord, "thou knowest" I lament them, and sincerely desire their removal; although my words fail in expressing my gratitude, yet "thou knowest" my heart is full; although I cannot give expression to my feelings in behalf of Zion, yet "thou knowest" I love her prosperity, and earnestly desire her increase and, glory. "Thou knowest" is a sweet expression in the ears of a prayer-hearing God. It gives the soul a confidence and an earnestness, when pleading -for itself or for others.
You will find, my young friend, strong temptations to be superficial and hurried in your prayers. Your enemies, will suggest some engagements which will preclude or cut short your supplications. They will insinuate, that all this meditation is unnecessary. If in these attacks they prevail, you will immediately perceive an insincerity in your prayers. You will find yourself, at times, wishing the prayer was over; and uttering it, rather as a sedative to conscience, than as the supreme delight of your soul. You will then, indeed, come like a slave to the altar; and, having performed to conscience, as to an unrelenting tyrant, the accustomed task, you will be glad of a speedy relief. You may even find yourself; at times, uttering words and forms, of the meaning of which, while your heart is wandering on forbidden objects, you are totally unconscious. This is sinful in the extreme.
May you never arrive at this melancholy pitch of insult, and of mockery.
Yield not, dear young friend, to the power of the tempter. Give him no advantage over you; dispute every inch of ground; instead of retreating, advance; instead of relaxing, brace anew your nerves for the conflict. Take the whole armor of God. Look upward for grace and strength to wield it. March forward to the " wicket-gate," and to the glory that lies beyond. Keep your eye steadily on the Captain of your salvation. Where his banners wave, be you found, though it be in the thickest of the fight; and soon, yes, soon, your trials will be over; your victory will be won; and you will have naught to do but to lay aside your weapons, and sing the note of eternal triumph.
FAITH ESSENTIAL TO PRAYER.
IN my last, I recommended earnestness and sincerity, as necessary to acceptable prayer. The third particular which I mentioned was, faith in the promises.
Does not your Bible, my young friend, insist upon this? Does it not declare, that he who cometh to God, "must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him?" Does it not compare to the fluctuation of the restless wave, that prayer which is offered without faith? And does it not assert, that without faith, it is impossible to please him ? But what is meant by faith in the promises? methinks I hear you say. How shall I know when I incorporate this faith in my petition? It is not necessary, my young friend, that you know it; but it is necessary, and even indispensable, that you have it.
There is afloat, a spurious and vain-confident feeling, that mistakes presumption for faith. This sometimes appears in communities which are visited by the special influences of the Holy Spirit. Ignorant and proud enthusiasts take advantage of excited feelings, and sow the tares of error, while the servant of Jesus is scattering the seeds of truth. Some have declared, that in praying for a blessing, we had only to believe that it would be granted, and success was certain. In praying for an individual, all we had to do was to be certain in our own minds that the individual would be converted, and it would be so. When I look at the spirit which such people evince, and find little of the meekness and humility of the Gospel, I view it as presumptive evidence against their characters, and their opinions. When David prayed for the life of his child, though with deep humility and earnestness, it was not spared. When Paul thrice besought the Lord for the removal of a grievous affliction, the prayer was heard, and answered on the soul; but not as he had expected, on the body. The prayer of faith is never lost. It is invariably answered. But to assert that it will be answered in the particular way, or for the particular thing which we have expected, is both antiscriptural and presumptuous. Here lies the error of these enthusiasts. One step farther would make them claim inspiration.
When we come to the throne of grace, we come, not to dictate, but to supplicate. God, in his word, has given us a warrant to pray for all spiritual, and many temporal favors. In praying for the former, we may, and must be importunate and persevering until death. In respect to the latter, we must be submissive; and ever add, If it will be for thy glory, and the interests of my soul. When you pray, therefore, for spiritual blessings, you know that your prayer s according to the will of God. If it be sincere, and presented with an exclusive reference to the mediation of Christ, it will, it must be answered. I do not say, that the very things you ask, and in the precise way and time in which you look for them, will be received. Not at all. But still I say, your prayer will be answered. We are short-sighted creatures. We often suppose that we know what is best for us, and, would fain have in our own hands the management of our spiritual and temporal affairs. But recollect the "ring." It is not for us to keep it. It is in the hands of God. There only is it safe. There, no foe can reach it, and no feats need be entertained of its security.
Recollect, then, that it is yours to believe. It is God’s to plan and to execute. Confidence in God’s veracity, and wisdom, and goodness, is the main ingredient in this prayer of faith. Say, in the fulness of your confidence, I plead for this thing, 0 God. Although it may not be given by thee in a manner, and at a time which I expect, still I plead thy promise; and I know thou art faithful to hear and answer prayer.
Permit me to recur again to my own experience, and I am not alone in this experience. Knowing that I was in a backslidden state, and feeling that for months there had been a melancholy distance between God and my soul, I gave myself to prayer. I entreated God to reclaim me, to give me repentance, and a more entire consecration of soul and body to his service. I knew that these were blessings which were according to the will of God, and I knew that he had promised in his word to answer prayer fox such blessings. With the hope that I entertained of being in covenant with him, how could I doubt that he would answer the prayer for sanctification? But I verily supposed, that it would be by the direct influence of the Spirit on the heart. I expected that, in some favored moment, perhaps while I was then praying, God would send down a holy influence, irradiate the darkened mind, melt the hard heart, purify the sordid affections, and arrest and reclaim the wanderer. This he might have done. This he sometimes does, in the case of others; but it was not thus he answered my prayer.
When that season of earnest supplication had passed away, and was almost forgotten, he
stretched me upon a bed of affliction, and filled my mind with darkness, and my body with
torturing pains. Every expedient was tried to alleviate, but the waves and the billows rolled
deeper and darker. Why is it, I was then led to inquire, that God’s hand is pressed so heavily
upon me? Look back, my soul, upon thy pride, thy worldly-mindedness, thy ambition, thy
sensuality, thy neglect of duty. Do not these compose the cloud that envelopes thee; are they not
the pains that rack thee? Hast thou not forsaken "the Fountain of living waters?" Then, like the
prodigal’s, my eyes were filled with penitential tears ; and I said, God is answering my prayer for
humility, for spirituality, for meekness, for more entire devoted-ness.
Happy is that soul who can says Oh Lord, sanctify me, if it be by fire. Sanctify me, even if it be through the deep waters of affliction.
I cite this example to show, that our prayers must be offered, and offered in confidence. But the way and the time of their being answered, it is not for us to dictate. We may take any promise in the word of God, and with the confidence of children go to him, and say, Our Father, dost thou not said thus, and dost thou not say this to me? Let me then remind thee, 0 thou covenant keeping God, of these ample promises, and let me beseech thee to fulfil them all in thy servant; and in thine own way let them be verified in my complete salvation.
FOR WHAT SHOULD WE PRAY
It was not my intention to extend my remarks to so great a length on the nature of prayer, but I have been insensibly led along by my anxiety to impress upon your mind the importance of the subject. By personal experience I have, I trust, learned its value. I have been able to trace every spiritual declension to the closet. When the enemies of my soul have triumphed, I could distinctly see that my armor had not been furbished by prayer. When the sweet serenity of conscious forgiveness, a calm sense of divine favor has departed, and the restless tumult of passion has succeeded, the Holy Spirit, I knew full well, had not; with fervency, been wooed to my bosom.
As well might we expect vegetation to spring from the earth without the sunshine or the dew, as
the Christian to unfold his graces, and advance in his course, without patient, persevering, and ardent prayer. The throne of grace must be your home, your dearest, happiest home. If unavoidably detained from your accustomed visits to. the sweet retreat, 0 may you feel, like the dove that fluttered anxiously around the ark, that on earth there is naught that is stable, on which to rest your weary foot. And when you again find the consecrated spot, may your tears of joy mingle with those of penitence, as you throw yourself anew into the arms of your Father and your Friend.
In my last, I spoke of praying with faith in the promises, so that I have now glanced at the three important particulars necessary in acceptable prayer.
The second inquiry, for what you should pray, needs, it appears to me, but little consideration, if you have been taught of the Spirit. The apostle says, "we know not what we should pray for as we ought," but "the Spirit helpeth our infirmities." It would not, therefore, become me to enumerate the particulars which should form the subject matter of your prayers. If the Holy Spirit has wrought in your soul a deep conviction of your depravity, you will wrestle with God for its removal. " Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, and renew a right spirit within." If you are suddenly betrayed into sin, and your conscience feel the heavy load, you will exclaim, "0 Lord, pardon mine iniquity, for it is great." If your heart be sluggish in duty, you will, of course, and from necessity, pray, "Quicken me, 0 Lord, and I will run in the ways of thy commandments." If you love the kingdom of Christ, you will pray earnestly, and with faith, for its coming. If you feel for the perishing condition of sinners, you will commend thorn, with tears, to the mercy of your God.
But your prayers will not be thus general. If you ever, as I trust you will, become a noble and devoted Christian; if you mean to put your feet in the warm tracks of a Newell or a Huntington, your prayers will often be protracted and particular. You will pray for blessings on your own soul, on your parents, on your sisters, on your neighborhood, on the world. Your ardent mind, steeped in benevolence, will hold a familiar and holy intercourse with your Father in heaven. not au anxiety will you feel, but you will communicate it; not a reasonable wish will you indulge, but you will express it; not a known duty will you discover, but you will pray for grace to perform it. To enter into further particulars would be unnecessary. The Christian has every day new sins to confess, new duties to perform, new temptations to encounter; requiring, of course, new modifications of prayer and praise.
But one subject let me entreat you never to forget. It is the rising glory of our Immanuel’s kingdom. Say, with David, or rather with those weeping captives who were mingling their tears with the waters of Babylon, "If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning: if I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.’ You live in a day of wonders. Your being, perhaps, has opened in the millennial morn. It is possible you may live to see its full-orbed splendors. 0, then, in every prayer remember Zion; remember the heathen who sit in the valley and shadow of spiritual death. Take an enlarged view of this subject; read the Promises which secure to our Redeemer the whole habitable globe; peruse them until your soul is fired with the prospect. Then go to the mercy-seat and plead for their fulfilment. Go, bear on your heart a sinking world. Let your whole soul be drawn forth on this glorious subject. If it be not your lot to carry the glad tidings to the benighted, sustain, by your prayers, the hands and the hearts of those whose are the privilege and the glory. Say not, I am a poor insignificant creature; what will my prayers avail? Ah, if every Christian were thus to reason, the church would be without prayer, and without a blessing. Have you an interest at the throne of grace in your own behalf? Do you hope so; and, believing so, do you act accordingly? then have you also an interest there in behalf of a perishing world. That interest you must use. By all the prospective glories of the Messiah, I beseech you to use it. By all the deep and inconceivable miseries of the heathen, by the probability of their condemnation, and by the possibility of their deliverance, I conjure you to use it. Whatever you forget, forget not the millions who are perishing for lack of vision. Forget not the self-denied missionary who has gone to relieve them; forget not the societies which are pledged to this holy enterprise. The day is coming when this subject will hold a prominence in our supplications when the prayer, "Thy kingdom come," will come gushing from the heart, and be reiterated with an earnestness which shall indicate its near approach, and be prophetic of it’s universality.
You see from my protracted remarks on this subject, that I consider prayer the life and soul of the Christian. To the young Christian I cannot too urgently press its importance. Prayer is the key of heaven. 0, what has it not done’? By it Elijah shut up the skies, and no dew nor rain descended on the guilty land. By it Jacob placed a ladder between heaven and earth, and formed a communication for angels. By it Daniel shut up the mouths of ferocious lions, Sampson shook the pillars of Philistia’s temple, and Peter was delivered from prison. Prayer is a mighty weapon in the hands of the weakest. Use it, then; never, 0 never yield up this weapon.
In my next I shall offer a few remarks on the third question, when should we pray?
WHEN SHOULD WE PRAY?
I SHALL make but a few additional observations my young friend, on the subject of prayer, although, I confess, my pen would pursue the delightful theme through many pages more.
The apostle commands us to "pray without ceasing." Are we by this to understand that every moment of our time is to be spent in prayer? This, undoubtedly, is not his meaning. The import of the exhortation is, omit not this important duty; be regular and punctual in your daily visits to the altar; and see to it that you continually preserve a prayerful frame of spirit. No person can plead for a more strict interpretation of the passage than this. It implies all that the apostle meant to inculcate; and, be assured, that if you persevere in such a course you will not subject yourself to the charge of" casting off fear, and restraining prayer before God."
The seasons of prayer are stated and occasional, ordinary and extraordinary. No Christian can maintain a close walk with God, none can keep alive the hallowed fire of the soul, without daily kindling it afresh at the altar. None can grow in knowledge and holiness without stated and regular seasons of prayer "Give us this day our daily bread," implies as much the aliment of the soul as the nourishment of the body. The one can no more live in health and vigor without prayer, than the other without food.
It is usual to recommend the morning and the evening, as the most suitable seasons for prayer. In this, I fully concur. There appears to be something peculiarly appropriate in this arrangement of duty.
When the darkness has passed,. and the light has again dawned upon the earth; when we rise from our couch, and find our faculties invigorated by the restoring slumbers of the night; when we view the beauties of the morning landscape, listen to the melody of birds, and feel the balmy breath of nature playing coolly and sweetly around us; when praise and thanksgiving to God seem inscribed upon every feature of a revived world: how can we be silent; how withhold the burst of rapturous adoration? These scenes, I am aware, awaken no such feelings in the hearts of multitudes. They gaze on them, it is true; but they recognize not the hand that formed them. They feel no thrill of gratitude, nor offer one not one praise. Not so with the Christian. To him they convey a lesson, though the eye, to the soul; and lead him "from nature, up to nature’s God"
How proper, then, my young friend, is the morning, for secret converse with your God. It is your
privilege to reside in the country. You live amid nature’s magnificence. The unobstructed arch of heaven is your canopy. For your eye the forest waves, the meadows smile, the garden unfolds its beauties, and spring and summer vie in their efforts to regale your senses. You are not crowded into a noisy and profligate city, and shut out from almost every thing that is pleasant to the eye, and calming to the soul. No; you dwell, as it were, with God, and among his glorious works. Let your first hours, therefore, be his. Let not sloth nail you to your couch, when all nature invites you to awake and join the general concert of praise. "Awake, psaltery and harp," must be your language; "I myself will awake early." Mary found her way to the sepulchre, ere the day dawned; nor wept at that sepulchre in vain.
Early devotions are all-important. They prepare the mind to attend, without distraction, to the secular duties of the morning. As the day breaks, summon your recollections, and rise with the rising light. Give your first hours to God. Pour out your soul before him in gratitude for nocturnal blessings, and throw yourself on his protection for the day. Be assured, this early application to his throne will distil upon the soul a peace and a serenity that shall not depart, but shall gild every look and action, and make the day glide onward smoothly and happily you will thus allow yourself time, and not be hurried in your prayers. You will also be free from interruptions, and the fear of them. This is all-important to a right discharge of sacred duties. It is indispensable that the mind should be free from solicitude and cares: and there is no time in the day that will so secure to you that freedom, as the early part of it
Arise so early as to allow yourself half an hour for the performance of your morning devotions: more, if your soul desire it. It is good to stipulate with yourself for half an hour. The devotions of many are insipid, and burdensome, and unacceptable, because they have no definite time allotted for their performance. They snatch a few moments in the morning, and hurry through a form of prayer; which, though for the thus it may pacify the conscience, yet, in the end, only increases their guilt. They do not make a business of prayer. This is the great reason why the exercise is a burden. Now, avoid this, my young friend, by having an early hour, and always occupying the full time, in a constant and conscientious attention to your devotional duties. You will find by experience, that there is a great advantage in being thus systematic. It will tend greatly to elevate your standard of piety, and make you, not a lean and desultory, but a consistent and growing Christian.
In your evening devotion, I should advise you to occupy, as a general rule, as much time as in
morning. I know that circumstances must be regarded; but I would endeavor to secure at least half an hour in the evening. Let this hour not be the last before retiring; because, generally, the body is too much wearied, and the mind, by sympathy, too drowsy to make devotion any thing but a task and a burden. Let it be early in the evening. If the hour of sunset is most convenient, let it be then. This was the time at which the patriarch Isaac was engaged in meditation and prayer, and it certainly is a very appropriate and delightful hour.
How proper and pleasant is it to sit down at evening, and review the mercies of the day, call in the thoughts from distracting occupations, and then pour the whole soul into the bosom of God. How delightful to seek our pillow, when, having bathed anew in the fountain of Immanuel’s blood, we feel a consciousness of pardon, and a hope full of immortality, our slumbers then are sweet and refreshing. No visions of guilt, no fearful anticipations distort the unconscious muscles, or heave the troubled bosom. These are the tortures of guilty impenitent. They are the scourges of a conscience unpacified by the blood of atonement—the forebodings of that dreadful doom that awaits all who continue unreconciled to God, by the death of his Son.
One more letter shall close my remarks on this subject.
A CHRISTIAN who aims at an elevated standard of piety, will not always be satisfied with the morning and evening sacrifice.
The most eminent Christians have followed the example of David, who, in asserting his perseverance in prayer, exclaims, "Evening, and morning, and at noon will I pray." And is this too much? I am persuaded, my young friend, that to a soul who pants after increasing conformity to God, it is not too much. It may not always be convenient to pray three times a day; but where it, is I promise the individual, he will be no loser by the exercise. The aliment of the body may be taken too often, and in too great quantities, for the health of the constitution: but not so that of the soul. There is no danger of satiety or repletion here. You may drink, and drink again; at the waters of life; you may banquet, and return again and banquet. The soul will thrive proportionably. The food, instead of being loathed, will have the keener relish, and administer increasing nourishment, until you grow up to the stature of the perfect in Christ Jesus.
Christian of exalted piety will carry a prayerful frame of spirit throughout the day. He will not
make his stated devotions the beginning and the ending of his religion. Such is the conduct of the hypocrite, and the formalist. But the Christian imbibes a portion of heaven, which lie continually carries in his countenance, and exhibits in his deportment. Though walking amid the avocations of secular life, he still walks with God. As a matter of duty, he descends from his elevation to perform his part in the concerns of this sublunary world; but his soul is not here. His higher affections are calmly ascending to God. The silent ejaculation supplies his necessary absence from the throne of grace and is, if you will allow me the comparison, a sort of informal repast to the soul.
The most eminent saints have been noted for frequent ejaculatory petitions. A temptation suddenly shoots across the mind—send upward the silent prayer for deliverance. You are about entering into dangerous circumstances—look upward for protection. Your feet have just touched the threshold of God’s temple—O then breathe upward for his Spirit and his presence. If your soul be attuned to devotion, you will live and breathe as in the presence of God, and travel through this wilderness leaning on the arm of your beloved.
In addition to this, I would urge the duty of extraordinary and special seasons of prayer. I find such seasons warranted by the Scriptures, and their importance attested by the experience of the most eminent saints, in all ages of the church. There are lapses of the soul, which can only be counteracted by special and extraordinary prayer. There are temptations, which at times so beset and harass the mind as to call for special means. There are afflictive dispensations which require them. There are perplexities as to the path of duty, which they only can remove. Hence, if you will note the biography of the most eminently pious, you will find that special seasons of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, have been accompanied with an increase of grace, a deeper acquaintance with the heart, a more spiritual intercourse with God, more glorious views of divine truth, and a surer hope of a blessed. immortality.
I think I can say, without hesitation, that the most exalted attainments have been made by such means. Such extraordinary seasons for prayer are peculiarly acceptable to God. It was such, accompanied by a sanctifying influence, that formed the high character of Brainerd, and of Martyn.
If you desire their piety, neglect not the means by which they attained to it. If you admire their character, then imitate their devotion and self-denial. There is no obstacle that may not be surmounted, to hinder you even, from outstripping them. The prize is before you. The race is pointed out. See, at its termination, a crown of glory beaming in your Saviour’s hands. Does it not fire your soul? Does it not fill your eye? Does it not brace anew your nerve? Fix your eye on the mark of the prize of your high calling. Consider all the ground you have passed as nothing, so long as the goal is still at a distance—so long as you come short of perfection in Christ Jesus.
But I have one remark before I dismiss this subject. It is this. Let nothing, if possible, hinder you, in the performance of your regular devotions, from occupying your allotted season of prayer. When the love of God is on the wane, and that of the world is waxing stronger, a trifling excuse will satisfy the conscience for the neglect of this all-important duty. May such never be your case. Such a state is replete with danger, and often a precursor to a melancholy and disgraceful fall. The soul that is bent on duty, and to whom prayer is a delightful privilege, will seldom be hindered from its performance. No trifling excuse will be heeded; and if necessity for a time bar up the sacred enclosure, the heart will sicken at the void which is created by a temporary absence from the hallowed spot. When that necessity can be removed, how will the soul leap forward to its dearest earthly home. It will seem doubly sweet for the temporary hinderance. The soul will say, as it lays itself beneath the altar, 0 blessed privilege; how long does it appear since I last enjoyed thee. How delightful to lay my head on this dear support, and feel that I am again alone with my Redeemer and my friend.
Such will be the language of the saint when debarred for a time from the throne of grace.
Situated as you now are, you are in a measure free from the fear of such interruptions. But you will soon be ushered into a new sphere. You will soon find yourself surrounded by companions, to whom you must pay the ordinary civilities of life. Then will you need this advice; nay, you will need the supporting hand of God, to keep you from dishonoring your profession, and forgetting the solemn vows you have recorded: Then, if you persevere in the course which I have marked out, it will be evident that I have not written in vain, and that what I have written has been attended with more than human efficacy.
Little do you know, as yet, of your own heart; little do you realize the seducing influence of the world, and the artful insinuations of Satan. But if you will cling to the counsel I have given, and commit your soul to the keeping of your Redeemer, those temptations you shall meet immovable as the rock that beats back the angry billow—you shall walk unhurt amid the flames—you shall be covered with a panoply impervious to attack—you shall weather out the storm in safety—and at last, when your temptations and trials are over, you shall sing, eternally sing "Unto Him who hath loved me, and washed we from my sins in his own Need; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever."