The Young Lady's Guide to the Harmonious
Development of Christian Character
by Harvey Newcomb, 1843
TRUE RELIGION ESSENTIALLY PROGRESSIVE
The great moral and spiritual change, which the Scriptures declare to be necessary to salvation, is compared by Christ and the apostles to a new birth, because it is the beginning of spiritual life. The term regeneration, however, only applies to this change in its commencement, which is instantaneous. The young convert, therefore, is very properly called by the apostle Peter a "new-born babe." It is a great mistake, then, to suppose that a true Christian, who is in a right state of mind, is to look back to the period of his conversion for his most lively and vigorous exercises of grace, or for his principal evidences of being in a gracious state. It may, indeed, be at that time more perceptible, because the change from a state of nature to a state of grace is very great. Yet this change is imperfect, and the greater part of the work of "putting off the old man,"—of "bringing under the body and keeping it in subjection," remains yet to be done; while the "new man" must grow up from the feebleness of childhood to the "stature of a perfect man in Christ Jesus."
True religion must, therefore, be essentially progressive. This is the clear implication of all the figures used in the word of God to describe the work of grace in the heart. It is compared to a mustard-seed, which is the least of all seeds. But, when it springs up, it rises and spreads its branches until it becomes the greatest of all herbs. The beauty and appropriateness of this figure will not be appreciated unless we take into consideration the luxuriant growth of plants in Eastern countries. But we should never expect such a plant to spring up at once into full maturity. It is the mushroom which opens full grown to behold for the first time the morning sun; but it as speedily withers away. Yet neither should we expect such a plant to become stationary in its growth, before it arrives at maturity. If it ceases to grow, there must be a worm at the root, or some fatal disease, which will cause it to shrivel and die.
The operation of grace is also compared to leaven; which is so little at first that its presence in the meal can scarcely be perceived. But when it begins to work, it increases and extends until the whole is leavened. Yet its progress may be impeded by cold; and the process can rarely be restored, so as not to injure the production. So the Christian will rarely recover from the injurious effects of backsliding and growing cold in his pious affections.
Again, grace is compared to a living spring—a fountain, whose waters bubble up and send forth a constant stream. Christ says, "The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water, springing up into everlasting life." When these words were uttered, our Lord was sitting on a deep well, in conversation with the woman of Samaria. As his custom was, he drew instruction from the objects around him. He directed her attention away from the water which could only quench natural thirst, to the living water, which refreshes the soul. But she, not understanding him, wished to know how he could obtain living water from a deep well, without anything to draw with. In order to show the superiority of the water of life, he told her that those who drank of it should have it in them, constantly springing up of itself, as from an overflowing fountain.
One of the most deeply-cherished recollections of the author's early life, is the living spring that flowed from a rock near the home of his childhood. The severest drought never affected it, and in the coldest season of a northern winter it was never frozen. Oft, as he rose in the morning, when the chilling blasts whistled around the dwelling, and everything seemed sealed up with perpetual frost, the ice and snow would be smoking around the spring. Thus, like a steady stream, should our graces flow, unaffected by the drought or barrenness of others, melting the icy hearts around us.
"The righteous," says David, "shall flourish like a palm-tree; he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon." The palm-tree continues to grow and increase, and retains its vigor and fruitfulness perhaps longer than any other tree. It is also renowned for its ability to multiply its own kind, its root producing a great number of suckers; and when it is planted by a living spring in the desert, soon there will be found a little forest of palm-trees growing up around it. This is one of the most useful of trees, every part of it being put to some profitable use. To "flourish like the palm-tree," therefore, is full of meaning. This can be realized by the Christian only when he is making progress in his own spiritual growth, contributing, by his influence, to the increase of the "trees of righteousness" in the garden of the Lord, and abounding in works of usefulness.
The cedar is an evergreen. It does not, like many trees, shed its verdure, and remain apparently lifeless one half the year, and then shoot forth luxuriantly again for a little season; but its growth is steady and sure. It is perpetually green. To grow like a cedar, therefore, indicates a steady progress in the divine life.
The motives which urge us to seek and maintain an elevated standard of piety, are the highest that can be presented to our minds. The glory of God requires it. This is the greatest possible good. It is the manifestation of the divine perfections to his intelligent creatures. This manifestation is made by discovering to them his works of creation, providence, and grace, and by impressing his moral image upon their hearts. In this their happiness consists. In promoting his own glory, therefore, God exercises the highest degree of unselfish benevolence. Nothing can add to his happiness: nothing can diminish it. If the whole creation were blotted out, and God were the only being in the universe, he would still be perfectly glorious and happy in himself. There can be, therefore, no selfishness in his maintaining his own glory. The glory of the Creator is essential to the good of the creature. A desire to glorify God must, then, be the ruling principle of our conduct, the moving spring of our actions.
But how is the glory of God promoted by our growth in grace?
1. It is manifested to us by impressing his image upon our hearts, and by giving us a spiritual discovery of the excellence, purity, and loveliness, of his moral nature.
2. It is manifested to others, so far as we maintain a holy life; for thereby the moral image of Christ is exhibited, as the glory of the sun appears by the reflected light of the moon.
3. The glory of God is promoted by making others acquainted with the riches of free grace, and bringing them to Christ; for, by that means, they receive spiritual light to behold the beauty and glory of the divine perfections, and his image is stamped upon their souls.
We have, likewise, great encouragement to aim at progress in divine things. The word of God is full of promises to such as seek after high attainments in divine knowledge and holiness. The prophet Hosea says, "Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain upon the earth." His going forth, to those who follow on to know him, shall be as certain, and as regular, and steady, as the daily return of the morning; and as progressive as the sun, when his beams break from the east, and increase in brightness and intensity, until they pour down the burning heat, and steady, clear light, of perfect day. "If we follow on to know the Lord," our consolations shall be as constant, and our experience of the goodness of the Lord as certain, as the regular succession of night and day; and our communion with God, and increase of light, shall be as steady as the progress of the sun from early dawn to mid-day. There may be occasional clouds; but they will quickly disperse, and the Sun of Righteousness will break forth with sweeter beams and more cheering luster.
He shall also "come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain upon the earth." In Palestine, the rain does not fall, as in this country, at all seasons of the year; but heavy rains descend, to water the ground at seed-time, to cause the seed to spring up and grow; and these rains are so plentiful as to carry on vegetation with steady progress, until near the harvest, when the "latter rain" falls, to perfect the crop—to give body to the kernel, so that, when it shall ripen, it may be plump and full. If this latter rain fails, the kernel shrinks, and shrivels up, so that the grain is deteriorated in quality, and diminished in quantity. The "former rain," in the text quoted, then, would seem to denote that "refreshing from on high," which the soul experiences when the "good seed" of the word first springs up; and, if this be abundant, and the young convert will "follow on to know the Lord," the impulse which he then receives will carry him on in a steady course of spiritual growth, until the "latter rain" comes to perfect his fruits.
In the experience of Christians who have made much progress in the divine life, there is something very much resembling this "latter rain." They go on in a steady course, after their conversion, always advancing, though, perhaps, less perceptibly at some seasons than others, as there are seasons in vegetation when things seem to make no progress. But, at length, after having faithfully followed on to know the Lord, they receive a fresh unction from on high. The Spirit of the Lord is poured out upon them anew, like the "latter rain," to perfect the growth of the Christian graces. It may happen, in the growth of vegetation in the East, that, for a while before the "latter rain," the drought may be such as to cause the grain to droop, and, perhaps, to appear as though it were going to dry up and wither away.
So, often, previous to this new experience of which I am speaking, the Christian is brought through great trials, often exceeding, in the strength of temptation and the power of conviction, that which preceded his first experience of pardoning mercy. But, when light again breaks in upon his mind, he is brought out into "a large place," and beholds the "beauty of the Lord," and the glories of his grace, with clearer vision than ever before. The riches of full assurance break in upon the soul, and his peace flows as a river that is never dry. He has new and clearer discoveries of the glory of God, and of that divine and unspeakably glorious mystery, "God manifest in the flesh." His soul is lifted up in God's ways, though exceedingly abased in himself, and humbled before God. He has exchanged the "spirit of bondage" for the "spirit of adoption." His mind is in "perfect peace, stayed on God." And this "latter rain" brings his fruits to maturity. His love and joy, as well as all his pious affections, are more pure and spiritual, with less mixture of human passion; his faith is stronger, clearer, and more steady; his patience is strengthened; he is more forbearing, more gentle, more meek, more humble, more consistent in his temper and conduct at all times. He literally and truly "brings forth fruit with patience;" and his fruit remains, and is seen, to the glory of God's grace. And, with many, this refreshing is often repeated, through a long Christian life, causing them always to "bring forth fruit in their season."
There is something like this "latter rain" in the experience of Bible saints, as in that of Job, in his trial, and of David and Peter, after their falls. So, also, we find it in the memoirs of eminent Christians, as of Bunyan, Mrs. Edwards, (wife of Jonathan Edwards,) Edward Payson, James Brainerd, Taylor, Griffin, and many others. Mrs. Edwards, for a long time, enjoyed, as she said, "the riches of full assurance." She felt "an uninterrupted and entire resignation to God, with respect to health or sickness, ease or pain, life or death; and an entire resignation of the lives of her nearest earthly friends." She also felt a "sweet peace and serenity of soul, without a cloud to interrupt it; a continual rejoicing in all the works of nature and Providence; a wonderful access to God by prayer, sensibly conversing with him, as much as if God were here on earth; frequent, plain, sensible, and immediate answers to prayer; all tears wiped away; all former troubles and sorrows of life forgotten, except sorrow for sin; doing everything for God's glory, with a continual and uninterrupted cheerfulness, peace, and joy." At the same time she engaged in the common duties of life with great diligence, considering them as a part of the service of God; and, when done from this motive, she said they were as delightful as prayer itself. She also showed an "extreme anxiety to avoid every sin, and to discharge every moral obligation. She was most exemplary in the performance of every social and relative duty; exhibited great inoffensiveness of life and conversation; great meekness, benevolence, and gentleness of spirit; and avoided, with remarkable conscientiousness, all those things which she regarded as failings in her own character."
But how did these people arrive at this eminence in the Christian life? Although by free, sovereign grace—yet it was by no miracle. If we will use the same means, we may attain the same end; and that without any disparagement to our dependence upon God, or his sovereignty in the dispensation of his grace; for he has appointed the means, as well as the end. In speaking of the attainments of Mrs. Edwards, her husband says, "Mrs. Edwards had been long, in an uncommon manner, growing in grace; and rising, by very sensible degrees, to higher love to God, weanedness to the world, and mastery over sin and temptation, through great trials and conflicts, and long-continued struggling and fighting with sin, and earnest and constant prayer and labor in piety, and engagedness of mind in the use of all means. This growth had been attended, not only with a great increase of religious affections, but with a most visible alteration of outward behavior; particularly in living above the world, and in a greater degree of steadfastness and strength in the way of duty and self-denial; maintaining the Christian conflict under temptations, and conquering, from time to time, under great trials; persisting in an unmoved, untouched calm and rest, under the changes and accidents of time, such as seasons of extreme pain, and apparent hazard of immediate death."
We find accounts of similar trials and struggles in the lives of others. This is what we may expect. It agrees with the Christian life, as described in God's word. It is "through much tribulation that we enter the kingdom of heaven." This is the way in which we must go, if we would ever enter there. We must make piety the great business of life, to which everything else must give place. We must engage in the work with our whole souls, looking to Christ for strength against our spiritual enemies; following the example of Paul, "forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before; pressing toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus;" and then we shall come off conquerors at last, "through him that has loved us, and given himself for us."
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