Project Canterbury

Plain Sermons by Contributors to "Tracts for the Times"

volume one

[pp 19- 27]

London: J. G. F. and J. Rivington, 1839.



PSALM iv. 4, 5.

"Stand in awe and sin not:
Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness,
And put your trust in the LORD."

IT was the intention of good and pious men in ancient days, that, as Lent should be a six weeks' preparation for the solemn and sacred festival of Easter, so, before the holy season of Christmas, there should be about half that space, viz. three weeks, set apart; the weeks of Advent (the word Advent signifying, in Latin, the coming or approach of some great person), for Christians to put their minds in order, as it were, and prepare themselves for the due commemoration of the LORD JESUS'S first appearing on earth for us men, and for our salvation."

And herein it was thought right to have special reference made to His second Advent; for this plain and good reason-because we can have no just sense of the importance of His first Advent to redeem us, if our hearts are cold and insensible to the great doctrine of His last coming to judge us.

Whatever people may wish or intend, those, who by the practice of any kind of unchristian behaviour have in effect "departed from the living GOD," Will certainly not return to Him in true and lively repentance, will not "cast off the works of darkness, nor put on the armour of light," unless they pray and strive to have deeply fixed in their consciences, a sense of the approach of that day when their SAVIOUR shall "come again in His glorious Majesty to judge both the quick and the dead."'

I consider that in times of trial and perplexity, this is a very fit opportunity to call upon persons, who with hearts, more or less distracted with earthly anxieties, are wavering and unsteady in their religious course, though all the while fully aware of the great importance of a right faith and a holy life,—I say this seems a suitable occasion to call on such persons, (and are not the most of us such, more or less?) to call on them to take a calm and deliberate view of their spiritual condition; remembering, on the one hand, that we are no benighted heathens, but persons on, whom the light of the everlasting unchangeable Gospel hath shined—and on the other, that this nation and society in which we live, though calling itself Christian, and possessing indeed high Christian privileges, yet does certainly sanction many, not only practices, but even principles, quite opposed to, and subversive of the truth of the Gospel of CHRIST. Bearing these things in mind, which to persons of reflection, will, alas! need no proof, and to others it were vain to address ourselves on such a subject as this : let me endeavour, as briefly as may be, to point out to you what is the right frame of mind, in which we should enter on, and conduct a solemn and serious examination of ourselves, of our condition before GOD, and of the prospect we have before us for the remainder of our mortal life, land in eternity.

There are, I doubt not, many passages in the holy Word of GOD, from which a considerate person might plainly infer what is the safe course to pursue, in this as in other matters of religious practice. Amongst others, the instruction contained in this consolatory fourth Psalm, if duly reflected on, is quite decisive, and shows us beyond all question, in what frame of heart and mind frail and sinful creatures, sensible of their frailty and sinfulness, and desiring to obtain pardon and peace at the hands of their heavenly Father, should enter on this blessed work, this "one thing needful."

This I have before suggested to you; but what I now desire to press on your anxious and candid attention is, that to persons so cast down, and doubtful what their hope is of pardon and sanctification and final acceptance, and, in fact, how to proceed at all; the Divine answer is, nothing mystical and perplexing, nothing implying that our condition is not one of danger and difficulty, nor, again, any thing that shall give excuse for feelings of despair, as if there were no hope, or of presumptuous indolence, as if GOD would bring men to Heaven whether they try to serve Him or no: nothing of all this is to be found in these oracles of GOD, bat an admonition, at once plain, solemn, encouraging, warning:—

"Stand in awe and sin not.
Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still."

To which the HOLY SPIRIT immediately subjoins,—

"Offer the sacrifices of righteousness,
And put your trust in the LORD."

As long as people are going on in a gay, thoughtless, easy way, in good health and spirits, and their minds fully occupied with business (perhaps) chiefly; only now and then interrupted by occasional amusements according to their taste,—it is next to impossible that religion should gain any solid and lasting hold on their affections. They may, indeed, give occasionally attendance on some of its external rules, such, e. g. as to go to Church, or to a Meeting-house, one, or both, or neither, just as custom, or fancy, or convenience may suggest. But this kind of capricious worship alone and by itself, is no evidence of a serious mind; but rather the contrary; it seems to show a light trifling disposition, unworthy of a reflecting heathen, and much more of a professed Christian.

Now it must be confessed, with sorrow and shame, that it too often happens amongst us, that people go on from youth to manhood, and from manhood to old age; all the way along deluding themselves and others with this shallow external service, which passes for religion, but which really has nothing of it but the name.

In some cases, however, and may GOD'S HOLY SPIRIT increase the number, it pleases His merciful providence by some special trial, say by a dangerous illness, or a severe accident, or by the death or suffering of a neighbour, to put better thoughts before people's minds, not at all compelling or converting them whether they will or no; but by way of trial and proof of what really is in their hearts. At least this view of GOD'S dealing with men seems most consonant to the voice of reason, experience, and Scripture. And let no person be offended at this way of speaking, as derogating from the honour of GOD'S blessed Word; for certainly, reason and experience are Divine gifts and talents as well, as Scripture is; and for the use we make of them as appointed means, whereby to arrive at the knowledge of saving truth, we are greatly accountable to that all-merciful and good SPIRIT who has provided them for us.

But to return to what I was observing, when careless, thoughtless persons are led by circumstances (or what we call circumstances), to have a serious and deep sense, not merely of the truth and importance of Christian doctrine, but of the personal danger in which themselves (if that doctrine be true) must unquestionably be involved; they are often more or less inwardly alarmed, though they would not confess it even to themselves, much less to any one else. And to some persons this alarm is so painful that they take all opportunities of flying from it, by avoiding all serious reflections; by constant habitual drinking, or by seeking always for company as it is called, or reading trifling books. or publications, or other such methods of preventing the mind from reflecting inwards on itself'. -How little do such persons consider that in running from these reflections, however painful, they are rejecting the healing medicine afforded by the heavenly Physician! Supposing, however, that persons have in any case so far yielded to the suggestions of the blessed SPIRIT, as to cherish in themselves a sincere, though perhaps weak and faint, desire to know and to follow the truth, and to lead different lives from what they have hitherto led; too often they are immediately checked by numberless perplexities and difficulties, which before had never entered their minds. (I speak of cases which have happened, and may likely enough happen again in the present condition of the religious world in this kingdom.) I say then that weak persons, when first beginning to be in earnest, and in what St. Paul calls the infancy of their religion, "babes in CHRIST," are too apt to seize hold of hard places in Scripture, to entangle themselves in high and abstruse speculations, which it is no part of a Christian's duty to inquire into at any time, much less when he is but a beginner in his religious course. These speculations St., Paul warns us, "which minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith," are earnestly to be deprecated and avoided. The questions I mean, are such as relate to matters, which though often accounted religious, are in fact merely philosophical; e. g. how GOD's foreknowledge can be reconciled with man's free-will; whether GOD'S true children can fall from grace; whether in this world a man can have a full and positive assurance of final acceptance; these, and such as these, I grant are in themselves great and high subjects; but I contend also they are subjects about which the Almighty has not thought fit to give us clear, if any intimation; therefore, I call them not religious but philosophical, and, as such, what no Christian need trouble, himself about. But, as I said before, when people are beginners and novices in religion, they, more frequently than may be imagined, turn aside from the plain path, and, entangling themselves in these mysterious speculations, pass off into one of two ways. That either they grow disgusted and amazed by these notions, which yet in many sermons and tracts are set forth as being of the very essence of religion, and so fall back by degrees to their former heathenish courses; or else they grow presumptuous in their fancied illumination, and deceiving themselves and others with the use of long words, and fine sounding expressions, imagine that they have really attained a considerable height in spiritual perfection, when in fact (to use St. Paul's severe language in a like case) "they know nothing yet as they ought to know."

Let me then now earnestly advise any person, young or old, who, conscious to himself that the favour of Almighty GOD, now, and in eternity, is all that is worth seeking for; conscious too that his past years, be they few or many, have been in various respects sadly misspent and wasted,—let me advise such an one not to be deterred and kept back from his good purposes by any difficulties or perplexities of this kind; let him resolutely avoid them, and put them out of his mind, as being what in truth they are, unreasonable and unscriptural; unreasonable, I say, because unscriptural.

To persons, I say, beginning to see their danger, and to seek for refuge, and desirous to know how to enter on their view, and, as to them it naturally appears, difficult course; tow plain, how solemn, how encouraging is the warning of the divine SPIRIT, the Almighty guide and Comforter of the Church. Trouble not yourselves with deep and high questions: enter into no speculations about other peoples condition; set your thoughts on two great subjects, your own sinfulness and the Divine mercy, and let your future life show whether you are now in earnest or no:

"Stand in awe and sin not:
Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness,
And put your trust in the LORD."

Concerning the divinely consolatory warning, let me offer two, or three considerations suitable to the present state of religion in this country, and indeed in the Christian world generally

First, you cannot but observe, how plain, and. simple, and unimpassioned, how far from all perplexing notions, and from all rapturous heights and flights of feeling, is the description here given of the repenting convert, the accepted child of GOD.

The temper and disposition of mind suitable for him, is far from all confidence and presumption, ever standing in awe lest he should again return to sin and folly; studying more than any other books, the book of his own heart and conscience, understood by the light of Scripture; in the hours, of solitude, and in the watches of the night communing with his own heart—in pain possibly and languor, yet patient and still, and cheerfully acknowledging that he deserves all that is laid upon him. When the day returns with its round of duties, duties of acting or suffering, he devotes his time, his money, his abilities, he they in the world's eyes ever so mean and contemptible, to the welfare of his brethren, friends, and neighbours, and by direct acts of religion to the honour of his Master and Redeemer. And thus consecrating each day to. GOD; he is content at night to leave the event of each day in GOD'S hands; thus does he daily offer the sacrifices of righteousness.

Now. let no one say, that this is not preaching the Gospel; that this is a poor kind of life, not of a sufficiently exalted description for GOD'S adopted children in CHRIST JESUS, who have a right to look for more decided inward feelings and assurances of acceptance. Alas! my poor brethren, how can such as we talk of possessing any right to these consolations of feeling? Doubtless our state here, so far as it is affected by our fallen nature, is at the best poor and imperfect; nor is it according to the tenour of Holy Scripture to represent it otherwise. Nevertheless, our privileges are neither poor nor imperfect, though our sense of their value may be and is so. And on the possession of these privileges it is that all the hopes of the true Christian are built hopes founded not on his own fallible feelings, but on the infallible word of GOD. While, therefore, he offers the sacrifices of righteousness, he puts his trust not in them, but in the LORD even the Lord JESUS CHRIST his Redeemer.

This doctrine may be accounted poor and cold, and unevangelical, but it is the doctrine of the Psalms, the doctrine of the Prophets, the doctrine of the Gospel, and therefore it is and ever will be the doctrine of the Church.

You may also with good reason take notice in the passage now under our consideration, in what a tone of solemn warning it is delivered. To sincere and seriously-disposed converts, newly devoted to the love and service of Almighty GOD, it might possibly have been expected that language of congratulation would have been offered, that they would have been told now that they were safe, that they had no occasion for further fears, that GOD had adopted them for His own, and that nothing could now overthrow them. But how different is the language of the HOLY SPIRIT, "Stand in awe,—sin not,—commune with your own hearts in your chamber, and be still."

In these words is clearly implied the greatness of our danger the danger of forgetting in whose presence we are and of again drawing back to sin, and, as the Apostle to the Hebrews intimates, to perdition. Hence the necessity of our keeping us in our hearts a deep and abiding sense of our frailty and peril, of our retiring, at least in thought, from the world, and communing secretly with our own hearts, casting ourselves before our omniscient Judge with tears of shame and remorse for the pain, and quietly waiting and hoping for His consolations, in His good time, according to the thoughts expressed in a beautiful hymn, which is contained in the third chapter of the book called the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and much of which I extremely and repeatedly recommend to the careful perusal and study, of all serious persons, especially in times of affliction, e. g.

"The LORD is good unto them that wait for Him,
To the soul that seeketh Him.
It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait
For the salvation of the LORD
It is good for a mark that be bear the yoke in his youth:"

"good," i. e. for us to have our confidence and high spirit brought, down, and to be made to know and feel what we are, and whom we have to depend on.

Let me also suggest to you, to observe how soothing and consoling is the view here presented to us of our religious stake and duties. We are not taught to harass ourselves with perplexing doubts about our final acceptance, to seek after any special inward convictions, as they are called, of feeling; these, whether right or wrong, are plainly not necessary; but it is necessary that we stand in awe, and sin not, and offer the sacrifices of righteousness: then, and not otherwise, we may with cheerful though chastened hope, put our trust in the LORD.

Exactly according to St. Paul's rule for a Christian life, supported by a Christian hope, "To them, who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honour, and immortality, is offered in CHRIST JESUS eternal life." So truly evangelical is this Psalm.

Lastly, I could wish all persons who are sincerely anxious about their spiritual and eternal condition, to take especial notice how here, as every where else, where the outlines of a religious life are traced out for us in Scripture, w~,, are stimulated and encouraged to active exertion, cautioned against trusting to a sluggish inactive profession, a dead faith (in fact),'and urged and warned to be fruitful in all substantially good and Christian works. 11us a great deal of watchfulness, practical self-denial, and positive exertion, is implied in the brief directions, "Stand in awe, sin not, commune with your own heart, offer the sacrifices of righteousness." When people have lived a heathenish kind of life, and begin to see the danger of it, they think it a great matter, (and so indeed it is,) to fall down before GOD in prayer and confession. to listen to His word with awe, and to become partakers in the blessed Communion of His body and blood.

Yet this is not by any means the whole of a Christian life, though it be the food and support of it. We need therefore continually to be warned, that since to us as Christians so much has been given, of us will much, very much, be required. There is evidently, even among religious people, a great deal too much of bargaining and contriving how to serve GOD with as little trouble and expense as possible, and to make religion as much as possible comfortable and pleasant to the feelings, and under the fair pretext of honouring the LORD'S day, to treat the other days as if they were not His days. And other things of the same kind might be mentioned, proving to what a low ebb religion, or what is called religion, is got amongst us. I advise you therefore, as many of you as really care for these things, no longer to trust to the example of what is called the Christian world but to think and judge for yourselves, with all humility, according to the measure of understanding which GOD has vouchsafed to you. And if you will keep on firm, steady, and regular, not regarding small difficulties, nor expecting great encouragements, you will find in the end, that whatever the generality of the people may say, or think, you have chosen the safe and right path. You will exemplify that description which the Bible gives of the sincere servant of GOD. "The path of the just is as the shining light" (i. e. the morning dawn) "which shineth more and more unto the perfect day."

So you will be gradually led on by the blessed Spirit, till all your earthly trials and pilgrimage being over, you may lay your heads down in peace and take your rest, in peaceful expectation of the return of your SAVIOUR and Judge, to call you from your quiet graves, and to receive you to those mansions of His Father, whither HE is now gone to prepare a place for all that love and fear Him.

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