PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More
Christianity an Internal Principle
Christianity bears all the marks of a divine original. It came down from heaven, and its gracious purpose is to carry us up there. Its author is God. It was foretold from the beginning by prophecies, which grew clearer and brighter as they approached the period of their accomplishment. It was confirmed by miracles, which continued until the religion they illustrated was established. It was ratified by the blood of its Author. Its doctrines are pure, sublime, consistent. Its precepts just and holy. Its worship is spiritual. Its service reasonable, and rendered practical by the offers of Divine aid to human weakness. It is sanctioned by the promise of eternal happiness to the faithful, and the threat of everlasting misery to the disobedient. It had no collusion with power, for power sought to crush it. It could not be in any league with the world, for it set out by declaring itself the enemy of the world; it reprobated its maxims, it showed the vanity of its glories, the danger of its riches, the emptiness of its pleasures.
Christianity, though the most perfect rule of life that ever was devised, is far from being barely a rule of life. A religion consisting of a mere code of laws might have sufficed for man in a state of innocence. But man who has broken these laws cannot be saved by a rule which he has violated. What consolation could he find in the perusal of statutes, every one of which, bringing a fresh conviction of his guilt, brings a fresh assurance of his condemnation? The chief object of the Gospel is not to furnish rules for the preservation of innocence, but to hold out the means of salvation to the guilty. It does not proceed upon a supposition, but a fact; not upon what might have suited man in a state of purity, but upon what is suitable to him in the exigencies of his fallen state.
This religion does not consist in an external conformity to practices which, though right in themselves, may be adopted from human motives, and to answer secular purposes. It is not a religion of forms, and modes, and decencies. It is being transformed into the image of God. It is being like-minded with Christ. It is considering him as our sanctification, as well as our redemption. It is endeavoring to live to him here, that we may live with him hereafter. It is desiring earnestly to surrender our will to his, our heart to the conduct of his Spirit, our life to the guidance of his Word.
The change in the human heart, which the Scriptures declare to be necessary, they represent to do not be so much an old principle improved, as a new one created; not educed out of the former character, but implanted in the new one. This change is there expressed in great varieties of language, and under different figures of speech. Its being so frequently described, or figuratively intimated, in almost every part of the volume of inspiration, entitles the doctrine itself to our reverence, and ought to shield from obloquy the obnoxious terms in which it is sometimes conveyed.
The sacred writings frequently point out the analogy between natural and spiritual things. The same Spirit, which in the creation of the world moved upon the face of the waters, operates on the human character to produce a new heart and a new life. By this operation the affections and faculties of the man receive a new impulse -- his dark understanding is illuminated, his rebellious will is subdued, his irregular desires are rectified; his judgment is informed, his imagination is chastised, his inclinations are sanctified; his hopes and fears are directed to their true and adequate end. Heaven becomes the object of his hopes, and eternal separation from God the object of his fears. His love of the world is transformed into the love of God. The lower faculties are pressed into the new service. The senses have a higher direction. The whole internal frame and constitution receive a nobler bent; the intents and purposes of the mind, a sublimer aim; his aspirations, a loftier flight; his vacillating desires find a fixed object; his vagrant purposes a settled home; his disappointed heart a certain refuge. That heart, no longer the worshiper of the world, is struggling to become its conqueror. Our blessed Redeemer, in overcoming the world, bequeathed us his command to overcome it also; but as he did not give the command without the example, so he did not give the example without the offer of a power to obey the command.
Genuine religion demands not merely an external profession of our allegiance to God, but an inward devotedness of ourselves to his service. It is not a recognition, but a dedication. It puts the Christian into a new state of things, a new condition of being. It raises him above the world, while he lives in it. It disperses the illusions of sense, by opening his eyes to realities, in the place of those shadows which he has been pursuing. It presents this world as a scene whose original beauty sin has darkened and disordered; man as a helpless and dependent creature; Jesus Christ as the repairer of all the evils which sin has caused, and as our restorer to holiness and happiness. Any religion short of this, any at least which has not this for its end and object, is not that religion which the Gospel has presented to us, which our Redeemer came down on earth to teach us by his precepts, to illustrate by his example, to confirm by his death, and to consummate by his resurrection.
If Christianity does not always produce these happy effects to the extent here represented, it has always a tendency to produce them. If we do not see the progress to be such as the Gospel annexes to the transforming power of true religion, it is not owing to any defect in the principle, but to the remains of sin in the heart: to the imperfectly subdued corruptions of the Christian. Those who are very sincere are still very imperfect. They evidence their sincerity by acknowledging the lowness of their attainments, by lamenting the remainder of their corruptions. Many an humble Christian whom the world reproaches with being extravagant in his zeal, whom it ridicules for being enthusiastic in his aims, and rigid in his practice, is inwardly mourning on the very contrary ground. He would bear their censure more cheerfully, but that he feels his danger lies in the opposite direction. He is secretly abasing himself before his Maker for not carrying far enough that principle which he is accused of carrying too far. The fault which others find in him is excess. The fault he finds in himself is deficiency. He is, alas! too commonly right. His enemies speak of him as they hear. He judges of himself as he feels. But, though humbled to the dust by the deep sense of his own unworthiness, he is "strong in the Lord and in the power of his might." He has, says the venerable Hooker, a Shepherd full of kindness, full of care, and full of power. His prayer is not for reward, but pardon. His plea is not merit, but mercy; but then it is mercy made sure to him by the promise of the Almighty to penitent believers.
The mistake of many in religion appears to be, that they do not begin with the beginning. They do not lay their foundation in the persuasion that man is by nature in a state of alienation from God. They consider him rather as an imperfect than as a fallen creature. They allow that he requires to be improved, but deny that he requires a thorough renovation of heart.
But genuine Christianity can never be grafted on any other stock than the apostasy of man. The design to reinstate beings who have not fallen, to propose a restoration without a previous loss, a cure where there was no radical disease, is altogether an incongruity which would seem too palpable to require confutation, did we not so frequently see the doctrine of redemption maintained by those who deny that man was in a state to require such redemption. But would Christ have been sent "to preach deliverance to the captive," if there had been no captivity? and "the opening of the prison to those who were bound," had men been in no prison, had men been in no bondage.
We are aware that many consider the doctrine in question as a bold charge against our Creator; but may we not venture to ask, Is it not a bolder charge against God's goodness to presume that he had made beings originally wicked, and against God's veracity to believe, that having made such beings, he pronounced them "good?" Is not that doctrine more reasonable which is expressed or implied in every part of Scripture, that the moral corruption of our first parent has been entailed on his whole posterity? that from this corruption they are no more exempt than from natural death?
We must not, however, think falsely of our nature: we must humble, but not degrade it. Our original brightness is obscured, but not extinguished. If we consider ourselves in our natural state, our estimation cannot be too low; when we reflect at what a price we have been bought, we can hardly over-rate ourselves in the view of immortality.
If, indeed, the Almighty had left us to the consequences of our natural state, we might, with more color of reason, have mutinied against his justice. But when we see how graciously he has turned our very lapse into an occasion of improving our condition; how from this evil he was pleased to advance us to a greater good than we had lost; how that life which was forfeited may be restored; how, by grafting the redemption of man on the very circumstance of his fall, he has raised him to the capacity of a higher condition than that which he has forfeited, and to a happiness superior to that from which he fell: what an impression does this give us of the immeasurable wisdom and goodness of God, of the unsearchable riches of Christ!
The religion which it is the object of these pages to recommend, has been sometimes misunderstood, and not seldom misrepresented. It has been described as an unproductive theory, and ridiculed as a fanciful extravagance. For the sake of distinction it is here called the 'religion of the heart'. There it subsists as the fountain of spiritual life; thence it sends forth, as from the central seat of its existence, supplies of life and warmth through the whole frame; there is the soul of virtue, there is the vital principle which animates the whole being of a Christian.
This religion has been the support and consolation of the pious believer in all ages of the church. That it has been perverted both by the cloistered and the uncloistered mystic, not merely to promote abstraction of mind, but inactivity of life, makes nothing against the principle itself. What doctrine of the New Testament has not been made to speak the language of its injudicious advocate, and turned into arms against some other doctrine which it was never meant to oppose?
But if it has been carried to a blameable excess by the pious error of holy men, it has also been adopted by the less innocent fanatic, and abused to the most pernicious purposes. His extravagance has furnished to the enemies of internal religion, arguments, or rather invectives, against the sound and sober exercises of genuine piety. They seize every occasion to represent it as if it were criminal, as the foe of morality; ridiculous, as the infallible test of an unsound mind; mischievous, as hostile to active virtue; and destructive, as the bane of public utility.
But if these charges be really well founded, then were the brightest luminaries of the Christian church -- then were Horne, and Porteus, and Beveridge; then were Hooker, and Taylor, and Herbert; Hopkins, Leighton, and Usher; Howe, Doddridge, and Baxter; Ridley, Jewel, and Hooper; then were Chrysostom and Augustine, the reformers and the fathers; then were the goodly fellowship of the prophets, then were the noble army of martyrs, then were the glorious company of the apostles, then was the disciple whom Jesus loved, then was Jesus himself -- I shudder at the implication -- dry speculatists, frantic enthusiasts, enemies to virtue, and subverters of the public welfare.
Those who disbelieve, or deride, or reject this inward religion, are much to be compassionated. Their belief that no such principle exists will, it is to be feared, effectually prevent its existing in themselves, at least while they make their own state the measure of their general judgment. Not being sensible of the required dispositions in their own hearts, they establish this as a proof of its impossibility in all cases. This persuasion, as long as they maintain it, will assuredly exclude the reception of divine truth. What they assert can be true in no case, cannot be true in their own. Their hearts will be barred against any influence in the power of which they do not believe. They will not desire it, they will not pray for it, except in the Liturgy, where it is the decided language. They will not addict themselves to those pious exercises to which it invites them, exercises which it ever loves and cherishes. Thus they expect the end, but avoid the way which leads to it: they indulge the hope of glory, while they neglect or pervert the means of grace.
But let not the formal religionist, who has, probably, never sought, and, therefore, never obtained any sense of the spiritual mercies of God, conclude that there is, therefore, no such state. His having no conception of it is no more proof that no such state exists, than it is a proof that the cheering beams of a genial climate have no existence, because the inhabitants of the frozen zone have never felt them.
Where our own heart and experience do not illustrate these truths practically, so as to afford us some evidence of their reality, let us examine our minds, and faithfully follow up our convictions; let us inquire whether God has really been lacking in the accomplishment of his promises, or whether we have not been sadly deficient in yielding to those suggestions of conscience which are the motions of his Spirit? Whether we have not neglected to implore the aids of that Spirit? whether we have not, in various instances, resisted them? Let us ask ourselves -- Have we looked up to our heavenly Father with humble dependence for the supplies of his grace? or have we prayed for these blessings only as a form; and, having acquitted ourselves of the form, do we continue to live as if we had not so prayed? Having repeatedly implored his direction, do we endeavor to submit ourselves to his guidance? Having prayed that his will may be done, do we never stoutly set up our own will in contradiction to his?
If, then, we receive not the promised support and comfort, the failure must rest somewhere. It lies between him who has promised and him to whom the promise is made. There is no alternative: would it not be blasphemy to transfer the failure to God? Let us not then rest until we have cleared up the difficulty. The spirits sink, and the faith fails, if, after a continued round of reading and prayer, after having for years conformed to the letter of the command, after having scrupulously brought in our tale of outward duties, we find ourselves just where we were at setting out.
We complain justly of our own weakness and inability to serve God as we ought. This weakness, its nature, and its measure, God knows far more exactly than we know it: yet he lays on us the obligation both to love and obey him, and will call us to account for the performance of these duties. He never would have said, "Give me your heart " -- "seek you my face " -- "add to your faith virtue" -- "you will not come to me that you might have life" -- had not all these precepts a definite meaning, had not all these been, with the help which he offers us, practicable duties.
Can we suppose that the omniscient God would have given these unqualified commands to powerless, incapable, unimpressible beings? Can we suppose that he would command paralyzed creatures to walk, and then condemn them for not being able to move? He knows, it is true, our natural impotence, but he knows, because he confers, our superinduced strength. There is scarcely a command in the whole Scripture which has not, either immediately, or in some other part, a corresponding prayer, and a corresponding promise. If it says in one place, "Get a new heart," -- it says in another, "a new heart will I give you;" and in a third, "make me a clean heart." For it is worth observing that a diligent inquiry may trace every where this threefold union. If God commands by Paul, "Let not sin reign in your mortal body," he promises by the same apostle, "Sin shall not have dominion over you;" - while, to complete the tripartite agreement, he makes David pray that his "sins may not have dominion over him."
The saints of old, so far from setting up on the stock of their own independent virtue, seemed to have had no idea of any light but what was imparted, of any strength but what was communicated to them from above. Hear their importunate petitions! -- "O send forth your light and your truth." -- Mark their grateful declarations! -- "The Lord is my strength and my salvation!" -- Observe their cordial acknowledgments! -- "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name."
Though we must be careful not to mistake for the Divine agency those impulses which pretend to operate independently of external revelation; which have little reference to it; which set themselves above it; it is, however, that powerful agency which sanctifies all means, renders all external revelation effectual. Notwithstanding that all the truths of religion, all the doctrines of salvation, are contained in the Holy Scriptures, these very Scriptures require the influence of that Spirit which dictated them to produce an influential faith. This Spirit, by enlightening the mind, converts the rational persuasion, brings the intellectual conviction of divine truth, conveyed in the New Testament, into an operative principle.
A man, from reading, examining, and inquiring, may attain to such a reasonable assurance of the truth of revelation as will remove all doubts from his own mind, and even enable him to refute the objections of others; but this bare intellectual faith alone will not operate against his corrupt affections, will not cure his besetting sin, will not conquer his rebellious will, and may not, therefore, be an efficacious principle. A mere historical faith, the mere evidence of facts, with the soundest reasonings and deductions from them, may not be that faith which will fill him with all joy and peace in believing.
A habitual reference to that spirit which animates the real Christian, is so far from excluding, that it strengthens the truth of revelation, but never contradicts it. The Word of God is always in unison with his Spirit. His Spirit is never in opposition to his Word. Indeed, that this influence is not an imaginary thing is confirmed by the whole tenor of Scripture. We are aware that we are treading on dangerous, because disputed ground; for among the fashionable curtailments of Scripture doctrines, there is not one truth which has been lopped from the modern creed with a most unsparing hand; not one, the defense of which excites more suspicion against its advocates. But if it had been a mere phantom, should we with such jealous repetition have been cautioned against neglecting or opposing it? If the Holy Spirit could not be grieved, might not be quenched, were not likely to be "resisted;" that very Spirit which proclaimed the prohibitions would never have said "Grieve not," "quench not," "resist not." The Bible never warns us against imaginary evil, nor courts us to imaginary good. If, then, we refuse to yield to its guidance, if we reject its directions, if we submit not to its gentle persuasions, for such they are, and not arbitrary compulsions, we shall never attain to that peace and liberty which are the privilege, the promised reward of sincere Christians.
In speaking of that peace which passes understanding, we allude not to those illuminations and raptures, which, if God has in some instances bestowed them, he has nowhere pledged himself to bestow; but of that rational yet elevated hope which flows from an assured persuasion of the paternal love of our Heavenly Father, of that "secret of the Lord," which he himself has assured us "is with those who fear him;" of that life and power of religion which are the privilege of those "who abide under the shadow of the Almighty;" of those who "know in whom they have believed;" of those "who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit;" of those "who endure as seeing him who is invisible."
Many faults may be committed where there is nevertheless a sincere desire to please God. Many infirmities are consistent with a cordial love of our Redeemer. Faith may be sincere where it is not strong. But he who can conscientiously say that he seeks the favor of God above every earthly good; that he delights in his service incomparably more than in any other gratification; that to obey him here and to enjoy his presence hereafter is the prevailing desire of his heart; that his chief sorrow is that he loves him no more and serves him no better; such a man requires no evidence that his heart is changed and his sins forgiven.
For the happiness of a Christian does not consist in mere feelings which may deceive, nor in frames which can only be occasional; but in a settled, calm conviction that God and eternal things have the predominance in his heart; in a clear perception that they have, though with much alloy of infirmity, the supreme, if not undisturbed, possession of his mind; in an experimental persuasion that his chief remaining sorrow is, that he does not surrender himself, with so complete an acquiescence as he ought, to his convictions. These abatements, though sufficient to keep us humble, are not powerful enough to make us unhappy.
The true measure, then, to be taken of our state, is from a perceptible change in our desires, tastes, and pleasures; from a sense of progress, however small, in holiness of heart and life. This seems to be the safest rule of judging; for if mere feelings were allowed to be the criterion, the presumptuous would be inflated with spiritual pride, from the persuasion of enjoying them; while the humble, from their very humility, might be as unreasonably depressed at lacking such evidences.
The recognition of this Divine aid, then, involves no presumption, raises no illusion, causes no inflation; it is sober in its principle, and rational in its exercise. In establishing the law of God, it does not reverse the law of nature; for it leaves us in full possession of those natural faculties which it improves and sanctifies; and so far from inflaming the imagination, its proper tendency is to subdue and regulate it.
A security which outruns our attainments is a most dangerous state, yet it is a state most unwisely coveted. The probable way to be safe hereafter is not to be presumptuous now. If God graciously vouchsafe us inward consolation, it is only to animate us to further progress. It is given us for support in our way, and not for a settled maintenance in our present condition. If the promises are our nourishment, the commandments are our work; and a temperate Christian ought to desire nourishment only in order to carry him through his business. If he so supinely rests on the one as to grow sensual and indolent, he might become not only unwilling, but incapacitated for the performance of the other. We must not expect to live upon cordials, which only serve to inflame without strengthening. Even without these supports, which we are more ready to desire than to put ourselves in the way to obtain, there is an inward peace in a humble trust in God, and in a simple reliance on his word; there is a repose of spirit, a freedom from solicitude, in a lowly confidence in him, for which the world has nothing to give in exchange.
On the whole, then, the state which we have been describing is not the dream of the enthusiast; it is not the reverie of the visionary, who renounces prescribed duties for fanciful speculations, and embraces shadows for realities; but it is that sober earnest of heaven, that reasonable anticipation of eternal felicity, which God is graciously pleased to grant, not partially, nor arbitrarily, but to all who diligently seek his face, to all to whom his service is freedom, his will a law, his word a delight, his Spirit a guide; to all who love him unfeignedly, to all who devote themselves to him unreservedly, and to all who, with deep self-abasement, yet with filial confidence, prostrate themselves at the foot of his throne, saying, "Lord, lift up the light of your countenance upon us, and we shall be safe."
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