Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter
William Sprague, 1835
Forming Religious Sentiments
I have now gone through with a consideration of a number of those topics which I deem important to you in practical life. There is one subject, however, which concerns you more deeply than any other, which remains to be considered. It is the subject of true religion. It is this which is identified with all your interests as an immortal creature. A deficiency in other respects may indeed occasion you much inconvenience in the world; but a radical deficiency here must extend its influence beyond the grave.
The first branch of this momentous subject to which I wish to call your attention, is the formation of your religious sentiments. It has been a doctrine unhappily current in modern times, that our religious characters do not, in any important sense, derive their complexion from our religious opinions; and the practical influence of this doctrine has been exhibited in confounding the most important distinctions in true religion, and in annihilating, in a great measure, the importance of Christian faith.
There are no doubt some truths in religion, concerning which, a mistake does not constitute a fundamental error; but it is equally true that there are other great and commanding truths which form the very soul of piety, the belief of which must enter radically into our claim to the Christian character. For why have the truths of the Bible been revealed — if it is not that they should be believed. And of what use can a revelation be to us — if it be not so explicit that, with the proper application of our faculties, we can ascertain what are its leading and essential features? Moreover, it is the system of divine truth that is the basis of the whole fabric of practical religion. If true religion consist exclusively in being a good neighbor, and in discharging the duties arising from our social relations — I will admit that faith in its doctrines may be dispensed with, and yet no very perceptible chasm be made in the system. But if it is vastly more comprehensive in its demands; if it has respect to the manner of our reconciliation with an offended God; if it embraces all the mighty machinery of Providence with respect to our redemption, and all the duties which we owe to God as well as man — then it would be as absurd to suppose that you can discharge the great duties of practical religion, while you are indifferent to the truths of the Bible, as that the man should calculate the distances of the planets, or conduct a ship through the ocean, who was either ignorant or incredulous in respect to the elementary principles of navigation or astronomy.
It is the practical reception of truth, which constitutes the very essence of piety; and though there may be a speculative belief of it without a particle of vital godliness — be assured there can be no such thing as genuine practical religion, without an intellectual assent to the truth of its doctrines. So far from being unimportant, then, faith is one of the essential elements of piety.
It is then a question of great consequence, in what manner you shall become possessed of a correct system of religious opinions. To aid you in this important matter, let me suggest the following brief directions.
Let your opinions be drawn directly from the Bible. I know it is the ordinance of Heaven that the first impressions of divine truth which children receive, should ordinarily be from their parents; and it befits parents to take heed that those first impressions are correct. But even if your parents should inculcate error, you can no longer be innocent in holding it, while you are capable of referring their opinions to the law and the testimony. The fact that certain doctrines may have been taught you by the lips of parental tenderness, is certainly a reason why you should not lightly cast them from you; but it is due to your own personal responsibility, that you should receive no doctrines ultimately on mere human authority.
So also you may derive much advantage from studying the writings of uninspired men; but you are to bear in mind that they are fallible like yourself, and that in adopting their opinions as your own, without examination, you not only refuse the privilege which God has given you, of thinking for yourself — but you needlessly run the hazard of embracing error.
Having satisfied yourself that the Bible is a revelation from God, you are to receive implicitly whatever it contains, however humbling to the pride of the intellect, or opposed to the strongest propensities of the heart.
But you will perhaps ask whether, inasmuch as great minds have arrived at different and opposite conclusions in respect to what the Bible contains, it is a difficult matter to ascertain its genuine doctrines; so difficult even as to discourage exertion, and furnish some apology for an indolent acquiescence in human authority.
I answer, the fact to which I have adverted may indeed be a reason for not taking up any opinions rashly — but it is also an important argument for not taking them upon trust; for if equally gifted minds have rushed into opposite extremes, it is certain that fine intellectual powers, unless guided by the Holy Spirit, do not furnish the shadow of a security against error.
The best interpreter of Scripture, and the only safe one — is good common sense, under the direction of an humble and teachable temper, and guided by the Holy Spirit. Let there be an honest desire to know the truth, and let that desire be directed to the author of all spiritual illumination, and let it be accompanied with a diligent use of the means which are within our reach — and we need have no fear of being left to any fundamental error. If a powerful intellect were essential to the right understanding of Scripture, you perceive at once that to the mass of the world, who possess only common minds, it would be a mere dead letter. But as no higher intellectual powers are necessary than fall to the common lot of man, in connection with the spirit of teachableness and dependence on divine illumination, which all may, if they will, possess, it is manifest that the Bible is fairly open to all; and that every individual is as truly responsible for his religious opinions, as for his moral conduct.
In endeavoring to ascertain the doctrines of the Bible, it were desirable that you should bear in mind that the obvious meaning of a passage is generally the correct one; for if it were not so, it would be impossible for mankind in general ever to gain an intelligent notions of its truth. And, if I mistake not, one of the most fruitful sources of error, is found in a disposition to overlook the obvious meaning and search for something hidden — something that shall bear the impression of novelty or of mystery. Far be it from me to question that the Bible is an inexhaustible treasury of wisdom; and it is one of its glorious peculiarities that it will supply materials for reflection to the noblest intellect, and will reward its most diligent researches, through every period of its existence. Nevertheless, its leading doctrines are fairly within the reach of common minds in common circumstances; and if you approach it, satisfied to receive the obvious sense as the true sense — there is no danger that you will be left to adopt the speculations and vagaries of a false theology. A system of error is never deduced from the Bible easily and naturally — but only by being subjected to the torture of a false construction.
The true system of religion must, in every respect, correspond with the character of God. As true religion includes the great system of the divine administration, it is impossible but that every part of it must be agreeable to his infinitely perfect nature. Any system of doctrine then, which tarnishes any of the divine attributes, which is inconsistent with the highest exercise of wisdom, goodness, justice, faithfulness, or holiness — cannot be true, and of course, can never have been revealed by a God of truth. I admit that in the manifestation of these perfections, there may be depths which the line of no human understanding can fathom; and hence the Bible may and does, in a certain sense, contain mysteries. But any doctrine which is perceived to be irreconcilable with the free and perfect exercise of any of these attributes, any doctrine which exhibits them at variance with each other, and which would of course leave the divine character to suffer in the view of the intelligent creation — must be the product of proud and erring reason. It will be well for you to inquire in respect to every doctrine that is proposed to you — what is its bearing upon the character of God? Is it honorable or dishonorable to any or all of the divine perfections? And if you can decide this question satisfactorily, you need not hesitate as to the ultimate conclusion.
But if the true system of religion must be agreeable to the perfections of God, equally certain is it that it must be accommodated to the condition of man; for one grand design of it is to secure and perfect human happiness. To say nothing of man as a social being, and of the fact that the gospel might be expected to supply rules for the regulation of his conduct in this capacity — it requires but little knowledge of one's self, and little observation on the conduct of others — to arrive at the conclusion that man is a sinner, and as such has exposed himself to the displeasure of God.
Most unquestionably then, no system of religion could be suited to the actual exigencies of human nature — but one that should offer a twofold deliverance — a deliverance from the punishment of sin, and from the dominion of sin; for even if the sinner's guilt were cancelled — yet if he were still left the slave of evil propensities, forgiveness itself would be no blessing. You perceive that a system of religion which would merely prescribe a course of external morality, however it might be accommodated to man as a social being — would be very inadequate to the higher necessities of his sinful condition. Any system short of that which brings peace to the laboring conscience, and sanctification to the polluted soul, in consistency with the honor of the divine character and government — as it could never answer the purpose for which true religion was designed, were no better than a mockery of human woe. I need not say, that a God of love has never thus trifled with the needs of his creatures.
The true system of religion must also be rational. There may be, and there are, as I have already intimated, doctrines, which in some of their lofty and intricate bearings, we may not be able to comprehend. But even these doctrines, so far as they are practical in the present state of our existence, commend themselves both to the understanding and the conscience. That they are above human reason certainly cannot be questioned; but that they are contrary to it, never has been, and never can be shown. God addresses us in the Bible as rational beings; of course the truths which he reveals and requires us to believe, must be conformable to the reason which he has given us, and to which he primarily addresses the revelation. To receive any doctrine that is contrary to reason — were to insult the dignity of our own nature. To reject any doctrine merely because it is above reason, were to claim a right to sit in judgment on the decisions of the most high God.
The true system of religion must be consistent with itself. Truth is always consistent; and as we have a right here to assume that whatever the Bible contains is truth — it follows that there must exist a perfect harmony among its various doctrines. There are indeed some portions of Scripture which may be hard to be understood, and may seem susceptible of some variety of interpretation; but in every such case the true rule is, to judge of what is doubtful — by what is clear.
And if there are some passages which seem at first view to be inconsistent with the leading doctrines of the gospel, it is right to presume that these constitute an exception from the general remark, that the obvious meaning is the true meaning; and in every such case it is probable that a more attentive examination of the passage in its connection, will disclose some other sense than that which lies most upon the surface, which is consistent with the general tenor of revealed truth.
The true system of religion must be adapted to make men better. It is impossible, but that an infinitely holy God should desire that his intelligent creatures should be holy — and it were absurd to suppose that he should have given them a system of religion which is not adapted to make them so. Accordingly, one grand argument for the divine origin of Christianity, is found in the holiness of its doctrines — in the fact that it exhibits the lines of moral purity in such boldness and strength, that it could have been no other than a heaven-born system. If this is so, it follows that no doctrine which is fitted in any way to loosen the bands of moral obligation, or to license any of the evil propensities of the heart either directly or indirectly — can be a genuine doctrine of the Bible.
It is safe to presume that that system which fosters a habit of indifference to practical godliness, and supplies the human heart with arguments for sinful indulgence — is a system of error.
It is equally safe to conclude that that system which makes men humble and meek before God, benevolent and useful to their fellow-creatures, which exerts an influence, silent indeed — but certain to bring up the human character toward the standard of divine perfection — is the system which bears the signature of Heaven, and in the practical reception of which, men become wise unto salvation.
Before I close this chapter, let me urge you in the adoption of your religious sentiments, to keep in view the solemnities of a dying hour. Nothing will be more likely than this, to guard you against fatal error. If your opinions are formed not only in the season of health — but with reference to the continuance of health and of life, there is great danger that they will prove to be another gospel, and will be so many thorns in your dying pillow. There is danger that you will take up with some wretched system of error, which will serve as a present opiate to the conscience — but which will leave conscience to rise upon you at last, when you can do nothing to silence her accusations.
But if in all your inquiries for the truth, you keep in view the last hour of your probation; and if, before adopting any doctrine or system of doctrine, you ask yourself how you will be likely to regard it when the current of life is ebbing away — whether it will come up to your mind then as a minister of peace or a minister of wrath — I say, if you deal thus honestly with yourself, you can hardly fail to draw from the Bible those precious truths which holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.