The Christian Professor

John Angell James, 1837


"God has called us unto holiness." 1 Thes. 4:7. Impressive idea! It is our very vocation to be holy. Holiness was the image of God in which man was created, against which the envy and malignity of Satan were directed, and which he dashed at and destroyed, when he found himself unable to reach the divine original. Holiness is the end of all God's dispensations towards his people, whether of Providence, of Grace, or of Glory. Holiness will constitute the perfection of man's moral nature in heaven. Holiness is the spotless garment in which the seraph ministers before the throne of the Eternal. Holiness is more, for it is the beauty of the Divine Being himself; not so much a separate attribute of his nature, as the perfection of all his attributes. "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all," and from the midst of his excellent glory, he is ever calling to us and saying, "Be holy, as I am holy."

True religion is conformity to God, and God is holy. Herein is Christianity distinguished from idolatry, and its infinite superiority above the classic paganism of antiquity demonstrated. Some of the philosophers, especially of the Stoic sect, delivered many fine sentiments and even beautiful maxims of a stern and rigid moralityóbut their ethics had no connection with their theology. "The gods of the Pagan heaven were little better than men's own evil qualities exalted to the sky, to be thence reflected back upon them, invested with Olympian charms and splendors. A mighty labor of human depravity to confirm its own dominion! It would translate itself to heaven, and usurp divinity, in order to come down thence with a sanction for man to be wicked." So that while men in Christian lands become wicked for lack of religion, those who dwell in heathen countries become wicked by religion. The moralist and the priest are in opposition to each other, and the former, if he would succeed in making men better, must caution them against allowing the latter to bring them within the precincts of a temple, or introduce them to the presence of a god.

But it is the excellence and glory of Christianity, that its refined morality is founded upon and arises from, its pure theology; which contains every possible motive and every necessary means to holiness. Our great business then in this world is to be made and kept holy. Our whole life is to be one incessant struggle against that moral evil, which is all around us and within us. "We are called," I repeat the expression, "to holiness!"

How emphatic, how comprehensive, is the apostolic admonition which is the subject of this chapter, "abstain from all appearance of evil." 1 Thes. 5:22. Some expositors render the expression thus, "abstain from every sort or kind of evil." In this sense, it is a most important precept. Evils are of various kinds and degrees, and it is a Christian's duty to avoid them all. He must not reconcile himself to any one thing that is contrary to God's word. He must declare war, and maintain irreconcilable hostility against every sin!

But, probably, the true meaning of the text is the commonly received one, that we are not only to abstain from those things that are really and manifestly evilóbut from such as are only doubtfully and in appearance such. We must avoid not only the identical evil thing itselfóbut all shows and resemblances of it.

1. Professors should abstain from the smallest beginnings of evil, the first buddings of sin; those things which would not be noticed in others, and are made apparent, like faint stains upon white linen, only by the white background of their profession; and which after all, in the estimation of many, are so small and insignificant, as to be rather appearances than realities. Little sins lead on to greater ones, and if they did not, and were not feared on account of what they may lead to, should be shunned for their own sakes. A female, vain of her beauty, is annoyed not only by sores upon the countenanceóbut also by freckles. A professor is not to be vain of the beauty of holinessóbut still he is to be watchful of it, and must therefore avoid the smallest disfigurement of it by sin!

2. We must not venture to the extreme verge of what is good, nor try how near we can come to evil, without actually committing it. The boundary, as I have elsewhere remarked, between right and wrong, is an invisible line, which many rash adventurers have passed, before they were aware they were approaching near to it. Besides, though it may be quite perceptible, and avoided by those who are near, yet people who are close to it may appear to others, who look from a distance, to be gone over it. It is a most dangerous thing for ourselves, to go as near sin as we can without committing it; and as to observers, there are many to whom we are certain, in such a position, to seem to be committing it. All sober, serious, conscientious, and considerate Christians, try to keep far within the territory of holiness, being aware that the border country is generally disputed ground, and much infested by marauders from the opposite land, who are lying in ambush to make captives of those who adventure beyond the line of their defense. But there are many of an opposite description, who have so little circumspection and tenderness of conscience, that if they can but keep themselves from that which is intrinsically and notoriously evil, make no scruple of venturing upon the borders and edges of sin.

3. We must take care not to "let our good be evil spoken of"ófor even virtues may be sometimes so exercised, or exercised in conjunction with such circumstances as to give them the appearance of evil. There is, in some instances, as great a lack of judgment in the doing of what is good, as there is in others a lack of conscience in the doing of what is evil, and, in the end, with much the same result; I mean, the disparagement of religion. It is truly painful to think how much of real and even eminent holiness has, in some cases, been witnessed, not only without admirationóbut with disgust; and has been spoken of rather with contempt than applause, merely in consequence of the encrustations of folly by which it has been disfigured. A professor, eminent for her earnest solicitude about her soul, in her anxiety to grow in grace, and keep up the vitality of religion, will, perhaps neglect all the duties of her household, and leave a sick child to servants in order to attend a prayer-meeting or a sermon. A second, in his zeal for the cause of Christ, will give that property for its support, which belongs to his creditors. A third, in his hatred of sin, will be guilty of all kinds of rudeness in reproving transgressors. Mercy sometimes degenerates into a pernicious weakness. Justice sometimes degenerates into harshness. Spirituality sometimes degenerates into cant. Humility sometimes degenerates into baseness. Devotion sometimes degenerates into superstition. And a tender conscience sometimes degenerates into a diseased one. If it is injurious, and most injurious it is, to the cause of holiness, to give the names of virtue to vice, and thus reconcile men to a bad thing by the 'potent spell of a good word', it is not much less so, perhaps, to disgust men against what is really good by affixing to it the appearance of what is evil. Names have a mighty influence in human affairs. Hence the woe denounced against those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Isaiah 5:20.

4. The rule commands us to abstain from what appears to ourselves of doubtful propriety. There are many things, of which the sinfulness is so manifest; which have so much of the palpable substance as well as the appearance of evil, that they are shunned without a moment's hesitation, by everyone who has the least regard to the authority of God. But there are others, the criminality of which is not so clear, and of which, therefore, even a good man may stand in doubt. We oftentimes meet with such things, and are in much and painful indecision whether we may carefully venture upon them or not. This is the state of mind, which has been called "a doubting conscience."

The apostle has laid down rules for guiding us safely out of this dilemma, and which are sufficiently plain for all ordinary cases. "He that doubts is condemned if he eats, for whatsoever is not of faith (that is, which a man does not believe he may lawfully do) is sin." Rom. 14:23. Doubts about the propriety of an action are strong presumptive evidence that it is unlawful, for they must have their origin in the perception of some appearance of evil. Yet still there are people of such a timid and nervous constitution, of such a physical incapability of coming to any conclusion that shall be free from all scruples, that if they never acted till they had got rid of all doubts, they would never act at all. The following rules may, perhaps, be of service to such people, and indeed to all.

When in the proposed actions all the doubts lie on one side, there need be no hesitation. When one action will promote our interest, and the other oppose it, the probability is, that the way of duty lies in the course which is disadvantageous to us. It is always best, in doubtful cases, to take the safer side; that which, as far as we can judge, will involve least risk of our own reputation, and be best for the comfort and well-being of others. It is well, in some difficult cases, to suppose the affair to belong to somebody else, and to look at it, as far as we can, as theirs, and then to ask ourselves the question, "How should I judge for them?" and vice versa, to suppose them looking upon us, and to say, "What will be their opinion how I ought to act?" In all cases we should consult the word of God; but not, however, to find passages which will favor that side of the question to which we are already, perhaps, inclinedóbut with a sincere desire to know the will of God, and, at the same time, accompanying this exercise with fervent prayer to God for direction. If, after all, we should be still in doubt, we may then ask the opinion and advice of some discreet Christian friend or friends, on whose judgment and conscientious impartiality we can rely.

When we have thus endeavored to know what is right, we are to proceed to action, and should not allow ourselves to be checked, interrupted, or distressed by any speculative doubts, or by the fears and misgivings of a sensitive and somewhat morbid imagination. We must be led by judgment, and, in some cases, against the doubts and fears that arise from these sources. There is frequently an apprehensiveness which makes some people pause and hesitate, and almost resolve to turn back, even when their judgment urges them on; just like that groundless fear, which makes a timid traveler doubt and ready to return, although the finger-post over his head, and the mile-stone by the wayside tell him he is right.

A really sincere desire to know and do the will of God, at all risk and all costs, will rarely leave a person in much doubt, as to what is right to be done. God has promised to guide the weak in judgment, and to show them his way. As a general principle, then, it holds good, that what appears to be evil is evil, and must be abstained from. We must not go on against the convictions of our judgment, nor even its well-grounded fears. When conscience meets us in the path we are going, striding across the road, as did the Angel to resist the progress of Balaam, we must not resolve to force a passage, and continue our course.

A question will, perhaps, arise in the minds of some, of this import, "Are we bound in all cases to follow the dictates of conscience? If so, as conscience is often misinformed, and erroneous, we may sometimes do that conscientiously, which is evil." True it is, as Christ foretold his disciples, many have thought they did God service when they persecuted and murdered his saints. And the apostle tells us, that in his unbelieving state, he verily thought he ought to do many things contrary to Jesus of Nazareth; and yet, though he did it ignorantly, at the dictate of an erroneous conscience, he calls himself on that account the "chief of sinners." It is not to be doubted that others do many evil things, and yet act conscientiously therein. How, then, are we to judge? If we say that conscience is not to be followed in all things, we depose this internal monitor from his throne, and affirm that we are not always bound to do that which we believe to be right; while, if we say we always are to follow conscience, we seem to prove that some do right in sinning against God, because they do it conscientiously.

It will help us out of this difficulty, to consider what is CONSCIENCE. It is that power which the mind possesses of judging its own actions, by comparing them with some acknowledged rule of conduct, and of approving or condemning them according as they agree or disagree with it; together with that susceptibility of self-approbation, or pain of remorse, which follows the verdict. Conscience is not the rule of actionóbut the faculty of judging ourselves by a rule. This rule is the word of God. When, therefore, the question is asked, "What is right?" we answer, not what conscienceóbut what the Scriptures declare to be so. Still, however, the question returns, ought we not to do that which we believe is enjoined upon us by the word of God? I answer, yes; but then we ought also to form a right judgment of the word itself. We are responsible for our opinions.

Our duty, therefore, may he thus statedóour conscience must be first directed by the rule of Scripture, and our lives guided by our conscience. It is certainly true, that if we act in opposition to our conscience, we sin; and no less true, that we sin if our conscience is opposed to the word of God. We hence see the necessity of searching the Scriptures with trembling awe, simplicity of mind, and earnest prayer to God. And we may rest assured that whatever we do, which is condemned by this infallible rule, will be considered and treated by God as sinful, notwithstanding it has been done at the dictate of conscience; for the error of the judgment must have originated in something wrong in the heart, some deficiency of caution in examination, or some prejudice or selfish end we wished to serve, by which evidence was resisted, and a wrong conclusion drawn.

5. We ought in many cases to abstain from what appears evil to others. Here, of course, some exceptions must be made. If anything which is good in itself should appear evil in their eyes, we are not in this case to avoid it. The whole Christian religion appeared evil in the eye of the Pagans among whom it was first propagated, and was persecuted by them as such. Protestantism appears evil in the eyes of PapistsóNonconformity appears evil in the eyes of High Churchmen; and spiritual piety appears evil in the eyes of worldly-minded people to this day. In all cases of this kind, and in whatever is our duty to God, we must disregard the opinion of the world, and do what is right. To all who would turn us from the path of duty, we must give the Apostle's reply, "Whether it be right to obey men rather than God, judge you." We must not venture upon a scandal to the church, to avoid a scandal to the world. It would be a most preposterous kind of charity to please men by disobeying God. Though all the world should utter its howl against the strictness of our religion, and demand a relaxation of it, we must not gratify their desires, nor seek to win them, by relaxing the least part of that severity which the law of God and our own conscience require of us.

If the strictness of our religion should, as it sometimes may, accidentally prove an occasion of sin to our neighbor, we are not, even on that account, to abate it. There is no doubt that fervent and consistent piety does oftentimes excite not only the ridiculeóbut the malice of the wicked. It has not unfrequently happened, that they have been provoked into a truly diabolical spirit, and have been irritated by the religion of their friends into greater lengths of wickedness, until those very friends have been ready to conceal or give up much of their religion, under the idea of preventing the wickedness it seemed to occasion. But this is wrong. Our Lord was a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence to the Jews; some were scandalized at his doctrine, as a despiser of the law of Mosesóothers at his conduct, as being a glutton and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners, and a Sabbath breakeróbut yet for all these calumnies he altered nothing in his teaching or in his conductóbut amidst all their clamors still went on preaching and doing. Those that are his disciples must also go on in their course of spiritual religion, although they should perceive that evil men on this account, wax worse and worse in their hatred of God and his people.

Much spiritual discretion, I admit, is required not to offend unnecessarily, by adding to our religion that which God has not commanded; by performing religious duties out of place and season; by the rigid maintenance of an unprescribed precision; and especially by needlessly obtruding our piety in a way that looks like ostentation and parade. All sacrifice of principle, and violations of conscience; all giving up of acknowledged duties for the sake of preventing the outbreaks of wickedness, softening prejudice, and conciliating good-will, is doing evil ourselves, to keep others from doing it.

Nor must we sacrifice our principles, and act in opposition to our conscience, even to please the church of Christ. We must separate from what we deem to be an unscriptural communion, and abstain from what we consider a sinful practice, although it be under the condemnation of many professors of religion, or even the majority of them. Separation from our brethren without a cause, and opposition to them without sufficient reason, are evil, as disturbing, without grounds, the unity and peace of the church. But where there is ground and reason for these, such conduct is strictly proper. "If that appears to be a duty to us," says Hopkins, "that has an appearance of evil to the generality of the most sober-minded and serious Christians, why, now, though this should not presently sway our consciences, yet it should engage us to make a strict search and inquiry, whether it be our duty or not; if it be that which is contrary to the opinion and practice of holy and pious Christians, it ought to have this authority with us, to put us to a stand, and to make us examine whether that we account it to be a duty or not. As, for instance, some among us at this day are persuaded that they ought to worship God one way, and some another; and what appears to be a duty to one, has the appearance of evil in it to another. Why, now, follow neither of these because it is their judgment and practice; but yet if your persuasion be contrary to the persuasion of the most pious and sober-minded Christians, this ought so far to prevail as to make men suspect lest they are mistaken, and to put them upon diligent inquiry and an important search into their grounds and argumentsóbut after all, still follow that which you are convinced in your own conscience is your duty, how evil soever it may appear to others, one way or another."

These remarks must commend themselves by their candor as well as truth, to every honest mind, and had they been acted upon by the bulk of professing Christians in every age, would have spared the ecclesiastical historian the trouble of recording the thousand angry controversies and horrid persecutions, which have disfigured his pages, and disgraced the various parties which for the time have gained the ascendant in Christendom. Schism and persecution would never have existed, though many separations wouldóbut the seceders would have acted cautiously and conscientiously, while those from whom they had retired, perceiving upon what motives they had acted, would have reverenced the principle, however they may have lamented the act, and neither attempted to crush them with the arm of power, nor brand them with the charge of schism.

The appearance of evil, which we are to avoid out of regard to the feelings of others, is such as appertains to things indifferent, or in other words, is connected with the enjoyment of our Christian liberty. Amidst the infinite diversity of human opinion, it is to be looked for, that some things of a perfectly neutral character, which may be done or not done without blame in either case, will appear evil to some; and from which, therefore, in some cases, it is both matter of charity and duty in a Christian to abstain. The manner in which we are to use our liberty in things indifferent is stated at length in Rom. 14, and 1 Cor. 8. A question had arisen in the primitive church, about the lawfulness of eating meat that had been offered to idols, and of attending the feasts that were held in the heathen temples in honor of their god. Some of the primitive professors reasoned thus, "I believe the idol to be a mere nonentity, and therefore can, not only eat the flesh of animals that had been offered in sacrifice to himóbut I can even go to his feast, for the so-called deity is, in my esteem, a nonentity, a mere name." "But," says the apostle, "be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. For if somebody sees you, the one who has this knowledge, dining in an idol's temple, won't his weak conscience be encouraged to eat food offered to idols? Then the weak person, the brother for whom Christ died, is ruined by your knowledge." 1 Cor. 8:9-11. Now, observe the apostle's noble, charitable, and self-denying resolution, "Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin, (i.e. if my example leads him to sin) I will never again eat meat, so that I won't cause my brother to fall into sin" The same reasoning is applied to a similar case stated in Rom. 14, and the same conclusion is come toó"Let us follow after the things that make for peace, and things whereby one may edify another." "We then who are strong, ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification. Even as Christ pleased not himself."

This, then, is the law of Christian liberty in things indifferent. When we do those things which we know to be lawful, yet still not obligatoryóbut which others think to be sinful, we do not act charitably, and such things therefore should be avoidedóto do them is not an act of duty, for they are confessedly indifferent, and to leave them undone is not an act of sin; while the doing of them, in such circumstances, is attended with many disadvantages. 1. Your own piety is brought into suspicion. 2. Others may be unnecessarily grieved, and the communion of saints be interrupted. 3. Some may be led by your example to do the same things in opposition to their conscience, and even to go much further in what is wrong.

Still this deference to the opinions of others has its limits, nor does it, in any case, forbid the attempt to remove their scruples by argument and persuasion. We are not obliged to consult the whims and caprices of every ignorant or fastidious individual who chooses to take exception to our conduct; nor to submit to the unreasonable and impertinent interference of everyone who assumes a right to call us to account; much less to solicit the opinions of our neighbors on all occasions, for this would be endless and ridiculous. But still a man who is regardful, and every man ought to be regardful, of his own Christian reputation, the credit of religion, and the comfort, especially the safety of his neighbor, will often say to himself, in reference to a particular action, or course of actions, "Well, although I could do this with a clear conscience, because I believe it is quite lawful; yet, as I am not obliged to do it, and I know it is thought to be wrong by others, I will abstain from it, lest I injure my religious profession in their estimation, or lead them, by my example, to do the same thing, in opposition to their own conscience."

Many a professor has injured, if not ruined his reputation forever, in the estimation of some people, by actions which appeared quite lawful in his own eyes, and, perhaps, were really soóbut they were not thought so by those observers of them. Their decision was contrary to charity; but his conduct was no less contrary to prudence. Reputation is a thing which no man may trifle withóbut which everyone must watch with a sleepless and jealous vigilance; and it is assailable from so many quarters, and wounded by such small, and seemingly contemptible weapons, that we must never be off our guard. It is not enough to do what we know to be goodóbut we must ever be studious to avoid what others imagine to be evil. We must not only be harmless as dovesóbut wise as serpents. It is our duty, in some cases, to yield to the ignorance we cannot enlighten, and to give way to the prejudice we cannot convince. We must never, I allow, carry our candor so far as to give up principle to our own harm, nor bow to prejudice to our neighbor's; but when we can give way without the risk of injury to ourselves or our neighbor, and with the probability of good to both, no obstinate attachment to our own opinion should prompt us to stand out. Great sacrifice of feeling, and considerable self-denial, will be sometimes necessary to act upon this planóbut, then, what is religion but one continued course of self denial. Taking up the cross is the condition on which alone we can be accepted as a disciple of Christ. It may, perhaps occasionally inflict a wound upon our pride, make a deduction from our self-importance, and be felt as an abridgement of our independence, to make this concession to weakness or fastidiousness; but it is due alike to ourselves, to our neighbor, and to God. It is the law of religion; and, after all, is the perfection of human character, which consists of the admixture, in due proportions, of the opposite elements of self-wilfulness and servility.

Sin, in any form, and in any degree, is so evil, and should be felt by the Christian to be so hateful and disgraceful, that he should wish to stand clear of it, and be acquitted, not only in the court of conscience, and of Godóbut at the bar of every human being upon earth. His religious character, as a professor, should be as dear to him, and guarded with as much care, as that of her social reputation to a female, to whom it is not sufficient to know that she has committed no violation of the law of chastityóbut wishes to avoid what might appear to be such, in the estimation of all, and who would not be suspected by a single individual in the world.

Professors, consider this close and comprehensive rule of conduct. It is not enough not to do evil, for we must not even seem to do itówe must avoid the first for the sake of conscience, and the second for the sake of reputation; the first for our own sake, the second for our neighbor's sake; and both for God's sake. It is not enough to ask concerning an action, "Is it lawful? "but "is it fitting?" nor must we say, "Prove that it is evil, and I will abstain from it," but "If it has the shadow, though it has not the substance, the mere show of evil, I will avoid it."

And if, then, we are to avoid the resemblances of evil, how much more evil itselfóif what only some men think to be sin, how much more what all men know to be such. And while we are to abstain from the mere likenesses of evil, we are also not to be content with the mere likenesses of good; the former as too much, and the latter as too little, to content a Christian mind. By giving ourselves to follow the shadows of evilówe may sink to perdition; while the mere shadow of good will never lead us to heaven.