The Christian Professor

John Angell James, 1837


The professors of Christianity may be divided into three classes—

1. the sincere,

2. the hypocritical,

3. the self-deceived.

Of the second class there are very few. I have rarely met with them. It is not often that anyone attains to such a pitch of audacious and disgusting wickedness, as to make, for some sinister purpose, a profession, which, at the time, he knows to be false. But, while there are few that are intentionally deceiving others, there are very many who are, unconsciously, deceiving themselves! Alarming consideration! To be self-deceived in a matter of such tremendous importance as the salvation of the immortal soul! To suppose that we are justified before God—while we are under the condemnation of his righteous wrath! To suppose that we are truly regenerated—while we are still in an unconverted state! To suppose that we are the children of God—while we are the children of the devil! To suppose that we are traveling to heaven—while each day, as it passes, brings us nearer to the bottomless pit! The very possibility of such a case should rouse our lukewarm souls, excite all our fears, and put us upon the most cautious and diligent examination.


This common, hackneyed, yes true and impressive sentiment, is thus put out by itself—boldly and prominently—that it may attract the reader's attention, and come upon his heart and conscience with all possible emphasis. A church member is not necessarily a real Christian; and outward communion with the members, is no certain proof of vital union with the Divine Head. It is to be feared that fatal mistakes are made by many on this momentous subject.

Among those who pay little or no attention to true religion, it is very commonly supposed, that dying is, somehow or other, to fit them for heaven; that some mysterious change is to pass upon them at the time of death, by which they shall be fitted for the kingdom of glory; as if death were a converting ordinance, instead of a mere physical change; a sacrament of grace, instead of a mere dissolution of our compound nature.

Others attach the same mistaken notion to the act of uniting with a Christian church; making a profession of religion, and receiving the Lord's Supper, is, in some way or other, to effect a change in them, and, by a process of which they can form no definite idea, make them true Christians.

But there are others, who, better taught, attach no such incorrect opinions to church fellowship; who admit the necessity of faith and regeneration, as prerequisites to communion—but who, after all, deceive themselves in the supposition that they possess those qualifications!

1. I shall prove that such self-deception is not only possible—but FREQUENT.

This is evident, from the many warnings against it contained in the apostolic writings. "Be not deceived," is an admonition thrice repeated by Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians. Chapter 3:16; 6:9; 15:33. How impressive is his language to the Galatians, "If any man thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself." Galatians, 6:3. The apostle James follows up the same subject. "Do not err, my beloved brethren—Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves." James 1:16. What solemn admonitions are in other places given on the work of self-scrutiny! "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!" 2. Cor. 13:5. "Let every man prove his own work.''—Gal. 6:4. But what can equal the force and impressiveness of the apostle's language and caution in reference to himself? "I keep under my body and bring it into subjection, lest that, by any means, after I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away." 1 Cor.9:27. If such a man, the greatest, the holiest, the most distinguished member, minister, and apostle of the Christian church, found it necessary to exercise such caution, what must be the need of it on our part?

The danger of self-deception is also apparent from the alarming declarations of Christ. In the parable of the sower, he divided the hearers of the word into four classes, of which one only is composed of sincere believers, although two at least out of the other three, are represented as receiving the word, and professing it for a while. How solemn and awakening are his words in the sermon upon the Mount. "Not everyone who says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my Father, who is in heaven. Many will say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? and in your name have cast out devils? and in your name have done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you—depart from me you who work iniquity.'' Matt. 7:21-23. These people were not only professors—but of high standing in the church; they were confident of their safety—yet they were lost! and there were many of them!!

Dwell upon the FACTS recorded in the New Testament—Judas, though he ended as a vicious hypocrite, began, in all probability, as a self-deceived professor. One apostle out of twelve a false professor! What multitudes at one time followed Christ, and in some way believed on him, among whom were many of the rulers of the Jews; and yet so great was the number which afterwards abandoned their profession, that our Lord put this question to the twelve—"Will you, also, go away?'' implying, that the rest had nearly all left him. Peter speaks of some "who, after they had known the way of righteousness, had turned from the holy commandment delivered unto them." 2 Peter 2:21—and John, in describing the case of some in his time, says, "They went out from us—but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us." 1 John 2:19. Let anyone read attentively the addresses to the seven churches of Asia Minor, contained in the second and third chapters of the Apocalypse, and observe the description of those communities, given by one who could not mistake; they seem to have contained, at least some of them, a great proportion of merely nominal Christians. Yet these were churches under the care of an apostle!

Does not our observation confirm the fact of the danger of self-deception? To say nothing of open apostates who turn back to sin, error, or the world, and who are cast out of the church—how many are there that still remain, who, though their inconsistencies are not sufficiently flagrant to make them the subjects of church discipline, too plainly indicate by their total lack of all spirituality and earnestness of piety, that they have nothing of Christianity but the name! It is no violation of the law of charity to say, that people so worldly in their spirit, so unsanctified in their temper, so little interested by the concerns of Christ's kingdom, either in their own church or in the world at large, are making but an empty and heartless profession.

However painful, then, the fact may be, it is a fact, that the danger of self-deception is alarmingly great.

2. Let us now inquire into the CAUSES of this self-delusion.

The first and chief is, mistaking the forms and restraint of a religious education, or a little temporary excitement of the feelings—for a real change of heart. Nothing short of this change is true piety. As partakers of a fallen and corrupt nature, we must be renewed, and not merely a little altered. "Except a man be born of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven." The mind may be interested, the feelings may be moved, the conduct improved—and yet the heart remain unchanged. As long as this is the case, there is no abiding principle, no root of godliness in the soul. Everything but the new nature will subside; all will fall off but the new nature.

It is to be expected that, under the exciting preaching of the present day, many will be impressed, seem to be converted, and walk well for a time, who are not truly born again. Their opinions are scriptural, their conduct is correct, and they are admitted to the church upon a profession of their faith—and there is no reason why they should not be. After a while the novelty of religion ceases, their affections grow cold, and although they do not, perhaps, become profligate, or leave the church, they settle down into a mere formal attendance upon the means of grace, and remain in this miserable state—until death sends them into the eternal world!

The danger is increased by the present external peace and unmolested liberty of the church. In the primitive days of Christianity, and often since, the profession of religion was attended with imminent peril of goods, liberty, or life. Persecuting laws were against those who believed in Jesus, and confessed their faith. They had, indeed, to take up their cross! and it was through much tribulation they entered the kingdom of God. In such circumstances it might be imagined, no man would profess himself a Christian, who was not really one. We can suppose that a prison and a stake, would be a sufficient check, not only upon hypocrisy—but upon mere nominal religion. But even this was not always effectual—self-deception existed even then. How much more likely is it that it should prevail now, when a profession of piety, so far from exposing us to scorn, contempt, and suffering—is a means of procuring for us an increase of esteem and affection? Evangelical religion and an avowal of it—have become almost fashionable. There is now no fiery ordeal to pass through as a test of our sincerity; no sifting process to separate the chaff from the wheat; and, as a natural, though fatal consequence, many profess the gospel, who are strangers to its power and efficacy.

The wide and easy access to communion which is afforded by some churches increases the danger. It cannot be said of them, as it is of the church mentioned in the word of God, that their gates shall be opened continually, and shall not be shut day nor night—for they can scarcely be said to have any gates at all; or if they have, there is no porter at the gate, to ask the password of him who enters. True it is, the entrance ought not to be made narrower than Christ has made it. No unscriptural terms of communion should be imposed; no bars nor obstacles set up to keep out those who have a right to enter in; no scaring usages adopted to frighten away timid minds—but surely somebody, either pastor, or people, or both together, should, with holy caution, Christian tenderness, and experienced minds—examine those who wish to be admitted to fellowship. Not, indeed, for the sake of indulging and showing inquisitorial authority—but for guarding the young disciple against deception; and, also, if he be not correct in his views either of the truth or of himself, for teaching him the way of God more perfectly. If, therefore, nothing more be required, than for a person to declare himself a Christian without any examination, how great is the danger of his "thinking he is something while he is nothing."

The injudicious persuasions of ministers and friends, have led many to make a profession of religion, before, in fact, they had any real religion to profess. A too eager wish to have a large church, and thus to magnify their pastoral importance, and to multiply the proofs of their usefulness—a most censurable, because injurious kind of 'ministerial vanity'—has made some far too hasty in introducing people to Christian communion; others from feelings of false delicacy have, amidst many suspicions of its sincerity encouraged a profession, rather than wound the minds of the candidates, by suggesting a doubt of their real conversion to God. While there are some, who, acting upon the supposition that religious impressions are likely to ripen into conversion by the advantages of church fellowship, encourage the subjects of them to come forward and publicly profess their faith in Christ before they have any.

Nor is the conduct of some good people less injudicious sometimes towards their relations. A husband feels a pang in his heart at every sacramental season, at the wife of his bosom rising and retiring from his side, when he is about to receive the eucharistic memorials. To a wife, who to all her natural affection for her husband, adds a tender solicitude for his eternal welfare, it is a great and painful deduction from her spiritual enjoyment that she goes alone to the supper of the Lord. Parents long to have their children with them in the fellowship of the church. Hence, in all these cases, there is sometimes much persuasion used to induce the unconverted relative to assume the name, and make the confession of a Christian.

Now, where there is a firm hope, a hope founded on convincing evidence, that the object of solicitude is truly regenerated, and made a partaker of saving grace, this is very proper. But where this evidence is lacking, where there is no good ground for believing that a genuine spiritual change has taken place, it is a most misplaced and mischievous concern to wish such people to enter into the church. It is aiding their self-deception, and being accessory to a delusion, which places them at the farthest bounds from salvation. They are much more likely to be converted outside of the church—than in it. Many who have persuaded their friends to make an untimely, because insincere profession, have lived to repent of their mistaken concern, by seeing accumulating evidence that their relative, though a church member, was certainly not a Christian.

The improper reliance that some professors have upon the strict mode of examination adopted by most of our churches is another source of delusion. They have been interrogated by the pastor, whose scrutiny has been aided by some of the deacons or members; they have submitted, either verbally or in writing, a statement of their opinions and feelings, as well as a history of their alleged conversion to God, and on this ground have been received and approved, as truly regenerated. "Can such judges," they ask themselves, "be mistaken? Such examiners, so competent, so impartial, so particular—form a wrong conclusion? They think not!" Their piety is thus authenticated, their profession attested, and their safety undoubted. All is right, they assume. Such is their reasoning; and when in after times a doubt is raised, raised perhaps on grounds which ought to be conclusive, as to the fact of the falseness of their profession, they silence the voice of conscience, by pleading against its testimony, their admission to the church, after the most rigid examination. Hence, the importance of the pastor's never giving, at the admission of a member, an opinion that he is truly converted—but throwing the whole judgment of the case upon the member's own conscience as in the sight of a heart-searching God; and thus making him responsible for the consequences of any wrong conclusion he may draw concerning his spiritual condition.

Look at these things, and learn whence the danger comes, and how imminent the danger is of self-delusion as to our state before God, and our safety for eternity. It is not saying too much to affirm, that multitudes are thus deluded. The dark memorial of the Laodicean church is a fearful proof that whole communities of professing Christians may be in this appalling condition. It is one of the cunning artifices, the deep devices, the artful machinations of Satan—to lead men into self-deception, when he can no longer hold them in careless indifference; to ruin their souls in the church, when he cannot effect it in the world; to lull them asleep by the privileges of church fellowship, when he cannot continue their slumber amidst the pleasures of sin. O how many is he leading captive this way? How many is he conducting to perdition, whom he has first blindfolded with the bandage of a false profession? How many are there in all our churches, who are in this dreadful state!

3. We now contemplate the CONSEQUENCES of this self-deception.

Self-deception corrupts the purity of the church. Members in this state, are the wood, hay, and stubble, in the walls of the spiritual temple, which disfigure its beauty and impair its strength. They are Achans who trouble the camp of Israel, and bring down the displeasure of the Lord upon them. They are the disease of the spiritual body which swell its numbers—but destroy its health. Do they by their prayers bring down the blessing of God upon the pastor or the members? Alas! they don't even pray for themselves! Do they by their piety diffuse vitality and energy through the community? No! They are cold, lifeless, dead. Do they by their consistency attract others to the church? On the contrary, they disgust and repel others! Instead of aiding the force of that concentrated light, by which the church shines upon the dark world around, they envelop it with smoke. Instead of acting as the salt of the earth, they bring corruption into the kingdom of Christ. They are not only negatively an injury—but positively—they do harm at all times—but especially on occasion of strife, they are the fuel that feed the flames of discord.

As it respects religion they disparage and injure it, not so much by raising against it the cry of hypocrisy because of immorality—as by lowering its standard, depreciating its value, diminishing its power, carnalizing and secularizing it, and reducing it to a greater conformity to the spirit of the world—so that many people seeing no difference between such professors and themselves, except the mere circumstance of profession, think such a religion not worth their notice.

But as to the nominal professor HIMSELF, how truly dreadful is the consequence of his delusion. He is perhaps the most hopeless character on earth. Before he assumed the name of a Christian, there was hope of him that he would be impressed, convinced, and converted, by some of those discriminating discourses which point out the difference between a regenerated and an unregenerated man; those pungent appeals to the conscience which are so often blessed in awakening those who are outside the church—but now he is armored against all these. He is a professor, a church member; and with this as his shield he wards off every arrow of conviction from his heart. These things he says are for the unprofessing, not for him. Quietly his conscience sleeps amidst all the thunders that roll from the pulpit, while the lightnings carried off by the shield of his profession, touch not his false hopes, and leave him completely secure.

He puts away from himself all the threatenings of the word—though they are pointed at him; and takes to himself all the privileges and consolations of the righteous—though he enjoys none of them. If at any time the power of the deception begins to be shaken by the efforts of a half-awakened conscience, and there rises up a suspicion, that he is not a truly pious man—Satan aids him to regain his delusive quietude by the usual suggestion, that he is a professor, a church member, and that though he is not perfect, he is not farther from it than many others—he only partakes of the general delusion of the times, and if he is wrong, who is right? Besides, what is he to do? He is a church member, and would he begin again? Would he repent, believe, and be converted now? Such logic is generally successful, and the poor creature lies down again to sleep on the sleep of death. Notwithstanding the great number of professing Christians which exist, and the great numbers of unconverted ones too, how rarely do we meet with any who were converted after they became professors? How seldom do any such come to their pastor, and express a fear, and follow it up, that they have never been truly changed.

Hence it is, that some ministers feel it to be the greatest perplexity of all their pastoral avocations, to give answers to people, who come to advise with them on the subject of making a profession. If from suspicion that their hearts are not yet right with God they dissuade them, they may be discouraging those whom they ought to receive and encourage—sending away a babe that ought to be laid in the bosom of the church—breaking the bruised reed and quenching the smoking flax. While on the other hand, if they encourage the inquirer to come forward, they may be strengthening the delusion of a self-deceived soul, and become accessory to the ruin of an immortal spirit. Some conscientious men have found and felt this to be the very burden of their lives, and from which there is no way of gaining relief or ease—but by laying down the marks of true conversion, begging the questioner to bring forward his heart to this test, stating what is implied in a Christian profession, and making him, as has been already said, responsible for the judgment of his own case, and all its consequences too.

But extend your views to another world, and anticipate, if you can, the consequences of self-deception as they exist and are perpetuated through Christianity. Bunyan, in his matchless allegory, the "Pilgrim's Progress," after representing the rejection of a false professor, called Ignorance, who had knocked at the portals of heaven, and asked admission, concludes his book with these solemnly impressive words, "Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven—as well as from the city of destruction!"

A professor in hell!! Frightening idea! Horrifying thought! After spending his time on earth in the fellowship of saints, to spend his eternity in the actual society of devils in hell! After belonging to the society of God's people; joining in all their services and their privileges; transacting with them the business of his kingdom; uniting with them in the expulsion as well as the reception of members—then to be sent away into the prison of lost souls! O how dreadful would it be to be separated from the church of God now, to pass under the sentence of excommunication, to be excised as a corrupt member of the body, and given over to Satan! But what is this to the sentence of excommunication from the church triumphant, pronounced by Jesus Christ himself at the last day? O to hear HIM say, depart! Who does not feel the force of those impressive verses—

O lovely chief of all my joys,
O sovereign of my heart,
How could I bear to hear your voice,
Pronounce the sound, depart?

The thunder of that dismal word
Would so torment my ear,
Would tear my soul asunder, Lord,
With most tormenting fears.

O wretched state of deep despair,
To see my God remove,
And fix my doleful station where
I could not taste his love.

4. Let us now consider what MEANS are necessary and proper for you to adopt to avoid deception. Dwell upon the subject. Ponder it deeply. Let it take hold upon your mind, and your mind take hold upon it. Let it not be dismissed from you with the same ease as you send into oblivion many other subjects of a religious nature. It is unusually momentous, and has an solemness about it far beyond the usual topics of reflection. The very idea is dreadful—a self-deceived professor; a professor going to perdition! The frequency of it makes it still more alarming. If it were only a bare possibility, an occurrence that might exist, yet that rarely did exist—it would still demand our serious attention—but when it is so common, that it is to be feared there is scarcely any church in which there are not some in this situation, and no large church in which there are not many—how serious, how alarming a matter does it become!

You should bring the matter home to yourselves, and admit not only the possibility of the danger in the abstract, or in reference to others—but in reference to you. Your profession does not necessarily imply the actual possession of religion. You must not receive it as evidence that you are Christians. In those moments, and such it is presumed you spend, when with more than usual concern, you ask the question, "Am I really a child of God?" it is not enough to reply, "I am a professor," for this in any state of the church, and especially the present one, is not a proof, scarcely a presumption, that you are born again of the Spirit. It is possible then, that you may be deceived, and you should not imagine that there is anything in your circumstances to render the idea inapplicable to you.

You should dread the thought of being deluded. Its fearful consequences should be solemnly meditated upon, seriously and piously revolved. It should be often said with holy trembling, "Oh, if I should be at last deceived!"

You should examine your state, frequently, deliberately, solemnly, and impartially. Time should be set apart, occasionally, for the special purpose of prayer and self-scrutiny. You should have times and opportunities of more than usual length and earnestness for self-examination, when you should look again, and with more intenseness, upon your evidences of personal religion. When your former and your present state, your supposed conversion, your conduct, and the state of your affections, shall all come under review—when with a wish not to be deceived, you shall ask yourselves for the reasons of the hope that is in you. It is too important a matter to be taken for granted! The consequences of deception are too dreadful and remediless to be carelessly risked!

Nor is it enough to trust to your own examination. Aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart, and our proneness through self-love to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, and at the same time recollecting how much interest we have in believing we are right, you should beseech God to make known to you your real condition. You should carry to him the prayer of David, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Psalm 139:23, 24. You should deal honestly with God, and tell him that you wish to know your state, and that you deprecate as the heaviest judgment that could befall you—being deceived.

If you have reason, upon examination, to think you have taken up a false opinion of your case, do not blind yourselves to your condition; do not conclude against evidence, that you are safe; do not attempt to silence the voice of conscience or corrupt its testimony—this is worse than useless, it is most alarmingly dangerous, and is the last stage of the delusion. Instead of this, begin afresh. What is to hinder you? If you are not converted—you may yet be converted. Let not the idea of a false profession throw you into despondency. God is as willing to forgive the sin of a false profession, just as the sin of no profession. The blood of Jesus Christ can cleanse you from this sin. Now repent, now believe, now hope, now love. God waits to be gracious even yet. It is not too late to be renewed yet. The door of mercy is not closed yet. Sincerity of profession is not beyond your reach yet. Begin to be in earnest. Determine to trifle no longer. Set apart time for private prayer, reading the scriptures, and holy meditation. Be diligent in attendance upon the public means of grace. Make a fresh and entire surrender of yourself to God. But especially look by faith to Jesus Christ, for the pardon of your past insincerity, lukewarmness, and worldliness. Be humble, very humble in your own eyes, and before God; but still do not despair. Exercise dependence upon the Spirit of all grace, confide in his power, and rely upon his mercy. Be thankful that since you were in error, you have discovered it, and have not been permitted to go on in darkness until you had stumbled over the precipice into the yawning pit of destruction below!

If, upon examination, you have good reason to think all is right, rejoice in Christ Jesus. Let the peace of God which passes all understanding, rule in your hearts, to which you are called—and be thankful. "Comfort! comfort my people, says your God, speak you comfortably to Jerusalem.'' This discourse is intended not to disturb the peace of God's people—but to destroy the false confidence of his disguised foes.

There are two classes of professors to whom the alarming appeals of it do not apply; the first, are those eminent Christians who have the fullest assurance of hope, and whose assurance is sustained by the joy of faith, the obedience of love, and the patience and purity of hope—whose religion is so vigorous and influential as to be self-evident to themselves and others. They have scarcely need to ask the question, "Am I a child of God?" for the proofs of it are ever within them. Blessed state! happy Christians! and all are invited to become such.

But there is another class who are not likely to be deceived; those who are truly, and sometimes sorrowfully, concerned about the matter; who are often trying themselves by the Word of God; who know, if they know anything, they would not be deluded for ten thousand worlds; who, notwithstanding their many imperfections, their painful consciousness of defects, still know they do love the Lord Jesus Christ, though with too lukewarm an affection; who, notwithstanding all their doubts and fears, are conscious of a real and sometimes an intense longing after holiness. Be comforted, you timid followers of the Lamb—self-deceivers are rarely afraid that this is their state and character. Dismiss your fears and go on your way rejoicing.