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Lectures to Young People

William B. Sprague, 1830


"What must I do to be saved?" Acts 16:30.

The circumstances which led to this momentous inquiry, were deeply interesting. Paul and Silas had gone into Macedonia, preaching the gospel; and having come to Philippi, they were arrested by the magistrates of the city, scourged, and thrown into a dungeon. The jailer having received a strict charge to keep them safely, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks. It is one of the glories of the gospel that it does not restrict its blessings to any condition in life; that its richest consolations may be enjoyed as well in a dungeon as in a palace: and hence we find that the blessed Savior appeared marvelously for these persecuted men. That they would be engaged in prayer, it were natural to expect; but the walls of their prison are made to echo not only to the voice of prayer—but of praise; for we are expressly informed that "they sang praises to God." At this moment there was a great earthquake which shook the prison, so that the doors were thrown open, and the keeper awoke in the utmost consternation. Supposing the prisoners to have escaped, which would have been at the forfeiture of his life, he drew his sword, and was nearly in the act of destroying himself, when Paul—the same Paul whom he had just before confined in a dungeon—with much of his master's benevolence, cries out, "Do yourself no harm, for we are all here." "Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"

It is not easy, nor, for my present purpose, important, to determine, whether the jailer had ever heard the gospel before this time; whether any conversation had previously taken place between him and the apostles, which originated these convictions; or whether the light which he received, was directly communicated at the time by the Holy Spirit. It is sufficient for us to know that he really became an anxious inquirer on the subject of his salvation.

It will occur to you, my young friends, that the preceding discourse was occupied with an examination of some of the excuses, with which youth are prone to put off the claims of true religion. I would willingly hope that there are those among you, who have become satisfied of the worthlessness of these excuses, and have resolved never more to plead one of them—not even at the bar of conscience. Nay more, I would indulge the hope that you have not only given up your excuses—but that you have become impressed with the importance of your soul's salvation; insomuch that when you heard the text announced, your heart instantly responded to the sentiment contained in it, as one in which you have the deepest personal interest. In the hope which I have now expressed, it is my purpose, in the present discourse, to inquire into the meaning of this momentous question, with a view to place distinctly before you that state of mind commonly called CONVICTION OF SIN; that you may be assisted, on the one hand, to decide upon the character of your pious impressions, and on the other, to gain such a view of your condition as shall be necessary to lead you to escape from the wrath to come.

What then is the import of the question contained in the text—"What must I do to be saved?"

I. I observe, first, it is the language of deep feeling.

There are comparatively few in Christian communities, who are not ready to give a general assent to the truth of the gospel; and far the larger part, at least, among ourselves, will not hesitate to avow their belief of the most humbling of its doctrines. Of the deep depravity of man, and of their own personal guilt and pollution, they will profess not to entertain a doubt; and yet the practical influence of this belief is absolutely nothing. With an avowed conviction that they are constantly exposed to the miseries of the second death, they go their way, one to his farm, and another to his merchandise; and yield themselves up to the cares or the follies of the world, apparently with as much avidity, and as little apprehension, as if there were no heaven to be gained or lost. Nay, there are those who not only profess to believe the truths of which I have spoken—but in words contend earnestly for their importance, in whose hearts they have never produced a throb of concern, and over whose path they have never cast a shade of gloom. The truth is, that their belief of them is merely speculative. There is nothing in it to rouse, or agitate, or subdue the soul. In spite of it, the sinner may slumber even on the borders of the world of despair.

Far different is the spirit which prompted the inquiry in the text, and which discovers itself in the exercises of every convinced sinner. There is here not only the assent of the understanding—but the feeling of the heart. The sinner not only speculatively believes his guilt and danger—but practically realizes it. In the one case, the truths which he believes, are like objects seen in the mist, or by twilight: in the other, they resemble objects viewed in the brightness of noon-day. In the one case, it is as if you were to contemplate some temporal calamity, of which you regarded yourself in little or no danger: in the other, it is as if you were to contemplate the same calamity, while you were actually sinking under its power.

I have said that the question in the text indicates deep feeling; but I do not mean that it is, in all cases, alike. With some, it is little more than settled seriousness; with others, it is strong anxiety; and with others still, it is unmixed agony. This variety of experience may be referred to a difference in the original constitution of the mind; or in the previous moral habits; or in the instruction which is communicated; or many other circumstances, which may, or may not, fall within our observation. But in every case, the truth is felt, not merely assented to: it seizes hold of the active principles of the soul, and is not kept locked up in the intellect.

II. This is the language of strong self-condemnation.

The process by which the sinner becomes impressed with a sense of his guilt, originates in the new view which he gains of the divine law. Hitherto, his views of that law have been loose and vague: he has practically regarded it as taking cognizance only of the external act; and not improbably has flattered himself that, if he were decent in his outward deportment, he would thereby yield an obedience to the law which might be accepted as a ground of his justification. But under the enlightening influence of the Holy Spirit, his mistakes on this subject are all corrected; and the law of God, instead of being regarded as little more than a dead letter, is felt, like the Omniscient eye, to be a Searcher of the heart; and like the Almighty hand, to operate with a resistless energy. It is seen, moreover, to be altogether worthy of its author; perfectly reasonable and just in its requisitions; an admirable transcript of the moral perfections of God.

Now you easily see how this new view of the divine law operates to produce conviction of guilt. If the law has its foundation in everlasting righteousness, and is perfectly holy, just, and good; if it is that which binds together the moral kingdom of Jehovah, and is an exact expression of his will in respect to all his intelligent creatures—then how evil and bitter a thing must sin be, which is the violation of this law: how deserving of God's supreme abhorrence must be that evil, which pours contempt upon his character, and insolently tramples upon his authority!

It is in view of the moral excellence of the law, then, that the sinner discovers and estimates the inherent odiousness of sin: but in estimating his own personal guilt, he more especially takes into view the extent of its requisitions; considering it as designed to control the inner man of the heart; as extending to every thought, and purpose, and motive, and desire, through every period of man's existence.

How differently does the sinner now estimate the number of his sins, from what he did before he practically understood the comprehensive import of God's law! Time has been, it may be, when he scarcely considered himself a sinner at all; and when, if he had undertaken to reckon with his conscience, he would have thought only of flagrant acts of transgression, and would have estimated the guilt even of them chiefly by their untoward influence upon society. But now he is almost exclusively occupied in calling up sins of the heart; sins of every day, and hour, and moment; sins of which the world never took cognizance, and of which, at the time they were committed, he scarcely took cognizance himself. He sees that he has been living in constant rebellion against God; that he has steadily and perseveringly refused a practical acknowledgment of his authority; and that too against motives of the most tender and affecting import. He charges himself with the blackest ingratitude; for when he looks back upon his past life, he sees that he has been continually led by a most gracious hand, and that blessings have constantly multiplied in his path; and yet he beholds no monuments of grateful homage; no Ebenezers on which is inscribed "Hitherto has the Lord helped me."

Perhaps he has been a diligent attendant on the means of grace; has been regularly at the sanctuary, and it may be has even daily read the scriptures, and sometimes fallen upon his knees, and taken upon his lips the language of devotion; and in all this, he may have formerly thought that he was doing much to commend himself to the divine favor: but now he sees nothing better in these services, by which he had deceived himself, and perhaps deceived others also, than the hollow homage of a formalist; and here, as truly as any where, he reads the sentence of his condemnation. How many complaining reflections does he find himself to have indulged against God, because he may have sometimes in mercy blasted his foolish purposes, or withheld from him something which, if it had been bestowed, would have ministered only to his destruction! How large a part of all the thoughts that he has ever had, does he find, on review, to have been vain and evil; how many of his words have been idle and frivolous; how many of his purposes have originated in pride or revenge; how many of his desires have been polluted and groveling; how many actions which to the eye of man may have appeared praiseworthy and even noble—does he now perceive to have been dictated not merely by a spirit of forgetfulness of God—but by a spirit of active rebellion against him. In short, his sins of omission or commission, of heart or life, appear as numerous as the moments of his existence; and he feels that an effort to recall them all to remembrance, were as vain as to attempt to count the drops in the ocean.

But while the convinced sinner dwells with astonishment on the number of his sins, or rather finds them literally innumerable, he is equally overwhelmed by a sense of their aggravation. He perceives that they are not the sins of a heathen, who has never heard of Christ or salvation; but they have been committed, it may be, in the very brightest sunshine of gospel day. They have been committed, while the Bible, with all its solemn warnings, and all its gracious invitations, and all its treasures of mercy, has been within his reach; while the Sabbath has weekly dawned upon him, and the sanctuary has opened its doors for him, and the ministers of Christ have spread before him the provision of the gospel, and have expostulated with him to attend to the things that belong to his peace. They have been committed, moreover, in spite of the kind rebukes and earnest entreaties of pious friendship; in spite of the remonstrances of his own conscience; in spite of the strivings of the Holy Spirit; in spite of all the condescension, the agonies, and the intercession of Jesus; in spite of the offered glories of heaven, and the threatened woes of perdition. The fact that he has sinned against so much light and love, and that he has persevered in sinning, when there were so many considerations to deter him from it, seems to him to stamp upon his guilt a peculiarly aggravated character.

And then again, he perceives how completely vain and foolish were the excuses with which he had quieted himself in a sinful course: he is compelled to give them all to the winds, and to feel that he stands before God without the shadow of an apology. Does he justify his past neglect of true religion, on the ground that he had no time to attend to it; or on the ground that, in attending upon the means of grace, he had done all that it was in his power to do; or on the ground that there would be a future more convenient season? No such thing. He feels that his sins have been altogether voluntary and causeless, and have exposed him most justly to God's threatened curse.

It is a common case that a sinner in these circumstances actually believes himself to be the most guilty of all beings, even worse than the reprobate in hell; for while he can invent apologies for others, he cannot for a moment admit any for himself. He is not indeed, as some dreaming speculatists would have it, willing to encounter eternal perdition; but that he deserves it, is as clear to him as that the light shines around him amidst the brightness of noon-day. He wonders that such a wretch as himself is permitted to breathe the air, or enjoy the light, or walk upon the earth; and it is difficult for him to believe that his next move will not be to the eternal prison of despair.

I have already intimated that there is, in some respects, a great variety in the experience of convinced sinners, some being far more deeply affected than others. But in every case which issues in conversion, there is not only a general conviction of the evil of sin—but a particular conviction of personal guilt, and of the justice of the sentence which dooms to God's everlasting displeasure. This conviction may be acquired suddenly, or it may be acquired gradually: it may be more or less pungent: but in some form or other, and in some degree or other, it makes part of the experience of every sinner, who is brought to a practical knowledge of the excellence and glory of the gospel.

III. This is the language of earnest solicitude.

Enough has been said to show that the disclosures which are made to the convinced sinner by the Spirit of God, must render him, in no small degree, unhappy; and such a state necessarily produces solicitude, both in respect to the present and the future. It is natural that the sinner should earnestly desire a deliverance from the burden that now oppresses him, and from the appalling doom which conscience bids him anticipate in the next world.

If there were nothing more than his present condition concerned, there would be good reason why he should long for a change; for such a condition is always unhappy, and often wretched beyond our most gloomy conceptions. What Christian, especially what minister of Christ, has not witnessed cases, in which the sinner in the circumstances which I am supposing, has been stung by remorse, agitated by terror, convulsed by agony, to such a degree, that life itself has seemed a burden; and the aspect of despair has settled upon the countenance; and even the grave has been longed for, if it might but prove a refuge from the lashes of a guilty conscience. But where the operations of the Spirit assume a milder form, and the impressions of guilt are far less pungent, there is still enough in the sinner's condition to cause him earnestly to desire that he may escape from it. For he feels that while this burden hangs upon his conscience, the world is nothing better to him than a prison, overspread with darkness, and hung round with despair.

But if the sinner is anxious, and with good reason too, to escape from the miseries of his present condition, much more is he desirous to escape from the accumulated woes which await the ungodly in the world of despair. He realizes that there is an awful meaning in the description which the Bible has given of the future and eternal miseries of the lost; and he ponders the fearful imagery in which those miseries are described, until his heart throbs and sinks with apprehension. Here again, is it strange that he is anxious to escape from this tremendous doom? Rather, would it not be very strange, if, with such a view of the danger of his condition, he could fold his arms and lull himself into an indolent security?

It is not always easy for the sinner in the state which I am supposing, to analyze the operations of his own mind. And if it is difficult for him to understand the nature of his emotions, he is still more perplexed to know in what manner he may obtain peace. Often, the most that he can say respecting himself is, that there is an intolerable burden resting upon his conscience; that he knows not which way to look for relief; that all around him and before him, is impenetrable darkness. And not unfrequently, the burden of his anxiety is that, with such just occasion for distress, he feels so little; and while, to all others but himself, he seems to be on the borders of despair, he imagines that he is utterly destitute of moral sensibility.

In these circumstances, he adopts, in many respects, a new course of life. If he has been accustomed to mingle in scenes of levity, he mingles in such scenes no longer. The Bible, and other pious books, which he has been used to treat with entire neglect, he reads with most earnest attention. He rejoices in the opportunity, though he often does it with great diffidence, to unbosom himself to his minister, or some Christian friend, and to receive appropriate instruction and counsel. He is often found in the meeting for prayer and pious conference, and still oftener in his closet, pouring out the anguish of his heart before God. You may tell him that a sinner ought not to pray; but the false direction he will not heed; for though he feels no confidence that he shall be saved, let him do what he will, yet if he is saved, he is sure that it must be by an act of God's sovereign grace, and that grace he has no reason to expect, if he does not supplicate it. His former careless associates, not improbably, during this period, look on with amazement, and perhaps treat his serious impressions with ridicule; but what avails all their ridicule with him, so long as his eyes are open to survey the appalling realities of his condition?

Do you ask whether, in all this striving of which I have here spoken, the sinner advances any nearer to the kingdom of God, or to a regenerate state? I answer, yes, undoubtedly; though I would guard the answer by an explanation. It is far from being true, that the sinner, by any effort he can make, does anything in the way of merit towards commending himself to the divine favor; nor do any of his moral exercises preparatory to renovation partake of a holy character: nevertheless, these efforts seem designed, in the economy of God's grace, to prepare him to accept a free salvation; and though there be nothing of a moral character in the prayers that are offered previous to conversion, which God can regard with approbation, yet there is the natural feeling of distress. And who can tell but that He who hears the cry of the young ravens, may not listen to the cry of the convinced sinner? To whatever conclusions men may be conducted on this subject by metaphysical speculation, all experience unites with the word of God in proving that, though the sinner who is only convinced will as certainly perish as any other, yet the convinced sinner is, in an important sense, nearer the kingdom than the careless sinner; not because he has a particle of holiness—but because he has exercises which, in the order of nature, are preparatory to a spiritual renovation. If our Lord himself could say of a mere moral man, that he was not far from the kingdom of God, surely we need not hesitate to apply the same language to a sinner trembling under the burden of conviction.

I have now laid before you, my young friends, so far as I have judged necessary, the exercises and the condition of a sinner, in what is usually termed a state of conviction. In this situation I must, for the present, leave him. It is natural to infer,

1. In the first place, from the preceding remarks, how far you may go, and finally fall short of heaven. Are you, at this moment, an anxious and heavy laden sinner? Have your iniquities taken hold upon you, so that you are not able to look up; and are you trembling under the apprehensions of Jehovah's wrath? Have you forsaken the haunts of levity, and broken away from vain companions, and have you taken up the resolution that you will press forward and enter in at the straight gate? Believe me, so far as this you may go, and even farther—and yet perish in your sins. All this you may be today, and the world may have begun to regain its ascendancy over you tomorrow, and before you are yet scarcely aware of any change, you may find yourself again in the ranks of the mirthful and careless. Nay, you may continue in this very state until you die; you may always remain a serious inquirer for the way to heaven, and may even lie at its very gate, and yet, after all, may never enter in.

Therefore, I entreat you not to rest satisfied in your present condition. It would be to no purpose that you should discover that some distressing worldly calamity was hanging over you, unless the discovery should lead you to do something to avert it; nor will it be of any avail that you see yourselves exposed to eternal perdition, unless you actually make haste to escape from the wrath to come. Let the effect of the disclosures already made to you by the Spirit of God, lead you to action; else you will not only perish—but perish with a doom aggravated by the very fact that you have been the subject of serious convictions.

2. Learn from this subject, that it is a most solemn thing, especially for a young person, to be awakened. It is indeed a solemn thing for any person; because he is thereby brought under the direct influence of the Spirit of God; and in the result of the Spirit's operation is probably to be decided the question—whether his immortal soul is to be saved or lost; whether his path through life is to be cheered by the hopes and consolations of true religion, and to terminate amid the bright glories of the upper world, or whether he is to go laboring through this valley of tears without any substantial support, often disgusted, and never satisfied, with what the world has to bestow—and finally to sink down under the withering frown of the Almighty, and be banished from his presence forever!

I say then, that the fearful result which is pending, renders the case of any awakened sinner peculiarly solemn; but the case of a young person, in such circumstances, gathers additional interest from the fact that he is surrounded with peculiar temptations to abandon his convictions, and return to a habit of carelessness. For in his case there are mirthful companions to be forsaken, and there are scenes of merriment to be abandoned, in which, it may be, the individual concerned, has been specially active; and probably there is the hiss of contempt, or the frown of indignation, to be encountered, from those who have been accustomed to greet him as one of themselves. Oh, when I see a young person in these circumstances, I tremble; because I expect that the decision he is about to make will be for eternity; and I see much reason to fear that his decision will be wrong.

3. And this leads me to say, thirdly, that those youth who dare to trifle with the serious convictions of their companions, are in the very broadest part of the road to destruction. They trifle with the immediate influence of the Spirit of God. They cast contempt upon the most benevolent work which he ever performs for mortals. They make a direct and most dreadful attempt to thwart the gracious purposes of heaven, and plunge an immortal soul into everlasting burnings. If I supposed there were a single youth before me who bore the character of a scoffer, I would say to him, Beware—beware how you ever speak lightly again of the work of the Holy Spirit. And possibly some of you may have been guilty of the essence of this sin, when you have thought little about it. When you met your brother or sister, whose countenance wore an aspect of deep concern, and you purposely threw out some light and careless remark, or perhaps cast a significant smile, as if in derision, know that that brother or sister felt it at the heart, as a cruel and cutting rebuke; and know too, that he who takes an account of all your actions, recorded it as an insult shown to his authority, and an attempt to counteract the influences of his Spirit. And when, as you were passing off the threshold of this house, you met some companion whom you had seen melted under the warnings, or invitations, which had just been announced, and when you took that companion by the hand and said, "Come, let us go and talk of the pleasures of the past week, or project plans of amusement for the week to come,"—know too, that you were then opposing the operations of the Spirit of God, and aiming a murderous dagger at the soul of your friend! I say nothing which is not the result of solemn conviction, when I declare, that I would a thousand times rather my dearest friend should come and trifle with my last agonies, and dance around the bed on which my cold and motionless body was stretched, and close my dying eyes with a loud peal of laughter—than to have him approach me with ridicule, when my heart was burdened with conviction; for in the one case, he would only chill the last blood that passes through my veins; in the other, he might awaken everlasting agonies in my soul.

Finally: I dare not close this discourse without urging you (though in doing so, I should seem to anticipate my next subject) to an immediate compliance with the terms of the gospel: because, if I should be spared to stand in this place again, to answer the question, "What shall I do to be saved?" some of you may, before that time, have heard your last sermon, and have passed into that world where the voice of instruction cannot reach you. I call upon you then to attend without delay to this momentous concern; to obey the command of God to give him your heart; and I seem to hear a call in everything around me, conveying to you a similar admonition. There is a call from above, which I recognize as coming from the throne of God, and inviting you to all the glories of his kingdom. There is a call from below, which seems to come from the abodes of darkness, echoed in groans, and agonies, and tortures, warning you to beware how you withhold the heart from God another day. There is a call from within, which bids you take care and not sacrifice your immortal souls. There is a call in the memory of departed worldly joys, admonishing you that they are worthless, and bidding you seek superior bliss. There is a call from the dying bed of the Christian, and the dying bed of the sinner; the one pointing upward, by way of invitation, to the glories of heaven; the other downward, by way of admonition, to the horrors of hell.

But above all, there is a call from the cross of Calvary—from the Savior in the act of dying for your redemption; and his language is, "Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Mourning sinner, that call is to you—to no mortal more than you. Away then with all this halting and hesitating, and accept of Jesus, and your conscience will be at rest; your soul will be full of peace and hope; and joy will descend from heaven, and take up her dwelling in your bosom.

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