The Axe Laid at the Root
"And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which does not produce good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire." Matthew 3:10
It is a solemn and a veritable thought, that human character is training and molding for eternity. Nothing in the universe of matter or of mind is stationary. Everything is in motion; the motion is progressive- the movement is onward. Things whose being is limited by the present state, obeying the law of their nature, advance to their maturity, and then perish. They attain their appointed and ultimate perfection, and then die. Beings destined for another, a higher, and a more enduring state, are each moment tending towards that existence for which their natures are formed, and to which they aspire. There is, innate in man, a principle which incessantly yearns for, and reaches after, a state of perfection and deathlessness. He would sincerely, at times, quench in eternal night the spark of immortality which glows in his breast. A morbid distaste of life, or a pusillanimous shrinking from its evils, or the anticipation of some impending calamity- in most cases springing from a mind diseased, and destroying the power of self-control; have tended to inspire and to strengthen this desire. But eternal sleep is beyond his reach. He sighs for it, but it heeds not his moan; he invites it, but it comes not at his bidding; he inscribes the sentiment over the charnel house of the dead, but it changes not their state- he may slay the mortal, but he cannot touch the immortal. The compass of his soul points on to life. The long, bleak coast of eternity, its shores washed by the rough billows of time, stretches out before him; and towards it, his bark each instant tends, and to it it will assuredly arrive. Such is the chain that links man to the invisible world! So interesting and important a being is he. An eternity of happiness or of misery is before him- from it lie cannot escape- and for the one or the other, mind is educating, and character is forming.
A truth kindred in its solemnity to this, is the nearness of judgment to every unconverted individual. To his eye- its vision dimmed by other and diverse objects- it may appear far remote. Damnation may seem to linger, judgment to tarry. Sentence executed against an evil work may appear delayed. But this is an illusion of the mental eye, a deception of Satan, a lie which the treacherous and depraved heart is eager to believe. Never was a snare of the devil more successful than this. But death, judgment, and hell are in the closest proximity to man; nearer than he has any conception of. His path winds along the very precipice that overhangs the billows of quenchless flame. Let him assume what position he may, high or low, fortified or unguarded, from that position there is but one step between him and death, between death and judgment, between judgment and a fixed and a changeless destiny. As one has truly remarked, what a creature of time is eternity! Time is, in some respects, more solemn and important than eternity. The present decides the future. The future is all that the present makes it. It is "troubled or serene, inviting or revolting, happy or miserable, a blessing or a curse, as time, omnipotent time, ordains it."
And this is the sentiment of the text which suggests our subject. "And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire." There is much truth in these words, that is deeply and solemnly instructive. They describe the character of an unconverted state, warn us of its danger, and predict its doom. May the Spirit who speaks in the word, be the Spirit who illumines us, while that word is now laid open to our view!
What A TRUE DESCRIPTION have we here OF THE CHARACTER OF A CARNAL, UNREGENERATE SOUL- "Every tree which brings not forth good fruit." No pencil could more accurately delineate the condition of such a one. There cannot be, by any possibility whatever, the slightest misconception here. This is not descriptive of a renewed state. The expressive metaphor cannot, by the most forced construction, be made to apply to a state of grace. A living member of the true Vine is a fruit-bearing tree. The degree of his fruitfulness is another question. It is with the reality of the vital principle within him, that he has first and mainly to do. The question that takes precedence of all others is, his severance from the 'wild olive tree' of a carnal, lifeless nature, and his grafting into Christ the true Vine.
Can any metaphor, drawn from the world of imagery, more strongly and truly set forth an unconverted state than this? It is a tree that bears no good fruit. It is a soul utterly destitute of everything that is really good, holy, and spiritual. It makes no allusion to the verdant leaves of a 'mere Christian profession', or to the blossoms of ''good resolutions' and 'external reformations', which often appear in life. These may be many and fair to look upon. But it speaks of more than 'the leaf', and the promising 'blossom'; it speaks of 'fruit', and of 'good fruit', and of good fruit only. The "tree which brings not forth GOOD FRUIT."
It will now be proper for us to inquire into the NATURE and the PROPERTIES of the "good fruit" which is found in a state of grace, the absence of which decides a state of nature.
Shall we begin with PRAYER? Who will not pronounce this a fruit of the Spirit, and in its nature and influence, truly good? When Saul of Tarsus was smitten to the ground by the divine light which shone around him- all his pride and rebellion in a moment prostrated- the first accents heard from him in heaven, and announced on earth, were accents of prayer. There came a voice from the excellent glory, exclaiming, "Behold, he prays." Here was the first throbbing of life in the new-born soul. Here was spiritual breath, pouring out itself into the bosom of Him from whom it came. It was more than the sprouting leaf, more than the opening bud, more than the full-blown blossom; it was precious fruit, brought forth in the heart by God the Eternal Spirit. Are you a praying soul? Has the prayer ever burst from your lips, "God be merciful to me a sinner?" I ask not if you are theoretically, or notionally acquainted with prayer. You may be accustomed to the formal habit of prayer, and yet never pray. You may eagerly purchase, and diligently use every form of devotion which the piety or the skill of others has compiled, and yet the gladdening intelligence may never have passed from lip to lip in heaven- "Behold, he prays!" If this be true of you, you are that tree that brings not forth the good fruit of prayer. For years, perhaps it has been so. You have lived thus far a prayerless life. What! no hallowed communion with Heaven! No sweet fellowship with the Father! No yielding to the attraction of the throne of His grace!
What! an utter stranger to all this? Then, your life has been unsanctified by prayer- your family unblest by prayer- your business pursued without prayer. The dew of mercy has fallen, and the sun of prosperity has shone upon you; means of grace, and a thousand influences, have conspired to make you a man of prayer; and yet again and again has the Lord of the vineyard come seeking in you this good fruit, and found none. Then, what scriptural, reasonable, valid claim to the character of a child of God can you possibly have, lacking this, the first and the latest evidence of spiritual life?
In the House which Christ is rearing, and of which he is the foundation, all the stones are living stones. "You also as living stones, are built up a spiritual house." There are no dead materials here. In the scaffolding, and among the rubbish- things not forming essential parts of the building itself- we expect to find no life. Yes, solemn thought! among the builders themselves there may be, there often are, those having no sympathy with the nature and character and ultimate design of the structure whose walls they are helping to uprear. But in every stone, placed and cemented in that building, and forming an essential part, there is life- divine, spiritual, resurrection, deathless life, flowing from union to Christ, who has ever been, and ever will be, the "tried stone, the precious corner-stone, the sure foundation" of his church.
Then, do not be deceived; the scaffolding will be taken down, and the rubbish will be removed, and the workmen will be dispersed, and this beautiful and stupendous structure will present to the eye the spectacle of a "glorious church, not having a spot, or a wrinkle, or any such thing," partaking of the life, and radiant with the glory, of the Lord through eternity. Then, all those who had a Christian "name to live while they were dead," who were employed around this spiritual house, but formed no part of the house itself, will have their portion in the "second death." Speaking of the results of the Christian ministry, the Apostle employs this solemn language, "Every man's work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is." These are searching, shuddering facts, relating both to minister and to people.
But oh! what a precious fruit of the renewed heart is true prayer! If there is a single exercise of the soul that places the fact of its regeneracy beyond a doubt, it is this. Prayer, that comes as holy fire from God, and that rises as holy incense to God- prayer, that takes me, with every need and infirmity, with every sin and sorrow, to the bosom of the Father, through the smitten bosom of the Son- prayer, that sweetens my solitude, that calms my perturbed spirit, that weakens the power of sin, that nourishes the desire for holiness, and that transports the soul, by anticipation, beyond the region of winds, and storms, and tempests, into the calmer presence of God, where all is sunshine and peace- O what a wondrous privilege is this!
That there is much of awful mystery yet to be unraveled in relation to this holy exercise of the soul, we readily admit. How prayer operates upon God we know not. That it can effect any alteration in His purpose, or change His will, or afford Him information, no one for a moment supposes. And yet, that it should be an ordained medium by which finite weakness seems to overcome Infinite strength, and a human will seems to turn the Divine will, and man's shallow mind seems to pour knowledge into the fathomless mind of God- that it should halt a threatened judgment, or remove an existing evil, or supply a present need- is a marvel in which, like all others of Divine revelation, I submit my reason to my faith, receiving and adoring what my reason cannot, unless I were God, perfectly comprehend.
The only solution which we have of this mystery of prayer, is contained in these words: "He that searches the hearts, knows what the mind of the Spirit is , because he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God." The Holy Spirit thus inditing just that petition which is in harmony with the purpose, will, and love of Him who is emphatically the Hearer and the Answerer of prayer. What a volume might be composed on the subject of prayer, and yet the half would not be told! A compilation of its achievements would of itself be the work of the longest life. Blessed are they who can enter into the spirit of these words, "I give myself unto prayer." "It is good for me to draw near unto God." "Pray without ceasing." "Praying with prayer." "If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us; and if we know that he hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him." Have you, reader, this fruit? Then, restrain not prayer before God!
"Prayer is a creature's strength, his very breath and being;
Prayer is the golden key that can open the wicket of Mercy
Prayer is the slender nerve that moves the muscles of Omnipotence;
Therefore, pray, O creature, for many and great are your needs;
Your mind, your conscience, and your being, your rights commend you unto prayer,
The cure of all cares, the grand panacea for all pains,
Doubt's destroyer, ruin's remedy, the antidote to all anxieties."
GODLY SORROW must be quoted as another fruit, good and precious, of the renewed heart. This, also, is the product of the Holy Spirit, indicating the life of God in the soul of man. No single exercise of mind is presented in the Word as holding so essential and important a place in a work of grace as this: it is absolutely indispensable as an element of conversion. There cannot be the subsequent stages of faith in Jesus, of righteousness, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit, without the previous sense and sorrow of sin. We need, on this interesting subject, no other teaching than what is contained in these words: "Thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones." Again- "For all these things has my hand made, and all these things have been, says the Lord; but to this man will I look, even to him who is of a poor and contrite spirit, and trembles at my word."
Can any truth be more strongly and affectingly stated? This, too, was the doctrine which our Lord preached: "I say unto you, that except you repent, you shall all likewise perish." And so did his Apostles, when they declared, "God now commands all men everywhere to repent." No command, no duty can be more distinctly, intelligently, and solemnly defined and urged than this. But the inquirer will ask, "What is repentance?" The reply is- it is that secret grace that lays the soul low before God- self, loathed; sin, abhorred, confessed, and forsaken. It is the abasement and humiliation of a man because of the sinfulness of his nature, and the sins of his life, before the holy, heart-searching Lord God.
The more matured believer is wont to look upon a broken and contrite spirit flowing from a sight of the cross, as the most precious fruit found in his soul. No moments to him are so hallowed, so solemn, or so sweet, as those spent in bathing the Savior's feet with tears. There is indeed a bitterness in the grief which a sense of sin produces; and this, of all other bitternesses, is the greatest. He knows from experience, that it is an "evil thing and bitter, that he has forsaken the Lord his God." Nevertheless, there is a sweetness- an indescribable sweetness, which must be experienced to be understood- blended with the bitterness of a heart broken for sin, from a sight of the cross of the incarnate God. O precious tears wept beneath that cross!
But how shall I portray the man that is of a humble and a contrite spirit? He is one who truly knows the evil of sin, for he has felt it. He apprehends, in some degree, the holiness of God's character, and the spirituality of his law, for he has seen it. His views of himself have undergone a radical change. He no longer judges himself as others judge him. They exalt him; he abases himself. They approve; he condemns. And in that very thing for which they most extol him, he is humbling himself in secret. While others are applauding actions, he is searching into motives; while they are extolling virtues, he is sifting principles; while they are weaving the garland for his brow, he, shut in alone with God, is covering himself with sackcloth and with ashes. O precious fruit of a living branch of the true Vine! Is it any wonder, then, that God should come and dwell with such a one, in whom is found something so good towards Him? O no! He delights to see us in this posture- to mark a soul walking before Him in a conscious sense of its poverty, the eye drawing from the cross its most persuasive motives to a deep prostration of soul at His feet.
Dear reader, to know what a sense of God's reconciling love is- to know how skillfully, tenderly, and effectually, Jesus binds up and heals, your spirit must be wounded, and your heart must be broken for sin. O it were worth an ocean of tears to experience the loving gentleness of Christ's hand in drying them. Has God ever said of you, as he said of Ahab, "See how he humbles himself before me?" Search and ascertain if this good fruit is found in your soul.
And what shall be said of FAITH? Truly is it the crowning grace of all, and a most costly and precious fruit of the renewed mind. From it springs every other grace of a gracious soul. It has been designated the Queen grace, because a royal train ever attends it. Faith comes not alone, nor dwells alone, nor works alone. Where faith in Jesus is, there also are love, and joy, and peace, and long-suffering, and patience, and godly sorrow, and every kindred perfection of the Christian character, all blending in the sweetest harmony, all uniting to celebrate the glory of God's grace, and to crown Jesus Lord of all. Is it, then, surprising that this should be distinguished from all the others by the term "precious faith?" No! that must needs be precious which unfolds the preciousness of every thing else. It makes the real gold more precious, and it transmutes everything else into gold. It looks to a "precious Christ." It leads to his "precious blood." It relies unqualifiedly on the "precious promises." And its very trial, though it be by fire, is "precious."
It so changes the nature of the painful, the humiliating, and the afflictive, as to turn the Father's frown, rebuke, and correction, into some of the costliest mercies of life. Precious grace that bids me look upon God in Christ as reconciled; and which, in the absence of all, evidence of sight, invites me to rest upon the veracity of God!- which takes me in my deepest poverty to Jesus, my true Joseph, having in his hands, and at his disposal, all the treasures of grace and glory! These are some of the characteristics of this royal grace. "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." By faith I can not only say that Jesus died for sinners, but that he died for me. Faith makes the great atonement mine. Faith appropriates to itself all that is in Christ. It lays its hand upon the covenant of grace, and exclaims, "All things are mine." Oh! to see one bowed to the dust under a sense of sin, yet by faith traveling to the blood and righteousness of the Lord Jesus for salvation, and finding it too- to mark the power of this grace in sustaining the soul in deep waters, holding it up in perilous paths- is a spectacle on which God Himself must look down with ineffable delight.
The application of this truth, reader, must be to your conscience- "Do you believe in the Soil of God?" Have you "like precious faith" with that which we have attempted to describe? Alas! it may be that you are that tree which does not bring forth this good fruit. Yours may be a species of fruit somewhat resembling it; but do not be deceived in a matter so momentous as this. "You believe there is one God- you do well, the devils also believe, and tremble." That is, you assent to the first proposition of true religion- the being of God; this is well, because your judgment assents to that which is true. And still you have not gone beyond the faith of demons! They believe, and yet horror inconceivable is but the effect of the forced assent of their minds to the truth- they "tremble." O look well to your faith! There must be in true faith, not only an intellectual assent, but also a heart consent. In believing to the saving of the soul, we not only assent to the truth of the word, but we also consent to take Christ as he is there set forth- the sinner's reconciliation with God. A mere intellectual illumination, or a historical belief of the facts of the Bible, will never place the soul beyond the reach of hell, nor within the region of heaven. There is a "form of knowledge," as well as a "form of godliness;" and both existing apart from vital religion in the soul, constitute a "vain religion."
Again we press upon you the important inquiry; Have you the "faith of God's elect?" Is it the faith that has stained the glory of 'merit', and laid the 'pride of intellect' in the dust? Is it rooted in Christ? Has it transformed you, in some degree, into the opposite of what you once were? Are any of the "precious fruits" of the Spirit put forth in your life? Is Jesus precious to your soul? And to walk in all circumstances humbly with God, is it the earnest desire of your heart? If there is no sorrow for sin, no going out of yourself to Jesus, no fruits of holiness, in some degree, appearing, then is yours but a "dead faith." Dead, because it is a part and parcel of a nature dead in trespasses and in sins- dead, because it is not the fruit of the quickening Spirit; dead, because it is inoperative, even as the lifeless root transmits no vitality and moisture to the tree- dead, because it never can bring you to eternal life. Of what value, then, is it? Cut it down! why does it cumber the ground? If, then, you have never brought forth the good fruit of prayer, and repentance, and faith, you are yet in the old nature of sin, of rebellion, and of death.
We are now conducted to a truly solemn branch of the subject under discussion: namely, THE IMMINENT DANGER TO WHICH AN UNCONVERTED STATE IS EXPOSED. "And now also behold the axe is laid unto the root of the tree: therefore every tree which does not bring forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire." Here is an unequivocal declaration of the over hanging judgment of Christless souls. "Their damnation slumbers not." It is "ready to be revealed." It is not that such a state is advancing to a judgment, so much as its closest proximity to that judgment, that constitutes the most solemn feature. Were you to repair to an adjacent plantation, and observe the woodman's axe lying by the side of some lifeless oak, you would naturally conclude- "here is the preparation for removal; its doom is fixed; the axe is laid at its root;" and you would naturally expect soon to see it level with the earth. You are that dead "tree that brings not forth good fruit!" At the root of your dead faith, and lifeless profession, and impenitent, prayerless, godless, Christless life, the axe of divine judgment is lying, ready to fell you to the ground. There it lies, waiting but the lifted hand of Justice, at the command of the long-suffering, but sin-avenging God- "Cut it down!" "Their judgment now of a long time lingers not." For a long time that judgment has been in abeyance- O how long!- but now it "lingers not."
Behold, "now also the axe is laid." And laid where? Not at the withered, fruitless branches merely; these, indeed, the Lord often severs. He removes gospel privileges, or withdraws great mercies, or cuts off peculiar and choice blessings; sickness, bereavement, reverses, enter the domestic circle, once bright and happy, throwing the pall of vacancy, of gloom, and of desolateness over all. In this way the Lord sometimes lays the axe at the pleasant branches of creature blessing and comfort, and they fall before our eye, leaving the heart bleeding, and brooding in gloomy loneliness over its loss. But the most alarming view of this truth is its personal relation to ourselves. The axe of God's judgment is lying at the root. In the due consideration of this fact, we lose sight of others, and concentrate all our thought and anxiety upon ourselves. It becomes now a truth of increased magnitude and solemnity; because no longer thinking of the branches which God has removed, or may yet remove from us, we are appalled by the irresistible conviction- "I must die! the axe is lying at the root."
Ah! this is the most calamitous of all divine judgments. This is the climax of horrors! This is the filling to the brim of the cup of woe. The loss of wife, or children, or property, or health, has often resulted in untold blessings to the loser. It has led him to seek and to find all that he had lost, and infinitely more, in Christ. The Eternal Spirit has made it the means and the occasion of his conversion to God. And thus while he has mourned in bitterness the severance of the pleasant branches, he has rejoiced with a joy unspeakable, in the mercy that has spared, and in the grace that has quickened, the root. And is it so, that the beloved of our hearts must die before we can live? Must bough after bough of fragrant blossom, and of pleasant fruit, be severed, before we are led to give to God our hearts and to Christ our service? Must the idol be crumbled, and its shrine be broken down, before the Holy Spirit enters to re-create, renew, and occupy us for himself? Yes, mourning reader, it is often so! "For us they languish, and for us they die."
O happy for you, if now the vacant niche in your heart is filled by him who indeed "died for us, that we might live through him." Yes, judgment is suspended over the fruitless tree. The axe is lying at the root. And when a man loses himself, it is the direst loss of all. "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world; and lose his own soul?" And what matter if a man lose all that the world esteems good, if yet he himself is found in Christ! He may lose all, and yet save himself. Ah! better that every branch, and leaf, and blossom should die, than that the root should be forever destroyed.
The periods at which the state of human probation ceases, are various. We often behold the young fall suddenly before the axe of death. The spectacle is peculiarly affecting; awfully so, if there is no hope! Picture it to your mind. The sun had scarcely risen before it set. It went down while it was yet day. The morning of life had just dawned, gilding the horizon with the golden hues of promise, when lo! the night of the grave drew rapidly on, and quenched all in darkness! There were health and beauty, vivacity and vigor. Hope predicted, and the world promised, much. A thousand avenues proffered to guide the youthful traveler to the sphere of happiness. The morning rejoiced over his head, and everything around him wore a smiling appearance. He traversed the newborn world, now bursting into beauty upon his view, cropping the unblown flower, and drinking the untasted spring. With spirits buoyant as the morning air, health blooming on his cheek, genius sparkling in his eye, visions of bliss floating before his imagination, he set out upon the journey of life. But the axe is at the root! It rises- it strikes- and in a moment the "strong staff is broken, and the beautiful rod!" Fearful, if on that tree "no good fruit" were found! Happy, if early ripe for heaven!
Such a one I knew. Nature had cast him in her finest mold. Possessed of a form of exquisite symmetry, a countenance pencilled with lines of perfect beauty and mirroring the greatness of his soul, art in her noblest chiselings never embodied the idea of a more perfect man. Learning enriched his mind; travel added to his rich stores of thought and information, and heightened the polish and the grace of his address; a poetic genius, perfectly classic, imparted an indescribable tenderness and delicacy to his sentiments; while religion, heaven-born religion, threw its sanctity and its charm over all. On his return from mingling amid the classic scenes of Homer and of Virgil, and the yet more thrilling and hallowed scenes of Christ and of his apostles, he was invested with the holy office of the Christian ministry. In its sacred duties he was permitted for a while to engage; admiring multitudes hanging on the lips that spoke so eloquently of Christ and of his cross. But fell disease was insidiously feeding at the root of this beautiful cedar of Lebanon; and when life was the sweetest and the brightest, and hope spoke most flatteringly to his ear; and when, from the precious stores of thought and sentiment, his fascinating voice flung their treasures the most lavishingly around him, at that moment he sickened, and drooped, and died! The skillful hand of affection has reared a splendid monument to his memory, the materials of which his own richly furnished mind had supplied. But his true and imperishable record is on high.
But why recall the memory of the young and the beautiful who have passed away? To give, if possible, increased force and solemnity to the exhortation which the Holy Spirit addresses to the young, "Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth." Remember Him who created you, and who created you for his glory- who fashioned your form, and who endowed your mind, and who placed you in your present position in life, be it of rank and influence, or of lowliness and obscurity. Remember him as a holy, sin-hating God, and that you stand to Him in the relation of a fallen creature, impure and unrighteous, impotent and hostile, unworthy to live, unfit to die.
Remember what He must have done, and what He must do for you if ever that relation is changed, and you become a new creature, an adopted child, an heir of glory. Remember the strong and inalienable claims which He has upon you- claims which He will never relax nor revoke. He who commanded the first of the ripe fruits, and animals of the first year, to be offered to Him, bids you remember Him in the days of your youth!- your first days, and your best, while the body is in health, and the mind is vigorous, and all the faculties of the soul fit you especially for His service and His glory. Oh remember Him now, before other things and other objects come and occupy the place which belongs to God alone. Remember your breath is in His hands; that the axe of judgment is lying at the root of the green tree as well as the dry, that the blooming flower and the young sapling are often cut down long before the stately cedar or venerable oak bows itself to the earth. Build not upon length of days- plume not yourself with the laurels which profound learning, or brilliant talent, or successful enterprise may already have won for you. See how soon they fade upon the brow which they adorn! Think of Kirke White, and of Spencer, and of Urquhart, and of M'cheyne, and of Taylor, and of Swaine, and of Griffin- those beautiful cedars of God's Lebanon, how verdant and how fragrant were the honors which went down with them to the tomb! But they early lived in the Lord, and unreservedly for the Lord- and the Lord took them early to live with himself forever. They gave to Him the first and the best, and He took them the first to glory, and has given them the best of glory. Who would not live and die as did they?
"It matters little at what hour of the day
The righteous fall asleep. Death cannot come
To those untimely, who are fit to die.
The less of this cold world, the more of heaven,
The briefer life, the earlier immortality."
Build, then, on nothing beneath the sky except an immediate and undoubted interest in Christ. Until you are born again, you are in peril; until God possesses your heart, as to any real holiness, and usefulness, and happiness, your life is a perfect blank. You live to yourself; and not to live to Him who created you, who upholds you, and who will soon judge you- is a poor life indeed. O give to Christ the golden period of your life! Bind the early sacrifice upon the altar. Lay upon it the first fruits- Jesus is worthy of your young affections, and of the earliest development of your mind. O what a treasure is Christ! To begin life with Christ in the heart, is to begin with a radiant morning- the sure prelude of a smiling day, and of a cloudless evening!
Others are cut down in the meridian of life. With them, the romance of youth is past; the ideal has vanished, succeeded by the sober reality. Immersed in its cares, entangled with its perplexities, or eager of its gains, its honors, and its pleasures, they heed not the sun's altitude; they watch not how far it has declined upon the dial of human life, and how near its setting is! With noiseless wing, time pursues its flight, and borne imperceptibly along upon the rapid current of human affairs, they realize not that they were born and are destined for another world, until they touch its confines!
"And while the scene on either side
Presents a gaudy, flattering show,
They gaze, in fond amusement lost,
Nor think to what a world they go."
A few, and but a few, are spared to the winter of old age. The fruitless tree of many years, and of long and unwearied culture, is permitted to stand as a monument of God's tireless patience. The tints of autumn are upon its once green foliage, and its branches are withered and decayed. Long has God waited for the good fruit, but none has appeared. He has looked year after year, but has looked in vain. Judgment and mercy have been sent, and both have alike proved ineffectual. No alarm, no seriousness, no reflection, no repentance, no prayer, have given evidence that within the man there dwelt a living soul. God has smitten, but he has not returned; God has smiled, but he has not loved! Oh where is there a spectacle in human life more awful and affecting than a fruitless, unconverted aged person? To see the hoary head found in the way of unrighteousness, worldliness, carnality, frivolity, hardness of heart and unbelief; instead of spirituality and sobriety, contrition and faith, is melancholy indeed. There is a worldly old age, and a sensual old age, and a frivolous old age, and a skeptical old age, and an impenitent old age.
And there is, on the other hand, a heavenly-minded old age, and a verdant, fruitful old age, and a happy old age! Dear aged reader, which is yours? You are approaching the end of all earthly things; you stand upon the borders of the invisible world; soon its tremendous realities will open upon you: this may be the last appeal; the grasp of death may be near you now, and mercy may be about to utter her eternal farewell. My heart's desire and prayer to God for you is, that you may be saved, even at the eleventh hour.
And O, should there appear, even now, in the exercise of God's rich and sovereign grace, the puttings forth of godly sorrow, and the buddings of precious faith in your soul- if now, at even-tide, it should be light- "your light rising in obscurity, and your darkness as the noon-day"- then, remember for your encouragement, the laborers who were welcomed into the vineyard at the eleventh hour; and think of the expiring malefactor, who, amid the very pangs of dissolving nature, and when his spirit trembled on the verge of eternity, uttered his cry for mercy, in penitence and faith, and was heard, and was forgiven, and was received up into glory- and press the truth to your heart, that yet there is hope for you!
And what is THE FINAL END of the "tree that bears no good fruit?" It is "hewn down and cast into the fire." Even as a tree marked for judgment, it is "hewn down." Sometimes it is by a gradual process of decay, long wasting disease bringing down the sinner to the grave. At other times it is sudden- a single stroke lays him low. "His breath goes forth, he returns to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish." All his 'thoughts' of long life, his 'thoughts' of worldly acquisition, his 'thoughts' of human fame, his 'thoughts' of domestic happiness, "in that very day his thoughts perish." A slight pressure upon the brain, a single pulse ceasing at the heart, a few moments' suspension of air, and the soul is gone, in the twinkling of an eye- gone to meet its God! The fruitless tree is hewn down!
AND WHAT FOLLOWS? Shall we lift the veil? Christ has done it. "Cast the unprofitable servant into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." O horror of horrors! O death of deaths! There they lie! They roll in billows of flame! They gnaw their chains in agony! They torment each other! They reproach themselves! They call for water! They shriek in despair! They blaspheme God! They invoke names once dear to them! They stretch out their hands! They sink, deeper, and deeper, and deeper, exclaiming, "This worm, this flame, this agony, forever- FOREVER!" Reader, there is a HELL! It is written- ah! and it is written with the pen of heaven- "The wicked shall go away into everlasting punishment." It is not the eternal sleep of the infidel- that is a dream. It is not the annihilation of the universalist- that is a lie. It is the Hell of fearful torments which the BIBLE reveals just as clearly as the heaven of ineffable delight. Yes, there is a HELL. Every moment its door opens and shuts upon some Christless sinner, entering to return no more- forever. "And now the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire." Eternal ages of torment will produce no alleviation and no change. "If the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it shall be"- and that to all ETERNITY. Reader, you must be cut down, either by the sword of God's Spirit, or by the axe of God's judgment. Which?
Many will read these pages to whom this awful character will not apply. They are "trees of righteousness, of the Lord's own right hand planting." Removed from the wilderness of unrenewed nature, sovereign grace has placed you in the Lord's garden; if this be so, then upon you rests the high obligation to aim after much fruitfulness. Do not be satisfied with the low standard of the day. We are surrounded by a worldly, time-serving, man-pleasing, temporizing profession of Christianity. Many are dead while they live. There are the leaves of Christian profession, but where are the fruits of the Spirit? Rise superior to this standard, and dare to be singular for the Lord. Remember that Christ is your "Green Fir Tree from whom is your fruit found." All contrition for sin flows from a sight of his cross; all obedience to his commands, from a sense of his love; all victory over temptation, from the power of his grace; and all consolation in sorrow, from the sympathy of his heart.
Perhaps you are bearing fruit in the midst of deep trial. Ah! never were you, it may be, so fruitful as now! Your Father never saw his image in you so fairly reflected- Jesus never saw his grace in you so triumphant- the Spirit never beheld his work so evident in your soul as now. You are bringing forth much precious fruit beneath the pruning hand of the heavenly Husbandman. Come, then, and rest your weary spirit- and satiate your hungry soul under the "Green Fir Tree." Listen how sweetly he invites you- "I am like a green fir tree; from me is your fruit found." You are one with that Tree, if you are a living branch. You are invited to come and partake of its fruit, and to sit down under its shadow. Its leaves are for your healing, its fruit is for your nourishing, its branches are for your refreshing. All that Christ is, belongs to you.
He is the Green Fir Tree- "the same yesterday, and today, and forever." No circumstance and no event can possibly effect any change in him. All that he ever was, as portrayed in the word, he is now, and will continue to be. His word is faithful, his truth is firm, his love is unchangeable. Jesus is the EVER GREEN- others may change, but he, never! He remains the same rich, loving, kind, true, and precious Brother, Friend, and Savior; when the frosts and the snows of wintry adversity have congealed every spring, and have mantled with gloom every object of creature good. Repair to him when you may, you will find him the Green Fir Tree- always the same. May the sentiments of the sweet poet be those of every reader!
"Sweet is the voice which now invites,
And bids me shelter take
In Christ, the living Tree, whose leaves
No storms shall ever shake."
"Under his shade I would abide,
And there your love, dear Lord,
Shall, to this weary heart of mine,
Rich stores of peace afford."
"With him my life is hid in God,
From him my fruit is found;
Can anything, then, tear me from his love,
Can anything my hope confound?"
"Ah, no! he is the 'Green Fir Tree,'
Firm as the rock he stands;
Our hope as firm- to him we're bound
By love's electing bands."
"When they who 'neath his shade do dwell,
As corn revive shall they,
Like lily and the vine shall grow,
But not like them decay."
"But like unto Mount Lebanon,
They shall their branches spread;
And sweetest fragrance breathe through Christ,
Their life, their rest, their head."