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What is true of these converts is true of multitudes of religious men who possess the same vigour of fancy, and the same warmth of feeling. Particularly is it the case with ignorant Christians. In them often feeling is neither balanced nor regulated by those sound rational views of the evangelical system which more knowledge of it, and a superior capacity of judging, would furnish. The real evidences of piety they imperfectly collect, imperfectly compare, and, of course, imperfectly understand. Thus situated, they remain in a sense young converts while they live. Yet in numerous instances they prove, by their conversation and behaviour, that they think themselves strong men in Christ, while all the discerning Christians around them clearly perceive that they are mere babes. Often they discuss and decide upon subjects of high import, which lie beyond their reach. Often they dictate religious measures to those who are greatly their superiors in every evangelical attainment. Sometimes they undertake to lead the devotions of public assemblies, from a persuasion, not unfrequently awakened and cherished by other ignorant men, that they are endowed with extraordinary gifts, and have acquired an eminent degree of holiness. Nay, numbers of such men enter the desk without any preparation for an office so solemn and so difficult as that of a minister of the Gospel. Here, unlearned and unstable as they are, they frequently wrest the Scriptures to the very serious injury of themselves and the destruction of others. "command every man among you," says St. Paul, "not to "think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to "think soberly," (or with a sound judgment)" according as "God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” " Love "vaunteth not itself, and is not puffed up." "If a man think"eth himself something when he is nothing, he deceiveth him"self. But let every man prove his own work," (that is, examine what he has done, and from that trial, not from his feelings, learn his true character,)" and then," says the Apostle, "he shall have rejoicing in himself, and not in another."
My brethren," says St. James, "be not many teachers, "knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation." In
other words, this is the way to expose ourselves to that greater condemnation.
It deserves to be remarked, that all superstitious persons and all enthusiasts have ever been of this character, and pursued this unhappy conduct. This certainly ought to be enough, and more than enough, to warn every Christian of his danger from this source, especially when it is remembered, on the other hand, that the best and wisest Christians who have lived have uniformly been the most humble and self-denying.
2dly, To expect justification before God on account of our own righteousness is another specimen of the same character.
Such an expectation cannot be derived either from reason or revelation. Revelation declares such a justification to be impossible; and as if aware that we should hardly be satisfied with the bare testimony even of God himself, condescends to prove the point by arguments which are irresistible. We are there shown to have violated the law of God, and to be condemned by its irreversible sentence to suffer its penalty. With equal clearness is it proved, that no means of expiation are in our power. The very services to which we should naturally resort as such means are declared to be so far from constituting an expiation, that they are in themselves sinful, and therefore need to be expiated. Instead of becoming means of our deliverance, therefore, they only plunge us deeper into guilt.
To this unanswerable proof reason subjoins her testimony. She acknowledges both the sin and the condemnation, and confesses that the way for our escape is for ever barred. With sighs and tears she mourns over our miserable apostacy, and exclaims, "We are all as an unclean thing, and all our right"eousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf, " and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away."
But self-sufficiency sees the way clear to the attainment of this mighty object, and the proofs which she summons to her aid, miserable as they are, are yet strong enough to satisfy her wishes, to minister to the soul comfort and hope, and to prevent it from seeking the justification disclosed in the Gospel.
3dly, Another example of the same character is exhibited in
the confidence with which we feel ourselves to be secure against such temptations as have usually overcome others.
This confidence, extensively as it is cherished, is a violation of all good sense, and a contradiction to all experience. On what is it founded? On the apprehension which we entertain that we possess more prudence, firmness, and worth than any or all of those who have become victims to such temptations. What proofs have we that we possess this character? None. What is the sentence of reason? That self-confident men are always in danger and most easily overcome. What is that of Scripture?"Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed "lest he fall."
Fourthly, Another example of confiding in the goodness of our moral character is exhibited in the postponement of repentance to a future day.
There are two principal causes of this procrastination. We dislike the business to be done, and feel secure that we shall be both able and willing to do it hereafter. Both show in a strong light the miserable overweening of the procrastinator. Were he not blind, he would discern that the reasons will exist at every future period. We dislike repentance because we love sin. But we shall love sin to-morrow and every succeeding day, and love it with continually increasing strength. It will therefore prevent us from repenting to-morrow, as it has done to-day. All human experience proves this beyond every reasonable doubt. Yet in defiance of this experience in himself, and in all other men, the procrastinator secretly believes that to-morrow he shall love sin less, and be more willing to become a penitent. What is to produce this change in his character? The mere flux of time, the revolutions of the sun, the circuits of the minute hand on the face of a clock. But when and where have men become more prepared to repent by merely growing older? The procrastinator himself may not improbably answer, "Ne"ver." Whence, then, does he expect to become a penitent on some future day? From his own peculiar wisdom and forecast, perfectly inefficacious to accomplish the end now, but by some magical process to be made completely efficacious at that happy period. How plainly is this expectation an abuse of all
the dictates of common sense and common experience. What an insult is it on the word of God! It is to trust, as the drunkard trusts, that the present cup will lead him back to sobriety, or as the thief, that stealing will make him an honest man.
II. I will now endeavour to show the folly of trusting in our own hearts.
First, In the common business of life it is certainly not true that our measures discover the superior wisdom and prudence which we challenge in our religious concerns. Were we to make the attempt, we should be greatly at a loss for evidence that we rise above the average character of man. By those around us it will certainly not be acknowledged. Nor is it evidenced by any peculiar success in the execution of our plans. What then is the proof that it is just? The only answer is, "Our own opinion." By whom do we see this opinion most frequently and most forcibly manifested? The proverbial answer of common sense is, " By children and "fools." Do those, who by the public opinion, and their own success, are proved wise, exhibit it more or less than others? Every one of us will be obliged to answer, "The least of all "men." In our self-sufficiency, then, we are contrasted to the wise, and resemble children and fools.
What say the Scriptures? The text gives the answer. If that is not sufficient, they add, with still more pungency, "Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more "hope of a fool than of him." The only argument which can be alleged in the case, is that with which enthusiasts bolster themselves. They are possessed of divine communications, because they know it; and they know it, because they possess them. Deplorable proof of a deplorable opinion!
To trust in religious systems devised by ourselves is to contradict common sense. It is impossible that these systems should be true. We do not, and cannot, possess the knowledge which is indispensable to the formation of a system of religion. We cannot know the things out of which the system must be composed. We know neither the character of God, nor his will, nor his designs, nor the rules by which he
is to be worshipped, nor the rules of our conduct, nor the means of salvation, nor the attainableness of it by any means whatever.
Without these materials a religious system is nothing. But to attempt to form such a system without possessing the materials of which it is to be constituted, is to build a house without timber, brick, or stone. Fools only can be thus employed. Nor are those, who, professing to believe the Scriptures, pervert their declarations, in order to support schemes of religion devised by themselves, less openly at war with common sense than infidels themselves. In this case a being of yesterday rejects the counsels of the eternal God, acknowledges them to be his, and substitutes in their place his own imaginations. A worm lifts up his crest, and declares himself wiser than his maker.
Equally evident is the folly of those who confide in the goodness of their moral characters. We are not thus good. Sinners are sinners only. Righteous men are far less excellent than they are prone to think themselves, and ought always, when pondering their own character, to let their remaining corruptions hold a prominent place in their thoughts. "I "am unworthy of the least of all thy mercies," said Jacob.
Behold, I am vile, what shall I answer thee ?" said Job to his maker. "Behold I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did
my mother conceive me," said David. "To me belongeth "shame and confusion of face, because I have sinned," said Daniel. "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me "from the body of this death ?" said St. Paul. So have said all the pious of every age; and the more pious, the more have they adopted the language of this humility.
Second, It is folly because it is ruinous.
"Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before "a fall." This inscription may with exact propriety be written upon every determination, and every effort, of self-confidence. For it is the general sentence of God on the spirit itself, and on all its undertakings. Evils ever present, and by a self-sufficient spirit ever unforseen, arrest the proud vain man in all the common business of life; and against them he