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The Christian Father's Present to His Children

by John Angell James


"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." Matthew 7:13-14

Our Lord has most explicitly taught us, my dear children, that the entrance to the path of life is attended with difficulty--and is not to be accomplished without effort. Into that road, we are not borne by the pressure of the thronging multitude, nor the force of natural inclination. No broad and flowery avenue attracts the eye; no siren songs of worldly pleasure allure the ear.

"Strive to enter in at the narrow gate--for many will seek to enter in, and shall not be able." This implies that there are obstructions to be removed, and difficulties to be surmounted.

The fundamental and universal obstruction with which everyone has to contend, and which can be removed only by the power of the Holy Spirit—is the darkness and depravity brought upon human nature by the fall; and the indulged sensuality, prejudice and enmity of the carnal mind. But this prevailing depravity manifests itself in various specific forms, according to the different circumstances, constitutions, ages, and tempers of its subjects. It is an inward and universal evil, exhibiting its opposition to true religion in an immense variety of ways.

1. Self-conceit is not uncommonly to be met with in the character of the young, and is very much opposed to the spirit of true piety. This is a sort of epidemic disease, which finds a peculiar susceptibility in people of your age to receive it. Young in years and experience, they are very apt, nevertheless, to form high notions of themselves, and to imagine that they are competent judges of all truth and conduct. They decide—where wiser minds deliberate. They speak—where experience is silent. They rush forward with impetuosity—where their sires scarcely creep. They think themselves quite as competent to determine and to act—as those who have witnessed the events of threescore years and ten.

This disposition shows itself oftentimes in reference to business; and the bankrupt list has, a thousand times, revealed the consequences. But it is seen in more important matters than business. In the gaiety of their spirits, and in the mirth of youthful energy, they see no great need of true religion to make them happy; or if some religion be necessary, they do not think it requires all that solicitude and caution with which older Christians attend to its concerns. They think they are not so much in danger as some would represent. They shall not take up the humbling, self-abasing, penitential piety of their fathers—but adopt a more rational religion. They have their reason to guide them, and their strength to do all that is necessary—and therefore, cannot see the need of so much fear, caution, and dependence.

My children, be humble—or else pride and self conceit will be your ruin! Think of your age and inexperience. How often already have you been misled, by the ardor of youth, in cases where you were most confident that you were right. When the Athenian orator was asked, what is the first grace in oratory? he replied, Pronunciation; the second? Pronunciation; the third? still he replied, Pronunciation. So, if I am asked what is this first grace in true religion? I reply, Humility; the second? Humility; the third? still Humility! And self-conceit is the first, and the second, and the third obstruction!

2. Love of worldly pleasure is a great impediment to true piety. It has been most wickedly said, "Youth is the time for pleasure—manhood is the time for business—old age is the time for religion." It is painful to observe, that if the two latter parts of human life are neglected, the first is not. Young people too often answer the description given by the apostle, "Lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God." In youth, there are many temptations to this wicked propensity; the senses are vigorous, the spirits lively, the imagination ardent, the passions warm, and the concerns of life but few and feeble. Hence many give themselves up to the impulses of their corrupt nature, and are held in alienation from a life of piety—by a love of pleasure. Some are carried away by a vain and frivolous love of dress and show; others by a delight in mirth and parties; others by games, balls, and theatrical performances; others by the sports of the field; others by intemperance and debauchery.

It is admitted that all these gratifications are not equally degrading in themselves, nor equally destructive of reputation and health—but if indulged as the chief good, they may all prevent the mind from attending to the concerns of true religion. A predominant love of worldly pleasure, of any kind—is destructive in every point of view. It unfits you for the pursuits and the toils of business, and thus is the enemy of your temporal interests; it often leads on from gratifications which, in the opinion of the world, are decent and moral, to those which are wicked and immoral; it is incompatible with the duties and comforts of domestic life; it hinders the improvement of the understanding, and keeps the mind barren and empty; it prevents you from becoming the benefactors of our species—but its greatest mischief is, that it totally indisposes the mind for true religion, and thus extends its mischief to eternity! in short, if cherished and persisted in, it ruins and damns the soul forever!

My children, beware of this most dangerous propensity for worldly pleasure! Consider where it leads—check it to the uttermost—and ask grace from God to acquire a better taste. "What a hideous case is this—to be so debased in the temper of your minds, as to lose all the laudable appetites and advantages of an intellectual nature; and to be sunk into the deformity of a devil, and into the baseness of a brute! To be so drenched in deadly delights—and in sensual, fading, and hollow pleasures—as to forego all real and eternal satisfactions for them—and to entail insupportable and endless miseries upon yourselves by them!" Yes, if you live for worldly pleasure, and neglect true religion, you are giving up an exceeding great and eternal weight of glory, for light and frivolous gratifications, which are but for a moment! You are, for the sake of a few years' empty mirth, entailing everlasting ages of unmitigated torments!

Besides, though worldly pleasure temporarily gratifies—it does not really satisfy! When the honey is all sucked—it leaves a sting behind! And then, what are the pleasures of the world, compared with those of true piety—but the shadow to the substance; the stagnant pool to the fresh and running fountain; the smoking candle to the midday sun? Shall worldly pleasure cheat you of eternal salvation?

3. Prejudice against the ways of true religion as gloomy, keeps many from yielding to its claims. Many young people seem to compare true religion to a dark underground cavern, in descending to which, you leave all that is joyous in life; which is impervious to the light of heaven, and inaccessible to the melodies of creation; where nothing meets the eye but tears, nor the ear but sighs; where the inhabitants, arrayed in sackcloth, converse only in groans; where, in short, a smile is an offense against the superstition which reigns there, and a note of delight would be avenged by the dreadful master of the place, with an expulsion of the individual who had dared to be cheerful!

Is this true religion? No, my children, I will give you another figurative view of it. "Wisdom has built her spacious house with seven pillars. She has prepared a great banquet, mixed the wines, and set the table. She has sent her servants to invite everyone to come. She calls out from the heights overlooking the city. 'Come home with me,' she urges the simple. To those without good judgment, she says, 'Come, eat my food, and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your foolish ways behind, and begin to live; learn how to be wise.'" Proverbs 9:1-6.

This is a metaphorical description of true religion under the name of wisdom, and the figure of a feast. It is declared in Scripture, and all the saints in the universe will confirm the truth of the assertion, that "Wisdom's ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace."

4. A thoughtless, heedless temper is with many, an obstruction to piety. There is frequently, in people of your age and circumstances, a peculiar thoughtlessness of mind—a lack of calm consideration and steady reflection. They do not deliberate and ponder. Their minds seem as light as thistle-down, and as volatile as the butterfly. They are always walking, talking, smiling—but rarely thinking. The meditative mood, the contemplative attitude, is never theirs. If you want to find them, never look for them at home—but watch for them abroad. Their extreme thoughtlessness prevents them from giving due heed to the concerns of true religion. Though they are immortal creatures, lost sinners invited to salvation, destined to eternity, and hastening to heaven or hell—they have scarcely ever had a serious thought upon the subject—even these momentous topics are treated with the utmost lightness of mind.

If the eye of any one of this class should range over these pages, let me beseech him to look at his picture, and ask himself if he can admire it. O! my young friend, cannot the high themes of eternity make you serious? Placed as you are, on this earth, between the torments of the damned and the felicities of the redeemed—with the preparations for judgment going on, and the scenes of eternity opening before you—will you laugh out your little share of existence, and flutter through life, until, like a bird dropping into a volcano, you fall into the bottomless pit! Let these things soberize your thoughts, and bring you to the subject of true religion, with something like an appropriate seriousness of mind.

5. Evil companions have often proved an obstruction to young people in the ways of piety. Young people are generally inclined to company, and too often it proves a snare to them. Many a hopeful youth, that seemed at one time setting out in the ways of piety, has been arrested in his career by some unsuitable associate, with whom he has joined himself in the bonds of friendship; and thus he who seemed beginning in the spirit, has ended in the flesh—leaving his pious friends to exclaim, in the tone of grief and disappointment—"You did run well; who hindered you?" How difficult is it, when a young person is first brought under the influence of genuine piety, to break from his former mirthful companions! And yet, if he would persevere in his new course, it must be done! In such cases the bonds of association must be broken. You must give up your friends—or your salvation; and can you hesitate?

6. The misconduct of professing Christians, especially if they be our parents, proves to many young people a stone of stumbling at the entrance of the path of godliness.

They have seen the 'open immorality' or the 'secret hypocrisy' of those who profess to be partakers of true piety, and, under the influence of disgust and disappointment, are ready to conclude that all are alike—and that there is no reality in religion, no truth in Scripture. I know that these things must often prove an obstruction in their way, and have produced, in some instances, an unconquerable antipathy to the ways of godliness. Yet is it rational to have our minds thus prejudiced against Christianity by the apostasies of those who were only its 'pretended disciples'? But can that system be divine, you exclaim, among whose followers there are so many hypocrites? Can that system, I reply, be otherwise than divine, which has outlived them all, and triumphs alike over the apostasies of its superficial friends, and the opposition of its real foes?

Considering the numberless instances of this kind which have occurred, even from the beginning, I am persuaded that had not Christianity been supported by Omnipotence, nothing more than its name, as an ancient delusion—would have reached the nineteenth century. Nothing but that which is sustained by a principle of divine life—could have outlived so much internal decay—and so much external violence!

Besides, does not the 'perpetual effort to counterfeit', prove its real excellence? For who counterfeits that which is worthless? Look at the bright as well as at the dark side. Against the deserters and renegades—there thronging millions, who have endured temptation, and continued faithful unto death. Call up the noble army of martyrs, whom neither dungeons nor fetters, scaffolds nor stakes could intimidate—who held fast their principles, amid unheard-of tortures—and did not allow the 'king of terrors' to pluck from their grasp, the doctrines of their faith.

Judge of true religion, as it demands to be tried, by its own evidences, and not by the conduct of its 'professors'. Look at it in its own light, and there you will derive a conviction of its truth and importance, which would make you cling to it in a crisis—even though all should forsake it. Is Christianity an imposture, because some of its professors are false? As rationally may you conclude that there is no real orb of day, because, by an optical illusion, mock suns are sometimes seen in the atmosphere.

Remember, your neglect of true religion will not be excused, on the ground of the misconduct of professing Christians. Your obligations are in no degree dependent on the manner in which others discharge theirs.

7. A spirit of procrastination has considerable influence in preventing the young from attending to the claims of true religion. This has been the ruin of multitudes now in hell! How many among the lost souls in prison are now regretting the cheat which was practiced upon their judgment—when they were persuaded to put off the affairs of eternity until another time! Perhaps there is not one in perdition but intended to be truly pious—at some future period!

It is recorded of Archius, a Grecian magistrate, that a conspiracy was formed against his life. A friend, who knew the plot, dispatched a courier with the news, who, on being admitted to the presence of the magistrate, delivered to him the letter, with this message—"My lord, the person who writes you this letter begs you to read it immediately—it contains serious matters!" Archius, who was then at a feast, replied, smiling—"Serious affairs tomorrow," put the letter aside, and continued to revel. On that night the plot was executed, the magistrate slain—and Archius, on the morrow when he intended to read the letter, was a mutilated corpse—leaving to the world a fearful example of the effects of procrastination. My children, when God and the preacher say 'today', give your attention to true religion! Do not reply 'tomorrow'—for, alas! tomorrow you may be in—ETERNITY!

Young people are very apt to presume on long life—but on what ground? Have they an assurance? No, not for an hour. Is it a rare thing for young people to die? Go into any churchyard in the kingdom, and learn the opposite from the dates on the tombstones. Have you any security in the vigor of your constitution, from the melancholy change produced by decay and death? "So have I seen a rose, newly springing up—at first it was as fair as the morning, and full with the dew of heaven—but when a strong wind had forced open its virgin modesty, and dismantled its too youthful and unripe home, it began to decline become sickly. It bowed the head, and broke its stalk; and at night, having lost some of its leaves, and all its beauty, it fell into the fate of weeds." (Jeremy Taylor, "Holy Dying")

But, besides, admitting that you should live, is not your inclination likely, if possible, to be less and less towards true religion? Your acts of sin will be confirmed into settled habits. Your heart will become harder and harder—for it is the nature of depravity to increase. If you wished to extinguish a fire, would you wait until it was a conflagration? If you wished to cure a cold, would you wait until it was a raging fever?

What if God should withdraw His Spirit, and give you up to total insensibility! For, consider His grace is necessary to salvation. True religion is the work of God in the soul of man. Despised and rejected today—is He not likely to abandon you tomorrow? and then what a situation are you in! Like a barren rock, insensible both to the beams of the sun and the showers of heaven!

You may presume on the protraction of life—but this presumption is your curse and not your blessing. You would tremble with indescribable horror at the thought of going this hour to the flame which is never to be quenched! You would account it the climax of eternal ruin. But I can tell you something worse than even this. What! worse than going immediately to the bottomless pit! Yes! To live longer abandoned by God, given up to the deceitfulness of sin and hardness of heart—left to fill up still more to the brim the measure of iniquity—this, this is worse than instant damnation! Horrible as it seems, yet it is true, that many now in torment, wish they had been there earlier—and that they had not been permitted to live and commit those sins which are the sources of their bitterest sufferings!

These are among the most prevailing obstacles which often prevent young people from entering on a life of piety. Happy are they who, by the grace of God, are enabled to surmount them, and press through these impediments into the kingdom of God!

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