THE NEW CONVERT
Extracts from Lectures on Revivals by W. B. Sprague
Prove your own selves. 2 Corinthians 13.5.
This exhortation was addressed by the Apostle to professed Christians. It takes for granted that they were not absolutely assured of their discipleship, and were liable to be deceived in the views which they formed respecting their own character. It enjoins the duty of referring their character to the proper test; proving whether Christ is in them by the sanctifying influences of his Spirit, or whether they are mere nominal Christians, finally to be cast off as reprobate.
The advice contained in the text was addressed to the Corinthian church indiscriminately; and it may properly apply to all Christians, without any reference to age or standing. It is, however, especially applicable to those who have just entered, or professedly entered, on the Christian life; for if they mistake their own character then, there is reason to fear that the mistake will be fatal. It therefore becomes every minister, and every private Christian, who undertakes the office of a counsellor and guide, during a revival of religion, to make much use of the exhortation – ‘Prove your own selves.’
It is, if I mistake not, becoming a somewhat popular notion, that nearly all the efforts which are made during a revival, should be directed to the awakening and conversion of sinners; and that comparatively little attention is needed by those who have indulged the hope that they have become reconciled to God. Far be it from me to say, or to think, that too much is done to effect the former of these objects; but I am constrained to believe that there is far too little done in reference to the latter. I endeavour in this discourse to exhibit an outline Of THE TREATMENT
WHICH IS DUE TO THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN HOPEFULLY THE SUBJECTS OF A RECENT CONVERSION.
We will consider the object which ought to be kept in view; and the means by which it may be most successfully accomplished.
1. The object to be aimed at in all our treatment of those who hope they have been recently converted, is twofold: to save from self-deception, and to build up in faith and holiness.
(a) To save from self-deception.
That there is danger that many persons will practise deception upon themselves in these circumstances, must be obvious to anyone who gives the subject the least consideration. For the mind is then in an excited state, when it is most liable to misjudge of its own exercises: and the heart has been burdened with anguish; and has been longing for relief; and is prepared to welcome the least evidence of pardon; and of course is in danger of grasping at a shadow, and mistaking it for the substance. Surely then it devolves upon all who are active in conducting a revival of religion, to guard those who hope they have been recently converted, against self-deception. Even amidst all the peace and rapture which they may experience, in connection with what they suppose to be a conversion to God, it is the duty of those who counsel them, though they may rejoice in their joy, to rejoice with trembling, lest it should prove that the hope with which their joy is connected, should be the hope of the hypocrite.
(b) The other great end to be kept in view in respect to the class of which I am speaking, is, to build them up in faith and holiness.
If they have actually been regenerated, they will certainly, in a greater or less degree, bring forth the fruits of holiness; for it is impossible that a gracious principle should exist in the soul, and be habitually and entirely inoperative. Nevertheless, it is not every Christian who lets his light shine as he ought. It therefore becomes a matter of great moment that, at the very beginning of the Christian life, each one should be impressed with his obligations to labour for his Master to the extent of his ability; and should be assisted so far as may be, to form a character which will ensure at once the highest degree both of comfort and of usefulness. Whatever is done then to mould the character, will probably exert a far more decisive influence, than any thing which could be done at a future period; and upon the counsels and directions which an individual receives, at such a moment, may depend in a great degree, the amount of good which he is to accomplish during his whole future life. Surely then, it is no unimportant office, to counsel and guide the young Christian. He who does it aright may be instrumental of opening fountains of blessing, which shall send forth their purifying streams in every direction.
2. We proceed, secondly, to consider some of the means by which this twofold object is to be attained.
(a) Let those who hope they have been the subjects of a recent conversion be put on their guard against too confident a belief that they have been truly regenerated.
I remember to have heard of an individual, who was afterwards greatly distinguished for piety, going to the elder Jonathan Edwards, to whose congregation lie belonged, to tell him what God had done for his soul; and after that great and good man had listened to the account of his supposed conversion, and had heard him speak with rapture of the new and delightful views which he had of spiritual objects, and when the individual was expecting that he would do nothing less than congratulate him upon having become a child or God, he was disappointed beyond measure by simply hearing him say that what he had experienced was an encouragement to him to persevere; though the man himself, in relating the circumstance many years after, when he had come much nearer the fulness of the stature of a perfect person in Christ, cordially approved the course which his minister had adopted. It is not always easy to satisfy persons in these circumstances, even of the possibility that the hope and joy which they experience may be spurious; but it is much to be desired, both as it respects their safety and their usefulness, that this should be effected; that while they acknowledge with devout gratitude to God the least evidence that He has extended to them a gracious forgiveness, they should fear lest a promise being left of entering into rest, they should seem to come short of it.
Encourage them to analyse their feelings, to examine the motives and principles of their conduct, especially to inquire whether they have the humility of the gospel, whether they cordially approve its conditions, and whether they glory in sovereign grace as it is manifested in the gospel scheme of salvation. Show them moreover, that the evidence of Christian character in order to be decisive, must be progressive; that it consists especially in a fixed purpose, and a steady course of endeavours in reliance on God’s grace, to do whatever He would have them to do; that they must add to their faith all the virtues and graces of the Christian; and that if they fail of this, whatever other experience they may have, must be set down as nothing. Caution them against the wiles of their own hearts, and the wiles of the great adversary; and urge them to settle the question respecting their claim to Christian character, by referring their experience to the simple standard of God’s word.
It is matter of great moment that they should be impressed, from the beginning, with the importance of habitual self-examination; for this is not more essential to ensure them against self-deception, than it is to all their attainments in holiness. Let them be exhorted not only to inspect narrowly their motives and feelings from day to day, with a view to give a right direction to their prayers, and to ascertain the measure of their growth in grace, but also frequently to revolve the great question whether they have really been born of the Spirit. Such a course honestly and faithfully pursued in the light of God’s word, is hardly consistent with cherishing the hypocrite’s hope, or with making low attainments it) piety.
(b) Endeavour to impress them with the consideration that if they have really been renewed, they are just entering on a course of labour and conflict.
It too often happens that, in the rapture which the soul experiences when it emerges suddenly into light from the gloom of deep conviction, there is little else thought of than its own enjoyment; and the bright visions of heaven by which it is well nigh entranced, occasion a temporary forgetfulness of the trials and conflicts, and all the more sober realities, of the Christian life. Now it is highly important that an individual should not, at this interesting moment, take up the idea that he is born into the kingdom to enjoy a state of perpetual sunshine; that it has nothing to do but fold his arms, and sit quietly down in the cheering and bright light of God’s countenance.
Strive then to impress the young convert, from the very beginning, with the conviction that God has called him into His kingdom to struggle with the corruptions of his heart – to war with principalities and powers. Admonish him that there is still an evil principle within him; and that if its operations seem to be suspended for a season, it yet retains a deadly energy, which will call him ere long to severe conflict. Admonish him also of the temptations of the world; tell him how insidious they are; in what a variety of forms they present themselves; how many who have imagined themselves secure against their influence, have nevertheless been assailed by them with success. Remind him also that he has a powerful, invisible enemy to contend with – the enemy of all good; – against the influence of whose wiles no condition in life can secure him. Let him understand that he is never so much in danger of falling into the hands of his spiritual enemies, as when he yields to a spirit of self-confidence confidence or carelessness; and either practically forgets that such enemies exist, or else thinks to encounter them in his own strength. He cannot be girded for conflict too early; or observe their movements too vigilantly; or meet them too resolutely and boldly. Let him determine that he will wear the whole armour of God at all times, and especially in every scene of temptation into which his duty may call him, and then he may be able to stand.
But he has something more to do than merely to contend with enemies; he has to labour directly for the advancement of Christ’s cause. His lot is cast in a world lying in darkness and wickedness; and it is for him to lend his aid to enlighten and reform it. At home and abroad there are multitudes thronging the road to perdition; it is for him to put forth a hand to arrest them, and by God’s blessing upon his efforts, to turn them into the path of life. The Lord Jesus Christ has given to the world His gospel; and He has left an injunction upon His people to carry it to the ends of the earth; that its light may everywhere be diffused, and its influence everywhere felt; and everyone who is born into His kingdom, becomes specially obligated to lend himself to this glorious work; and to continue in it, till he shall be taken from his labours to his reward. Every young convert should be made to feel that this is a matter of personal concerti with himself; and that from the hour of his conversion to God, all his affections, and faculties, and possessions, are in some way or other to be consecrated to His glory.
3. Let it be impressed upon the mind of the new convert that much of his comfort and usefulness in the religious life will probably depend on the resolutions he forms, and the principles he adopts, at the beginning.
It is in religion as in everything else, the first steps that are taken are usually the most decisive. The man who sets out well in any worldly enterprise, who carefully counts the cost, and engages in it with a prudence and zeal, and resolution, corresponding to its importance, we expect, in all ordinary cases, will succeed; and we calculate that the amount of his success will be very much in proportion to the discretion and energy which characterise his earliest efforts.
Let the young convert, then, be admonished to begin the Christian life with such resolutions and principles as will be likely to secure the greatest amount of activity and usefulness. Let him contemplate the importance of doing the utmost in his power for the honour of his Master, and the advancement of His cause, as well as of reaching the highest attainable degree of personal holiness; — let him determine that nothing shall divert him from the purpose of following Christ through bad as well as good report, and that in the strength of His grace, he will march on in His service in spite of any obstacles that may lie in his way — let him resolve that he will keep the eye of faith steadily fixed now upon the Saviour’s cross, and now upon the crown of glory; — in short, let him form a plan of holy living that shall reach onward to his entrance into the abodes of light; and in these holy resolutions and purposes, I expect to find the germ of an actively useful and eminently happy life. I expect there will prove to have been that which will reflect an additional lustre on his immortal crown.
4. Let him be exhorted farther to draw all his religious opinions, and all his maxims of conduct, directly from God’s word.
I know there are many human productions in which the doctrines of the gospel are stated and defended with great ability; and he would do himself injustice, as well as evince a criminal ingratitude for God’s goodness, who should refuse to avail himself of them as helps towards building himself up in the most holy faith. But let thetas be considered as subordinate to God’s word; and let them be tried by it; and let whatever wil I not stand that test be thrown among the wood, and hay, and stubble. He who derives his views of religion from any uninspired works, however much of general excellence they may possess, will, of course, be liable to an admixture of error; and besides, even if he should chance to gather from them the uncorrupted truth, he could not have (lie same deep and powerful conviction of it, as if it had been drawn directly from the Word of God.
I would say then to everyone just entering on the Christian life —study the Bible for yourself. Study it with humility, diligence and prayer. What you find written there, believe; whatever is not written there is either not true or not important. And be not discouraged in your efforts to ascertain the truth for yourself, by the fact that the world is full of different opinions respecting it; — for the truth is clearly revealed; and besides, most of the disputes which exist among Christians relate rather to human philosophy than to the matter of God’s word. Remember that God Himself hath said that ‘the meek he will guide in judgment; the meek he will teach his way.’
But it is not less important that the new convert should derive the rules of his conduct, than the principles of his faith, directly from the Bible. There are, indeed, many particular cases in which men may be called to act, in relation to which there are no express directions given in God’s word; but there are general rules to be found there which admit conscience will always know how to apply. Let the young Christian then be exhorted to study the Bible diligently as a rule of duty; to ascertain from God’s own word what He would have him to do in the various conditions in which he is placed; and to refer every question of right and wrong which he is called practically to decide, to this standard and no other. Let his character be formed under this influence, and it cannot fail to rise in fair and goodly proportions. There will be in it a dignified stability which will secure it from the undue influence of circumstances. Its possessor will be enabled to act not only with rectitude, but with confidence and decision; and while he keeps a conscience void of offence, he will commend himself to the goodwill of his fellow men, and to the special favour of God.
You then who may be called to counsel those who are just setting out in the Christian life, should charge them by a regard to their comfort, their character, their usefulness, to have nothing to do with any other standard of conduct than that which they find in the Bible. Let them be exhorted to adhere to this, even though it should subject them to the greatest temporal inconvenience. Let them determine that they will regulate by it the whole conduct of their lives; — not only what may seem to them their most important, but also their least important actions. When they have settled the question, ‘Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? then, and only then, are they prepared to act with freedom and confidence; in a manner that is fitted to keep peace in their consciences, and to bring down upon them the blessing of God
5. Let the young convert be admonished to ascertain, as soon as possible, his besetting sin; and to guard against it with the utmost Caution.
It is true of every Christian that there is some one sin to which he is more inclined than any other: what that sin will be in any particular case, may depend on the previous moral habits of the individual, or on the circumstances in which he is placed, or on some original infirmity of constitution; for as bodily disease is most likely to seat itself in the part which is originally the weakest, so the depravity of the heart usually concentrates its energies in some passion or appetite which is marked by the greatest degree of natural perverseness. He, therefore, who ascertains in his own case what this sin is, and who regards it as the most formidable enemy to be encountered in his conflict, and succeeds in gaining a victory over it, accomplishes much in the way of his sanctification.
6. Impress the young convert with the danger of the least departure from duty; – of taking the first step in the way of spiritual decline.
It rarely happens that an individual becomes a great backslider at once: on the contrary, it is usually the work of time, and generally has a small and almost imperceptible beginning. When the first step is taken, there is probably in most cases an intention not to take another –certainly not to go far; but it is a law of our moral constitution that one step renders the next easier; and hence the facility with which we form our habits, especially evil habits. The young convert upon the mount of Christian enjoyment is able to form but an inadequate idea of the conflicts of the religious life; he realises then, much less than in subsequent parts of his course, the need of constant watchfulness against temptation; and this lack of vigilance throws open the doors of the heart, and not unfrequently the tempter has planted himself there, and begun his work, before any danger has been apprehended. And the soul which was just now burning with ecstasy, wakes to the fact that not only its joys are rapidly upon the wane, but that its desires are becoming earthly, and its impression of invisible things feeble and inconstant.
Caution the young Christian then, against the least allowed violation of duty. Admonish him that, if he enter on such a course, he can never know where it will end. Point him to examples of those who have taken the first step with a firm purpose never to take another, who have nevertheless continued to backslide, until there was scarcely the semblance of Christian character remaining. Let him understand that no degree of joy, or even of spirituality, which he can possess on earth, can be any security against his losing his evidences and his comforts, and sinking into a state of the most chilling spiritual indifference. And if, at any time, he find that he has actually begun to wander, let him know that he has the best reason to be alarmed, and that every hour that he continues his wanderings, he is making work for bitter repentance, and bringing a dark cloud over his religious prospects. bringin
Put the young convert on his guard against neglecting the duties of’ the closet, (the secret place of prayer and quiet tinge).
It is in the closet especially that every Christian must labour to keep alive the flame of devotion in his own soul. Here, more than anywhere else, is carried forward the work of self-examination: here are the silent communings of the soul with its God, in acts of confession, and thanksgiving, and supplication: here the believer becomes acquainted with his sins and his wants; and while he unburdens his soul before the throne of mercy, gathers strength and grace, by which he is sustained and carried forward amidst the various duties and trials which meet him in the world.
But this evil – that of neglecting the closet – is one to which the young convert is exceedingly liable. He may not be liable to it in the very earliest stage of his Christian experience; for then the duties of the closet are usually a delight to him; but when his first joys have partially subsided, and he has begun to be conversant with the more sober realities of the religious life, there is great danger that he will find some apology for a partial and irregular attendance on these duties. One source of danger is found in the fact that he may neglect them, and still be unobserved by the world; – that lie may neglect them without forfeiting, even in the view of his fellow Christians, who of course are ignorant of it, his claim to Christian character. And then these duties being of a peculiarly spiritual kind, are the very first to lose their attractions to a Christian who is losing his spirituality. Other duties bring him before the world: these bring him only before his own conscience and the Searcher of his heart. And besides, where circumstances may seem to render it inconvenient to engage in closet devotion, it is too easy a matter to satisfy the conscience with an indefinite resolution that it shall be attended to at a subsequent period; and no resolution is more easily broken than this; and let it be broken in a few instances, and a habit of comparative indifference to the closet is the consequence. I doubt not that I might appeal to the experience of a large part of those who have professedly entered on the Christian life for evidence of the fact, that no habit is formed with more ease than that of neglecting, in a greater or less degree, this class of duties.
In short, urge upon him the importance of private meditation and devotion in all circumstances; urge him to redeem time for that purpose under the greatest pressure of worldly care; and keep him mindful of the connection which this duty has with everything that belongs to Christian character and Christian enjoyment.
8. Admonish him to beware of the world.
Everyone who has made much progress in the Christian life, has been taught by his own experience that the world is a deadly enemy to the believer’s growth in grace. It is not easy for an advanced Christian to be very familiar with it and retain a high degree of spirituality. Even the cares of the world – to speak of nothing more, are exceedingly apt to mar the Christian character; but there are, in addition, the pleasures of the world, the honours of the world, the riches of the world; all of which in turn seize hold of the heart with a mighty grasp. And sometimes the world laughs and scoffs at the young Christian, and tries to persuade young him that he is giving himself to fanaticism and folly. Sometimes it flatters and caresses him, and by its artful blandishments seeks to draw him aside from the plain path of duty. Indeed the world will assume any form, or turn into anything, to draw the Christian, especially the young Christian, away from God and from duty.
How important then that you put him on his guard, at the very beginning, against this dangerous enemy! If he is in the morning of life as well as young in Christian experience, there is reason why you should caution him especially against the levities and amusements of the world; for this is the point at which he will be most in danger. Let him beware of the influence of former careless associates: not that he should say to them by his conduct – ‘Stand by, I am holier than thou;’ not that he should lie encouraged to assume a single distant or unsocial air towards them; but he should take heed that they do not imperceptibly draw him into forbidden paths; that they do not either by flatteries on the one hand, or sneering insinuations on the other, prevail over his scruples, and bring him under the lash of his own conscience in consequence of unjustifiable and unchristian compliances.
9. Another important part of duty towards those who are just entering on the Christian life, is to encourage them gradually to bear a part in social religious exercises.
I do not mean that this is to be done in every case; for I well know that there are a few persons who, from some difficulty of utterance, or some peculiarity of constitutional temperament, are disqualified to conduct the devotions of an assembly to edification. Wherever there is the gift of prayer in a common degree, it is exceedingly desirable that its possessor should be trained to the exercise of it in public; for if he improve it in that way discreetly, it cannot fail greatly to increase his usefulness. I would not however advise in ordinary cases that a young Christian, especially if he be a very young person, should be brought at once to conduct the devotions of a large assembly; for I should expect that it would serve to embarrass and dishearten him on the one hand, or to palm him up with spiritual pride on the other; and withal that there would be little to edify those whose devotions he should attempt to conduct. I would advise, therefore, that his first attempts to lead i in social prayer, should be on some occasion where there are literally but two or three gathered together; and it were well that those should be persons whose feelings correspond with his own, and whose presence would be least fitted to embarrass him; and from leading occasionally in such an exercise, he might soon acquire that composure and self-command, which would enable him to guide in a proper manner the devotions of a larger circle; and ultimately, and at no distant period, to perform the duty of public prayer wherever he should be called to it. Let him be preserved from the extreme of being driven to this service prematurely, on occasions altogether public, and let him be kept from the opposite extreme of yielding to a timidity which shall prevent him from engaging in it at all; and the greatest amount of good will be secured to him, the greatest amount of good will be secured to the church and the world through his instrumentality.
10. I observe, once more, that every young convert should be encouraged at a proper time, to make a public profession of religion. This is a duty which he owes to himself, to the church, and to his Master; and he cannot deliberately and voluntarily neglect it, but at the expense of his comfort, his usefulness, and even his claim to Christian character. It is his privilege to come into the church; for it is refreshing to sit under the shadow of its ordinances, and in the communion of saints on earth, to anticipate the more elevated and rapturous communion of heaven. It is his duty to come into the church; for hereby especially he is enabled to let his light shine before men, so that they seeing his good works may glorify our Father who is heaven. But while every young Christian should be encouraged to make a profession of religion, he should be encouraged to do it at the proper time – neither too early nor too late.
There is a possibility of doing this too early. In this case there would be no sufficient opportunity of testing the character; or of guarding against self-deception; or as the case may be, of understanding what is implied, and what is required, in a Christian profession. On the other hand, it may be deferred too long; and then the desire for it may become feeble, the mind clouded, and all the Christian graces languish for want of that appropriate nourishment which is supplied by Christian ordinances. It is not easy, nor indeed possible, to establish any certain rule which shall apply in al I cases, in respect to file time of admission to the privileges of the church; because there must needs be a difference corresponding with the variety of constitutional temperament, external advantages, degrees of knowledge, and degrees of evidence of Christian character; but it is manifest that either extreme is fraught with danger; that a great rush, or long delay, may be the occasion of serious evils.
Let it not be thought, however, that the church owes no peculiar duty to young Christians, after she has received them into her fellowship, or that the same cautions and counsels which she has given them before, are not to be repeated subsequently to this act. She is to bear in mind that they are new in the duties and conflicts of the Christian life; that they are peculiarly exposed to the temptations of the world; that they need to be counselled and instructed with Christian fidelity and affection; – to be assisted in forming and executing their plans of usefulness; and encouraged to come up prudently, and yet fearlessly and decidedly, to the help of the Lord against the mighty. As a tender mother cherishes her children, so she is to cherish them. Like the great Shepherd, she is to take the lambs in her arms, and carry them in her bosom.
Without extending my remarks farther on this subject, I think we are fairly brought to the conclusion, that every revival of religion is dependent for its good effect, in no small degree, upon the course which is adopted with those who are professedly its subjects. Whether the effect of a revival is to be that the purity of the church shall be increased, as well as its numbers, or that with what is truly good it is to receive a large amount of dross and chaff; whether those who have really been renewed are to begin and hold on a course of consistent, active, Christian obedience, or are to have their religious character marred, and their usefulness abridged, by being conformed to false and unscriptural standards; – depends, in no small degree, upon the instruction and counsel they receive, while they are yet babes in Christ. Let every Christian, then, who undertakes to perform this important office, realise deeply his responsibility. Let him bear in mind that the influence which he exerts, will tell not only on individual character but on the future efficiency and purity of the church. And let all seek to qualify themselves for this arduous work, (for there are none upon whom it may not at some time devolve,) by the faithful study of God’s word, by earnestly supplicating divine grace, and by constantly aiming at a high standard of Christian experience.
Men’s practices are the best indexes of their principles.
It is foolish to pray against sin and then sin.
God likes not fair words that come out of a foul mouth