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Lectures to Young People

William B. Sprague, 1830



"I have finished my course." 2 Timothy 4:7

You will instantly perceive that I have chosen this passage somewhat in the way of accommodation. As it stands in the apostle's discourse, it is the language, not of a young Christian—but of an aged Christian, who is just closing his career of conflict and trial, and has heaven full in view. "I have finished my course—the labors and sufferings of a long life are now soon to be ended: already I have reached the hither part of the dark valley: the crown of righteousness, and the robe of glory, begin to glitter in my eye; and strains of heavenly music fall sweetly on my ear." Oh what a moment was that to Paul! Who would not covet death, if he could greet it with such joyful confidence, as a messenger to call him up to glory?

But in the present discourse, I purpose to consider the text as an expression of triumphant faith in a young Christian, in the immediate prospect of his departure. In the series of discourses which I am now bringing to a close, I have contemplated a youth, first, as exposed, perhaps yielding, to the temptations of the world, and neglecting his immortal interests; then, as inquiring with deep anxiety, "what he shall do to be saved;" then, as actually complying with the conditions of the gospel, and becoming a new creature in Christ Jesus; and subsequently, as walking in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, and thus growing in knowledge, piety, and usefulness. I now make the supposition—and it surely involves nothing improbable—that this same youth, in the midst of his Christian activity, is arrested by the hand of death; and that, in the last hour of his life, as he contemplates the past, and looks forward to the future, he exclaims, "I have finished my course."

I invite you, my young friends, to contemplate this youth—suppose, if you will, that it is one of your own companions—in these most solemn and interesting circumstances; and then answer to your own conscience, whether the joy of such a death does not compensate a thousand fold for all the sacrifices which, yourselves being judges, true religion ever required of him.

Without adverting particularly to the obvious fact that the text contains an allusion to a runner in a the Grecian race, I shall proceed directly to call your attention to the COURSE here spoken of, in application to a young Christian: to its character, its close, its consequences.

I. The CHARACTER of the Christian's course.

And, I remark, in the first place, that it is a BRIEF course. Brief indeed is the course of that Christian who even fills up his seventy years; for the life of man, at its best state, is as a dream of the night, when one awakes. But in the case which I am supposing, it is a brief period compared with that which falls to the lot of many others. This is true of the whole period of youthful life; and it is especially true of that part of it, which is devoted to the service of Christ. The youth perhaps has lived twelve, fifteen, twenty years, before he has ever thought seriously of his soul's salvation. Supposing him, at either of these periods, to have entered on the pious life, and yet to find an early grave, how short the season allotted to his Christian course! Whatever he may have done, or whatever he may have suffered, in the cause of his Redeemer, has all been brought within very narrow limits.

Again: It is a BENEFICENT course. However some may imagine that a life of true religion necessarily implies seclusion from the world, and others, that it imposes no peculiar obligations. But the Christian of whom I am speaking, having been faithful, has acted upon a far different principle. From the time that he became a new creature in Christ Jesus, he has steadily recognized his obligation to live not for himself—but for Him who died for his salvation. His grand object has been to do good—to do good in the various relations of life—to do good to all men, so far as he has had opportunity and ability. He has found no time to waste in the follies to which many of his companions have yielded; but has endeavored, to the extent of his power, to give all his hours to some employment, which would contribute to render the world better for his having lived in it.

Again: It is a SELF-DENIED course. At its very commencement, he took a deliberate survey of the field he was about to enter, and saw that he could do nothing without constant conflict; but be resolved to be a Christian notwithstanding; and from that hour, he became crucified to the world, and the world was crucified to him. Not improbably he had much to encounter in leaving mirthful associates, and taking his stand on the side of true religion; but he dared to be singular then, and the resolutions which he then formed to resist temptation, he has steadily adhered to since. He has found himself in only a partially sanctified state, with corrupt affections and inclinations often prompting him to sin; and sometimes he has been ready to exclaim, under the power of indwelling corruption, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Nevertheless, he has resolutely prosecuted the warfare with himself, and has seen his spiritual enemies gradually put under his feet. It has been his constant prayer, his earnest endeavor, that he might gain an entire victory over all his evil passions and appetites, and that every principle of his nature might be brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.

Again: It is a DEPENDENT course: and by this, I mean that he has not gone about the performance of his duties in his own strength. He has recollected that all his springs were in God; that while he was commanded to be active, he was dependent for the very power of action—on the influence of the Holy Spirit. Instead of perverting this truth to minister to indolence on the one hand, or presumption on the other, he uses it as furnishing at once an argument for activity and humility; and while he does what his hand finds to do with his might, he habitually connects with his efforts to do good, a sense of dependence on Almighty grace. Hence that may be said of him in reference to his general character, which was said of Paul in reference to his conversion—"Behold he prays!"

Further: It is an INCREASINGLY EASY course. When he first contemplated the obstacles which would oppose his progress, they seemed to him perhaps well near insurmountable; and it may be that he hesitated long before he took up the resolution to encounter them. One of the greatest difficulties he apprehended was that of separating himself from worldly companions and vanities, and taking the attitude of a determined friend of true religion, in the face of the world. But he has found the difficulty in this respect constantly diminishing with each successive effort; and that, not only inasmuch as his efforts have contributed to increase his power of action, on the principle that every faculty is improved by proper exercise—but also because his determined perseverance has discouraged, in a great degree, the attempts to draw him away from his duty. And as it is in this respect, so it is in every other.

He has indeed, as he has advanced, learned more of the corruption of his heart, and of his need of a constant divine influence; nevertheless, every temptation over which he has gained the victory, has rendered each successive one less formidable. Every evil affection which he has been enabled to crucify, has given him an advantage in respect to every other which has risen in his heart. Every measure of grace which he has received, has been a measure of strength to enable him the better to discharge his duty. In this way, amidst all the disclosures of his own corruptions, amidst the constantly accumulating weight of duty, his course has continually become more easy; and obstacles which once seemed not only real—but even appalling, have, at length, entirely disappeared.

Moreover, it is on the whole a PLEASANT course. Yes, it is pleasant, with all the conflicts and trials with which it is connected; for with these very conflicts and trials, grace intermingles; so that the cup which seems to have in it nothing but bitterness, has really little else than consolation. If I were to speak of the elements of the joy which is here experienced, I would tell you of that peace which passes understanding; of that hope which is an anchor to the soul; of that living faith which rests in and appropriates the promises of God; which unites the soul to its Savior, and impresses upon it his image; which takes from adversity its terrors, and plucks from death his sting. Leaving out of view then altogether the exceeding and eternal weight of glory, I say there is enough to justify the remark that the young Christian's course is pleasant; and especially when compared with the only other course which it was in his power to pursue.

And finally, it is a SUCCESSFUL course. His companions in age have had various objects in view, and have pursued them with great labor and perseverance. Some have been toiling for one worldly object, and some for another; and either the object of their pursuit has not been attained, or being attained, has been found unsatisfactory. And not improbably some among them have already rendered their dying testimony to the folly and vanity of their pursuits. He, on the other hand, has succeeded in his efforts—I may say, has succeeded fully; for he has been honored as the instrument of diffusing blessings around him, and he is an heir to "a crown of righteousness that fades not away." But in these remarks I anticipate a following division of the discourse. Let me then, from the character of the young Christian's course, pass to,

II. The CLOSE of the Christian's course. The text contemplates it as finished.

It is finished in a PEACEFUL manner. It may be that the young Christian has often contemplated death as an object of dismay; and though he may have been able to think of every other trial with composure, yet as often as he has thought of going down into the dark valley, he has been oppressed with fearful apprehension. But the terrors of death gradually diminish as his end draws near. His faith becomes more active, his hope more firm, his views of heaven stronger and brighter; the promises of the gospel come home to his soul in all their reality, and richness, and power; and he feels ready to breathe out his life in an act of thanksgiving to redeeming grace. He sees around him friends, it may be parents, brothers, sisters, to whom he is united by the most endearing ties; but he can cheerfully give them up, for the community of friends to which he is going; and he gives them up too, it may be, in the strong confidence that they will before long be his companions in glory. The world, its objects and interests, gradually fade upon his vision, until he falls calmly and sweetly to rest, and the place that has known him hitherto, knows him no more.

But the close of the young Christian's course is often more than peaceful—it is JOYFUL and TRIUMPHANT. The soul, as it approaches the hour of final conflict, sometimes gathers surprising strength; and is enabled to raise the shout of victory, while it is not yet dislodged from its earthly tabernacle. Such are the visions of glory that entrance the departing spirit, that the agony of dying appears lighter than nothing—it is even forgotten, until the soul is reminded that it is past, by finding itself among those whose robes are washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb. Often have I seen the young Christian, and sometimes even the naturally timid female, breathing out her spirit on the bed of death with unutterable transport; committing herself into her Redeemer's hands, not merely without a chill of distrust—but with the joyful, thankful exclamation, "I know in whom I have believed!" And when I have seen and heard this, I have wished that I might bring in every thoughtless youth around me, as a spectator of the scenes of that dying bed; not doubting that each one in view of it must say, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!"

Nevertheless, the close of the young Christian's course, peaceful and even triumphant as it may be, is HUMBLE. For he realizes strongly—probably more strongly than at any preceding period of his life—that in his best attempts to serve his Master, he has been but an unprofitable servant. When he thinks of the waywardness, the listlessness, the inconstancy, by which even his pious life has been marked; and then of that divine grace which has all along been manifested to keep him from final apostacy; and then of the peace and joy which he is permitted to experience in his last moments; and finally glances the eye of faith onward to the glories which await him in heaven; in a word, when he reflects that all that enters into the work of his salvation is grace—rich grace, and that instead of leaving the world in triumph, he deserves to leave it in despair, and to go down to the world of despair—when he thinks of all this, I say, he desires, amid all the glory of dying in the Lord, to lie at the foot of the cross, and with his last breath, to give to God all the praise of his salvation. "Not unto me, who am less than the least of all saints," is the language of his soul, "but to your great name, Merciful Redeemer, to the efficacy of your blood—to the power of your grace—to the merit of your intercession, be all the honor of my redemption from the eternal pit, and of my exaltation to that throne of light which awaits me in heaven!"

And finally, under this article, the young Christian finishes his course in a manner that is HONORABLE to true religion. It may be that some of the thoughtless youth around him have called his piety by the hard name of hypocrisy or fanaticism; but if they are present to witness his closing scene, they have evidence that they were in a most wretched mistake. Here they see that the true religion which he had exhibited in life, is an all-sustaining principle; that the Savior whom he had served by a course of self-denying obedience, fulfills his promise to be his stay and his staff in the dark valley. And such a scene, if anything, is fitted to impress them with the realities of eternity, and to awaken them to an inquiry concerning their own salvation.

It is fitted too, to strengthen the faith, and quicken the obedience of Christians, and especially of their young Christian friends, who may be present to witness their departure, and who are to remain yet longer in the field of conflict, before they are dismissed for their reward. More than once has the triumphant death of a young Christian carried conviction to the heart even of the scoffer and of the profligate. Often has it brought the anxious yet lingering inquirer to a decision on the great question that has involved his immortal interests. And where is the Christian who has witnessed such a scene, who will not testify that it has diminished his attachment to the world, and strengthened his confidence in his Redeemer, and rendered the gospel more precious to him? In whatever other circumstances the infidel may scoff at the religion of Jesus, he cannot—I had almost said, even if he had the malignity of a demon—he cannot revile this piety, as it is acted out in the peace and joy with which the young Christian often yields up his soul into the hands of his Redeemer.

Let me now, in the third place, call your attention, for a few moments, to,

III. The CONSEQUENCES of the young Christian's course. These we will consider in relation to himself, and in relation to the world.

His course is followed by most important blessings to HIMSELF. It is a blessing, a rich blessing, to be able to leave behind us a good name; to live after we are dead, in the grateful and affectionate remembrance of those who survive us. The voice of popular applause which sometimes rings in shouts at the virtues, and even at the vices of men, and which, by a slight change of circumstances, can be changed into the voice of execration—is indeed an unimportant matter, and is rather to be deprecated than desired. But to desire that our memories may be embalmed in the hearts of the wise and good, that we may be spoken of with gratitude and kindness, as having lived for the benefit of our fellow-men—this is a genuine dictate of nature. And perhaps there is no degree of depravity that can dislodge this original desire from the bosom.

I say then, it is a delightful consequence of the course which the young Christian has pursued, that it secures to him a good name after he is dead: it secures to him a place in the affections of all, in whose affections a good man would desire to live. When his neighbors and acquaintances come to unite in a prayer around his unburied remains, and then go and see them deposited in the grave—that funeral service will not be, as in many other cases, a dull formality. But you will see that many hearts are in it, and that there are many outside of the circle of near friends, who feel that they have sustained a loss. And long after the grave has closed upon his remains, those who knew him—especially those who have been benefitted by his counsels, or example, or prayers—will delight to dwell on his memory, and will speak of that as a dark dispensation by which so much Christian promise, so many budding hopes, were prematurely blasted. Yes, though his course has been brief, it has been so bright, and holy, and useful—that it cannot soon be forgotten. The record of what he was, will remain fair in many hearts, when the moss shall have grown over his tomb-stone, and the worm shall have reveled upon his body.

But far richer blessings than these are to crown the young Christian's course—blessings which are to fall upon the path of his whole future existence. For the moment that death has done its work—yes, at that moment when the bosom of surviving friendship heaves its heaviest sigh—his spirit is before the throne of God; an innumerable multitude of glorified beings welcome his arrival; the songs of redemption reverberate on his ear; the glories of the upper world blaze upon his eye. From all doubt, and sin, and sorrow—he finds himself forever set free! He has become an inhabitant of a world of light, in which he can contemplate even the unveiled glory of God—of a world of purity, in which there is not a vestige of anything that defiles—of a world of joy, in which all tears are wiped away. His character is that of a glorified immortal; his residence is the eternal heavens; his employment, unceasing praise to God and the Lamb; his society, the general assembly and church of the first-born, an innumerable company of angels, Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant, and God, the Judge and Father of all.

And where, during this period of the soul's perfection, is his body? Slumbering in the grave; it may be, dissolved into its original elements, and scattered to the winds. But shall it always be thus? No! The voice of the archangel shall wake that slumbering dust, and collect, and reorganize it, by an Almighty energy; and instead of being a corruptible body, it shall be an incorruptible one; and it shall be united to that glorified spirit; and the whole man shall be brought into judgment; and shall recognize in the Judge—a Redeemer and Friend; and shall hear the sentence of acquittal and reward; and then shall advance onward into the ages of eternity, clothed with the splendors of immortal beauty!

Say then, are not the consequences of the young Christian's course glorious to himself? If it were a perpetual scene of wretchedness, unmitigated by the least consolation, and were always to terminate amid the fires, and agonies, and horrors, of martyrdom, tell me, whether it were not wise to incur this, and a thousand fold more than this, for the sake of obtaining such a reward?

But the course of the young Christian is ordinarily followed by rich blessings to OTHERS. For though he has lived but a little while, he has not lived in vain. He has lived long enough, and been a Christian long enough, to sow some seed that shall bear fruit unto eternal life. Perhaps his holy example, and faithful efforts, in the family, have been blessed to the salvation of some of its members. Or perhaps his labors in the sabbath school have been crowned, in an unusual degree, with the divine blessing; and have been the means of bringing many children to love their Creator and Redeemer. Or perhaps he has been the instrument of reclaiming some of his former thoughtless associates from worldly haunts, and habits of levity; and bringing them to attend seriously to the concerns of their souls. Or he may have been the parent of some benevolent institution, which will live and continue its operations long after he is dead. In either or all of these ways, he may have labored in the cause of Christ. And when it is recollected that influence is, from its very nature, progressive and accumulative, how much may he be found to have done, in the end of the world, for the benefit of his fellow-creatures?

On how many myriads of souls may the labors of a few short years, it may be of a single year, tell, in the whole progress of his being? I ask—are not the consequences of this brief course, to the world, as well as to himself—literally incalculable?

Who will not say, on a review of this subject—that it furnishes a powerful argument to every young Christian, for persevering diligence in the service of his Master? You have entered on a course which, for anything you know, may very speedily be closed. If you could read what is written concerning you in the book of God's secret counsels, you might possibly know that you have almost reached the limit of your probation; that you are on the eve of going to render up your account. I know that you desire to finish your course with joy. I know that you desire that it may truly be said of you, after you are dead, that your life has been a blessing to the world. I know that you desire to crowd into this little period as much of service as you can, to that Savior who has died to purchase the reward to which you are looking forward. Well then, if your days are so rapidly passing, what remains but that you should, during the remainder of life, consecrate all your powers to the honor of your Master.

Dream not, my young friends, that the course of a mere nominal Christian can terminate in joy and glory. Dream not that the 'mere forms of religion' can be safely substituted for its life and power. Remember that nothing but practical godliness will stand, when flesh and heart fail. See to it, that your course be the course of the humble, self-denied, devoted Christian; then will its termination be happy; and its consequences, to you and the world, in time and in eternity, unutterably glorious!

But if this subject supplies a powerful argument to the young Christian, for a devoted pious life, it furnishes an argument equally powerful to every impious youth, to become immediately reconciled to God. Tell me, my young friends, whether the course which has now been presented before you, does not, in every respect, approve itself to your judgment, more than that which you hitherto have been, and still are, pursuing. What though there may be a measure of self-denial, and conflict, and bitter repentance—in a life of true religion; yet are you not satisfied that it has, on the whole, greatly the advantage, even on the score of happiness, compared to a life of sinful indulgence? And is it not, in the view of all whose good opinion is worth possessing—nay, is it not, in the sober judgment of your own conscience, far more honorable?

But suppose, as it respects both happiness and honor in this world, they were alike; which course, think you, is the most desirable in its close? Would you rather have in the hour of death the remorse, the wretchedness, the fearful anticipations, which impenitence begets; or the peace which passes understanding, the hope full of immortality, the joy unspeakable and full of glory, which are inspired by the review of a life that has been devoted to the service of Christ? And after you are dead, would you rather have it said of you, that you had lived for the benefit of your fellow-men, or that you had lived for the gratification of self? And in eternity, would you choose to be associated with seraphs or with fiends; to be employed in wailing or in praise; to have a part in the resurrection of life or in the resurrection of damnation?

I am sure not one of you can hesitate in what manner to answer these questions! Not one of you but must feel that the lot of the righteous is infinitely to be preferred before that of the wicked! I venture even to add, not one of you but intends before long to make the lot of the righteous his own. I warn you then, once more, that there is no time to be lost. Not an hour passes—but your immortal interests are in jeopardy. Yield yourselves then to the service of God without delay; and though you should die early, you will die safely and peacefully—will die to live and reign with Christ on his throne forever and ever!

I here close the series of discourses, my young friends, which have, for a considerable time, occupied you, and which have been designed for your special benefit. I may be permitted to say that I have been gratified, in no small degree, by the respectful attention you have rendered them; and nothing now remains, on my part—but that I should commend them to your serious recollection, and to the blessing of Almighty God. It shall be my earnest prayer—and I invite you to join me in it—that this effort made for your salvation may be crowned by the influence of the Holy Spirit; and that in the day when we shall meet to testify how I have preached, and how you have heard—it may appear to our mutual and everlasting joy, that this course of instruction which is now closed, has been to some of you—to many of you—to all of you, a savor of life unto life!

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