Lectures to Young People
William B. Sprague, 1830
DANGER OF EVIL INSTRUCTION
"Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causes to err from the words of knowledge." Proverbs 19:27.
The primary elements of a good character, are good principles. Not that good principles necessarily imply a good character; for experience proves that passion often neutralizes their influence; but a truly good character does necessarily involve good principles. Let a system of false opinions in respect to religion once gain possession of any mind, and what can you expect but that from this bitter fountain will issue streams of corruption and death. Hence it is that those evil men who corrupt and destroy the young, are exceedingly apt to assail, first, their pious principles; not doubting, if they can gain a victory here, that they shall be able, without difficulty, to storm the citadel of the heart. To this end, they often make the great truths of Christianity the subject of conversation; assailing them with sophistry on the one hand, and ridicule on the other. They thrust into their hands books and newspapers, to occupy their leisure, which are artfully designed to unhinge their moral and pious principles. And frequently this malignant agency is exerted in a covert manner; and the youth is brought in contact with these vehicles of death, and has actually begun to imbibe the poison, before he is aware of it. In short, every means of corrupting the principles of the young which the ingenuity of man can devise, has been, and still is, employed; and that too by people of every rank, from the highest to the lowest in the community.
It is in reference to efforts like these that the wise man gives the advice contained in our text: "Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causes to err from the words of knowledge." In the spirit of this direction, I shall endeavor, in the present discourse, first, to expose some of the errors of which youth at the present day are in danger; and, secondly, urge some considerations to dissuade them from being found in the way of evil instruction.
I. I am, first, to expose some of the ERRORS of which youth, at the present day, are in danger.
1. The first which I shall notice, is, that the BIBLE is not a divine revelation.
I am aware that this is, by no means, a day of triumph for infidelity; and that the man who now openly casts off the authority of Scripture, does it at the expense of being branded with at least some degree of public disgrace. Still there are to be found those, even at this day—and I fear not a few—who have hardihood enough to pronounce the Bible a forgery; who deliberately set themselves to seal this fountain of consolation against the wretched—this fountain of salvation against the sinner. Unhappily, we live so near the period in which the world was convulsed by what seemed the momentary triumph of infidelity, that infidels of our day find weapons enough for prosecuting their malignant warfare, forged at their hands; and yet, as it would seem, for no other purpose than to keep a malignant invention busy, they are, from time to time, replenishing their armory with other weapons of their own devising. Those to whom I now refer, are open in their hostility to the Bible: they breathe out the venom of infidelity wherever they go; and put their books in circulation whenever they have opportunity; and glory in their shame.
But there are others who lend their aid to the same cause by means a little less direct—but not less effectual. Perhaps they will not tell you that they believe the Bible to be a forgery; perhaps they will even give a vague assent to its being a divine revelation—but they will tell you with nearly the same breath, of different passages which have a contradictory meaning; of stories too trifling, and of doctrines too absurd, to have had such a Being as God for their author: and thus, by endeavoring to bring into contempt a part of the Bible, they aim to destroy the authority of the whole. So long as men of this character are scattered through society, who can doubt that young people are in danger of being corrupted by infidelity?
Now, my young friends, I will tell you, if you are ever tempted, for a moment, to give heed to those who would persuade you to renounce your belief in the Bible as a divine revelation, what you must be able to prove, before you can consistently venture on infidel ground.
You must be able to show that the miracles of which the Bible contains a record, either were never performed, or if they were, that they do not prove its divine authority. If you take the former side of the alternative, and say that these miracles were never performed, you must still admit either that they were pretended to be performed, or they were not. If they were pretended to be performed, as recorded in scripture, it behooves you to show how it was, that so many competent witnesses, and among them the most malignant enemies, in circumstances the most favorable for detecting imposture, and for several years in succession, should actually have been deceived. If you say that they were not pretended to be performed, then you have to account for the fact that such a record of them as that which the Bible contains, should have been made, at the very time when the imposture—if it were one—was most open to detection; and that it should have been circulated first among the very people who would have been most interested and most able to detect it; who yet never even pretended to call the facts in question. If you say that the record of these miracles was not made during the age in which they were professedly performed—but that it was palmed upon some succeeding age, then you have to account for the fact that the whole mass of historical testimony fixes the date of this record to nearly the period in which they are alleged to have been performed; and you have this additional difficulty to solve—how a record of facts, purporting to have occurred under the observation of the very people to whom the record was first given, could have been received by them as a true record, when, at the same time, no such facts had ever fallen within their knowledge.
But if you choose the latter side of the alternative, and say that these miracles were actually wrought—but still do not prove the Bible to be a divine revelation—you have then to show either that the God of truth would give the stamp of his authority to falsehood, or else that these mighty works were performed by the aid of evil spirits; for that they transcended the limits of human power, admits of no question. The former of these suppositions—that Jehovah has lent his sanction to falsehood—you will not dare to admit, even in thought. If you admit the latter, and refer the miracles of the Bible to diabolical agency, then you have this great moral phenomenon to explain—how the enemy of all good came to be so heartily and earnestly engaged in the destruction of his own kingdom; for the manifest tendency of all the miracles of the Bible was to promote the cause of righteousness.
Here then you perceive, at the threshold of infidelity, you have most serious difficulties to encounter; but the half has not been told you. You have, farther, to account for the fact that this book contains a long chain of prophecies, extending almost from the beginning of the world to the present time, and to all future ages—that, as the plan of Providence has been developed, these prophecies have regularly had their fulfillment in the history of the church and the world—that the most minute and improbable events have occurred in exact correspondence with predictions which were written ages before their occurrence. If there were no divine wisdom here, whence this marvelous power of lifting the veil that hides futurity? How is it that a worm can tell of things that are to be, unless it has been mounting up above the dust, and holding communion with Omniscience? Who dares be so impious as to say that Jehovah would arrange the system of his Providence, to meet the conjectures of weak fanaticism or wicked imposture?
You have, moreover, before you can consistently reject the divine authority of the Bible, to account for the fact that so many different people as were concerned in writing it, living in different ages, in various states of society, and in circumstances to preclude the possibility of collusion, could have produced a book between whose various parts there is the most perfect, though evidently, on their part, the most undesigned, HARMONY. If all the letters of which the Bible is composed, were to be separated from each other, and thrown promiscuously into the air, and should fall to the earth in precisely the order which they originally held, making a regular and complete book, it would not be a greater anomaly in human experience, than would be found in the fact that such a book as the Bible is, in respect to the harmony of its parts, should have been made in the circumstances in which it was made, independently of divine inspiration.
You have still farther to account for the fact, that men living in a crude state of society, and many of them with the most limited advantages for intellectual cultivation, should have produced compositions, which, in sublimity both of thought and language, leave far behind the finest models whether of ancient or modern times. The most perfect specimens of narrative which the world has seen, are found in the gospels; but what was there in the laborious occupation of fishermen, that gave promise of these matchless performances? If you deny that these people wrote under divine inspiration, whence the mighty difference between their productions, and what you could reasonably expect from people in the same sphere of life, and with much better advantages of education, among ourselves?
You have also to account for the fact, that the Bible presents a higher standard of moral purity than is any where else to be found; that all its doctrines and precepts, all its promises and threatenings, are worthy of an infinitely holy God. Tell us, if this be imposture, how it has come to pass that wicked men—the enemies of holiness, have produced the holiest book that the world has ever seen. If they could have done this, where was the motive to influence them to it, so long as it was directly opposed to their corrupt views and purposes? If they had desired to do it, would it not still, being conceived in sin, necessarily have borne, in a greater or less degree, the moral likeness of its authors?
And, finally, you have to account for the wonderful efficacy with which the Bible has been attended. Compare the combined moral effects which have been produced by all the other books in the world, with those which have been produced by the Bible, and the former dwindle to nothing in the comparison. It is the Bible which is the means of accomplishing such wonderful transformations, as we sometimes see, of human character—making the proud, humble; the vindictive, forgiving; the cruel, tender-hearted; causing the swearer to reverence the name of God; the drunkard to lay aside his cups; the dishonest man to give back his ill-gotten gains; and the miser to open his coffers at the call of charity. It is the Bible which has shed the light of peace and hope around the path of adversity; which has been a pillow for sickness, and a staff for old age; which has caused the voice of rejoicing to rise even from the valley of death. It is the Bible which has demolished altars of cruelty and temples of idolatry; which has illumined the wilderness with the light of civilization, and for savage customs has substituted the soft charities of life; which, as it travels around the globe, sends abroad a healing influence, and leaves a bright track of glory behind it. Whence is it, I ask, that the Bible produces these wonderful effects, if it has not God for its author? How is it, if it is the work of man, that it has survived all the efforts which have been made for its destruction; that, like the burning bush, it has been always on fire, and yet has never been consumed?
Such, my young friends, are some of the difficulties to be encountered, before you can, with any show of reason, reject the divine authority of the scriptures. You must be able to show that the miracles which the Bible records, either were never performed, or if they were, that they do not prove it to be a divine revelation; that the prophecies which it contains, notwithstanding their literal and exact accomplishment, were only fortunate conjectures. You must be able to account for the fact that so many writers, on such a subject, and in such circumstances, have written with perfect harmony; that men comparatively destitute of intellectual culture, have written with such unparalleled sublimity; that men of most corrupt minds, (for the idea of imposture necessarily supposes this,) have made a book which breathes the most elevated moral purity; and finally that this Book, bearing the signature of Heaven upon its title-page, and thus affronting Jehovah by a lie, has gone abroad, changing the moral wilderness into a garden, and pouring light and joy into every bosom by which it has been welcomed. Until you are able to account for these and many similar facts, you cannot, for a moment, consistently place your foot on infidel ground. How then ought you to estimate the cavils of infidelity? As lighter than nothing, until you have deliberately and satisfactorily met all the difficulties which have now been suggested.
2. Another error of which young people, at the present day, are in danger, is, that no atonement was necessary that God might pardon sin; and that it was no part of the design of Christ's death to make an atonement.
This error is, of course, held by all who reject the divine authority of the Bible. It is held also by many who profess, in some sense, to acknowledge its claims to inspiration. The former class deny the necessity of an atonement; but regarding the Bible as a mere human production, neither ask nor care whether it contains the doctrine or not. The latter class, in common with the former, assert that an atonement was not necessary; but they go farther, and also assert that this doctrine is not found in the Bible. Before you receive this error, you ought to be able satisfactorily to answer the following inquiries.
How could God grant an absolute pardon to the sinner, and yet maintain the dignity of his character and government—without an atonement paid for the sin? The law which God has given to man as a rule of conduct—is perfectly holy, both in its requisitions and in its penalty. But man, by not obeying the requisitions of the law, has become obnoxious to its penalty. Suppose now that the great Lawgiver and Judge should remit the offence, without any expression of his displeasure against it; in what attitude must he place himself, in view of the intelligent universe? Would not the question be agitated in every part of the creation in which the fact was known—why an infinitely wise and holy God should make a law to be trampled upon with impunity; and if it were fit that the law should be made, why it were not also fit that its honor should be maintained? Is it an expression of infinite holiness, to let sin go unpunished? Is it an expression of infinite wisdom or benevolence, to encourage illegally by overlooking a spirit of rebellion in one part of the universe, and thus to hold out encouragement to the same spirit in every other part of it? If these questions must be answered in the negative, then I ask, whether Reason herself knows any other alternative, than that an atonement must be made, or the sinner must perish?
Again: If Jesus Christ did not die as an atoning sacrifice, whence the connection between the ancient sacrifices and the pardon of sin? That such a connection existed under the Mosaic dispensation, no person who reads the Bible can doubt; victims were constantly offered under the name of sin-offerings, as an atonement for the sins of the people. That there is no natural connection between the slaying of an animal, and the forgiveness of sin, is obvious; and moreover, the apostle expressly declares that "the blood of bulls and of goats cannot take away sin." Whence, then, did these sacrifices derive either their significance or their efficacy, if they are not to be considered as types of the great sacrifice of Christ?
Moreover: How will you reconcile it with infinite wisdom, that God should have employed means so disproportioned in their importance to the end which he designed to accomplish? If the object of Christ's death were to make atonement for sin, then here was an end to be answered of sufficient magnitude to warrant the most expensive means that could be employed. But if he lived merely as a teacher, and died merely as a martyr, whence the wonderful preparation that was made for his advent and his death; and whence the wonderful interest which these events have excited, both on earth and in heaven? Why this constant reference to the Messiah in all the rites of the ancient dispensation? Why was he the theme of prophecy, during a period of four thousand years? Why was his birth celebrated by the songs of angels, and his death signalized by the convulsions of nature? If his object had been merely to instruct the world, and to seal the truth of his testimony with his blood; could not this object have been effected by some lower personage than him who was the Brightness of the Father's glory? And if this were so, whence the mighty difference between him and his apostles, which should invest his life and death with so much more importance than theirs? Whence is it too that his death awakens so much wonder, and gratitude, and joy, in heaven; that even the angels make it the theme of their high praises; if, after all, no higher object was gained by it than to prove himself sincere in preaching an improved system of moral virtue? I ask, again, whence this astonishing disproportion between means and ends, which there actually is—if Jesus Christ did not die a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of the world?
And finally, under this article, what explanation will you give of the following passages of scripture, consistent with a rejection of the doctrine of atonement?
"Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." "He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed." "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." "Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." "Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past through the forbearance of God." "Even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto—but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." "Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree." "In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins; according to the riches of his grace." "You were not redeemed with corruptible things—but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot." "Unto Him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and has made us kings and priests unto God; to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever, amen."
These are some of the more prominent passages in which the design of Christ's death is exhibited: Which of them all, let me ask, even seem to teach, that he died merely, or chiefly, as a martyr to the truth of his doctrines? If the doctrine of atonement is not explicitly taught here, we ask for language in which it can be conveyed intelligibly.
3. Another error to which young people, at the present day, are exposed, is, that a spiritual rebirth, renovation, or radical change of character, is not necessary to salvation.
But what is implied in salvation? Nothing less than being admitted to a participation of the joys of Heaven. But what is the character of heavenly joys? They are perfectly holy: nothing that defiles can ever enter the kingdom. What sort of taste or disposition, then, must be necessary in order to relish or participate these joys? Undoubtedly, a perfectly holy one; for the very idea of happiness includes in it a correspondence between the taste of the individual, and the objects or pursuits from which the happiness is derived. You might, for instance, bring the most delicious food before a man whose taste was vitiated by disease; and though the food would be good in itself, and would be grateful to a healthy appetite, yet to the sick man it would only be an occasion of loathing.
So also in reference to the joys of Heaven—though they are not only real—but far surpass in extent all our conceptions; yet, in order that they may become ours, we must possess a temper conformed to them. But does man, by nature, possess this temper? Let every man's experience answer. Let the history of the world answer. Above all, let the word of God answer. "Every imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." " They are altogether become filthy: there is none that does good, no not one." "The natural man discerns not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." If such be the natural character of man, and such the nature of heavenly joys, is it not manifest, even on principles of reason, that a radical change is necessary to the sinner, before he can be admitted to Heaven?
Hear now the direct testimony of God on this subject. By the mouth of his prophet Ezekiel, he says: "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh." "But as many as received him," says the apostle John, "to those gave he power to become the sons of God, even to those who believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man—but of God." Our Savior himself declares, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." The apostle Paul having described the exceedingly depraved character of the Corinthians previous to their conversion, says, in reference to the change they had experienced: "But you were washed, you are justified, you are sanctified, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God." And again: "Not by works of righteousness which we have done—but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Spirit." What meaning having the semblance of plausibility—can you attach to these passages, if you deny that they teach the necessity of a radical change wrought by the immediate influence of the Holy Spirit, in order to salvation?
4. The fourth and only remaining error which I shall here notice, is—that either no punishment, or only a limited one, awaits the wicked in a future world.
If you say that the wicked are not to be punished at all in a future state, you must maintain the position either on the ground that they will cease to sin at death—or else that the connection between sin and misery will be dissolved. Will you take the former ground, and say that the wicked at death are delivered from all sin? But by what means is this accomplished? Is it by death itself? No! for death is only a termination of the animal functions—a mere passage from one world to another; and surely there is nothing in this that can affect the moral state of the soul in any way. But do you say that it is by a divine influence, operating upon the soul in the action of death? You say this without any warrant; for the Bible has given no such intimation. But if it be so, this influence is either exerted in consistency with man's moral nature, or it is not. If it is thus exerted, then of course the sinner must be conscious, in some measure, of those moral exercises which precede and attend regeneration; must be conscious of co-operating with the Spirit of God, both in conviction and conversion. But this surely is not true; for, in a multitude of instances, the sinner dies in stupidity, or delirium, and sometimes in the act of challenging the vengeance of God. If you say that this influence is not exerted according to the laws of our moral nature, then, in respect to this point at least, you make man a mere machine: you have gone over to fatalism, and are not to be reasoned with.
But do you choose the other side of the alternative, and take the ground that the connection between sin and misery will not exist after death? But here again, as there is nothing in death to destroy the existence of sin in the soul, neither is there anything in it to change its nature. It is part of the nature of sin to produce misery, just as truly as it belongs to the sun to impart light; and though this tendency is not always manifest in the present life, yet it is only on account of the countervailing influences which grow out of our present condition. Just in proportion as the sinner is removed from these influences even here, you see him reaping a harvest of wretchedness. As he will be completely removed from them in a future world, what can prevent sin from having its legitimate operation in making him completely wretched?
But perhaps you admit that there is a degree of punishment in a future world—but maintain that it will be limited in its duration. The idea that an immortal soul should be doomed to suffer inconceivable woe, during its whole existence, is so dreadful—that you shrink from the admission of it.
And what then? Is that any reason why you should reject the plain testimony of God? Let it be remembered that this is a case in respect to which the wishes of men have nothing to do. The grand question in relation to it is, not what you desire to be true—but what actually is true! The criminal on the scaffold no doubt wishes to see his sentence remitted; but that wish has no influence to prevent the executioner from doing his office. Not more does the dread which is associated in your mind with the idea of eternal punishment, constitute any evidence against its reality.
But you say, perhaps, that it would not consist with the benevolence of God to inflict eternal punishment for the sins committed in this short life. Let it be remembered that we the culprits, are but miserable judges in this matter. Is it consistent with God's infinite benevolence to bury the ship, laden with human beings, in the mighty deep; or to cause the earth to open, and swallow up thousands, whom we are accustomed to call innocent? None but the atheist will deny this; for such events actually do take place under God's administration. By what superhuman wisdom, then, are you enabled to decide that the eternal punishment of the sinner cannot consist with infinite benevolence? Whence have you gained that knowledge of the exact influence of sin on God's moral universe, which qualifies you to pronounce that its punishment must be limited, or God's perfection must be sacrificed?
But if the punishment of the sinner is hereafter to come to a termination, in what manner is this to be effected? Do you say that his sufferings will be disciplinary; and that in consequence of their reforming and purifying influence, he will before long be prepared for the happiness of heaven? Here again, this is a needless assumption—as there is no such influence being attributed to the sufferings of the wicked in the word of God. But this notion is moreover contradicted by the analogy of experience. Would the parent, if he wished to reform an abandoned child, be likely to confine him constantly to the company of those who were equally or even more abandoned than himself? And is it not true in fact, that when the wicked in the present life have been doomed for their crimes by the sentence of human law, to confinement with those of a character similar to their own, they have generally come away monuments, not of the reforming influence—but of the corrupting and hardening influence, of such kind of punishment? Where then is the ground for believing that the wicked in a future world, by being associated with those who continually blaspheme God, and oppose the interests of his kingdom—will become conformed to his image, and acquire a relish for his service?
Admitting, however, this remedial tendency which you attribute to the sufferings of the sinner, you have yet another difficulty to surmount—it is to determine how the sinner can be delivered from punishment—in consistency with the sentence of God's law. The only alternative that here presents itself is, either that he has actually suffered the full penalty of the law, and is released on the score of justice; or else that his deliverance is effected through the efficacy of Christ's atonement. But both sides of this alternative are mere assumptions—not warranted even by the semblance of scripture authority; and as for reason, if she has anything to say concerning them, it is certainly nothing in their favor.
But against both these suppositions, as well as against that of the disciplinary tendency of the sufferings of the wicked, there stands arrayed that mass of divine testimony, which exhibits the present world as the only world of probation, and the future as a world of unalterable retribution. "Whatever your hand finds to do," says Solomon, "do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave"—the world of departed spirits—"where you go." Says the prophet Isaiah, "Those who go down into the grave, cannot hope for your truth." "The night comes," says our Savior, that is, the night of death, "in which no man can work." As there is to be no change in the character of man after he leaves this world, the scriptures teach that we shall be judged according to "the deeds done in the body;" and rewarded "according to our works," performed on this side the grave. It is clear then that the Bible has decided that, neither on the ground of justice, nor on the ground of mercy—will the punishment of the sinner be remitted, after he has become an inhabitant of the eternal world.
But there are many other passages of scripture, in which the doctrine of eternal punishment is not only implied—but explicitly declared. The prophet Isaiah, filled with the most awful impressions of the future state of the wicked, exclaims, "Who can inhabit everlasting burnings?" Our blessed Lord himself, speaking of the wicked, says, "These shall go away into everlasting punishment." Paul says concerning those who obey not the gospel, that "they shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and the glory of his power." And John, in the Revelation, declares concerning the inhabitants of the bottomless pit, that "the smoke of their torment ascends up forever and ever."
But you will say, perhaps, that the words "everlasting," "eternal," "forever and ever," &c. do not necessarily imply unlimited duration, as they are sometimes used in scripture in reference to objects whose duration is acknowledged to be limited. To this I reply that, whatever this language may denote in certain cases, the manner in which it is used as descriptive of the punishment of the wicked, precludes the idea of limited duration; for the same language which expresses the duration of the miseries of the wicked—is employed in the very same connection, to express that of the happiness of the righteous; which all acknowledge to be unlimited. "Some shall arise to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment—but the righteous into everlasting life;" the same Greek word being used in the latter case as in the former. Here then is an example of the strongest expressions to be found in the Greek and Hebrew languages, being used by the Spirit of God—and in circumstances in no way liable to exception—to describe the duration of future punishment. The only alternative which these passages suggest is, either that the miseries of the wicked will be strictly eternal—or else that the happiness of the righteous will be limited.
If, however, after all, you choose not to admit the passages already quoted as decisive on this point, there are others not liable to the criticism to which I have referred, and which undoubtedly convey the idea of unlimited duration, if it can be conveyed by human language. Such are the following: "Their worm dies not, and their fire is not quenched." "They shall never see life." "They shall never enter into rest." "It were good for that man if he had never been born." Surely it would have been better for Judas to have been born, if, after suffering millions of ages, he should finally begin an endless career of happiness and glory.
There is yet another test to which the doctrine which I am considering may very properly be referred. I mean its moral tendency: for it requires no argument to prove that that doctrine which removes any of the restraints to sinful indulgence, cannot have God for its author.
Now then I inquire, if there is no punishment, or only a temporary punishment, for the wicked, in a future world—in other words, if virtue and vice are ultimately to find the same level—I inquire what there is to keep a wicked man from any deeds of iniquity to which his inclinations may prompt him—provided only he can escape the eye and the arm of human law?
The wretch whose ruling passion is the love of gold, casts his eye covetously upon your possessions; but they are so guarded that he cannot reach them without shedding your blood. What hinders then, if death be the gate of glory to all—but that, when he has once satisfied himself that he can escape detection, he should draw his dagger and stab you in the dark? Nor is the penalty of human law, upon his principle, greatly to be dreaded, or even dreaded at all; for it is only anticipating a little, a momentary pang, which is after all the harbinger of eternal joy. Is it not then manifestly the tendency of this doctrine is to throw open the flood-gates of iniquity—and to license to the utmost, every corrupt propensity of the heart?
You perceive then, my young friends, that you have most serious difficulties to encounter from reason, scripture, and experience, before you can adopt either scheme of universal salvation. Be not so unwise as to yield to the dictates of mere feeling on this subject. It is a matter, I repeat, to be decided, not by the wishes of men—but by the testimony of God. To this then, as the ultimate source of evidence, be your appeal; and if the doctrine is taught here, that the punishment of the wicked will be eternal, remember that heaven and earth shall sooner pass away—than one jot or tittle of what Jehovah has threatened shall fail of being accomplished!
II.I have now completed the examination which I designed, of some of the more common errors to which young people, at the present day, are exposed: I proceed, secondly, to suggest some considerations with a view to dissuade you from being found in the way of evil instruction. The wise man, in the text, cautions the young, not merely to avoid giving heed to the instruction of the wicked—but to avoid even hearing it. "Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causes to err from the words of knowledge." The idea clearly is, that you are not to allow yourselves, in any way, to be familiar with corrupt sentiments; neither by reading bad books, nor by listening to the preaching or conversation of bad men.
1. The first consideration which I shall offer, as a REASON why you should not be found in the way of evil instruction, is—that there is great danger that you will embrace the errors with which you thus become acquainted.
This danger results partly from the fact that men naturally love darkness rather than light. Of this fact the history of the world furnishes abundant proof; else how will you account for it, not only that men in all ages have misinterpreted the voice of God speaking to them in his works and ways, and that they have worshiped everything as God but Jehovah himself—but also that so many have shut their eyes against the broad light of revelation, and have either denied its divine authority, or else perverted it to sanction the most gross and fatal errors. Taking for granted then this fact, it amounts to nothing less than a predisposition in the human heart to the reception of error.
Suppose your bodily system was exactly predisposed to some contagious disease, would not that fact greatly increase your danger, on being brought into contact with the elements of infection? Or suppose an individual had a strong thirst for intoxicating liquors, would not this invest with additional danger all opportunities for indulging in the use of them? Is it not equally manifest that that natural aversion to the reception of God's truth, of which I have spoken, must be peculiarly favorable to the influence of evil instruction?
But this danger farther arises from the love of novelty, and the pride of personal opinion. There is something exceedingly grateful to many youthful minds, in the reflection that they have turned off from the beaten track—that they have escaped from vulgar prejudices, and broken away from the trammels of education, and that they are giving the world a fine example of independent thought. But this spirit finds but little aliment in the way of truth; for that is a highway, and the simple and unlettered walk in it; and the way to be distinguished from the vulgar herd, is to leave this plain path, and broach some wild or wicked speculation. More or less of this spirit no doubt belongs to human nature; and though you may not hitherto have been sensible of its operation, yet if you venture into the way of evil instruction, there is great danger that you will find, not only that this spirit exists—but that it exerts a powerful influence in opening your mind to the reception of error.
Moreover, you are in danger of embracing the errors which you accustom yourselves to hear defended, from the fact that familiarity with error, as with vice, has a tendency to make you insensible of its deformity. This tendency results partly from the power of habit, and partly from the deceitful nature of sin; and it exists universally; though it must be acknowledged that it is often counteracted by the influence of circumstances.
The process by which it discovers itself, needs only to be described, to be recognized by everyone as a reality. The youth who has been educated to reverence the bible as God's word, when he first hears it assailed by infidel cavils and scoffs—shudders at the impiety, and perhaps wonders that God allows such a wretch to live. He hears the same thing the second time—but with less horror than before. He hears it again and again, and at length ceases to be affected by the impiety. At no distant period, he gathers bravery enough to smile at what once made him tremble; to assent to that, which once drew from him expressions of abhorrence. At a more remote point in the process, he cordially takes the infidel by the hand, and greets him as a brother; thus, perhaps, in a little period, having traveled the whole distance—from a firm belief to a total rejection of the bible. Say, my young friends, whether all this is not perfectly natural; and easily accounted for on the principle that familiarity with error blinds the mind to its inherent odiousness. Venture not then in the way of evil instruction, lest, through the operation of the same principle, you should be the subjects of the same disastrous change.
Another consideration which renders it probable that you will embrace the errors which you hear defended, is, that, from your age and inexperience, you cannot be supposed to be properly furnished for an encounter with error. The man who, when properly armed, might stand his ground against a company of ruffians, would, if stripped of his armor, fall into their hands at the first onset. In like manner, the man who has been long accustomed to study his bible, might find little difficulty, and be in little danger, in meeting the cavils of the enemies of truth; while he who is comparatively unacquainted with the word of God, might be easily entangled, and drawn away by their sophistry. Taking it for granted then that you have not that deep and thorough knowledge of the bible which might more naturally be looked for in advanced life, you cannot but perceive that you are in great danger, from this circumstance, of receiving the errors which are defended in your hearing. Cavils which might be satisfactorily answered in many ways, and the fallacy of which a more thorough knowledge of the word of God might enable you instantly to detect, assume, from your ignorance, the weight of arguments; and there is danger that you will soon come to conclude that what you cannot answer, is unanswerable.
But the consideration which crowns the evidence of your danger on this subject, is, that multitudes of youth, from hearing evil instruction, actually have embraced the errors with which they have thus been made familiar. Yes, I could point you to many a young person, who thought himself safe when he ventured on this forbidden ground, and felt confident that his belief of the truth was never to be shaken, who can now speak boldly in defense of the most dangerous errors, and even pour contempt on the revelation of God. Tell me, my young friends, what there is in your circumstances which promises that the same experiment will result more favorably in respect to you. Rely on it, that ground which your curiosity may tempt you to explore, is beset with snares; if you venture among them, take heed lest they prove to you the snares of eternal death!
2. Guard against being found in the way of evil instruction, because there is great danger that you will not only by this means embrace error—but that you will retain it until the close of life.
There are two principles which will operate powerfully towards such an evil result. The first is, the pride of consistency. The circumstances in which the error is supposed to be embraced, are exceedingly well fitted to bring this principle into action. You have become an errorist under the teaching of wicked men, who have watched you in every step of your progress, who have triumphed in their success, and have congratulated you on being set free from puritanical prejudices. In your fellowship with them and with others, you have probably gloried in your opposition to the truth; for it usually happens that the truth finds its bitterest enemies in the ranks of apostacy. How difficult then must it be to come down from this high stand which you have taken, into the dust; to acknowledge, after all your confident boasting, that you have been left to believe a lie! How hard to bear the taunting accusation of fickleness or hypocrisy; to be assailed by the hiss of contempt, instead of being greeted with the smile of approbation! If you have embraced error in the circumstances to which I have referred, is not here a powerful consideration to prevent you from abandoning it? Even if doubts should sometimes force themselves upon you, is it not probable that this pride of consistency—this fear of the world's dread laugh, would lead you to shake them off as soon as possible?
The other principle to which I referred as likely to operate in preventing you from abandoning your errors, when they are once adopted, is a regard to present comfort. No matter from what consideration you may have been induced to receive them—when once received, they will of course exert an influence to quiet the conscience, and thus minister to a life of sin. The man who speculatively believes the great truths of the Bible, has but little to defend him against the arrows of conviction. When the threatenings of God are thundered in his ears, conscience is exceedingly apt to take advantage of his belief, to stir up tumult and agony in his heart.
But the man who has embraced any fundamental error, carries a shield upon his conscience, which the sharpest arrows from the quiver of the Almighty can scarcely penetrate. He is at ease under the preaching of the word, under the warnings of Providence, in revivals of true religion, and is even mighty to oppose the operations of God's Holy Spirit: but take from him his system of error, and you strip him of the armor in which he trusted; you leave him as liable to the terrors of conviction, as other men. In every human bosom there is a natural dread of misery; especially in the bosom of the sinner, a dread of finding himself exposed to the wrath of God. How probable is it then, on this ground, that if you have once yielded to the influence of error, you will never abandon it. It produces a feeling of safety which you love to cherish; whereas the parting with it must be the signal for a painful sense of exposure to the most awful calamities.
I have said that there is a probability that a system of error once adopted will be retained until the close of life: perhaps I ought rather to say until near the close—for experience proves that the approach of death has a mighty influence to break up these delusions. Cases indeed occur, in which the soul clings to them to the last, and even with apparent triumph; but the instances are far more numerous, in which the most honest confessions, and the most gloomy forebodings, pronounce these systems of error to be refuges of lies. But this conviction is often—perhaps usually, nothing more than the conviction of despair. The soul, just in the act of making its change—though it may abandon the error, is not in a condition to escape from its influence; and hence it may be said in the most important and practical sense—that those by whom error is once received, will probably carry it with them to the gates of eternity.
3. Guard against being found in the way of evil instruction, because the errors to which you are thus exposed, if adopted, and retained until the close of life, must be fatal to your souls.I here refer particularly to those errors which have been examined in the former part of this discourse, though they are by no means the only ones of fatal tendency.
Let it be remembered that these errors are, in the highest degree, practical. There are many false notions, and even in respect to true religion, which may be held with little or no hazard; because they are at best mere matters of speculation, and do not involve any great point of duty or interest. But it is otherwise in respect to those which we have been considering: they contemplate man in his relations to God and eternity; and involve interests too momentous for the human mind adequately to estimate. I know there are those who will have it, that nothing is practical in true religion—but what relates to external morality and to the present life; but surely those are the most practical truths, in the only proper sense of that word, which are fitted to exert the greatest influence in preparing men for heaven; and those the most practical errors, which minister most directly and effectually to the soul's everlasting destruction.
But the fatal influence of the errors of which I have spoken, is more directly manifest in the fact, that they either sweep away the only foundation of the sinner's hope, or else they effectually prevent a compliance with the terms on which salvation is offered. If you believe that the Bible is not the word of God, then you set at nothing all that God has done for your salvation, and fairly bring yourself under the sentence, "He who believes not, shall be damned." If you believe that Jesus Christ has made no atonement for sin, it were absurd to suppose that you should ever rest your soul's everlasting interests on his atonement; and yet this is the only sure foundation. If you believe neither the reality nor the necessity of a renovation of heart by the Holy Spirit, what motive will you have to seek it? But Jesus himself has declared, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." And finally, if you believe that there is to be no eternal punishment, or only a limited punishment—of the wicked in the future world, what influence will this belief be likely to exert, other than that to which I have already referred; that of quieting your fears, and encouraging you to walk the downward road? I do not say that it is not possible but that the tendency of this latter doctrine may, in individual instances, be counteracted; but we may safely say that, if such instances exist, they are exceedingly rare; and that this error has generally a most direct and visible influence in carrying the soul down to perdition.
And is it so, my young friends, that the errors to which you are exposed—are fraught with such amazing danger? Is it so, that every effort made to corrupt your principles—is an effort to destroy your souls? Then venture not into the way of evil instruction. Regard with more horror the man who would shake your belief in the truths of true religion, than the assassin who waits to plunge a dagger into your heart! The one aims only at the death of the body, which must die soon in the course of nature. The other aims at the death of the soul—a death fraught with everlasting agony. If you are tempted to place yourself, even for an hour, in the way of hearing the truths of the bible ridiculed or opposed, yield not to the temptation, unless you have made up your mind to encounter the agonies of the lost.
And now what remains but that I exhort you to value and love the Bible? Be not satisfied with a vague and inoperative assent to its authority or its doctrines; but let your belief in both be intelligent and influential. Study it daily with diligence and prayer. Endeavor not only to become familiar with its truths—but to become imbued with its spirit. Bind it about your heart, as the richest treasure that God has ever given to mortals. In this way, you will early become fortified against the influence of evil instruction—will have a sure guide amidst difficulties—a substantial solace in sorrow—an unfailing refuge in death. Give me the directions which the bible furnishes, and I will ask for no other guide amidst the devious paths of human life. Give me the consolations which the bible yields, and I will ask for no other staff to support me when I go down into the dark valley of death.