Christian Fellowship

By John Angell James, 1822


I. They should seek to acquire clear and enlarged views of divine truth.

It is a fact which cannot be questioned, that a very large proportion of those whom we believe to be real Christians, are mere babes in knowledge. They have just enough instruction to know that they are sinners, and that salvation is all of grace through Christ Jesus. But ask them to state, prove, and defend, in a scriptural manner, any one of the leading doctrines of the gospel, and you would immediately discover, how contracted is their view, and how feeble is their perception of divine truth. Instead of walking amid the splendid light and varied scenery of Scriptural revelation, with the confidence and joy of men whose vision is clear and strong, they are groping along with the fear and hesitation of those who are partially blind. This, in most cases, is their fault—and not merely their misfortune. We are commanded to grow in knowledge; and the apostle in the following very severe language, reproved the believing Hebrews for their ignorance. "When for the time you ought to be teachers, you have need that one teach you again, the first principles of the oracles of God." After this he exhorts them to leave the principles of the doctrine of Christ, and go on to perfection. How earnestly, in other parts of his writings, did he supplicate for the churches, an increase of their religious knowledge! Eph. 1:17, 18. Colos. 1:9. It is very common for ministers to complain that they are almost afraid to ascend to the loftier parts of revealed truth, lest a great portion of their hearers, instead of eagerly following them, should reproach them with ascending to barren and almost inaccessible summits.

The causes of this deficiency of Scriptural knowledge are numerous and various. In many cases, the lack of a biblical education contributes to it. Not a few of them are brought in from the world, when they are far advanced in life.

There is, with many, a more culpable cause; I mean a systematic neglect of the Scriptures. "What!" they exclaim, "will head knowledge do for us? we are for experience; experience is everything in religion." What kind of experience that is, which is not founded on knowledge—I am at a loss to conceive. With such people, ignorance appears to be the mother of devotion. It should be recollected that it is in the spiritual world, as it is in the natural; the seed of the kingdom is sown in the 'light of truth', and light is essential to every stage of its growth. If that be not right knowledge, which does not produce feeling, certainly that is not right feeling which is not produced by knowledge. Those who have only head knowledge—dwell in the frigid zone of Christianity; and those who have only feeling—occupy the torrid zone. The former are frozen amid mere cold and heartless speculation; the latter are scorched amid wild fanaticism.

How much more real enjoyment of the truth is possessed by him who clearly and comprehensively understands it! and how much more useful is he likely to be in communicating instruction, than the individual who barely understands first principles! Every professing Christian, at least all those who have leisure for reading, should endeavor to unite the knowledge of a good theologian with the experience of a real believer.

In order to accomplish this, let Christians set apart time not only for reading—but studying the scriptures; let them read theological books which explain and prove the doctrines of the gospel; let them commit to memory the admirable definitions of these doctrines contained in the Assembly's Shorter Catechism; let them attend upon the preaching of the word with a view not only to be comforted—but to be instructed. The exclusive object for which some people hear sermons, is to obtain a little comfort. They sit waiting and watching for some sweet and savory assurance, some well known hackneyed consolatory topic, some lively appeal to the experience—and until this comes, they think lightly of everything else. The minister may have given the clearest elucidation of some dark and doubtful passage, the most profound discussion of some sublime doctrine, the most masterly defense of some disputed truth—but to the mere 'comfort hunters', all this is nothing else than the husk or the shell, which is to be cracked and thrown away for the kernel of a little Christian experience. From such sermons they go home, with hungry and cheerless appetites, complaining that they have found it a lost opportunity.

Let me not be mistaken. Comfort ought to be sought for—but always through the medium of knowledge. The best warmth is that which comes not from ardent spirits—but from the sun, which sends his heat to the frame, in those beams which convey light to the eye. The fact is, that some people's religion is of that weak, unhealthy kind, which is supported only by elixirs and cordials.

After all, I am constrained to confess, that the darkness which rests upon the mind of the church member, is the result, in some cases, of that cloudiness which envelopes the mind of the pastor; if there is ignorance in the pew, it is because there is so little knowledge in the pulpit. When the preacher dwells on nothing but a few hackneyed commonplace topics of an experimental or consolatory nature; when all the varied and sublime parts of revealed truth are neglected for one unceasing round of beaten subjects; when texts are selected which require no study to understand, no ability to expound; when nothing is heard from one Sabbath to another—but the same sentiments in the same words, until the introduction of a new or original conception would startle the congregation almost as much as the entrance of a spectre; who can wonder, if, under such circumstances, the congregation should grow tired of their preacher; or if such drowsy tinklings should lull the fold, until with their shepherd they sink to the slumbers of indifference—amid the thickening gloom of Scriptural ignorance?

II. Advancement in religion is incumbent on every professing Christian.

As the usual mode of admission to our churches, subjects their members to a scrutiny of their conduct, it is considered by many as a kind of ordeal, which being passed with success, remits them from any solicitude about farther improvement. A kind of indelible character is then impressed upon them, which is susceptible of neither increase nor improvement. I do not mean to say that they come deliberately to such a conclusion, or that they are aware of any such opinion being in their mind—but having passed their trials with honor, they insensibly acquire the idea, that now they are professed and acknowledged Christians, that their religion is admitted to be genuine, that they are put among the disciples, and therefore the same concern is no longer necessary. Often have we seen, especially in the case of young people, that the act of joining the church, has in some measure diminished the earnestness with which their minds were formerly directed to the subject of religion. They were growing rapidly as babes in Christ, until the consciousness of being a church member, and acknowledged a Christian—either by generating pride, or relaxing diligence—has paralyzed their piety, arrested their growth, and left them dwarfs in grace forever after!

We should consider that true religion is not an abstract thing of times, places, and ceremonies; nor is the religious character formed by any single compliance, however public or however solemn. If it were admitted that regeneration is an instantaneous change, in which the whole character of a child of God is formed at once, this will not apply to membership. Instead of considering our union with the church as the goal of our religious career, where improvement may cease, and progress be stopped—we should view it as but the very starting point from whence we are to forget the things that are behind, and press towards the mark for the prize of our high calling. From that moment, we are under more solemn obligations than ever to grow in grace, inasmuch as the means of growth are increased. Until then, we have been as trees growing in obscurity, without the aid of human culture—but when we associate with a church, we are transplanted into a garden, and have the advantage of the gardener's care, and should therefore abound more than ever, in all the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ unto the glory of God.

III. Consistency in their conduct, as professing Christians, is a most obvious and pressing obligation of church members.

The lack of godly conduct of professing Christians has done more harm to Christianity than all the ravings of infidelity, from the time of Cain to the death of Paine. This sacred and deathless 'cause of Christianity' lifts her venerable form, bearing the scars of many a wound, not inflicted by arrows plumed with the pen of Voltaire or Hume; oh, no, such weapons bounded off her bosom, as from a shield of triple brass, and dropped at her feet to be deposited with the spoils of her victories! But the darts that lacerated her, and left the memorials of their mischief upon her form, were the vices and follies of her votaries! O Christians! will you scourge and lacerate her? will you array her in the costume of scorn, and, leading her forth bleeding and dejected to meet her enemies in the gate, proclaim, "Behold, an impostor!" Will you assist to raise the clamor which infidel philosophers endeavored to excite, and stir up the multitude to exclaim, "Away with her, away with her! Crucify her, crucify her!" Tremble at the thought. If Christianity ever dies, it will not be in the field of conflict, by the power of her enemies—but like Caesar in the capitol, by the hand of her friends! And which of us would like to meet the look of her expiring eye, or the mild reproach of her faltering tongue, "What!—you my son!" But she cannot die! Wounded she may be, and has been—but the memorials of her injury are the proofs of her immortality, and proclaim her to be of heavenly origin—like the fabled scars of the heathen gods of Greece and Rome—her wounds demonstrably prove that a divinity sustained her!

Still, however, the inconsistencies of professing Christians may limit her reign, although they cannot destroy her existence. By these things sinners are hardened in their courses, the access to life is rendered more difficult, while the avenues of eternal death are made more wide and easy. That man, whose conduct opposes his profession, may be certainly arraigned for the crime of murder. Let him not go quietly to his pillow as if blood-guiltiness were not upon his conscience; for it is there, and a voice is continually saying to him, "Your brother's blood cries to me from the ground!" He has not slain the body of a fellow mortal—but has been accessory to the death of souls. Some who sought for an apology for their sins, an opiate for their consciences—found it in his misconduct!

I have no need to specify the duties included in the general idea of consistency; these are known well enough. The apostle's beautiful and comprehensive admonition is a sufficient directory. "Whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report—if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise—think on these things."

I particularly exhort church members to beware of what might be denominated the minor breaches of consistency. We are not to conclude that nothing breaks the uniformity of our character—but what subjects us to the discipline of the church. Overt acts of immorality are comparatively rare, while ten thousand instances of less delinquency, such as the church cannot take cognizance of, are continually occurring in the conduct of Christians—to the disgrace of Christianity and the injury of men's souls! Those things are seen in us, which would pass unnoticed in others who make no profession of religion; just as a spot which would be lost on painted canvass, is visible on sheet of white paper. A Christian's character is like polished steel, which may have its luster destroyed, not only by broad spots of rust—but by an assemblage of innumerable 'specks'!

More scandals have occurred in the Christian church from dishonorable financial transactions than from any other source. Instances of drunkenness and debauchery are seldom, compared with those of an artful, imposing, dishonest way of conducting business. The world is a dangerous and successful foe to growth in grace; and although every church member professes himself to be through faith a conqueror, how many by their over-reaching, ungenerous conduct, prove that they are yet enslaved by this sordid enemy. Some there are, who would betray their Master for a less sum than that which Judas set upon his blood; and, for a tenth of thirty pieces of silver, will be guilty of an action which they must know, at the time, will provoke the severest invective and bitterest sarcasm against all religion.

IV. Church members should excel in the manifestation of the Christian temper.

"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." Christians should excel in the manifestation of Christ's character. The mind which was in Jesus, should be in them. They should consider his character as a model of their own; and be conspicuous for their poverty of spirit, meekness, gentleness, and love. They should seek a large portion of the "wisdom which comes from above; which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy."

It is matter of surprise and regret, that many people seem to think that Christianity has nothing to do with the character; and that provided they are free from gross sins, and have lively feelings in devotional exercises, they may be as petulant, irritable, and implacable as they please! This is a dreadful error, and has done great mischief to the cause of God. A sour, ill-natured Christian, is like a lamb with a wolf's head, a dove with a vulture's beak, a rose with leaves of nettles. If there be any one word which above all others should describe a Christian's character, it is that which represents his divine Father; and as it is said, that God is love, so should it be also affirmed, that a Christian is love—love embodied, an incarnation of love. His words, conduct, no, his very looks, should be so many expressions of love.

V. Church members should be very eminent for a right discharge of all their social duties.

The apostles have given this great importance by the frequency with which they have introduced it. (Ephes. 5:22, 6:1-9. Col. 3:18. 1 Tim. 6:1-4. 1 Pet. 3:1, 2. 1 Pet. 2:18.) Christianity, so far from loosening the bands of society, adds to them incredible strength and firmness, by motives drawn from the eternal world. One part of the design of revelation is to purify and strengthen the social principle, and carry it to its greatest elevation and perfection.

A good Christian, and yet a bad husband, father, brother, neighbor, or citizen, is an anomaly which the world never yet beheld. Professing Christians should excel all others in the beauties of social virtue. True religion should give additional tenderness to the marital relationship; greater love to the parent, and obedience to the child; fresh kindness to the master, and diligence to the servant. The world should look to the church with this conviction, "Well, if social virtue were driven from every other portion of society, it would find an asylum, and be cherished with care, upon the heights of Zion." Then will religion have attained its highest recognition upon earth, when it shall be admitted by universal consent, that to say a man is a Christian, is an indisputable testimony to his excellence in all the relations he bears to society.

VI. There are duties to be discharged in reference to the world.

By the world, I mean all those who are destitute of true godliness—regardless of their religious denomination. The apostle has summed up our obligations towards them under the comprehensive injunction, "Walk in wisdom towards those who are outside." In another place, we are commanded to "Let our light shine before men, that they seeing our good works, may glorify our Father who is in heaven." We are also exhorted "to have our life-style honest (this word signifies beautiful, honorable) among the Gentiles." In order to comply with this, we must act consistently with our profession; excel in the observance of social duties; abound in mercy; bear a prudent testimony against evil practices; be most punctiliously exact in fulfilling all our engagements, and performing all our promises; live in a most peaceable and neighborly manner; perform every office of kindness and charity which can please or benefit; and set an example of industry, honesty, and generosity.


VII. We should as professing Christians be exemplary in our obedience to the civil magistrate.

The Scriptures which enjoin this duty are too numerous to be quoted at length. (Rom. 13:1, 2. Acts 23:6. Titus 3:1. 1 Pet. 2:13, 14. 1 Tim. 2:1-3.) One only shall be given—but that is a very striking one. "Let every soul be subject to the higher powers; for there is no power but of God; the powers that be, are ordained of God. Whoever therefore resists the power, resists the ordinance of God—and those who resist shall receive to themselves damnation." This injunction must of course be understood as relating to matters purely civil—or in other words to those laws which are not in opposition to the spirit and letter of divine revelation. If rulers enjoin anything which is condemned by the word of truth, it is the duty of a Christian, without hesitation, and at all hazards, to act upon the principles, and follow the example of the apostles, and "obey God rather than man."

God forbid I should teach a doctrine so pernicious, as that one of the first efforts of true piety when it enters the soul is to extinguish the love of civil liberty; or that having broken the fetters of vice, it immediately bows the regenerated soul into submission to the yoke of despotism. No such thing! True religion is a noble, and sublime, and elevating principle. It expands, not contracts the mind. It is not a spirit of bondage which causes its possessor to fear—but it is a spirit of power, and of a sound mind. It lifts the soul from the dust, and does not chain it there; it has raised a noble army of martyrs, every one of whose millions was a hero that defied the tyrant's rage, and spurned his yoke. Religion therefore is no friend of slavery, nor can any of its precepts be quoted by the tyrant as an excuse for his trampling on the liberties of mankind.

Avowing thus much, and admitting that the most spiritual Christian may take an interest, and ought to take an interest, in public affairs; no, that he ought to maintain a ceaseless jealousy over the constitution and freedom of his country; still I contend that a constant, and noisy, and factious meddling in party politics, is as injurious to his own personal religion, as it is to the interest of piety in general. We do not cease to be citizens, when we become Christians—but we are in danger of ceasing to be Christians, when we become politicians. It is with politics as with money; it is not the temperate use—but the immoderate love of it, that is the root of all evil. Thousands of professors of religion have made shipwreck of their faith and a good conscience, during the tempests of political agitation. Let us then, as we value our lives, be cautious how we embark on this stormy and troubled ocean.

There is one way in which many Christians offend against the laws of their country without scruple, and without remorse; I mean by endeavoring to evade the payment of taxes. Had there been no Christian statute to condemn this practice, the general principles of reason would be quite sufficient to prove its criminality. But the New Testament has added the authority of revelation to the dictates of reason; and thus made it a sin against God, no less than a crime against society, to defraud the revenue. "Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor" is the authoritative language of Paul. This precept derives great force from the consideration that it was delivered at a time, and under a government, in which the taxes were not imposed by the people themselves—but by the arbitrary power of a despot. Certainly if, under these circumstances, it was the duty of a Christian to pay the tribute money, any effort which we make to evade it, must be additionally criminal, since we are taxed by the will of our representatives. The excuses usually made in justification of this practice, only serve to show how far even some good people may be imposed upon, by the deceitfulness of the human heart. Every time we have made a false return on the schedule which regulates our measure of taxation; or that we have purchased knowingly a contraband article of food, beverage, or dress—we have committed a fraud upon society, have assumed a power to dispense with the laws of our country, have violated the precepts of the New Testament, have brought the guilt of a complicated crime upon our conscience, and have subjected ourselves to the displeasure of God, and the discipline of his church.