Those who read their Bibles will recollect the connection in which these words occur, and by whom they were spoken. They were addressed by the Lord Jesus Christ to Peter, after he had denied his Lord, and had subsequently professed repentance. Our Lord asked him this question, to remind him, in an affecting manner, at once of his sin and of the love of Christ: "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me more than these?" - strongly implying a doubt whether he did love Him. Peter answers: "Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee." Then Christ said unto Him: "Feed My lambs"; and repeated the question, as if He would read his inmost soul: "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?" Peter was still firm, and promptly answered again: "Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee."
Jesus still asked him the question again, the third time, emphatically. He seemed to urge the point, as if He would search his inmost thoughts, to see whether Peter would ever deny Him again. Peter was touched; he was "grieved," it is said; he did not fly into a passion, nor did he boast, as formerly: "Though I should die with Thee, yet will I not deny Thee"
(Matthew 26:35); but he was grieved; he was subdued; he spoke tenderly; he appealed to the Savior Himself, as if he would implore Him not to doubt his sincerity any longer: "Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee." Christ then gave him his final charge: "Feed My sheep" (v. 17).
By the terms "sheep" and "lambs" the Savior undoubtedly designated Christians, members of His Church; the lambs probably represent young converts, those that have but little experience and but little knowledge of religion, and therefore need to have special attention and pains taken with them, to guard them from harm, and to train them for future usefulness.
And when our Savior told Peter to feed His sheep, He doubtless referred to the important part which Peter was to perform in watching over the newly-formed Churches in different parts of the world, and in training the young converts, and leading them along to usefulness and happiness.
My last Lecture was on the subject of giving right instruction to anxious sinners; this naturally brings me to consider the manner in which young converts should be treated, and the instructions that should be given to them.
In speaking on this subject it is my design to state:
I. Several things that ought to be considered, in regard to the hopes of young converts.
II. Several things respecting their making a profession of religion, and joining the Church.
III. The importance of having correct instruction given to young converts.
V. What particular things are specially necessary to be taught to young converts.
VI. How young converts should be treated by Church members.
1. Nothing should be said to create a hope. That is to say, nothing should ordinarily be intimated to persons under conviction calculated to make them think they have experienced religion, till they find it out themselves.
I do not like this term, "experienced religion," and I use it only because it is a phrase in common use. It is an absurdity in itself What is religion?
Obedience to God. Suppose you should hear a good citizen say he had experienced obedience to the Government of the country! You see that it is nonsense. Or suppose a child should talk about experiencing obedience to his father. If he knew what he was saying, he would say he had obeyed his father; just as the apostle Paul says to the Roman believers: "Ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you"
What I mean to say is that ordinarily it is best to let their hope or belief that they are converted spring up spontaneously in their own minds.
Sometimes it will happen that persons may be really converted, but, owing to some notions which they have been taught about religion, they do not realize it. Their views of what religion is, and its effect upon the mind, are so entirely wide of the truth that they do not think they have it.
Some years since, I labored in a place where a revival was in progress, and there was in the place a young lady from Boston. She had been brought up a Unitarian. She was a person of considerable education, and was intelligent on many subjects; but on the subject of religion she was very ignorant. At length she was convicted of sin. She became awfully convinced of her horrible enmity against God. She had been so educated as to have a sense of propriety; but her enmity against God became so great, and broke out so frightfully, that it was horrible to hear her talk. She used to come to the anxious meetings, where we conversed with each person separately; and her feelings of opposition to God were such that she used to create disturbance. By the time I came within two or three seats of her, where she could hear what I said in a low voice to the others, she would begin to make remarks in reply, so that they could be heard. And she would say the most bitter things against God, against His providence, and His method of dealing with mankind, as if God were an infinite tyrant. I would try to hush her, and make her keep still, because she distracted the attention of others. Sometimes she would stop and command her temper for a time, and sometimes she would rise and go out. I have seldom seen a case where the enmity of the heart rose so high against God. One night, at the anxious meeting, after she had been very restless, as I went towards her, she began as usual to reply, but I hushed her, and told her I could not converse with her there. I invited her to see me the next morning, when I told her I would talk with her. She promised to come; but, said she: "God is unjust - He is infinitely unjust. Is He not almighty? Why, then, has He never shown me my enmity before? Why has He let me run on so long?
Why does He let my friends at Boston remain in this ignorance? They are the enemies of God as much as I am, and they are going to hell. Why does He not show them the truth in regard to their condition?" And in this temper she left the room.
The next morning she came to see me, as she had promised. I saw, as soon as she came in, that her countenance was changed, but I said nothing about it. "Oh," said she, "I have changed my mind, as to what I said last night about God; I do not think He has done me any wrong, and I think I shall 'get religion' some time, for now I love to think about God. I have been all wrong; the reason why I had never known my enmity before was that I would not. I used to read the Bible, but I always passed over the passages that would make me feel as if I were a lost sinner; and those passages that spoke of Jesus Christ as God I passed over without consideration; but now I see that it was my fault, not God's fault, that I did not know any more about myself; I have changed my mind now." She had no idea that this was religion, but she was encouraged now to expect religion at some future time, because she loved God so much. I said nothing to make her imagine that I thought her a Christian, but left her to find it out. And, for a time, her mind was so entirely occupied with thinking about God that she never seemed to ask whether she "had religion" or not.
It is a great evil, ordinarily, to encourage persons to hope they are Christians. Very likely you may judge prematurely. Or if not, it is better, in any case, that they should find it out for themselves - that is, supposing they do not see it at once.
2. When persons express a hope, and yet express doubts, too, it is generally because the work is not thorough. If they are converted, they need breaking up. They are still lingering around the world, or they have not broken off effectually from their sins, and they need to be pushed back, rather than urged forward. If you see reason to doubt, or if you find that they have doubts, most probably there is some good reason to doubt.
Sometimes persons express a hope in Christ, and afterwards remember some sin that needs to be confessed to men; or some case where they have slandered, or defrauded, where it is necessary to make satisfaction, and where either their character, or their purse, is so deeply implicated that they hesitate, and refuse to perform their duty. This grieves the Spirit, brings darkness over their minds, and justly leads them to doubt whether they are truly converted. If a soul is truly converted, it will generally be found that, where there are doubts, there is on some point a neglect of duty. They should be searched as with a lighted candle, and brought up to the performance of duty, and not suffered to hope until they do it.
Ordinarily, it is proper just there to throw in some plain and searching truth, that will go through them, something that will wither their false hopes. Do it while the Spirit of God is dealing with them, and do it in a right way, and there is no danger of its doing harm.
To illustrate this: I knew a person who was a member of the Church, but an abominable hypocrite - proved to be so by her conduct, and afterwards fully confessed to be so. In a revival of religion she was awakened and deeply convicted, and after a while she got a hope. She went to a minister to talk with him about her hope, and he poured the truth into her mind in such a manner as to annihilate all her hopes. She then remained under conviction many days, and at last she broke out in hope again. The minister knew her temperament, and knew what she needed, and he tore away her hope again. Then she broke down. So deeply did the Spirit of God PROBE her heart that, for a time, it took away all her bodily strength. Then she came out subdued. Before, she had been one of the proudest of rebels against God's government, but now she became humbled, and was one of the most modest, tender, and lovely of Christians. No doubt that was just the way to deal with her. It was just the treatment that her case required.
It is often useful to deal with individuals in this way. Some persons are naturally unamiable in their temper, and unlovely in their deportment. And it is particularly important that such persons should be dealt with most thoroughly whenever they first begin to express hope in Christ. Unless the work with them is, in the first place, uncommonly deep and thorough, they will be vastly less useful, and interesting, and happy, than they would have been had the probe been thoroughly and skillfully applied to their hearts. If they are encouraged at first, without being thoroughly dealt with; if they are left to go on as though all were well; if they are not sufficiently probed and broken down, these unlovely traits of character will remain unsubdued, and will be always breaking out, to the great injury both of their personal peace and their general influence and usefulness as Christians.
It is important to take advantage of such characters while they are just in these peculiar circumstances, so that they can be molded into proper form.
Do not spare, though it should be a child, or a brother, or a husband, or a wife. Let it be a thorough work. If they express a hope, and you find they bear the image of Christ, they are Christians. But if it should appear doubtful - if they do not appear to be fully changed, just tear away their hope, by searching them with discriminating truth, and leave the Spirit to do the work more deeply. If still the image is not perfect, do it again - break them down into a childlike spirit, and then let them hope. They will then be clear and thorough Christians. By such a mode of treatment I have often known people of the crookedest and most hateful natural character so transformed, in the course of a few days, that they appeared like different beings. You would think the work of a whole life of Christian cultivation had been done at once. Doubtless this was the intent of our Savior's dealing with Peter. He had been converted, but became puffed up with spiritual pride and self confidence, and then he fell. After that, Christ broke him down again by three times searching him with the inquiry: "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?" After which he seems to have been a stable and devoted saint the rest of his days.
3. There is no need of young converts having or expressing doubts as to their conversion. There is no more need of a person doubting whether he is now in favor of God's government than there is for a man to doubt whether he is in favor of our Government or another. It is, in fact, on the face of it, absurd for a person to talk of doubting on such a point, if he is intelligent and understands what he is talking about. It has long been supposed to be a virtue, and a mark of humility, for a person to doubt whether he is a Christian, but this notion that there is virtue in doubting is a device of the devil. "I say, neighbor, are you in favor of our Government, or do you prefer that of Russia?" "Why, I have some hopes that I love our own Government, but I have many doubts." Wonderful! "Woman, do you love your children?" "Why, sir, I sometimes have a trembling hope that I love them, but you know the best have doubts." "Wife, do you love your husband?" "I do not know - I sometimes think I do, but you know the heart is deceitful, and we ought to be careful and not be too confident."
Who would have such a wife? "Man, do you love your wife, do you love your family?" "Ah, you know we are poor creatures, we do not know our own hearts. I think I do love them, but perhaps I am deceived."
Ordinarily, the very idea of a person expressing doubts renders his piety truly doubtful. A real Christian has no need to doubt; and when one is full of doubts, ordinarily you ought to doubt for him and help him doubt.
Affection to God is as much a matter of consciousness as any other affection. A woman knows she loves her child. How? By consciousness.
She is conscious of the exercise of this affection. And she sees it carried into action every day. In the same way a Christian may know that he loves God; by his consciousness of this affection, and by seeing that it influences his daily conduct.
In the case of young converts, truly such, these doubts generally arise from their having been wrongly dealt with, and not sufficiently taught, or not thoroughly humbled. In any case they should never be left in such a state, but should be brought to such a thorough change that they will doubt no longer.
It is inconsistent with usefulness for a Christian to be always entertaining doubts; it not only makes him gloomy, but it makes his religion a stumbling block to sinners. What do sinners think of such a religion? They say: "These converts are afraid to think they have got anything real; they are always doubting whether it is a reality, and they ought to know whether there is anything in it or not. If it is anything, these people seem to have it, but I am inclined to think it rather doubtful. At any rate, I will let it pass for the present; I do not believe God will condemn me for not attending to that which appears so uncertain." No, a settled hope in Christ is indispensable to usefulness; and therefore you should deal so with young converts, as to lead them to a consistent, well-grounded, stable hope. Ordinarily, this may be done, if pursued wisely, at the proper time, and that is at the commencement of their religious life. They should not be left till it is done.
I know there are exceptions; there are cases where the best instructions will be ineffectual; but these depend on the state of the health, and the condition of the nervous system. Sometimes you find a person incapable of reasoning on a certain topic, and so his errors will not yield to instruction. But most commonly they mistake the state of their own hearts, because they judge under the influence of a physical disease.
Sometimes persons under a nervous depression will go almost into despair. Persons who are acquainted with physiology would easily explain the matter. The only way to deal with such cases is first to recruit their health, and get their nervous system into a proper tone, and thus remove the physical cause of their gloom and depression; then they will be able to receive and apply your instructions. But if you cannot remove their gloom and doubts and fears in this way, you can at least avoid doing the positive harm that is wrought by giving wrong instructions.
I have known even experienced Christians to have fastened upon them the error of thinking it was necessary, or was virtuous, or a mark of humility, to be always in doubt; and Satan would take advantage of it, and of the state of their health, and drive them almost to despair. You ought to guard against this, by avoiding the error when teaching young converts. Teach them that instead of there being any virtue in doubting, it is a sin to have any reason to doubt, and a sin if they doubt without any reason, and a sin to be gloomy and to disgust sinners with their despondency. And if you teach them thoroughly what religion is, and make them SEE CLEARLY what God wishes to have them do, and lead them to do it promptly and decidedly, ordinarily they will not be harassed with doubts and fears, but will be clear, openhearted, cheerful, and growing Christians - an honor to the religion they profess, and a blessing to the Church and the world.
I proceed to mention some things worthy of consideration in regard to young converts making a profession of religion, or joining the Church.
1. Young converts should, ordinarily, offer themselves for admission to some Church of Christ immediately. By "immediately," I mean that they should do it the first opportunity they have. They should not wait. If they set out in religion by waiting, most likely they will always be waiting, and never do anything to much purpose. If they are taught to wait under conviction, before they give themselves to Christ; or if they are taught to wait after conversion, before, by joining the Church, they give themselves publicly to God, they will probably go halting and stumbling through life. The first thing they should be taught, always is: NEVER WAIT, WHERE GOD HAS POINTED OUT YOUR DUTY. We profess to have given up the waiting system; let us carry it through and be consistent.
2. While I say it is the duty of young converts to offer themselves to the Church immediately, I do not say that, in all cases, they should be received immediately. The Church has an undoubted right to assume the responsibility of receiving them immediately or not. If the Church is not satisfied in the case, it has the power to bid candidates wait till inquiries can be made as to their character and their sincerity. This is more necessary in large cities than it is in the country, because so many applications are received from persons who are entire strangers. But if the Church thinks it necessary to postpone an applicant, the responsibility is not his. He has not postponed obedience to the dying command of Christ, and so he has not grieved the Spirit, and so he may not be essentially injured if he is faithful in other respects. Whereas, if he had neglected the duty voluntarily, he would soon have got into the dark, and would very likely have backslidden.
If there is no particular reason for delay, ordinarily the Church ought to receive them when they apply. If they are sufficiently instructed on the subject of religion to know what they are doing, and if their general character is such that they can be trusted as to their sincerity and honesty in making a profession, I see no reason why they should be delayed. But if there are sufficient reasons, in the view of the Church, for making them wait a reasonable time, let the Church so decide, on its responsibility to Jesus Christ. It should be remembered, however, what is the responsibility which the Church thereby assumes, and that if those are kept out of the Church who ought to be in it, the Holy Spirit is grieved.
It is impossible to lay down particular rules on this subject, applicable to all cases. There is so great a variety of reasons which may warrant keeping persons back, that no general rules can reach them all. Our practice, in this Church, is to propound persons for a month after they make application, before they are received into full communion. The reason of this is, that the Session may have opportunity to inquire respecting individuals who offer themselves, as so many of them are strangers. But in the country, where there are regular congregations, and all the people have been instructed from their youth in the doctrines of religion, and where everybody is perfectly known, the case is different, and ordinarily I see no reason why persons of good character should not be admitted immediately. If a person has not been a drunkard, or otherwise of bad character, let him be admitted at once, as soon as he can give a rational and satisfactory account of the hope that is in him.
That is evidently the way the apostles did. There is not the least evidence in the New Testament that they ever put off a person who wanted to be baptized and to join the Church. I know this does not satisfy some people, because they think the case is different. But I do not see it so.
They say the apostles were inspired. That is true; but it does not follow that they were so inspired to read the characters of men, as to be prevented from making mistakes in this matter. On the other hand, we know they were not inspired in this way, for we know they did make mistakes, just as ministers may do now; and, therefore, it is not true that their being inspired men alters the case on this point. Simon Magus was supposed to be a Christian, and was baptized and admitted into communion, remaining in good standing until he undertook to purchase the Holy Ghost with money.
The apostles used to admit converts from heathenism immediately, and without delay. If they could receive persons who, perhaps, never heard more than one Gospel sermon, and who never had a Bible, nor ever attended a Sabbath School or Bible Class in their lives, surely it is not necessary to create an outcry and alarm, if a Church should think proper to receive persons of good character, who have had the Bible all their lives, and have been trained in the Sabbath School, and have sat under the preaching of the Gospel, and who, therefore, may be supposed to understand what they are about, and not to profess what they do not feel.
I know it may be said that persons who make a profession of religion now, are not obliged to make such sacrifices for their religion as the early believers were, and, consequently, people may be more ready to play the hypocrite. And, to some extent, that is true. But then, on the other hand, it should be remembered that, with the instructions which they have on the subject of religion, they are not so easily led to deceive themselves, as those who were converted without the precious advantages of a religious education. They may be strongly tempted to deceive others, but I insist that, with the instructions which they have received, the converts of these great revivals are not half so liable to deceive themselves, and take up with a false hope, as were those in the days of the apostles. And on this ground I believe that those Churches that are faithful in dealing with young converts, and that exhibit habitually the power of religion, are not likely to receive so many unconverted persons as the apostles did.
It is important that the Churches should act wisely on this point. Great evil has been done by this practice of keeping persons out of the Church a long time in order to see if they were Christians. This is almost as absurd as it would be to throw a young child out into the street, to see whether it will live; to say: "If it lives, and promises to be a healthy child, we will take care of it," when that is the very time it wants nursing and taking care of, the moment when the scale is turning whether it shall live or die. Is that the way to deal with young converts? Should the Church throw her new-born children out to the winds, and say: "If they live there, let them be taken care of; but if they die there, then they ought to die"? I have not a doubt that thousands of converts, in consequence of this treatment, have gone through life without joining any Church, but have lingered along, full of doubts and fears, and darkness, and in this way have spent their days, and gone to the grave without the comforts and usefulness which they might have enjoyed, simply because the Church, in her folly, has suffered them to wait outside the pale, to see whether they would grow and thrive, without those ordinances which Jesus Christ established particularly for their benefit.
Jesus Christ says to His Church: "Here, take these lambs, and feed them, and shelter them, and watch over them, and protect them": and what does the Church do? Why, turn them out alone upon the cold mountains, among the wild beasts, to starve or perish, to see whether they are alive or not!
The whole system is as unphilosophical as it is unscriptural. Did Jesus Christ tell His Churches to do so? Did the God of Abraham teach any such doctrine as this, in regard to the children of Abraham? Never. He never taught us to treat young converts in such a barbarous manner. The very way to lead them into doubts and darkness, is to keep them away from the Church, from its fellowship, and its ordinances.
I have understood there is a Church which has passed a resolution that no young converts shall be admitted till they have "had a hope" for at least six months. Where did they get any such rule? Not from the Bible, nor from the example of the early Churches.
3. In examining young converts for admission their consciences should not be ensnared by examining them too extensively or minutely on doctrinal points. From the manner in which examinations are conducted in some Churches, it would seem as if they expected that young converts would be all at once acquainted with the whole system of divinity, and able to answer every puzzling question in theology. The effect of it is that young converts are perplexed and confused, and give their assent to things they do not understand, and thus their conscience is ensnared, and consequently weakened. Why, one great design of receiving young converts into the Church is to teach them doctrines; but if they are to be kept out of the Church until they understand the whole system of doctrines, this end is defeated. Will you keep them out till one main design of receiving them is accomplished by other means? It is absurd. There are certain cardinal doctrines of Christianity, which are embraced in the experience of every true convert; and these young converts will testify to them, on examination, if questioned in such a way as to draw out knowledge, and not in such a way as to puzzle and confound. The questions should be such as are calculated to draw out from them what they have learned by experience, and not what they may have got in theory before or since their conversion. The object is, not to find out how much they know, or how good scholars they are in divinity, as you would examine a school; it is to find out whether they have a change of heart, to learn whether they have experienced the great truths of religion by their power in their own souls. 76 You see therefore how absurd, and injurious too, it must be, to examine, as is sometimes done, like a lawyer at the bar cross-examining a suspicious witness. It should rather be like a faithful physician anxious to find out his patient's true condition, and therefore leading him, by inquiries and hints, to disclose the real symptoms of the case.
You will always find, if you put your questions rightly, that real converts will see clearly those great fundamental points - the Divine authority of the Scriptures, the necessity of the influences of the Holy Spirit, the Deity of Christ, the doctrines of total depravity and regeneration, the necessity of the atonement, justification by faith, and the justice of the eternal punishment of the wicked. By a proper course of inquiries you will find all these points come out, if you put your questions in such a way that they are understood.
A Church Session in this city has, as we are informed, passed a vote, that no person shall join that Church till he will give his assent to the whole Presbyterian Confession of Faith, and adopt it as his "rule of faith and practice and Christian obedience." That is, they must read the book through, which is about three times as large as this hymn-book which I hold, and must understand it, and agree to it all, before they can be admitted to the Church, before they can make a profession of religion, or obey the command of Christ. By what authority does a Church say that no one shall join their communion till he understands all the points and technicalities of this long Confession of Faith? Is that their charity, to cram this whole Confession of Faith down the throat of a young convert, before they let him so much as come to the Communion? He says: "I love the Lord Jesus Christ, and wish to obey His command." "Very well, but do you understand and adopt the Confession of Faith?" He says: "I do not know, for I never read that, but I have read the Bible, and I love that, and wish to follow the directions in it, and to come to the table of the Lord."
"Do you love the Confession of Faith? If not, you SHALL NOT COME,"
is the reply of this charitable Session; "you shall not sit down at the Lord's table till you have adopted all this Confession of Faith." Did Jesus Christ ever authorize a Church Session to say this - to tell that child of God, who stands there with tears, and asks permission to obey his Lord, and who understands the grounds of his faith, and can give a satisfactory reason of his hope - to tell him he cannot join the Church till he understands the Confession of Faith? Shut the door against young converts till they swallow the Confession of Faith! Will such a Church prosper? Never!
No Church on earth has a right to impose its extended Confession of Faith on a young convert who admits the fundamentals of religion. They may let the young convert know their own faith on ever so many points, and they may examine him, if they think it necessary, as to his belief; but suppose he has doubts on some points not essential to Christian experience, - the doctrine of Infant Baptism, or of Election, or the Perseverance of the Saints; and suppose he honestly and frankly tells you he has not made up his mind concerning these points? Has any minister or Church a right to say, he shall not come to the Lord's table till he has finished all his researches into these subjects, that he shall not obey Christ till he has fully made up his mind on such points, on which Christians, and devoted ones too, differ among themselves? I would sooner cut off my right hand than debar a convert under such circumstances. I would teach a young convert as well as I could in the time before he made his application, and I would examine him candidly as to his views, and after he was in the Church I would endeavor to make him grow in knowledge as he grows in grace. And by just as much confidence as I have that my own doctrines are the doctrines of God, I should expect to make him adopt them, if I could have a fair hearing before his mind. But I never would bid one whom I charitably believed to be a child of God, to stay away from his Father's table, because he did not see all I see, or believe all I believe, through the whole system of divinity. The thing is utterly irrational, ridiculous, and wicked.
4. Sometimes persons who are known to entertain a hope dare not make a profession of religion for fear they should be deceived. I would always deal decidedly with such cases. A hope that will not warrant a profession of religion is manifestly worse than no hope, and the sooner it is torn away the better. Shall a man hope he loves God, and yet not obey Jesus Christ? Preposterous! Such a hope had better be given up at once.
5. Sometimes persons professing to be converts will make an excuse for not joining the Church, that they can enjoy religion just as well without it.
This is always suspicious. I should look out for such characters. It is almost certain they have no religion. Ordinarily, if a person does not desire to be associated with the people of God, he is rotten at the foundation. It is because he wants to keep out of the responsibilities of a public profession. He has a feeling within him that he had rather be free, so that he can, by and by, go back to the world again, if he likes, without the reproach of instability or hypocrisy. Enjoy religion just as well without obeying Jesus Christ! It is false on the face of it. He overlooks the fact that religion consists in obeying Jesus Christ.
Ordinarily, the Christian character of converts throughout life is molded and fashioned according to the manner in which they are dealt with when first converted. There are many who have been poorly taught at first, but have been afterwards re-converted, and if they are then properly dealt with, they may be made something of. But the proper time to do this is when they are first brought in, when their minds are soft and tender, and easily yield to the truth. Then they may be led with a hair, if they think it is the truth of God. And whatever notions in religion they then get, they are apt to cleave to forever afterwards. It is almost impossible to get a man away from the notions he acquires when he is a young convert. You may reason him down, but he cleaves to them. How often is it the case where persons have been taught certain things when first converted, that if they afterwards get a new minister who teaches somewhat differently, they will rise up against him as if he were going to subvert the faith, carry away the Church into error, and throw everything into confusion. Thus you see that young converts are thrown into the hands of the Church, and it devolves upon the Church to mold them, and form them into Christians of the right stamp. To a large extent, their future comfort and usefulness depend on the manner in which they are instructed at the outset. The future character of the Church, the progress of revivals, the coming of the millennium, depend on right instruction being imparted, and a right direction of thought and life given, to those who are young converts.
1. "You will not always feel as you do now." When the young convert is rejoicing in his Savior, and calculating to live for the glory of God and the good of mankind, how often is he met with this reply: "You will not always feel so." Thus, his mind is prepared to expect that he shall backslide, and not to be much surprised when he does. This is just the way the devil wants young converts dealt with, to have old Christians tell them: "Your feelings will not last, but, by and by, you will be as cold as we are." It has made my heart bleed to see it. When the young convert has been pouring out his warm heart to some old professor, and expecting the warm burstings of a kindred spirit responding to his own, what does he meet with? This cold answer, coming like a northern blast over his soul: "You will not always feel so." SHAME! Just preparing the young convert to expect that he shall backslide as a matter of course; so that when he begins to decline, as under the very influences of this instruction it is most likely he will, it produces no surprise or alarm in his mind, but he looks at it just as a thing of course, doing as everybody else does.
I have heard it preached as well as expressed in prayer, that seasons of backsliding are "necessary to test the Church." They say: "When it rains, you can find water anywhere: it is only in seasons of drought that you can tell where the deep springs are." Wonderful logic! And so you would teach that Christians must get cold and stupid, and backslide from God - and for what reason? Why, forsooth, to show that they are not hypocrites.
Amazing! You would prove that they are hypocrites in order to show that they are not.
Such doctrine as this is the very last that should be taught to young converts. They should be told that they have only begun the Christian life, and that their religion is to consist in going on in it. They should be taught to go forward all the time, and "grow in grace" continually. Do not teach them to taper off their religion - to let it grow smaller and smaller till it comes to a point. God says: "The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day" (Proverbs 4:18). 77 Now, whose path is that which grows dimmer and dimmer into the perfect night? They should be brought to such a state of mind that the first indications of decay in spirituality or zeal will alarm them and spur them up to duty. There is no need that young converts should backslide as they do. Paul did not backslide. And I do not doubt that this very doctrine: "You will not always feel so," is one of the grand devices of Satan to bring about the result which it predicts.
2. "Learn to walk by faith and not by sight." This is sometimes said to young converts in reference to their continuing to exhibit the power of religion, and is a manifest perversion of Scripture. If they begin to lose their faith and zeal, and get into darkness, some old professor will tell them: "Ah, you cannot expect to have the Savior always with you, you have been walking by sight; you must learn to walk by faith and not by sight." That is, you must learn to get as cold as death, and then hang on to the doctrine of the Saints' Perseverance, as your only ground of hope that you shall be saved. And that is walking by faith! Cease to persevere, and then hold on to the doctrine of Perseverance! "One of guilt's blunders, and the loudest laugh of hell." Living in the enjoyment of God's favor and the comforts of the Holy Ghost is what they call "walking by sight"! Do you suppose young converts see the Savior at the time they believe on Him?
When they are so full of the enjoyments of heaven, do you suppose they see heaven, and so walk by sight? It is absurd on the face of it. It is not faith, it is presumption, that makes the backslider hold on to the doctrine of Perseverance, as if that would save him, without any sensible exercises of godliness in his soul. Those who attempt to walk by faith in this way had better take care, or they will walk into hell with their "faith." Faith indeed! "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:20). Can dead faith make the soul live?
3. "Wait till you see whether you can hold out." When a young convert feels zealous and warm-hearted, and wants to lay himself out for God, some prudent old professor will caution him not to go too fast. "You had better not be too forward in religion, till you see whether you can hold out; for if you take this high ground and then fall, you will disgrace religion."
That is, in plain English: "Do not do anything that constitutes religion, till you see whether you have religion." Religion consists in obeying God.
Now, these wise teachers tell a young convert: "Do not obey God till you see" - what? - till you see whether you have obeyed Him - or, till you see whether you have obtained that substance, that mysterious thing which they imagine is created and put into man, like a lump of new flesh, and called "religion." This waiting system is all wrong. There is no Scripture warrant for telling a person to wait, when the command of God is upon him, and the path of duty is before him. Let him go ahead.
Young converts should be fully taught that this is the only consistent way to find out whether they have any religion, to find that they are heartily engaged in doing the will of God. To tell the convert to wait, therefore, before he does these things, till he first gets his evidence, is reversing the matter, and is absurd.
4. "Wait till you get strength, before you take up the cross." This is applied to various religious duties. Sometimes it is applied to prayer: just as if prayer were a cross. I have known young converts advised not to attempt to pray in their families, or "not to attempt quite yet" to pray in meetings and social circles. "Wait till you get strength." Just as if they could get strength without exercise. Strength comes by exercise. You cannot get strength by lying still. Let a child lie in a cradle continually, and he would never have any strength; he might grow in size, but he never could be anything more than a great baby. This is a law of nature. There is no substitute for exercise in producing strength. It is so in the body; and it is just so with the mind. It is so with the affections; so with the judgment; so with conscience. All the powers of the soul are strengthened by exercise. I need not now enter into the philosophy of this. Everybody knows it is so. If the mind is not exercised, the brain will not grow, and the man will become an idiot. If the affections are not exercised, he will become a stoic. To talk to a convert about neglecting Christian action till he gets strength, is absurd. If he wants to gain strength, let him go to work.
5. Young converts should not be made sectarian in their feelings. They should not be taught to dwell upon sectarian distinctions, or to be sticklish about sectarian points. They ought to examine these points, according to their importance, at a proper time, and in a proper way, and make up their minds for themselves. But they should not be taught to dwell upon them, or to make much of them at the outset of their religious life. Otherwise there is great danger that their whole religion will run into sectarianism. I have seen most sad and melancholy exhibitions of the effects of this upon young converts. And whenever I see professed converts taking a strong hold of sectarian peculiarities, no matter of what denomination of Christians,
I always feel in doubt about them. When I hear them asking: "Do you believe in the doctrine of Election?" or: "Do you believe in sprinkling?" or: "Do you believe in immersing?" I feel sad. I never knew such converts to be worth much. Their sectarian zeal soon sours their feelings, eats out all the heart of their religion, and molds their whole character into sinful, sectarian bigotry. They generally become mighty zealous for the traditions of the elders, and very little concerned for the salvation of souls.
1. One of the first things young converts should be taught is to distinguish between emotion and principle in religion. I want you to get hold of the words, and have them fixed in your mind; to have you distinguish between emotion and principle.
By emotion, I mean that state of mind of which we are conscious, and which we call feeling - an involuntary state of mind, that arises, of course, when we are in certain circumstances or under certain influences.
There may be high-wrought feelings, or they may subside into tranquillity, or disappear entirely. But these emotions should be carefully distinguished from religious principle. By principle, I do not mean any substance or root or seed or sprout implanted in the soul. But I mean the voluntary decision of the mind, the firm determination to fulfill duty and to obey the will of God, by which a Christian should always be governed.
When a man is fully determined to obey God, because it is RIGHT that he should obey God, I call that principle. Whether he feels any lively religious emotion at the time or not, he will do his duty cheerfully, readily, and heartily, whatever may be the state of his feelings. This is acting upon principle, and not from emotion. Many young converts hold mistaken views upon this subject, and depend almost entirely on the state of their feelings to go forward in duty. Some will not lead a prayer meeting, unless they feel as if they could make an eloquent prayer. Multitudes are influenced almost entirely by their emotions, and they give way to this, as if they thought themselves under no obligation to duty, unless urged on by some strong emotion. They will be very zealous in religion when they feel like it, when their emotions are warm and lively, but they will not act out religion consistently, and carry it into all the concerns of life. They are religious only as they are impelled by a gush of feeling. But this is not true religion.
Young converts should be carefully taught that when duty is before them they are to do it. However dull their feelings may be, if duty calls, DO IT.
Do not wait for feeling, but DO IT. Most likely the very emotions for which you would wait will be called into exercise when you begin to do your duty. If the duty be prayer, for instance, and you have not the feelings you would wish, do not wait for emotions before you pray, but pray, and "open thy mouth wide" (Psalm 81:10); and in doing it, you are most likely to have the emotions for which you were inclined to wait, and which constitute the conscious happiness of religion.
2. Young converts should be taught that they have renounced the ownership of all their possessions, and of themselves, and that if they have not done this they are not Christians. They should not be left to think that anything is their own; their time, property, influence, faculties, body or soul. "Ye are not your own" (1 Corinthians 6:19); they belong to God; and when they submitted to God they made a free surrender of all to Him, to be ruled and disposed of at His pleasure. They have no right to spend one hour as if their time were their own; no right to go anywhere, or do anything, for themselves, but should hold all at the disposal of God, and employ all for the glory of God. If they do not, they ought not to call themselves Christians, for the very idea of being a Christian is to renounce self and become entirely consecrated to God. A man has no more right to withhold anything from God than he has to rob or steal. It is robbery in the highest sense of the term. It is an infinitely higher crime than it would be for a clerk in a store to go and take the money of his employer, and spend it on his own lusts and pleasures. I mean, that for a man to withhold from God is a higher crime against HIM than a man can commit against his fellow-man, inasmuch as God is the Owner of all things in an infinitely higher sense than man can be the owner of anything. If God calls on them to employ anything they have, their money, or their time, or to give their children, or to dedicate themselves in advancing His Kingdom, and they refuse, because they want to use them in their own way, or prefer to do something else, it is vastly more blamable than for a clerk or an agent to go and embezzle the money that is entrusted him by his employer.
God is, in an infinitely higher sense, the Owner of all, than any employer can be said to be the owner of what he has. And the Church of Christ never will take high ground, never will be disentangled from the world, never will be able to go forward without these continual declensions and backslidings, until Christians, and the Churches generally, take the ground, and hold to it, that it is just as much a matter of discipline for a Church member practically to deny his stewardship as to deny the Deity of Christ; and that covetousness, fairly proved, shall just as soon exclude a man from the Communion as adultery.
The Church is mighty orthodox in notions, but very heretical in practice; but the time must come when the Church will be just as vigilant in guarding orthodoxy in practice as orthodoxy in doctrine, and just as prompt to turn out heretics in practice, as heretics that corrupt the doctrines of the Gospel. In fact, it is vastly more important. The only design of doctrine is to produce practice, and it does not seem to be understood by the Church that true faith "works by love and purifies the heart," that heresy in practice is proof conclusive of heresy in sentiment.
The Church is very sticklish for correct doctrine, but very careless about correct living. This is preposterous. Has it come to this, that the Church of Jesus Christ is to be satisfied with correct notions on some abstract points, and never reduce her orthodoxy to practice? Let it be so no longer.
It is high time these matters were set right. And the only way to set them right is to begin with those who are just entering upon religion. Young converts must be told that they are just as worthy of condemnation (and that the Church can hold no fellowship with them), if they show a covetous spirit, and turn a deaf ear when the whole world is calling for help, as if they were living in adultery, or in the daily worship of idols.
3. Teach them how to cultivate a tender conscience. I am often amazed to find how little conscience there is even among those whom we hope are Christians. And here we see the reason of it. Their consciences were never cultivated. They never were taught how to cultivate a tender conscience.
They have not even a natural conscience. They have dealt so rudely with their conscience, and resisted it so often, that it has got blunted, and does not act. The usefulness of a Christian greatly depends on his knowing how to cultivate his conscience. Young converts should be taught to keep their conscience just as tender as the apple of the eye. They should watch their conduct and their motives, and let their motives be so pure and their conduct so disinterested as not to offend, or injure, or stifle conscience.
They should maintain such a habit of listening to conscience, that it will always be ready to give forth a stern verdict on all occasions.
It is astonishing to see how much the conscience may be cultivated by a proper course. If rightly attended to, it may be made so pure, and so powerful, that it will always respond exactly to the Word of God. Present any duty to such a Christian, or any self-denial, or suffering, and only show him the Word of God, and he will do it without a word of objection.
In a few months, if properly taught, young converts may have a conscience so delicately poised that the weight of a feather will turn them.
Only bring a "Thus saith the Lord," and they will be always ready to do that, be it what it may.
4. Young converts should be taught to pray without ceasing. That is, they should always keep a watch over their minds, and be all the time in a prayerful spirit. They should be taught to pray always, whatever may take place. For the want of right instruction on this point many young converts suffer loss and get far away from God. For instance, sometimes it happens that a young convert will fall into some sin, and then he feels as if he could not pray, and instead of overcoming this he feels so distressed that he waits for the keen edge of his distress to pass away. Instead of going right to Jesus Christ in the midst of his agony, and confessing his sin out of the fullness of his heart, and getting a renewed pardon, and peace restored, he waits till all the keenness of his feelings has subsided; and then his repentance, if he does repent, is cold and half-hearted. Let me tell you, beloved, never to do this; but when your conscience presses you, go then to Christ, confess your sin fully, and pour out your heart to God.
Sometimes people will neglect to pray because they are in the dark, and feel no desire to pray. But that is the very time when they need prayer.
That is the very reason why they ought to pray. You should go right to God and confess your coldness and darkness of mind. Tell Him just how you feel. Tell Him: "O Lord, I have no desire to pray, but I know I ought to pray." And immediately the Spirit may come and lead your heart out in prayer, and all the dark clouds will pass away.
5. Young converts should be faithfully warned against adopting a false standard in religion. They should not be left to fall in behind old professors, or keep such before their minds as a standard of holy living.
They should always look at Christ as their model. Not aim at being as good Christians as the old Church members, and not think they are doing pretty well because they are as much awake as the old members of the Church; but they should aim at being holy. The Church has been greatly injured for the want of attention to this matter. Young converts have come forward, and their hearts were warm, and their zeal ardent enough to aim at a high standard, but they were not directed properly, and so they soon settled down into the notion that what was good enough for others was good enough for them, and therefore they ceased to aim higher than those who were before them. And in this way the Church, instead of rising, with every revival, higher and higher in holiness, is kept nearly stationary.
6. Young converts should be taught to do all their duty. They should never make a compromise with duty, nor think of saying: "I will do this as an offset for neglecting that." They should never rest satisfied till they have done their duties of every kind, in relation to their families, the Church, Sabbath Schools, the impenitent around them, the disposal of their property, and the conversion of the world. Let them do their duty, as they feel it when their hearts are warm; and never attempt to pick and choose among the commandments of God.
7. They should be made to feel that they have no separate interest. It is time Christians were made actually to feel that they have no interest whatever, separate from the interests of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom.
They should understand that they are incorporated into the family of Jesus Christ, as members in full, so that their whole interest is identified with His. They are embarked with Him, they have gone on board, and taken their all; and henceforth they have nothing to do, nor anything to say, except as it is connected with this interest, and bearing on the cause and Kingdom of Christ.
8. They should be taught to maintain singleness of motive. Young converts should not begin to have a double mind on any subject, nor let selfish motives mingle with good motives in anything they do. But this can never be so long as Christians are allowed to hold a separate interest of their own, distinct from the interest of Jesus Christ. If they feel that they have a separate interest, it is impossible to keep them from regarding it, and having an eye to it as well as to Christ's interest, in many things that they do. It is only by becoming entirely consecrated to God, and giving up all to His service, that they can ever keep their eye single and their motives pure.
9. They should set out with a determination to aim at being useful in the highest degree possible. They should not rest satisfied merely with being useful, or remaining in a situation where they can do some good. But if they see an opportunity where they can do more good, they must embrace it, whatever may be the sacrifice to themselves. No matter what it may cost them; no matter what danger or what suffering may be involved; no matter what change in their outward circumstances, or habits, or employments, it may lead to; if they are satisfied that they will on the whole do more good, they should not even hesitate. How else can they be like God? How can they think to bear the image of Jesus Christ, if they are not prepared to do all the good that is in their power? When a man is converted he comes into a new world, and should consider himself as a new man. If he finds he can do most good by remaining in his old employment, let it be so; but if he can do more good in some other way, he is bound to change. It is for the want of attention to this subject, at the outset, that Christians have got such low ideas on the subject of duty; and that is the reason why there are so many useless members in our Churches.
10. They must be taught, not to aim at comfort but usefulness, in religion.
There are a great many spiritual epicures in the Churches, who are all the while seeking to be happy in religion, white they are taking very little pains to be useful. They had much rather spend their time in singing joyful hymns, and pouring out their happy feelings in a gushing tide of exultation and triumph, than in an agonizing prayer for sinners, or in going about pulling dying men out of the fire. They seem to feel as if they were born to enjoy themselves. But I do not think such Christians show such fruits as to make their example one to be imitated. Such was not the temper of the apostles; they travailed for souls; they labored in weariness and painfulness, and were "in deaths oft," to save sinners (2 Corinthians 11:23). Ordinarily, Christians are not qualified to drink deep at the fountain of joy. In ordinary cases, a deep agony of prayer for souls is more profitable than high flights of joy. Let young converts be taught plainly not to calculate upon a life of joy and triumph. They may be called to go through fiery trials; Satan may sift them like wheat. But they must go forward, not calculating so much to be happy as to be useful; not talking about comfort but duty; not desiring flights of joy and triumph, but hungering and thirsting after righteousness; not studying how to create new flights of rapture, but how to know the will of God and do it. They will be happy enough in heaven. There they may sing the song of Moses and the Lamb. And they will in fact enjoy a more solid and rational happiness here, by thinking nothing about it, but patiently devoting themselves to do the will of God.
11. They should be taught to have moral courage, and not to be afraid of going forward in duty. The Bible insists fully on Christian boldness and courage in action, as a duty. I do not mean that they should indulge in bravado, like Peter, telling what they will do, and boasting of their courage.
The boaster is generally a coward at heart. But I mean moral courage - a humble and fixed decision of purpose, that will go forward in any duty, unangered and unawed, with the meekness and firmness of the Son of God.
12. They should be so instructed as to be sound in the faith. That is, they should be early made, as far as possible, complete and correct in regard to their doctrinal belief. As soon as may be, without turning their minds off from their practical duties in promoting the glory of God and the salvation of men, they should be taught fully and plainly all the leading doctrines of the Bible. Doctrinal knowledge is indispensable to growth in grace.
Knowledge is the food of the mind. "That the soul be without knowledge,"
says the wise man, "it is not good" (Proverbs 19:2). The mind cannot grow without knowledge any more than the body without food. And therefore it is important that young converts should be thoroughly indoctrinated, and made to understand the Bible. By "indoctrinating," I do not mean teaching them the catechism, but teaching them to draw knowledge from the fountain-head. Create in their minds such an appetite for knowledge that they will eat the Bible up - will devour it - will love it, and love it all. "All Scripture... is profitable,... that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).
13. Great pains should be taken to guard young converts against censoriousness. Young converts, when they first come out on the Lord's side, and are all warm and zealous, sometimes find old professors so cold and dead, that they are strongly tempted to be censorious. This should be corrected immediately, otherwise the habit will poison their minds and destroy their religion.
14. They must learn to say "NO." This is a very difficult lesson to many.
See that young woman. Formerly she loved the gay circle, and took delight in its pleasures; she joined the Church, and then found herself aloof from all her old associates. They do not ask her now to their balls and parties, because they know she will not join them; and perhaps they keep entirely away for a time, for fear she should converse with them about their souls.
But, by and by, they grow a little bold, and some of them venture to ask her just to take a ride with a few friends. She does not like to say "No."
They are her old friends, only a few of them are going, and surely a ride is so innocent a recreation that she may accept the invitation. But, now she has begun to comply, the ice is broken, and they have her again as one of them. It goes on, and she begins to attend their social visits - "only a few friends, you know," - till, by and by, the carpet is taken up for a dance; and the next thing, perhaps, she has gone for a sleigh ride on Saturday night, coming home after midnight, and then sleeping all the forenoon on the Sabbath to make up for it - perhaps Communion Sabbath, too. All for the want of learning to say "No."
See that young man. For a time he was always in his place in the Sabbath School and in the prayer meeting. But, by and by, his old friends begin to treat him with attention again, and they draw him along, step by step.
He reasons that if he refuses to go with them in things that are innocent, he will lose his influence with them. And so he goes on, till prayer meeting, Bible class, and even private Bible reading and prayer are neglected. Ah, young man, stop there! If you do not wish to expose the cause of Christ to scorn and contempt, learn to resist the beginnings of temptation.
15. They should be taught, what is, and what is not, Christian experience.
It is necessary, both for their comfort and their usefulness, that they should understand this, so that they need not run themselves into needless distress for the want of that which is by no means essential to Christian experience, nor flatter themselves that they have more religion than they really exercise.
16. Teach them not to count anything a sacrifice which they do for God.
Some persons are always telling about the sacrifices they make in religion.
I have no confidence in such piety. Why keep telling about their sacrifices, as if everything they do for God is a sacrifice? If they loved God they would not talk so. If they considered their own interests and the interest of Christ identical, they would not talk of making sacrifices for Christ: it would be like talking of making sacrifices for themselves.
17. It is of great importance that young converts should be taught to be strictly honest. I mean more by this than perhaps you would think. It is a great thing to be strictly honest. It is being very different from the world at large, and different even from the great body of professors of religion. The holiest man I ever knew, and one who had been many years a Christian and a minister, once made the remark to me: "Brother, it is a great thing to be strictly honest and straight in everything, so that God's pure eye can see that the mind is perfectly upright."
It is of great importance that young converts should understand what it is to be strictly honest in everything, so that they can maintain "a conscience void of offense toward God, and toward men" (Acts 24:16). Alas, alas, how little conscience there is! How little of that real honesty, that pure, simple uprightness, which ought to mark the life of a child of God. 78 How little do many regard even an express promise. I heard the other day that of a number of individuals who subscribed to the Anti-Slavery Society, not half will pay their subscriptions. The plea is, that they signed when they were under excitement, and do not choose to pay. Just as if their being excited released them from the obligation to keep their promise.
Why, it is just as dishonest as it would be to refuse payment of a note of hand. They promised, signed their names, and now will not pay? And they call that honesty!
I have heard that a number of men signed for hundreds of dollars for the Oneida Institute, promising to pay the money when called on; and when they were called on, they refused to pay the money. And the reason is that all in the Institute have turned Abolitionists! Very well. Suppose they have. Does that alter your promise? Did you sign on the condition that if abolitionism were introduced you should be clear? If you did, then you are clear. But if you gave your promise without any condition, it is just as dishonest to refuse as if you had given a note of hand. And yet some of you might be almost angry if anybody were to charge you with refusing to pay money that you had promised.
Look at this seriously. Who does God say will go to heaven? Read the fifteenth psalm, and see. "He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not." What do you think of that? If a man has promised anything, except it be to commit sin, let him keep his promise, if he means to be honest and to go to heaven. But these people will make promises, and because they cannot be prosecuted, will break them as if they were nothing. They would not let a cheque of theirs be returned from the bank. Why? Because they would lose credit, and would be sued. But the Oneida Institute, and the Anti-Slavery Society, and other societies, will not sue for the money, and therefore these people take offense at something, and refuse to pay. Is this honest? Will such honesty as this get them admitted to heaven? What?
Break your promises, and go up and carry a lie in your hand before God?
If you refuse or neglect to fulfill your promises, and go up and carry a lie in your hand before God? If you refuse or neglect to fulfill your promise you are a liar; and if you persist in this, you shall have your part in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. I would not for ten thousand worlds die with money in my hands that I had unrighteously withheld from any object to which I had promised it. Such money will "eat as doth a canker" (2 Timothy 2:17).
If you are not able to pay the money, that is a good excuse. But then, say so. But if you refuse to pay what you have promised, because you have altered your mind, rely upon it, you are guilty. You cannot pray till you pay that money. Will you pray: "O Lord, I promised to give that money, but I altered my mind, and broke my promise; but still, O Lord, I pray Thee to bless me, and forgive my sin, although I keep my money, and make me happy in Thy love"? Will such prayers be heard? Never.