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The Christian Father's Present to His Children

by John Angell James, 1825


A quaint but eminently spiritual poet of the last century, has a poem entitled, "Strife in Heaven"—a singular idea to attach to that region of untroubled repose. The design of the piece, however, is ingenious and interesting. A company of the redeemed above, are represented as discussing, in a spirit of perfect love, the question, "which of them was most indebted to divine grace for his salvation?" Among these grateful and holy debaters, two appeared to have claims for the greatest weight of obligation to sovereign mercy, so nearly balanced, as to render it difficult to say which owed most. One was a glorified spirit, converted in old age, after a long life of sin; the other was a saint redeemed in youth, and who spent as long a life in holiness. The one contended, that his forgiveness, after such a lengthened course of vice and destructive conduct, made him the greatest monument of saving love in heaven; "except," exclaimed the other, "myself; who, by divine grace, was prevented from that course of sin, and was enabled by true religion to spend my years in holiness and usefulness." I think the happy throng must have confessed the justice of the younger person's claims; Omniscient wisdom from the throne must have confirmed their judgment; and in heaven it must have been decided that they owe most to sovereign grace, who have been called by its power to the service of God in their youth.

Youth is a season which presents peculiar advantages for the pursuit of piety.

It is attended in general, with more leisure and less care, than any subsequent period of life. As yet, my children, you are not entangled in the concerns of business, nor the cares of a family. The ten thousand tumultuous anxieties of a father or a mother, do not yet fill your minds, and exclude all other topics. Tell us, you fathers, struggling with the difficulties of a precarious trade; and you mothers, absorbed in the duties of a rising family; which, do you think, is the best time to begin the pursuit of eternal life? With tears they respond, "Seize! O seize, young people, the halcyon days of youth!"

Youth is a season of greater susceptibility of mind than any which follows it.

In nature's spring-time, the soil is best prepared for the reception of the seed; and the energies of vegetation are most vigorous; so it is with the mind. In youth the heart is more easily impressed, the affections more readily moved, the imagination is more lively. You have an ardor and fervency most remote from the timid, hesitating caution of old age, and eminently favorable to conversion. Disdaining all resistance, ambitious of great achievements, full of high resolves, and leaping over opposing obstacles, youth surveys, with sparkling eyes, the crown of its wishes, braces itself for action, and flies to the goal; while old age, creeping fearfully along, afraid of every difficulty, discouraged by the least resistance, can scarcely be impelled to move. I know that these things of themselves are not sufficient to make you holy—but when grace sanctifies them, and directs them to proper objects, they must render your entrance on true religion more easy, your progress more rapid, and your enjoyment more strong.

Youth are less hardened in sin, than people of riper years.

The depravity of our nature grows with our growth, and strengthens with our strength. Like a tree, it strikes its roots deeper, and takes a faster hold on the soil every year. You have principles of corruption already in your hearts, my children—but they have not, by long indulgence, become so stiffened into habit, as they may be at some future time. Your prejudices and biases are yet few, and feeble. As yet the sentiments of modesty and propriety, and a regard to the opinions of others, would make you blush for acts of vice, and endeavor to conceal them from the world.

In riper years you will assume a boldness in iniquity, disregard the censures of others, and cease to be restrained by them. Conscience has not yet been deeply corrupted; it still preserves something of its tremulous delicacy, and sharp sensibility; it still elevates its warning voice, and strongly remonstrates against your least deviation from the path of virtue. But in the aged sinner, weary of useless reproof, it is almost silent, or totally disregarded. We know that without divine grace, conversion, in any case, cannot take place—but we know, at the same time, by observation, that divine grace very often follows in the order of nature.

Youth are pre-eminently encouraged to seek the possession and influence of piety.

There are many invitations, promises, and injunctions, specially addressed to them. "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth." "I love those who love me, and those who seek me early shall find me." Under the Jewish dispensation, God called for the first-fruits of all things, intending, no doubt, to teach, among other lessons, his delight in the dedication of the first fruits of our life to his service. How pleased was the Redeemer with the hosannas of the children, and how deeply was he concerned in the case of that hopeful youth, who came to inquire of him the way to life! And does not the parable of the prodigal son teach us how welcome is the return of the young to the Father of Mercies? God chose David, the youngest son of the family; and set his love upon Jacob, while Esau the elder is passed by. Among all the disciples, John was the most beloved, and he was, at the same time, the youngest.

But still the principal design of this chapter is to set forth the ADVANTAGES attendant on the possession of early piety.

1. Of these advantages, some relate to OTHERS.

This will cause you to be a source of ineffable delight to your parents; and probably render you a blessing to your brothers and sisters. Piety in youth will render you a benefactor to your species, and a blessing to society. Instead of seducing others by a bad example, you will benefit them by the influence of a good one; instead of poisoning others by corrupt principles, you will scatter along your path the seeds of truth, piety, and morality; instead of drawing down the vengeance of God upon society by your crimes, you will bring down his blessing by your prayers. You will benefit society in the most elevated and successful manner; and by your good conduct, and the support of Christian institutions, do more, in connection with others of a similar disposition, for the good of your country, than fleets and armies can achieve.

In the memoirs of that truly apostolic missionary, Henry Martyn, occurs the following anecdote, which most forcibly illustrates the subject of the influence of filial conduct upon parental and domestic comfort and respectability. "Visited the hospital this day, and read the eleventh chapter of John to a poor man, in whose room, at the workhouse, I was struck with the misery that presented itself. He was lying with his clothes and hat on, upon the bed, dying. His wife was cleaning the room, as if nothing was the matter; and upon the threshold was the daughter, about thirty years old, who had been delirious thirteen years." What a scene of wretchedness! What a miserable group! It is a picture from which the mind turns with the deepest emotions of distressful pity. But, oh! the cause of this misery! "The dying man," continued Mr. Martyn, "was once a respectable innkeeper in the town—but the extravagance of a son brought him to poverty, and his daughter to insanity." What must have been the feelings (except, indeed, vice had turned his heart to stone) of the guilty author of this complicated misery, when he saw the consuming grief of his broken-hearted father, and heard the wild ramblings of his maniac sister, while conscience thundered in his ear, "You are the cause of this dreadful calamity!" How many broken hearts, and insane minds, has similar conduct produced! How many are at this moment bending to the grave, or shut up in the cells of a lunatic asylum, who—but for profligate children, might have been living in health, sanity, and respectability!

2. Innumerable advantages will result from early piety to YOURSELF.

Early piety will exert a friendly influence over your temporal interests. It will open springs of consolation all along your path through the valley of tears, whose waters adapted to every condition, shall never fail. True religion, chosen in youth as your guide, companion, and friend, will attend you through all the journey of life; will go with you where you go, and dwell with you wherever you dwell; she will accompany you when with many tears you leave the parental roof, and you go forth, a young adventurer, into the world. She will travel with you in the wilderness, or sail with you on the ocean. She will abide with you in a mansion, or inhabit with you the poor cottage. When every other friend forsakes you, she will cling to you the closer. She will smile on you, when every other face is covered with a frown. She will put forth all her energies to comfort you in the time of your humbled fortunes. In seasons of perplexity, she will guide you to the fountain of light. When oppressed with care, she will place you on the rock of ages. In the storms of affliction, she will cast forth for you the anchor of hope. And in times of dreary desolation, she will enable you, by faith, to see the land which is afar off—the land of promise and of rest.

Early piety is a distinguished honor. If there be true honor in the universe, it is to be found in true religion. Even the heathen were sensible of this; hence the Romans built the temples of virtue and honor close together, to teach that the way to honor was by virtue. True religion is the image of God in the soul of man. Can glory itself rise higher than this? What a distinction! to have this luster put upon the character in youth. It was mentioned by Paul as a singular honor to the believing Jews that they were the first to trust in Christ; and in referring to Andronicus and Junia, he mentions it to their praise that they were in Christ before him. To be a child of God, an heir of glory, a disciple of Christ, a warrior of the cross, a citizen of the New Jerusalem, from our youth up, adorns the brow with amaranthine wreaths of fame. A person converted in youth, is like the sun, rising on a summer's morning to shine through a long bright day—but a person converted late in life, is like the evening star, a lovely object of Christian contemplation—but not appearing until the day is closing, and then seen but for a little while.

Early piety will be of immense importance to you in the various relations of life in which you may stand. If you are parents it will dispose and enable you to train up your children in the fear of God. It will prevent you from neglecting the immortal interests of those who are committed to your care. How many parents are accessory to the murder of their children's souls; blood-guiltiness rests upon their conscience, and the curses of their own offspring will be upon them through eternity! In those cases where people are redeemed late in life, what anguish is sometimes felt on seeing their children wandering in the broad road that leads to destruction; and on remembering that they themselves, were the means of leading them astray. "Oh, my children! my children!" they exclaim, "I wish I had known true religion earlier for your sakes. Why did I not seek the Lord in youth? Then I would have trained you up in the fear of God, and have been spared the agony of seeing you walking in the path of destruction; or, at least, have been spared the torturing reflection, that it was through my neglect you despised true religion."

Early piety will be a guard to you against the temptations to which we are all exposed in this life. Temptations to sin, like the wind, come from every quarter. In company, in solitude, at home, abroad, in God's house, and in our own—we are always open to attack. Business, pleasure, companions—all may become a snare. We never know when, or from what, or in what way to expect the assault. At one time we may be tempted to infidelity—at another to immorality; now to licentiousness—then to intemperance. Piety is the only effectual guard of our character. Luther tells us of a young believer who used to repel all temptations with this exclamation, "Begone, I am a Christian." My children, adopt the same character, and maintain it with the same constancy and success. When Pyrrhus tempted Fabricius, the first day with threats of punishment, and the next day with promises of honor—the Roman nobly replied, "I fear not your force, I am too wise for your fraud." True religion will enable you to say the same to every one who threatens or allures. Neglect piety in youth, and who shall say how long in vice and infamy you may be found in after life? Omit to take with you this shield, and your moral character may be destroyed, or receive a wound—the scar of which you may carry to the grave.

Early piety will thus leave you fewer sins to bewail in after life. Among other things which the illustrious Beza gave thanks to God for, in his last will and testament, was this—that he became a real Christian at the age of sixteen, by which he was prevented from the commission of many sins, which would otherwise have overtaken him, and rendered his life less happy. Every year's impenitence, must cause many years' repentance. If you neglect true religion in youth, God may give you up to the delusions of infidelity, or to the practices of immorality—and during this unhappy season—of what remediless evil may you be the occasion? How many companions may you lead astray by your crimes; who, admitting that you are afterwards reclaimed by grace, are not so easily led back by your virtues.

Instances have occurred in which young men, during the days of their impiety, have perpetrated the horrid crime of corrupting female virtue, and then abandoned the hapless victim of their passion. Cast off as a guilty worthless thing, the injured partner of his sins has added iniquity to iniquity, and she who—but for her betrayer—might have lived a long and virtuous life, has sunk amid disease, and poverty, and infamy—to an early and dishonored grave. God, in the mysteries of his grace, has, in after years, given repentance to the greater criminal of the two. But can he forget his crime? Oh no! God has forgiven him—but never, never can he forgive himself! Not even the blood which has washed away the guilt from his conscience, can efface the history of it from the page of memory; nor floods of tears deaden the impression which it has left upon the heart. He cannot restore the virtue he destroyed, nor refund the peace, which with felon hand, he stole from a pure bosom—until it knew him. He cannot rebuild the character he demolished, much less can he rekindle the life which he extinguished—or call back from the regions of the damned the miserable spirit which he hurried to perdition! Ah! that spirit now haunts his imagination, and as she exhibits the mingled agony, fury, revenge, and despair of a lost soul, seems to say, "Look at me, my destroyer!" For a while he can see nothing but her flames, and hear nothing but her groans.

Early piety would have saved him from all this. Late piety brings him salvation for another world—but it comes not soon enough to save him from remorse in this.

Early piety will procure for you, if you live so long, the honor of an aged disciple. A person converted late in life is a young disciple—though a gray-headed man. An aged hero, who has spent all his years contending for the liberties of his country; or a philosopher, who has long employed himself in improving science; or a philanthropist, who has become old in relieving needs, are venerable sights—but far inferior, if they are destitute of true religion, to the aged Christian who has employed half a century in glorifying God, as well as doing good to man. An aged pious disciple is honored in the church, and respected even in the world. His hoary head is lifted like a crown of glory among other and younger disciples, over whom his decaying form throws its venerated shade. How rich is he in experience of all the ways of godliness! Like a decrepit warrior, he can talk of conflicts and of victories. Younger Christians gather round him to learn wisdom from his lips, and courage from his feats, and to show him tokens of respect. By his brethren in Christ he is regarded with veneration; his presence is always marked with every demonstration of respect, and his opinion is listened to with the profoundest deference. He is consulted in emergencies, and the fruits of his experience are gathered with eagerness. His virtues have been tried by time, the surest test of excellence, and they have passed the ordeal with honor.

That suspicion and skepticism, which innumerable moral failures have produced in some minds, as to the reality of true religion in general, and the sincerity of any of its professors, retire from the presence of such a man, convinced of the injustice of its surmises; and even the infidel and the profane bear a testimony to his worth, which his long-tried consistency has extorted. "There, at least," say they, "is one good man, whose sincerity has been tried by the fluctuating circumstances and varying situations of half a century. His is no mushroom piety, which springs up in a night, and perishes in a day. The suns of many summers, and the storms of many winters have passed over it; and both adversity and prosperity have assailed and demonstrated its stability. We begin, after all, from that very character, to believe that there is more in true religion than we have been apt to imagine."

Early piety, if persisted in, prepares for a comfortable old age. The condition of an old man without piety, is wretched indeed. He presents to the eye of Christian contemplation, a melancholy spectacle. As to all the grand purposes of existence, he has passed through the world in vain. Life to him has been a lost adventure. Seventy years he has sojourned in the region of mercy, and is going out of it without salvation. Seventy years he has dwelt within reach of redemption, and yet is going to the lost souls in prison. If he is insensible of his dreadful case, he is going to ruin asleep—but if a little awakened, how bitter are his reflections. If he looks back upon the past, he sees nothing but a wide and dreary waste, where the eye is relieved by no monuments of piety—but is scared by memorials of a life of sin; if he looks at his present circumstances, he sees nothing but a mere wreck of himself, driving upon the rock of his destiny and destruction. But the future! oh! how can he look on that, which presents to him death, for which he is not prepared; judgment, from which he can expect nothing but condemnation; heaven which he has bartered for fleeting pleasure, the remembrance of which is now painful, or insipid; hell, which he has merited, with its eternity of torments, by his iniquities. The spirit of spent years and departed joys flit before him, and points to these regions of woe, where sinful delights conduct the sensualist and voluptuary.

Miserable old man! the winter of life is upon him, and he has nothing to cheer his cold and dreary spirit; nor any spring to look forward to; the night of existence has come on; not a star twinkles from heaven upon his path; nor will any morning dawn upon the gloom which enwraps him. Such is the old age of those who do not remember God in their youth—and carry on their oblivion of true religion, as such people generally do—to the end of life!

But should any one be called at the eleventh hour, such a convert will be subject, at times, to the most painful doubts and apprehensions; he questions the reality of his religion; he fears that it is the result of circumstances, not of a divine change; he is afraid that, like a half shipwrecked vessel driven into port by the violence of the storm, rather than by the effort of the crew, he has been forced to religion more by the terrors produced by approaching death, than by the choice of his own will. He often concludes that he never forsook the world, until he could no longer retain it; and that he renounced the enjoyments of earth only because, from the decay of his body, from the feebleness of his mind, and the weakness of his fancy, he is unable to indulge in them. These, and other similar fears, generally occasion, in people converted in old age, a painful hesitancy concerning the security of their state; prevent them from going on their way rejoicing, and hang like a cloud upon the prospect of immortality.

How much more cheering and consolatory are the reflections of the aged Christian, who remembered his Creator in the days of his youth. He too has arrived at the wintry days of existence—but, like the inhabitant of a well-stored mansion, he has a thousand comforts which enable him to hear the howling of the tempest without a fear, and to look on the dreariness of the scene unconscious of a need. And then, in addition to this, the days of everlasting spring approach. He too is overtaken by the evening; his shadow lengthens on the plain—but the heavens pour upon him the glory of God, while the word in which he trusted, is a lamp unto his feet—and an eternal day is about to dawn upon his soul. In the past he sees the long interval between the season of youth, and the furrowed countenance of age, filled up, in some good degree, with works of devotion, righteousness, and benevolence—whereby he has glorified God, benefited his species, and prepared a balm for his memory. No sins of youth fill his bones with pain, nor his spirit with remorse.

He has little doubt of his sincerity; for his life, though it affords him no ground of dependence for salvation, furnishes him with numerous evidences of the faith which justifies the soul, and purifies the heart. He forsook the world when most capable of enjoying it; he was not driven by force to true religion—but deliberately weighed anchor, and, with every sail set, steered for the haven of piety. He has resisted innumerable attacks upon his principles, and against every foe has held fast his integrity. On the verge of life he can say, "I have kept the faith. I have fought a good fight, I have nearly finished my course; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of life, which God the righteous Judge will bestow upon me."

Surely, surely my children, an old age thus serene and venerable, is an object worthy of your desires! Surely these peaceful recollections, these sublime prospects, amid the dreariness of old age, are deserving your exertions!

Early piety will have a considerable influence on your eternal felicity. In dwelling upon the two different and contrary states of heaven and hell, we are not to conceive of them as conditions of being, where all people in heaven will be equally happy—and all in hell be equally miserable. There are different degrees of glory in one, and different degrees of torment in the other. This is proved by scripture, and accords with reason. Grace is glory in the bud—glory is grace in a state of fructification. And as in the natural world, so it is in the spiritual world—where there is little blossom, there cannot be much fruit. Life is the seed-time for eternity. What a man sows, that shall he also reap, not only in kind—but in degree. Late sowings, as well as scanty ones, are generally followed with small crops. The reward of the righteous is all of grace—but then that grace which rewards the righteous rather than the wicked, may, with equal consistency, reward righteousness according to its degrees. We cannot think that the reward of the dying thief, who was converted in the dark valley of the shadow of death, will be equal to that of Timothy or of Paul, who spent a long and laborious life in the service of Christ. Nor is it to be imagined that the crown of the aged convert will be as bright, or as heavy as that of the Christian who is converted in youth, and continues, until a good old age, in a course of consistent piety.

But there is one consideration which should come home to the bosom of young people with overwhelming force; I mean, that unless they become partakers of piety in early life, the probability is, that they will never partake of it at all. Is it of consequence that you should become pious at any time? Then does all that consequence attach to the present time? Let me sound this idea again and again in your ears—let me detain your attention upon the dreadful and alarming sentiment.

The probability of your salvation becomes weaker and weaker as the years of youth roll by. It is less probable this year than the last, and will be less probable next year than this. I do not now argue upon the uncertainty of life, that I have considered before, I appeal to FACTS, which in reference to the sentiment I have now advanced, are of the most alarming aspect. Consider, only two individuals of the six hundred thousand, who left Egypt above the age of twenty years, entered Canaan. Of those who are converted at all, by far the greater part are brought to seek true religion in their youth; and of the few who are reclaimed in adult, or old age, how rare a case is it to find one who has been religiously educated. It is easy to observe, generally speaking, that sinners who have been brought under the means of grace, or under some new and impressive preaching, which they never enjoyed before, if they do not soon profit by their privileges, rarely profit by them at all. God's time of conversion seems to be the morning of religious privilege. The churches mentioned in the New Testament, were chiefly made up of people converted by the first efforts of the apostles. Hence, when these servants of the cross were unsuccessful in their early labors in a city, or province, they looked upon it as a bad omen and a strong indication that it would be useless to continue their ministries there. So the usual order of divine grace is, for its showers to fall on what might be called morning sowings. The seasons of youthful years, or youthful means, are the usual times of conversion; and those who misimprove either of these, are in general found to neglect true religion forever after. (See Acts 13:46, 48; 22:18; 28:23-28)

I am aware, that instances to the contrary are sometimes found; and therefore none who are inclined to seek God at any age should despair—yet they but rarely occur, and therefore let none presume. True repentance is never too late—but late repentance is seldom true!

It is very probable, that some who may read these pages, deliberately and sincerely make up their minds to serve God at some future time—after they have a little longer enjoyed the world. Mistaken youth! Sinful young people! Let them consider what their intention amounts to—"I will go on sinning a little longer, and then I will repent. I will serve Satan, and the world, and sin as long as I can, and when I am worn out in their service, or weary of it, I will turn to God, and try the ways of true religion. O Lord! the preserver of my days, spare my life a little longer to disobey you, to insult you—and then give me your grace to assist me to turn from my wicked ways and live." What wickedness! What shocking impiety! What daring madness! Do they not tremble? Are they not terrified at this view of their own conduct? Can they live another day in this state of mind? Can they give their eyes to sleep with such a purpose in their bosom? Let them consider how just it is that God should reserve the dregs of his wrath for those, who reserve only the dregs of their time for Him!

NOW, now, my children, is the accepted time—this is the day of salvation. "Today if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts." You know not what another day, hour, moment—may bring forth. Opportunity, mercy, salvation, heaven, eternal glory—are all upon the wing of the present hour! Condemnation, hell, eternal torment, and despair—may all come in the next hour! That door of grace which is open today, may be shut tomorrow; that scepter of mercy which is stretched out today may be withdrawn tomorrow. Oh the noble purposes that have withered—the sublime prospects that have failed—the millions of immortal souls that have perished by putting off the present season, for a more convenient time. "Soul opportunities," says an old author, "are more worth than a thousand worlds." And they are rapidly slipping away, with the days of your youth!

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