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inadequately set forth, the hearers or readers understand all this highwrought language as the way in which Christians agree to talk about the languid feelings they exhibit. Christians are then supposed to have an understanding among themselves to use these lofty expressions, not in their literal and obvious meaning, but as rhetorical dress, to set off such feelings and principles as they possess. It thus passes as a sort of current phraseology, which Christians have got up, to make a show, as if their religion was something more than it is. The
, the hopes, the love, the joys, and so also the penitential regrets, the trials and inward conflicts, of which the Bible makes so much, are received by the world at large just as the body of professing Christians exhibit them. And therefore it is indispensable to the proper understanding of revealed truth, that Christian example should be so high and holy as to make it evident that the high-wrought phraseology of religion is designed, not as a rhetorical flourish to hide the leanness of Christian experience, but as simple and literal narrative, expressing only the reality of what Christians themselves actually see, and feel, and exhibit. Thus will they be “manifestly declared to be the epistle of Jesus Christ, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God.”
The importance of example to the success of the preached word, may be illustrated in another way.-Words are of no force excepting as they are significant of things. And we cannot take the force of words unless we know the things which they signify. Thus we can have no distinct conception of the modes of spiritual existence. So a discussion upon colors, their shades, and beauty, and harmony, would convey nothing definite to the mind of a man born blind. Just so it is in the case of religion. An irreligious person has never experienced in himself the things which the language of religion describes; of course he cannot be expected to have any very just ideas attached to the language of religion, unless he derives them from what he sees in others. The great portion of mankind undoubtedly get their actual ideas of religion in this very way. They may read differently in the Bible; they may speculate differently; they may plainly understand that the language of Scripture, in its natural import, means more than they can see in the professors around them ; but the lively impressions, such as affect their minds, are precisely the impressions which are produced by the lives of professors. They can understand the living epistle. And all the art and eloquence of man do not convey any thing more to careless minds, than they see in Christians. The most powerful exhibitions of divine truth always pass with common hearers just according to the impression produced by the lives of professing Christians.*
II. A second reason for the importance of the living epistle to the success of the Gospel, is found in the nature of religion itself.
True religion consists in holy affections. Its essential ingredients are, the hatred of sin, and the love of God, and a hope of salvation only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And of all these feelings the human race are by nature wholly destitute. In order to bring men to an experimental acquaintance with religion, they must have these feelings. It is not sufficient that they be alarmed with a view of their danger, and humbled under a sense of their wickedness : they must be subdued and melted into love; they must be affected with a tender sense of the goodness of God; they must realize the beauty of holiness, so as to love it for its own sake. In order to this, it is necessary that religion should be presented to them in a winning way, such as will commend it to their hearts ; and this no written language can do in an adequate manner. Nothing but the living epistle can make religion appear desirable for its own sake. Under other influences men may wish to have religion. They may desire it as a refuge from the compunctions of conscience and the apprehensions of coming wrath. But they can hardly be expected to be smitten with the love of holiness, or to desire religion for its own sake, until they see its divine lineaments drawn out and exhibited in the living epistle. Then the beauty of holiness is written, not upon tables of stone, but on the fleshly tables of the heart; not only to be seen, but to be felt :—and the eloquence of a holy life is never wasted; it arrests the attention, and carries conviction to the heart, of the reality and value of religion; it makes an impression on the mind which neither sophistry nor sin can obliterate.
* At an evening lecture, in which the author discoursed on the importance of the "living epistle," there was present a pious elder in the church, who five days afterward was summoned to meet his Savior. As the assembly was retiring, he took the preacher by the hand, and said, “ I am very sensible of the truth which you have been inculcating. I know it is by the living istle that we get our lively impressions of religion, its reality and its importance. When I was a boy, ten or twelve years old, I was once passing through the woods, and saw an old man, whom I knew, riding along on his horse, engaged in prayer. He did not see me, and I knew he could not suppose any mortal eye was upon him. I felt that he, at least, was not praying to be seen of men, but was holding communion with the unseen God. And it made an impression on my mind of the reality of experimental religion, which nothing could ever efface. It followed me continually, and more than thirty years afterward, I hope, brought me to Christ.”
What must have been the feelings of this praying man on meeting in heaven, as a fruit of that prayer in the woods, the glorified spirit of Peter Hawes ?
III. The influence of the living epistle removes many difficulties which prevent men from embracing religion.
The grand object of Christianity is to convert men to God. The direct aim of all evangelical efforts is to influence men to change their object and course of life. And it is to convert them, not by appeals to their interest, or by arousing and employing some one of the passions, but by entirely changing their hearts. It is to bring them to enter upon a life of self-denial. Of course we may expect to wake up to wrathful opposition all the passions and appetites which religion proposes to restrain.
It is to make men new creatures. Of course it shocks all their prejudices in favor of their present course of action and enjoyment. And without any worldly consideration whatever, it aims to lead them humbly to Christ. This goes directly in the face of that inherent pride of independence, which spurns at the idea of being led. And the design must be plainly avowed. Men may gain influence over their neighbors, for other purposes, and mould and lead them to their will, unsuspected, and without this shock upon their pride. How often are men led, and never know it? But the friend of religion can never gain converts by a concealed influence. Nobody can expect to convert his neighbors and lead them to religion, without their knowing it. The laborer in the Gospel must proclaim distinctly, that Christians alone are right, and all the rest of the world wrong.
He has, moreover, nothing to offer, but a salvation consisting in the first instance only of free pardon to an humbled rebel. He must enforce acceptance also, by the evangelical alternative: “He that believeth shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned.” He says, in plain terms, “ My object is to bring you all to follow me, as I follow Christ. It is to make you ashamed and sorry for those courses which you are now so well pleased in pursuing ; to make you feel, and confess too, that you are all in the wrong.'
In the shock of this encounter with passion, and pride, and sin, the advocate of religion finds all his arguments and persuasions rebutted. The inward reluctance of the heart to yield and confess, is only confirmed by all the efforts of eloquence. Nothing carries a sway to the mind but the influence of the living epistle. The mind by all these prejudices is barred and fortified against the Gospel. There can be no hope of success till this prejudice is removed. And nothing will open the door like the mild influence of a life of simplicity and godly sincerity ; such as shall make Christians manifest, not only to God, but to the consciences of men.
This grand difficulty has a peculiar bearing in the case of Gospel ministers. The tide of prejudice sets strongest against their efforts. The cry of " priestcraft” has been raised so loud, and sounded so long, by infidels and wicked men, and the misconduct of a corrupt priesthood in days of darkness has given so much color to the reproach, in the view of superficial minds, that timid men dare not open their hearts to the full and proper influence of religious truth, for fear of being made the victims of priestcraft. They shut their eyes and close their ears against the most solemn declarations of God in the Bible, for fear of the reproach of being led or frightened by the clergy. Nothing can overcome this difficulty, but the living epistle. The best reply which ministers can make to the calumny about priestcraft is a life of usefulness. Let the minister himself exemplify his preaching, and show in men's eyes the holy, self-denying nature of his religion. Let him labor, “ in season, out of season," till the most faithless acknowledge his sincerity. Let him show his hearers, till they cannot help seeing it, that he would “gladly spend and be spent for them; though the more abundantly he loves ther, the less he is loved.” And then let him be fully sustained by the concurring example and influence of the church. Let them support and stand by him, as their servant for Christ's sake, who is doing work for them. Let it be evident that the church and the minister have no other than a common interest and a common end, and that end a benevolent one-the salvation of souls. Let it be so that he can boldly appeal to his brethren, and say, “ Ye are my epistle, written in my heart;" and can point the world to them and say, “ These are my letters of commendation, known and read of all men. In such a state of things, truth will make its way to men's hearts like a two-edged sword.
IV. The value of the living epistle, in promoting the cause of religion, is abundantly confirmed by facts.
How important an auxiliary it was to the ministry of the apostles. They could appeal to their own lives, and say to the people, “ Ye are witnesses how holily and unblamably we had our conversation among you.” They could point to many living proofs of the efficacy of their doctrine, as the “ seal of their apostleship in the Lord.” Under their ministry the “ word of the Lord had free course, and was glorified,” for it was helped, and confirmed, and magnified by the living epistle.
Why was the blood of the martyrs the seed of the church? It was because, that when “they counted not their lives dear unto them,” the surrounding world read the evidences of true religion in the pages of the living epistle.
In modern times nothing awakens the sensual Hindoo, or opens the mind of the ignorant savage, or the stupid Greenlander, to the benign influences of the Gospel, like the evidence which he sees of sincerity and benevolence in the devoted missionary.
A striking instance of this is found in the case of Christian Henry Rauch, a Moravian, who commenced a mission among the Indians near the Hudson river, almost a hundred years ago. When he first spoke to them on the subject of religion, they laughed him to svorn. But he visited them in their hụts, and labored among them from village to village in a state of
great poverty and want. Soon the Indians began to feel interested in him; and two of the most abandoned of the tribe would weep, when he told them the sufferings of the Redeemer.
But as soon as he began to produce some little effect, the wicked white people in the vicinity, seeing that their craft would be in danger if the Indians should become religious, raised a report that his object was to carry off the young Indians beyond the sea for slaves. The ignorant savages, jealous and timid, as very ignorant people are apt to be when any improvement is proposed, believed the story, and threatened to shoot the missionary if he did not go away. Even Tschoop, one of those who had manifested a concern for his soul, threatened to kill him.
But, not dismayed by all these difficulties, he pursued his work, and at length the Indians began to relent in their opposition, and to admire his courage, patience, and kindness. He used to spend his time among them, as if nothing was amiss; and even lay down to sleep in the midst of them, with the utmost composure.
This made a deep impression upon the mind of Tschoop, who had so often sought an opportunity to kill him. One day, as the missionary lay asleep in Tschoop's tent, the savage thought thus within himself—“ This cannot be a bad man; he is not afraid. He puts. his life in the hands of a drunken mad Indian, and lies down to sleep in my hut. I could kill him, and throw him into the wood, and nobody know or care what become of him. But he is not afraid. He cannot be a bad man.” He thus read the living epistle, and it unbarred his mind, and opened his heart to the truth. He soon renounced his pride and his drunkenness, and fled to the blood of Christ for salvation.
The same remark holds true, in places where the church has long been planted. If the Gospel is preached with any tolerable degree of clearness and fidelity, sinners bow to Jesus, whenever the living epistle' appears so lively, as to be “known and read of all men.” Take away the dimness of its pages, so that there can be no remaining uncertainty about the reality of religion in the church, and those out of the church will awake to the importance of salvation. Facts crowd upon the mind of every one who is acquainted with the history of revivals. There is probably not an instance
any considerable work of grace, while the body of the church are asleep, or in a state of conformity to the world. Nor an instance in which a church, however small, have continued for any considerable time to hold up to men's view the testimony of the living epistle, without effect.
1. The subject shows the grand obstacle to the progress of religion, where the Gospel is preached. It is the indistinctness of the living epistle. It is because ministers and other Christians do not live better. I do not speak of places cursed with the labors of those who preach another gospel, or of places where no voice sounds among the dead to call them to spiritual life in Christ Jesus. I mean those places where there is held forth something of the real Gospel, of salvation in Christ Jesus, and in no other; and where yet religion does not seem to prosper. The word of God is there But it is not quick and powerful. The sword of the Spirit is there. But it is not mighty, through God, to the pulling down of strong holds. The reason is, it is not seconded and enforced by the influence of the living epistle.
There may be a great deficiency of knowledge, or of skill, in the preacher. We who are called to the work of the ministry, act under a fearful responsibility for the manner in which we preach the Gospel. No doubt our deficiencies in clearness, skill, and earnestness, form a great obstruction to the success of our labors. But that is not the grand difficulty.
God put this treasure in earthen vessels on purpose that the excellence of the power might be of God, and not of man. He knew ministers would be imperfect, and has provided accordingly. The grand difficulty is, a defect in the living testimony. For under the labors of those whom we perhaps call poor preachers, religion is still seen to flourish whenever it is seconded by the living epistle. A preacher may be professedly a Roman Catholic, and yet if he preaches salvation by Jesus Christ, and lives accordingly, his labors will not be in vain. This was remarkably the case under the preaching of Xavier, Fenelon, and others of like spirit. It has also been exemplified in Germany, within these few years. A man may urge the doctrines of human dependence to the very borders of Antinomianism. Or he may carry his views of human freedom almost to the extreme of Pelagianism. He may be a person of weak mind, or of a dull temperament. And yet if he lives in the spirit of the Gospel, and has a church who exhibit evident proofs of Christ dwelling in them, vital religion uniformly prospers. On the other hand, you may have what an enlightened judgment would call the best of preaching, and yet if it is contradicted by the living epistle, it will be almost powerless. Unaccompanied by the living epistle, the boldness of Peter, the earnestness of the sons of thunder, the reasoning of Paul, and the eloquence of Apollos, are insufficient to give the Gospel its proper influence. Poor preaching is bad enough in its influence, but poor living is much worse.
2. The subject shows the vast responsibility which rests upon professing Christians, for the lives they lead before the world. They are God's witnesses. And the bulk of mankind take the Gospel just as it is set out before them in the lives of Christians. They are the lights of the world. God has scattered them through the wilderness. And if the light that is in them be darkness, how great is that darkness? How great his guilt, who bears false witness for God, by misrepresenting Christianity in his life.
Religion never can make extensive progress until it is clearly exemplified. Mankind keep aloof from it. Sinners are afraid religion will hurt them. They are afraid to know and to confess their sins, and to take shame and blame to themselves for all they have done. They are afraid to admit their lost condition by nature, and to trust wholly in Jesus Christ for salvation ; lest he should prove insufficient. They are afraid to take up the cross of a religious life, and adopt a high standard of Christian action; throwing themselves entirely upon Divine grace for support. They are afraid to become entirely reconciled to all the ways of God, so as to leave themselves in his hand, as the clay is in the hand of the potter. They are afraid of religion. And therefore it is necessary that Christians should exemplify it, by doing visibly the very things which sinners are called upon to do, in order to show by facts that religion will not hurt them.
Brethren, we must be more holy. We must live down the suspicions of jealousy. We must live down the reproaches of calumny. We must live down the cavils of infidelity. We must live down the indifference of stupidity. Talking, and preaching, and wondering never will do it. We must “ study by well-doing, to put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.” If we wish to see religion making progress, we must live a life of religion, and it will not fail to prosper. For God has said, “ Then shall the heathen know that I am the Lord, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes."