It is unspeakably important to retain and deepen religious impressions. Awakened and anxious sinner, your present situation is a most momentous one. You are in the crisis of your religious history and of your eternal destiny. No tongue can tell, no pen can describe the importance of your present circumstances. You are just arousing from your long slumber of sin and spiritual death, and will now either rise up and run the race that is set before you, or will soon sink back again (as those are likely to do who are a little disturbed) into a deeper sleep than ever. The Spirit of God is striving with you, and either you will yield to his suggestions, and give yourself up to be led by his gracious influence, or you will grieve him by resistance and neglect, and cause him to depart. God is drawing you with the cords of love; Christ is saying, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock.” The Spirit is striving with you. Yield to these silken bands; open to that gracious Saviour; grieve not, quench not the motions of that Divine Spirit. Salvation is come near, and heaven is opening to your soul.
Remember, you may quench the Spirit, not only by direct resistance, but by careless neglect. Do not, I beseech you, be insensible to your situation. A single conviction ought not to be treated with indifference, nor a single impression be overlooked. You cannot long remain as you now are; your convictions will soon end either in conversion or in greater indifference; like the blossoms of spring, they will soon set in fruit, or fall to the ground. Should your present solicitude diminish, it will soon subside altogether; and if it subside, it may probably never be revived. It is a most dangerous thing to tamper or trifle with convictions of sin, and religious impressions. If, then, you would not lose your present feelings, take the following advice:
1. Admit the possibility of losing them.
Do not presume that it is impossible for you to relapse. Let there be no approach to the vainglorious, self-confident temper of the apostle Peter, who said, “Although all should be offended, yet will not I.” Nothing is more common than mere transient devotions. The character of Pliable, in the Pilgrim’s Progress, is one of every day’s occurrence. There are very few that hear the gospel, who are not, at one time or other, the subject of religious impressions. Multitudes, who are lifting up their eyes in torment, are looking back upon lost impressions. Do not conclude that, because you are now so concerned about salvation, you must be saved. Oh no. Many that read these pages under deep solicitude, will add to the number of backsliders. Self-confidence will be sure to end in confusion; while self-diffidence is the way to stand.
2. Dread the idea of relapsing into indifference.
Let the bare apprehension make you tremble. Exclaim in an almost agony of spirit, “Oh, if I should prove treacherous; if my goodness should be as the morning cloud or early dew; if this heart of mine, which now seems so much in earnest, should become indifferent; if my soul, which now seems not far from the kingdom of God, should go back from its very gates, and walk the ways of God no more; if my friends or minister should meet me in a retreating course, and have to say to me, ‘You did run well, what has hindered you?’ Dreadful change! May God in mercy prevent it.” My dear reader, let these be your reflections. Let death seem to you rather to be coveted than backsliding; let it be your feeling that you would rather go forward in the pursuit of salvation, though you were to die the moment your sins were pardoned, than gain long life and the whole world, by going back to indifference. Next to the loss of the soul, there is nothing so dreadful in itself, nor so much to be dreaded, as the loss of religious impressions; and the latter leads on to the former.
3. Make it a subject of devout and earnest prayer that God would render your impressions permanent, by the effectual aid of his Holy Spirit.
Reader, here learn these two lessons: that God alone can seal these emotions upon your heart; and that he can be expected to do it only in answer to prayer.
It is of infinite consequence that you should, at this stage of your religious history, deeply ponder the great truth, that all true piety in the heart of man is the work of God’s Spirit. Do not read another line till you have well weighed that sentiment, and have so wrought it into your heart, as to make it become a principle of action, a rule of conduct. Every conviction will be extinguished, every impression will be effaced, unless God himself, by his own sovereign and efficacious grace, render them permanent. If God do not put forth his power, you will as certainly lose every pious emotion as you now possess any. You may as rationally expect light without the sun, as piety without God. Not a single really holy feeling will ever come into the mind, or be kept there, but by God.
Hence, the object and the use of prayer are to obtain this gracious influence. Prayer is the first step in the divine life, prayer is the second, prayer is the third, and indeed it is necessary through the whole Christian course. Awakened sinner, you must pray. You must find opportunity to be alone; you must cry mightily unto God; you must implore his aid; you must give up a portion of your sleep, if you can command no time in the day for prayer. In one sense, you should pray always. The spirit of prayer should dwell in you and never depart, and be continually leading you to ejaculatory petitions in the house and by the way, upon your bed and in your occupations; and this should be the subject of your petitions, that your impressions may not be permitted to die away, but go on to conversion. You may read books, consult friends, hear sermons, make resolutions; but books, friends, sermons, and resolutions, will all fail, if God do not give his Holy Spirit. It is very common for beginners to trust too much to means, and too little to God. If you will not, or even if you suppose you cannot find time for private prayer, you may as well stop at once, and give up the pursuit of salvation, for you cannot be saved without it.
4. If you would retain your impressions, and persevere in the pursuit of salvation, you must at once determine to give up whatever you know to be sinful in your conduct, and you must also be very watchful against sin.
Thus runs the direction of the word of God: “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7). To the same effect is the language of one of Job’s friends: “If thou prepare thine heart, and stretch out thine hands toward him; if iniquity be in thine hand, put it far away” (Job 11:13,14).
It is right for you at once to know, that the salvation which is in Christ is a deliverance from sin. “Thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins,” said the angel to Joseph, when he announced the approaching nativity of Christ. “Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14). It is of immense consequence that you should at once have a distinct idea that the salvation you are beginning to seek, is a holy calling. Whatever is sinful in your temper, such as malice, revenge, violent passions; or whatever is sinful in your words, in the way of falsehood, railing, backbiting; or whatever is sinful in your practice, in the way of sabbath-breaking, injustice, unkindness, undutifulness to parents or masters; — must immediately be given up without hesitation, reluctance, or reserve. The retaining of one single sin, which you know to be such, will soon stifle your convictions, and efface all your impressions.
If you are not willing to give up your sins, it is not salvation you are seeking. You may suppose you wish to become a Christian, and you read the Bible, and offer up prayers, and regularly hear sermons, and wonder that you do not get on in religion; but perhaps the reason is, you are not willing to give up your sins, your worldly-mindedness, your carnal pleasures, or some practice that you find to be gainful or agreeable, although you know it to be sinful. Well, then, you cannot get on in this state of mind. Do, do therefore, look carefully within; examine faithfully your conduct, and see whether there be in you any thing which you know to be wrong, but which you are nevertheless unwilling to abandon: if there is, it is vain for you to think of retaining your impressions, and becoming a Christian.
And let me also remind you, that this willingness to give up your sins must be immediate; you must desire and propose an instant abandonment of sin. Augustine confesses that he used to pray to God to convert him, but with this reservation, “Lord, not yet.” He wished to live a little longer in the gratification of his sinful lusts, before he was completely turned to the Lord from his evil ways. Thus there are some who are, or profess to be desirous to be converted at some time or other, and who are willing to give up their sins, but “not yet.” There is a mixture of feeling; a concern to be saved, but a lingering love of some sin; and the matter is settled by a resolution to sacrifice the sin at some future time. Awful delusion! God says, Now, and you must reply, Yes, Lord, now; I would now be converted from this and every sin.
And not only must you be willing to give up sin, but you must watch most carefully against it. You are in a most critical state of mind: and a very small indulgence of sin may put away all your religious feelings. Even the giving way to a bad temper may do irreparable mischief to your soul, and hinder your pursuit of eternal life. You ought especially to watch against your besetting sin, whatever it be, according to the exhortation of the apostle, Heb. 12:1. At the same time I would caution you against being discouraged by occasional failures; you are not to throw up all in despair because you are occasionally overcome by temptation. Instances of this kind should make you more watchful, but not desponding. I shall say more on this subject hereafter.
5. It is of great consequence for you to separate yourselves from irreligious or worldly companions.
It will require some courage, and call for some painful self-denial, to retire from the society of those with whom you have been in the habit of associating; but if they are ungodly persons, it must be done. Read what God and good men have said on this subject: Ps. 119:63; Prov. 1:11-16; 2:12-19; 29:6; 13:20; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 6:14-18. Comply with these admonitions, and quit the society of all who think lightly of religion. Their company and conversation will soon draw you aside from the ways of piety. Their levity, their indifference, their neglect of salvation, will be destructive to all your religious feelings.
Even Christians of long standing, and of deeply-rooted piety still find such society very unfriendly to their religion, and avoid it as much as possible: how much more dangerous will it be to you, whose religion is yet so feeble and incapable of much opposition! Even if such companions do not attempt to laugh or reason you out of your concern for your soul, which, however, they will be almost sure to do, and never cease till they have succeeded, their very conversation and general disposition will wither your tender piety, as an east wind does the blossoms of spring.
You must then give up either your sinful associates, or your salvation; for if you cannot, or rather, will not break off from such companions as are opposed to religion, you may as well relinquish all hope of eternal life, since the preservation of pious feeling, and communion with the ungodly, are utterly incompatible with each other. Is there any companion on earth whose friendship you prefer to salvation, and whose loss you dread more than damnation?
6. It is transcendently important that you should use all those scriptural means which are calculated and intended to keep up a due sense of religion in the mind.
These you must immediately and most earnestly employ: no time is to be lost, no labour is to be spared, no sacrifice is to be grudged. Your soul and all her eternal interests are at stake. Hell is to be escaped; heaven is to be sought; Satan is to be conquered; salvation is to be obtained. Your enemies are numerous and mighty; your difficulties are immense, though not insurmountable. Every energy must be roused, every exertion must be made, every help called in, every lawful means employed. Read the following passages of God’s word, and see if religion be a light and easy work. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). “Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13: 24). “Labour for that meat which endureth unto eternal life” (John 6:27). “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:12). “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). What metaphors! What language!
We might almost feel prompted to ask, Who then can be saved, if such anxiety, such effort be necessary? Even the righteous are scarcely saved. If you do not, like David, seek the favour of God with your whole heart, you will never have it. You may more rationally think to reach the top of the highest mountain on earth without labour, than to imagine you can reach heaven without effort. If you suppose a few wishes or a little exertion will do, you mistake; and the sooner you are undeceived the better. But I will now specify the means you should use.
- Immediately commence the devout and diligent perusal of the Scriptures. “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Pet. 2:2). The Bible is the food of the soul, even as the mother’s milk is for the nourishment of the child; and you may as easily believe that the infant will grow without food, as that you will grow in knowledge of grace without the Scriptures. Read both for instruction and for impression; read attentively, and with meditation; pause and ponder as you go along. Neglect not the book of God for the books of men: the latter may be read as the interpreters, but not as the substitutes of the former. If you do not find the Bible so interesting to you at first as you expected and wished, still go on; it will grow upon acquaintance. Nothing is so likely to keep up and to deepen religious impressions, as the serious perusal of the Scriptures; they are the very element of devotion. Of two inquirers after salvation, he will be most likely to persevere and grow in piety, who is most diligent in reading the word of God. Do not be disheartened by finding much that you cannot at present understand; there is much that you can understand. Read in course, and instead of beginning the Bible, and going regularly through it, take the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Epistles, and make these the first portion you study.
- Attend with regularity and seriousness upon the preaching of the gospel. Sermons are invaluable helps to the anxious inquirer. Hear the word preached, with a deep conviction that it will do you no good but as God blesses it, and therefore look above the minister to God. Pray before you go to hear sermons; pray while you hear; and pray after you have heard. Go from the closet of private prayer to the place of public worship, and from the place of public worship back again to prayer. Apply the word as you hear it to yourself; hear with attention, hear as for yourself, hear as for salvation. Avoid a light and careless way of attending upon the means of grace. Grow not sinfully familiar with sacred things. Avoid general conversation after sermons; and gratify not those evil spirits who desire to steal away the good seed of the word from the hearts in which it was sown.
- If you have the opportunity, avail yourselves of the advantages of social prayer. The prayers of good men are like gentle breezes to fan the spark of piety in the young convert’s heart, and to surround him with the atmosphere of devotion. In these meetings you will be prayed with and prayed for: you will hear what more advanced Christians feel and desire, and their prayers are some of the best instructions you can receive: thus you will have your hearts knit together in love with the people of God.
- You should seek the instructions and counsels of some pious friend, with whom you should be free and full in laying open the state of your mind. Frequent the company of the righteous, and at once identify yourself with them. You must not be ashamed to let your attachment to his cause and your adherence to his people be openly known. Many persons wish to come and make secret peace with God, because fear, or pride, or interest, remonstrates against an open admission of his claims. They keep their convictions to themselves, and hence they sometimes soon die away for want of support.
- But it is especially desirable that you should make known your mind to your minister. Go, without delay, to him. Perhaps he has meetings for inquirers, and even if he has not, he will no doubt be glad to hear your account of yourselves, and will tenderly sympathise with you under your anxieties. If he be like his Divine Master, he will “gather the lambs of the flock in his arms, carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” Be not afraid to go to him; if you are timid, and unable to say much, he will understand your broken hints, kindly elicit your sentiments and feelings, and give you suitable instruction and encouragement. One half-hour’s conversation with a skilful physician of souls, will often do more to assist you in this first stage of your religious history, than the reading of many books, and the hearing of many sermons.
Remember, however, after all there is a danger of depending too much upon means, as well as of too much neglecting them. Forget not what I have said concerning the work of the Spirit of God. He is your Helper; neither friends nor minister; neither reading nor hearing; no, nor the Bible itself, must lead you away from your dependence on the Holy Ghost. Many inquirers seem to have no hope or expectation of good but in connection with certain means; if they are cut off from sermons even occasionally, or have not precisely the same number and kind of ordinances they have been accustomed to, they are gloomy and desponding, fretful and peevish, and hence do not only get no good, but much harm by their unbelief and bad temper. We must depend upon God, and upon nothing but God, who could bless his people in the darkness of a dungeon, where the Bible could not be read, or in the solitude of a wilderness, where no gospel sermon could be heard.
It is of consequence that you should here distinctly understand, that the grace of God in your salvation is rich and free. Your exertions in seeking salvation do not merit or deserve it; and if you receive it, you will not have it granted to you as the reward of your own efforts to obtain it. To imagine that you can claim the grace that is necessary to your conversion, because you profess to seek it, is to follow the wretched example of those who, in ancient times, went “about to establish their own righteousness, and did not submit themselves unto the righteousness of God.” Your deep convictions, impressions, and solicitude; your many tears; your earnest prayers; your diligent attendance upon sermons; and your partial reformations, can claim nothing in the way of reward from Him; nor is he bound to save you for that which has no reference to his glory. Until you believe God’s promise, he is under no obligation, even to himself, to save you. Notwithstanding all your concern, you lie at his mercy; and if you are saved, it is of pure favour.
Do not allow yourself to conclude, that your present concern is sure to end in the conversion of your soul to God. Nothing is more likely to deaden, and even to destroy religious impressions, than to infer, that you are sure of being converted, because you are anxious about it; facts are against such an inference. I have read of a gentleman, who felt, in a dangerous sickness, great horror at the review of his past life, and was advised to send for the minister of the parish, who might be able to set his mind at rest. The minister came. The gentleman told him that if God would be pleased to preserve him from death, his life should be the reverse of what it had been. He would regularly attend church; he would catechise his servants; he would regularly worship God in his family, and in his closet; he would, in short, do every thing a good Christian should do. His wishes were accomplished; he was thankful for his deliverance, and did not forget his promises. For many months he continued, as far as his conduct could be judged of by the world, to perform his vows. After a time, however, he thought so much religion superfluous. He first left off the duties of the closet and family; public duties at last became likewise too wearisome, and he became again the same man that he formerly was. After some time, he was again seized by a dangerous distemper, and was advised by his friends to send again for the minister, that he might afford fresh consolation to his wounded spirit. “No,” said he, “after breaking all the promises that I made to God, I cannot expect mercy from him.” Death found him in this unhappy state of mind, and carried him to that world where there are no changes.
This story, with some variations of no consequence, may be told of myriads. Impressions are made upon the minds of sinners, which are attended with visible consequences, that give rise to favourable hopes in the breasts of friends and ministers; but their hopes often prove illusions. “When the Lord slew the children of Israel, then they sought him; and they returned and inquired early after God: and they remembered that God had been their Rock, and the high God their Redeemer; nevertheless they flattered him with their mouths, and lied unto him with their tongues” (Ps. 78:34-36). They did not intentionally lie. They seem frequently to have been sincere at the time in their promises; not, indeed, with a godly sincerity: “yet their hearts were not right with God, neither were they stedfast in his covenant” (Ps. 78:37). And the reason why they were not stedfast in his covenant was, because, though they were impressed, their hearts were not right with God.
Perhaps there is no minister of the gospel who could not furnish some most affecting illustrations of the sentiment, that impressions and convictions do not always end in conversion. I began my own religious course with three companions, one of whom was materially serviceable, in some particulars, to myself; but he soon proved that his religion was nothing more than mere transient devotion. A second returned to his sin, “like a dog to his vomit, and a sow that is washed to her wallowing in the mire.” The third, who was for some time my intimate friend, imbibed the principles of infidelity; and so great was his zeal for his new creed, that he sat up at night to copy out Fame’s Age of Reason. After a while he was seized with a dangerous disease; his conscience awoke; the convictions of his mind were agonizing; his remorse was horrible. He ordered all his infidel extracts, that had cost him so many nights to copy out, to be burnt before his face; and if not in words, yet in spirit, “Burn, burn,” he cried, “in sacred rage, Hell is the due of every page.” His infidel companions and his infidel principles forsook him at once, and in the hearing of a pious friend who visited him, and to whom he confessed with tears and lamentations his backsliding, he uttered his confessions of sin, and his vows of repentance. He recovered; but, painful to relate, it was only to relapse again, if not into infidelity, yet at any rate into an utter disregard to religion.
These are awful instances, and prove by facts, which are unanswerable arguments, that it is but too certain that many seek to enter in at the strait gate, but do not accomplish their object. And why? Not because God is unwilling to save them, but because they rest in impressions, without going on to actual conversion. It is dangerous then, reader, as well as unwarranted, to conclude that you are sure to be saved, because you now feel anxious to be saved. It is very true that where God has begun a good work he will carry it on to the day of Christ Jesus; but do not conclude too certainly that he has begun it. You may take encouragement from your present state of mind to hope that you will be saved; but that encouragement should rather come from what God has promised, and what God is, than from what you feel.
To regard your present state of mind, therefore, with complacency; to conceive of it as preferring any claim upon God to convert you; to look upon it as affording a certainty that you will be ultimately converted, a kind of pledge and earnest of salvation, instead of considering it only as struggles after salvation, which may or may not be successful, according as they are continued in a right manner; is the way to lose the impressions themselves, and to turn back again to sin or the world. The true light in which to consider your present solicitude, is that of a state of mind which, if it terminate in genuine faith, and which it is probable it may, will end in your salvation: consequently, your object should be to cherish your anxiety, and seek the grace of Jehovah to give you sincere repentance towards God, and true faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The subject of this chapter may be illustrated and enforced, by an extract from that admirable and most edifying book, The Diary of Mr. Joseph Williams, of Kidderminster. He says, when speaking of his youthful days:
About this time, going with my father a few miles from home, his talk with me was very profitable. He exhorted me to serious religion now in my youth, as the season when the mind is most fit to receive good impressions. He cautioned me not to put off the grand concern to an uncertain hereafter. He pleaded with me, not only the uncertainty of life, but the improbability of my turning to God in old age, after vicious habits were grown strong by a long continuance in sin. To affect me the more, he gave me the following particulars of his conversation with a gentleman of his acquaintance.
I was coming home, said he, one evening, from Bewdley, in company with Mr. Radford and his son John. After he had recited to me some particulars in his conduct, in vindicating some persecuted Christians against an unkind and illiberal attack, he directed his discourse to his son. “Son,” said he, “though I have not myself been so religious and careful of my soul as I should have been, yet I cannot but have a tender concern for your everlasting happiness; and here, before Mr. Williams, I admonish you not to live after my example. I have often advised you to make this man your associate; he will lead you in the way to heaven. You are got in with a knot of young fellows who will do you no good; but I charge you,” which he uttered with a louder voice, “to leave off the company of such and such, and spend all the time you can in the company of this neighbour.”
To which I replied, “Sir, I am now full of business, and am much older than your son, therefore young men of his own age are more fit for him to associate with.” On my saying this, he stopped his horse, I being before him, and his son behind him; then, with great earnestness, he declared to him, “I will not stir from this place until you have promised me to abandon that set of companions, and make this man your daily associate. Mind religion in your youth; and do not do as I have done. I have slighted many convictions, and now my heart is hard and brawny.”
I was in a manner thunderstruck with the old gentleman’s last words; and though my father went on to relate more that he there uttered, and the promise his son made before he would stir a step further, yet my thoughts were wholly swallowed up in deep musing on these words, “My heart is hard and brawny.” I had such an affecting sense of the old gentleman’s dreadful state, that it engaged my mind all the rest of the way; and even while I was transacting business, it was uppermost; for his words were ever sounding in my ears. Thus I was kept long in a very serious frame; and was possessed with a most alarming fear lest I should fall into such a state, which I considered as the greatest plague that could be inflicted upon me. In this temper of mind I returned home, keeping my thoughts all the way intent upon the sad and solemn subject. While I was musing, the fire burned, my heart was hot within me, and, using a low voice, I kept up a serious soliloquy on the most important concerns of my soul; and the impressions did not wear off for a considerable time. (Mr. Hanbury’s enlarged edition. p. 8,9.)