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The Christian Father's Present to His Children

by John Angell James, 1825


All other questions, compared with this, are trifles light as air—or but as the dust of the balance. Philosophy, literature, commerce, the arts and the sciences, have, it is true, a relative importance—they soften the manners, alleviate the evils, multiply the comforts of life. Yet it is impossible to forget that they are the mere embellishments of a scene which we must shortly leave—the decorations of a theater, from which the actors and spectators must soon retire together. But true religion is of infinite and eternal importance, and develops its most significant consequence, in that very moment when the importance of all other subjects terminates forever. A mistake in the nature of true religion, persisted in until death, is followed by effects infinitely dreadful—and of eternal duration. You should bring to this inquiry, therefore, my children, a trembling solicitude to be led in the right way.

Some consider saving religion as a mere notional assent to certain theological opinions; others, as a bare attendance on religious ordinances; others, as the performance of moral duties. They are all equally wrong—for, instead of being any one of these separately and apart from the rest, it is the union of them all. True religion admits of many definitions in scripture language. It is "repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ;" or it is "faith working by love;" or it is receiving "that grace which brings salvation, and teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present evil world;" or it is "denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following after Christ;" or it is being born again of the Spirit, and sanctified by the truth; or it is the supreme love of Christ, or the habitual filial fear of God. Each one of these phrases is a definition of true piety. But I shall now adopt another, and represent true religion as "a right disposition of mind towards God—implanted in our nature by the influence of the Holy Spirit—and exercising itself according to the circumstances in which we are placed."

True religion is the same in substance in all rational creatures, whether innocent or fallen. In angels it is still a right disposition towards God, exercising itself in a way of adoration, love, gratitude, and obedience—but not of faith, hope, and repentance, because their circumstances preclude the possibility of these acts. True religion, in reference to fallen man, is a right disposition of mind—but inasmuch as he is a sinful and ruined creature, yet a creature capable of salvation, through the mediation of Christ, it must necessarily include in it, in addition to the feelings of angelic piety, all those mental exercises and habits which are suitable to a state of guilt and a dispensation of mercy. Let us take each part of the definition by itself.

I. God is the primary object of true religion.
It is not enough that we perform our duties towards our fellow-creatures—but to be truly pious we must perform our duty towards God. We may be exemplary and even punctilious in discharging every social obligation—we may be moral in the usual acceptance of the term—we may be honorable and amiable; and yet may be without one single spark of true piety; because in all this there may be no reference whatever to God. An atheist may be all this!

Until the mind is rightly affected towards God, there is no true religion because He is the direct and primary object of it. It is something totally independent, as to its essence, of all the social relations. If a man were wrecked on an uninhabited island, where there would be no opportunity for loyalty, honesty, kindness, mercy, justice, truth, or any of the 'relative virtues'—the claims of piety would still follow him to this dreary and desolate abode. And even there, where he would never hear the sweet music of speech, nor see the look on the human face—he would still be under the obligations of piety; even there one voice would be heard breaking the silence around him, with the solemn injunction of scripture, "You shall love the Lord your God."

Bear in recollection, then, my dear children, that God, as he is revealed in his word, is the direct and primary object of all true piety; and that the most exemplary discharge of the social duties can be no substitute for that reverence, and love, and gratitude, and obedience, which we owe to him.

Most strange it is, and yet most lamentably prevalent, for mankind to make the discharge of their duties towards each other—a substitute for those, and an excuse for neglecting the duties which they owe to God. As if the Divine Being, were the only one in the universe, who could, with propriety, be ignored—and as if He, without any criminality on our part, might be utterly neglected. He is our Creator, Preserver, and Benefactor—in Him we live, and move, and have our being. His nature includes everything that can entitle him to our esteem and adoration—His goodness, everything that can claim our gratitude and love. How then can it be thought that the practical remembrance of our duty to man can be any reason for not loving and serving HIM! Our first and most important relation is that of creatures dependent on the Creator; and, therefore, our first and most indispensable duty is a right disposition towards God.

Hence, the scriptures resolve all crime into forgetfulness of God. "The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God." To be a wicked man, and to forget God, are one and the same thing. To be destitute of right affections towards God, is the very essence of sin; and to possess these affections the essence of true religion.

II. True religion is a right disposition of mind towards God.
It is not merely a thing of outward forms and ceremonies—but of the heart. It is more than an external action, it is a disposition; not only a performance—but a taste; not an involuntary or compulsory pursuit—but a voluntary and agreeable one. That true religion must be an internal principle, an affair of the soul, is evident from the nature of its object, of whom it is said, "God is a spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." As the heart lies all open to him, unless there be true religion there—God scorns the uplifted hand and bended knee. It is evident from reason, that piety must have its seat in the heart; for what spiritual excellence can there be in an action, which is either performed from a bad motive, or from none at all?

This is evident from Scripture. Read such injunctions as these. "My son, give me your heart." "Get a new heart." "Your heart is not right in the sight of God." "Be renewed in the spirit of your mind." "You must be born again." Equally in point are all those passages which command us to love God, to fear him, to trust in him, to glorify him; duties which of course imply the exercise, and the vigorous exercise of the affections of the mind. Notions however clear, morality however exemplary—are not enough until the current of feeling is turned towards God. A mere cold correctness of deportment—but which leaves the heart in a state of alienation and estrangement from God—is not the piety of the word of truth.

Now, in consequence of our natural descent from Adam since his fall, we come into the world totally destitute of this right disposition towards God and grow up under the influence of a contrary temper. "The carnal mind is enmity against God." This is what we mean by the total depravity of human nature; not that there is an absence of all amiable and praiseworthy feeling towards our fellow-creatures; not that there is the predominance of criminal and wicked appetite—but that there is a total destitution of all right feeling towards God. Much loose and incorrect representation has been given, by injudicious writers, on the subject of human depravity. It would seem, from their statements, as if mankind were all like, as bad as vice could make them.

Now, by the total depravity of the whole race of man, we simply mean, that since the fall, every man comes into the world totally destitute of holiness and love to God—and in consequence of this destitution lives without God—until renewed by divine grace. Some will go further astray in sin than others, according to the circumstances in which they are placed—but so far as the state of the heart is concerned, all are equally destitute of the principles of holiness, as long as they are unrenewed by the Divine Spirit. Before true religion can be possessed by one human being, there must of consequence be an entire change of mind, a complete alteration in the disposition. The scriptures inform us that all are inherently depraved, for "that which is born of the flesh is flesh;" and, therefore, with equal explicitness they inform us, that all must be changed before they can partake of true piety. This change is so great that our Lord himself calls it a second birth. "Verily, verily, I say unto you—Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven."

Until this change takes place, there cannot be even the commencement of true religion. Whatever sins are avoided, or whatever morality is done that bears the semblance of piety—is carried on without a right disposition of mind; and we cannot suppose that God, who sees the heart, is pleased with such service, any more than we should be with compliments from a person whose bosom we knew to be destitute of all right feeling toward us. The mistake which many make in religion is, they do not begin with the beginning. They attempt to carry up the superstructure without seeking to have the foundation laid in the renewal of the nature. They profess to serve God outwardly before they have surrendered their heart to His renewing grace. Their religion is a new dress—but not a new nature. It is the mechanical performance of an machine—not the voluntary actions of a living man. It lacks that which alone constitutes piety—a "right disposition towards God."

III. This disposition is implanted in the soul by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The operations of Deity, in the formation of the material world, are frequently alluded to by the sacred writers, as illustrating the work of Jehovah in renewing the human mind and bringing forth the beauties of holiness in the human character. The soul of man, as to all spiritual excellence, is in its natural state, a chaos. And the same Divine Spirit who brooded on the materials of the formless void, who moved on the face of the deep, and brought order out of confusion, and beauty out of deformity; who said—Let there be light, and there was light—now operates on the dark mind, the crooked affections, the hard heart of the sinner—giving true light to the understanding, a right disposition to the soul, submission to the will; and, in short, creating the whole man anew in Christ Jesus, unto good works.

This is declared in many passages of the scriptures. "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes." To the same effect are our Lord's words to Nicodemus—"Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." This same truth is often repeated by the apostles. "You has he quickened." "Who has saved us by washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit." "It is God who works in us to will and to do." That it must be some power, outside of a man, and beyond himself to effect the change, is evident from the circumstance that it is not merely the conduct—but the disposition itself, which requires to be changed; and who can reach the mind, and regulate the springs of action—but God? Not that we are to lie down in indolent neglect, and say—"If, then, it is the Holy Spirit who must change the mind, I may give up all concern about the matter, and wait before I attempt to perform the duties of true religion, until I feel that I am changed."

No—as rational creatures, we must use our faculties, consider our case, examine our hearts, tremble at our situation, call upon God in prayer, and give Him no rest until He pours out His spirit upon us. The very circumstance that we are thus dependent on God, should make us more tremblingly anxious—more importunate in prayer for divine help. If you were entirely dependent upon the assistance of a fellow-creature for help to recover your property, liberty, or life—would not that very conviction impel you to the door and presence of the person, in all the eloquence and urgency of importunate entreaty? Would you not pour out your very soul in the language of wrestling supplication? Would you not press your suit by every argument, so long as a ray of hope fell upon your spirits? In this case—the idea that help must come from another—would not render you indolent. And why should it do so in the business of conversion?

The only circumstance which renders the influence of the Holy Spirit necessary for the conversion of the soul, is the lack of inclination or disposition to love and serve God. That is what we call moral inability, in distinction from natural inability. A man is morally unable when he has no inclination; he is naturally unable when he has no opportunity. When a master commands a servant to go and bring something to him—and the servant hears the command and at the same time has the use of his limbs—but refuses to obey, he is morally unable—that is, he has no inclination, no disposition. But if the master were to command the servant to go to another room, or to another street, and the servant at that time were deprived of the use of his limbs, he is, in that case, naturally unable. In the former case, he could go if he would; in the latter, he would if he could. The former is guilty of rebellion, for all he lacked was disposition; the latter is innocent, for he has no opportunity. One lacks will, the other lacks power.

This illustrates the case of the sinner—he is morally unable to obey and love God; he has enough natural power, he has reason, will, affections, and he has eyes to read God's commands, and ears to hear them. Why, then, does he not obey them? Because he has no disposition. If he were a lunatic or an idiot, from his birth, his inability to serve God would be a natural inability. Now, moral inability, or lack of disposition, so far from being an excuse for neglecting God and true religion, is the very essence of sin. The less disposition a man has to that which is good, and the more disposition he has to that which is evil, the more wicked he is; just as a person addicted to dishonesty, cruelty, or injustice, is the more guilty the stronger his propensities are to his wickedness. The more natural inability we have, the more we are excused from not doing what is right—but the greater our moral inability is, the more guilty we are.

Now, this moral inability is what our Lord speaks of us when he says—"No man can come unto me except the Father who has sent me draw him." He cannot, because he will not; and he will not, because he has no disposition. Hence he says, in another place—"You will not come unto me, that you may have life." The inability which the Spirit of God removes, then, in conversion, is the lack of inclination; the ability which he gives is a right disposition. In conversion, no violence is done to the will, because the will always follows the disposition. If this be correct, we are to take pains with ourselves, to think, to resolve, to act, though in dependence upon the grace of God.

IV. I shall now state how a right disposition of mind towards God will exercise itself in our circumstances as sinners; and this will bring us more immediately to a consideration of the nature of real religion.

First—Reverence, veneration, and awe, are due from us to that great and glorious Being who is the author of our existence, the fountain of our comforts, the witness of our actions, and the arbiter of our eternal destiny! How sublimely grand and awesome is the character of God, as it is revealed in His word! Acknowledging, as you do, my children, His existence, you should make Him the object of your habitual fear and dread. You should maintain a constant veneration for Him, a trembling aversion of His wrath. A consciousness of His existence and of His immediate presence should never, for any length of time, be absent from your mind. The idea of an ever-present, omniscient, omnipotent Spirit, should not only be sometimes before your understanding, as an article of faith—but impressed upon your heart as a dreadful and practical reality. Your very spirits should ever be laboring to apprehend and to apply the representation which the scriptures give us of the Deity. A desire to know Him, to feel and act towards Him with propriety, should be interwoven with the entire habit of your reflections and conduct.

Secondly—PENITENCE is indispensably necessary. In order to this, there must be deep CONVICTION OF SIN; for none can mourn over a fault, which he is not convinced that he has committed. A deep CONSCIOUSNESS OF GUILT is one of the first feelings of a renewed mind, and is one of the first operations of the Holy Spirit. "When he has come, he shall convince the world of sin." We come to a knowledge of our sinful state by an acquaintance with the spirituality, purity, and extent of the moral law; "for sin is the transgression of the law." Until we know the law, which is the rule of duty, we cannot know in what way, and to what extent, we have offended against it. The exposition which our Lord has given us of the law, in his sermon on the mount, informs us that it is not only the overt act of iniquity which makes man a sinner—but the inward feeling, the imagination, the desire. An unchaste look is a breach of the seventh commandment; a feeling of immoderate anger is a violation of the sixth. Viewing ourselves in such a mirror, and trying ourselves by such a standard, we must all confess ourselves to be guilty of ten thousand sins.

And then, again, we are not only sinful for what we do that is wrong—but for what we leave undone that is right, and ought to be done. If, therefore, we have a right disposition towards God, we must have a deep feeling of depravity and guilt—an impressive sense of moral deviation—a humbling consciousness of vileness. To the charges of the law, we must cry guilty! guilty! We must not only admit, upon the testimony of others, that we are sinful—but, from a perception of the holiness of God's nature, and the purity of His law—we must discern the number, aggravations, and enormity of our offences. We must do homage to infinite holiness—by acknowledging ourselves altogether sinful.

SORROW is essential to penitence. We cannot have been made partakers of penitence if we do not feel inward grief on the review of our transgressions. We read of "godly sorrow, which works repentance unto salvation." If we have injured a fellow-creature, the first indication of a right sense of the offense, is a sincere regret that we should have acted so. How much more necessary is it that we should be unfeignedly sorry for our innumerable offences against God. Sorrow for sin is not, however, to be estimated only by violent emotions and copious tears. The passions are much stronger in themselves, and much more excitable in some than in others; and, therefore, the same degree of inward emotion, or of outward grief, is not to be expected from all. The degrees of sorrow, as well as the outward modes of expressing it, will vary, as belonging more to the sensitive nature than to the rational; and for avoiding all scruple and doubtfulness on this topic, it may be laid down for certain, that the least degree of sorrow is sufficient—if it produces sincere reformation; the greatest degree of sorrow is insufficient—if it does not produce sincere reformation.

The next step in penitence is CONFESSION. Real sorrow for sin is always frank and impartial—while false or partial sorrow is prone to concealment, palliation, and self-justification. There is a wretched proneness in many people when convinced of sin, to offer excuses and to endeavor to think the best of their case. They cannot be brought to admit the charge in all its length and breadth—but they attempt to hide its magnitude from their own eyes. This is a dangerous disposition, and has often come between a man's soul and his salvation. All the great and precious promises of pardon are suspended upon the condition of confession. "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins." Confession must be in detail, not in generals only; it must be free and impartial.

ABHORRENCE OF SIN is also included in penitence. There can be no real grief for an action, which is not accompanied by dislike of it. We shall unquestionably hate sin—if we partake of godly sorrow. This, indeed, is the true meaning of the term repentance, which does not signify grief merely—but an entire change of mind towards sin. Abhorrence of sin is as necessary a part of repentance, as grief. Our hatred of transgression must be grounded not merely on viewing it as an injury to ourselves—but as an insult to God. For penitence, on account of sin, is altogether a different feeling to that which we experience over a fire, a shipwreck, or a disease which has diminished our comforts. Our tears, then, are not enough, if not followed by abhorrence. "If we are sincere in our grief, we shall detest and fly the viper which has stung us, and not cherish and caress the beast, while with false tears we bathe the wound we have received."

Thirdly—FAITH in Jesus Christ is no less necessary. Faith is a very important, and most essential part of true religion. Faith in Christ is a firm practical belief of the gospel testimony concerning Christ, a full persuasion of the truth of what is declared, and a confident expectation of what is promised. The testimony is this—"It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners." "God so loved the world as to give his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish—but have everlasting life." Hence, then, faith is a belief that Jesus Christ died as a sacrifice of atonement to divine justice for human guilt, accompanied by an exclusive dependence on that atonement for acceptance with God, and a confident expectation of pardon and eternal life according to the promises of the gospel.

Mere assent does not amount to the scriptural idea of faith. There must be dependence and expectation. The subject of the divine testimony is not like a problem in mathematics, which appeals exclusively to the understanding; in this case mere assent, or a perception of the truth of the proposition, is all that belief contains. But the gospel is a report that concerns our hearts, and which is, in fact, proposed to us not only as a promise to be believed—but a rule to be obeyed. Faith, then, certainly includes in it an exercise of the will, or else there can be nothing moral in its nature. We cannot affirm of anything merely intellectual, that it is matter of duty. Exclude an exercise of volition, or disposition from faith, and then, it is no longer obligatory upon the conscience. Besides, if belief be merely an intellectual exercise, so is unbelief; for they are opposites. A scriptural faith, then, includes dependence and expectation.

Faith is, most obviously, as much a part of a right disposition towards God, as penitence. God having given Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners, and promised to save those who depend upon the atonement, and commanded all to ask for pardon and eternal life; it is manifest, that not to believe, is to dispute the divine veracity, as well as to rebel against the divine authority. To believe the gospel, and to expect salvation through Christ, is to honor all the attributes of Deity at once, is to praise that mercy which prompted the scheme of redemption, that wisdom which devised it, that power which accomplished it, that justice which is satisfied by it, and that truth which engages to bestow its benefits on all that seek them. Not to believe is an act of contempt which insults Jehovah in every view of his character at once. Until we are brought, therefore, actually to depend on Christ so as to expect salvation, we have no real religion.

Fourthly—A willingness in all things to OBEY God, completes the view which ought to be given of a right disposition towards him.

There must be a distinct acknowledgment of His right to govern us, and an unreserved surrender of our heart and life to his authority; a habitual desire to do what he has enjoined, to avoid what He has forbidden. Where there is this desire to please, this reluctance to offend God—the individual will read with constancy and attention the sacred volume, which is written for the express purpose of teaching us how to obey and please the Lord. Finding there innumerable injunctions against all kinds of immorality and sin, and as many commands to practice every personal, relative, and social duty—the true Christian will be zealous for all good works. Remembering that Jesus Christ is proposed there as our example, no less than our atonement—he will strive to be like him in purity, spirituality, submission to the will of God, and devotedness to the divine glory. Nor will he forget to imitate the beautiful meekness, humility, and kindness of his deportment; so that the love which a right view of his atonement never fails to produce, transforms the soul of the believer into his image. Finding in the word of God many commands to cultivate the spirit and attend on the exercises of devotion; the true Christian will remember the sabbath-day to keep it holy, will maintain daily prayer in his closet, and unite himself in the fellowship of some Christian church, to live in communion with believers, and with them to celebrate the sacred supper.

During the trials of life, he will console himself with the promises of grace, and the prospects of glory. He will soften his earthly cares by the influence of his heavenly hopes. He will endeavor to keep himself pure from the vices of the world, and shine as a spiritual light amid surrounding darkness. His great business in this world will be to prepare for the better eternal home; and when the time arrives for him to leave the visible for the invisible state, he will bow in meek submission to the will of God, and retire from earth, cheered with the prospect and the expectation of eternal glory.

Such appears to me to be the nature of true religion. Its possessor, daily conscious of his defects, will habitually humble himself before God; and while he seeks forgiveness for past offences, through the blood of Jesus Christ, will as earnestly implore the gracious aid of the Holy Spirit to sanctify him more perfectly for the future.

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