He who, in the career of worldly business or pleasure, never pauses and reflects on the character of his actions, and the tendency of his course, would be regarded as guilty of great folly, and as seriously endangering his welfare. But considering man in his character as a spiritual, and his destiny as an immortal being, what shall we say of those who never pause and reflect whether they are acting worthy of their spiritual character, and making preparation for their immortal destiny. If to hazard our temporal prosperity, through want of reflection, be folly, what must that heedlessness be denominated, which puts in jeopardy the interests of eternity?
My brethren, we are candidates for an immortal existence--we are to live for ever in a state of happiness or misery--our destiny is to be decided at the tribunal of the Lord of the universe; but him, our Maker and our Judge, we have offended by our transgressions; the sentence of his just displeasure is proclaimed against us. "Let us search and try our ways, and turn again unto the Lord."
 This scrutiny into our spiritual character and condition is at all times necessary, either to rouse us from a state of sin, or to quicken our progress in the religious course on which we have entered. Considering, however, the propensity of mankind to neglect a duty which is hostile to worldly indulgence and sensual pursuits, wisely has the church set apart a period to be consecrated with more than ordinary solemnity to that work of religious examination, which must be the commencement, as it is essential to the progress of the spiritual life, and which ought particularly to mark the season preparatory to the commemoration of that event which brings most forcibly into view our guilt, and which affords the sure pledge of our pardon--the passion and death of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Urged then by the general obligation of the duty, and by its peculiar propriety during the holy season on which we have now entered, "let us search and try our ways."
1. The first subject of inquiry should be--What is the supreme object of our desire and pursuit?
The world is the scene of our duty, as it is the source of many of our rational enjoyments. There is no one object which it presents, which, in a certain degree, and to a certain extent, may not be pursued by us without endangering our piety and virtue; and yet there is no one object which, in the excessive love and pursuit of it, will not be destructive of our piety and subversive of our eternal interests.
Here then arises an important inquiry--Does the world occupy such a place in our affections and exertions as to exclude an attention to our [151/152] spiritual concerns, or to lead us to make them inferior objects of desire and pursuit? The inquiry is one on which we should enter without delay, and which we should prosecute with solicitude and fidelity: for if we are so devoted to our temporal interests as to neglect the concerns of our salvation, what will be our condition when we are summoned from that world with which we are engrossed, and have entered on that eternity for whose awful scenes we are unprepared?
It is an inquiry, then, of infinite moment; but if faithfully prosecuted, it is not difficult of solution. Is it your supreme desire and endeavour so to pass through things temporal, that you lose not the things that are eternal? In order to gain these, and to save your souls, are your principles, your duties, and your hopes, as Christians, faithfully cherished and regarded? And is every worldly object pursued and enjoyed in subordination to the infinitely higher objects of a spiritual and immortal life? Whatever temporal advantages you may possess--of treasure, of talents, or of station--are they all employed and all enjoyed as the means of aiding you in the attainment of those true joys of your heavenly inheritance where your hearts are fixed?
Brethren, let us examine ourselves in reference to this all-important subject. What is the object of our supreme desire and pursuit--the favour of God, or the joys of the world--the things of time, or the concerns of eternity? If you should find that the world supremely engrosses you--that your thoughts, your time, your talents, your exertions, all are occupied with the means of your temporal advancement, and with the enjoyment of your worldly [152/153] advantages--or if your attention to the pursuits of the world, or your indulgence in any of its enjoyments, weakens your pious feelings, diminishes your relish for the exercises of religion, and retards your progress in the spiritual life--then, rest assured, your salvation is endangered. If death should find you thus devoted and thus engrossed--and death, remember, may come when least expected--he will summon you to an account which you are wholly unprepared to render--he will hurry you to that eternity whose joys you have neglected for the transitory gratifications of the world, and whose terrors therefore you must sustain. Lose no time, therefore; search and try your ways; and from the service of a sinful and perishing worlds turn to the service of the living God.
2. Another serious object of scrutiny and inquiry should be--Whether we entertain correct views of our spiritual condition.
Numerous are the causes which conspire to conceal from us our real spiritual character. The powers of the human mind capable of attaining such exalted heights of science, and of accomplishing such stupendous plans of civil polity, and of directing and ruling the strength and passions of the multitude to the objects of glory and ambition, tend to cherish the sentiments of arrogance and pride, so natural to the human heart; and while wealth or honour, that appears to be the fruit of our plans and exertions, elevates us in our own estimation, and gives us consequence and influence among those around us, it is not easy to admit any views of our character and state but those which flatter our vanity and self-love. The pride indeed [153/154] of the human heart--a passion not confined to the ranks of the rich and the mighty, but operating with equal force, though in a different manner, in all states and circumstances of mankind--reluctantly admits the conclusion that we are fallen beings, obnoxious to divine justice on account of our sins, and incapable of rescuing ourselves from the bondage of corruption.
And yet this is our real state and character. "The carnal mind," says an inspired apostle, the mind of the flesh, misdirected or carried to excess, "is enmity against God;" and "there is no man that liveth and sinneth not." "We have all gone out of the way;" and "our sufficiency" for the work of our salvation "is of God alone." Are we sensible of these important truths? Do we so realize them as to make them the principles of our conduct? Under the deep impression of their importance, are we led to humble ourselves before God, "meekly acknowledging our vileness," and imploring him to "make haste and help us?" Let us search and try whether these are the views of our spiritual character; for until we are sensible of our guilty and sinful state, we shall not apply for the means of deliverance. It is a maxim of common sense--"The whole need not a physician, but they that are sick." Christ "came not to call the righteous," (those who think themselves so,) "but sinners to repentance.'' The conviction that the disease of sin infects us, will alone lead us to seek for the remedies that are to be found in the mercy and grace of a compassionate and Almighty Redeemer; and not until we feel the [154/155] burden of sin, will we arise at the call of our merciful Lord, and "weary and heavy laden," go to him to receive "rest."
3. "Let us search and try our ways," bringing to our recollection and humbly confessing the sins which have marked our lives.
The confession of our sins is necessary to pardon. "He that covereth his sins" (is an inspired declaration) "shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy." The more minutely we bring them to our recollection, and view them under all those circumstances which may have increased their guilt, the more deep and lively will be that contrition with which, on account of them, we shall humble ourselves before God, and the more clear and consolatory will be our hopes of pardon, and the more diligent and watchful shall we be, lest the same transgressions hereafter defile our consciences. A faithful scrutiny into our hearts and lives, and the humble acknowledgment and confession of our offences, though in some degree painful exercises, bring relief to the conscience, ease the soul of the burden of her guilt, and refresh her with the sense of the divine mercy.
In this scrutiny, then, into our character and lives, let us seriously and immediately engage. "Know thyself" was the maxim which heathen philosophy consecrated. In reference to our moral and spiritual condition, this knowledge is the most important which we can obtain. There will be no confession of faults until they are discerned, and no reformation or improvement until our deficiences [155/156] are felt. In the sight of God there can be no true penitence which is not founded on a sense of our transgressions against him, and which is not accompanied with the acknowledgment of them in prayers for his mercy.
And until this mercy is exercised upon us, brethren, we are in a state of condemnation, exposed to the justice of that holy and Almighty Being who hath denounced indignation and wrath against every soul of man that doeth evil.
Let us then "search and try our ways;" let us bring to view, as far as possible, all our omissions of duty, all our violations of the laws of our God. Let us conduct this scrutiny as in the presence of Him that searcheth the hearts and trieth the reins of the children of men, and who cannot be deceived, and who will not be mocked. It is in vain to attempt to hide from him the transgressions which privacy and retirement may have concealed from the view of men. Who indeed can fully understand his errors'? Who can detect his secret faults? Who can bring to remembrance all the transgressions which may have marked his life I Search then thou, O God, and try the ground of our hearts; prove us, and examine our ways: and when we come unto thee confessing our manifold iniquities, look upon us, we beseech thee, after the multitude of thy mercies, and blot out our sins.
4. But, my brethren, another subject of our faithful scrutiny should be--Whether it is our constant desire and endeavour to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and to become holy in heart and life.
This is the great end, and this is the only [156/157] evdence of genuine repentance. The most humble expressions of our unworthiness, and the lowest humiliation under a sense of our transgressions, can be of no avail in the sight of God, except as they are an evidence of that deep detestation of sin which engages us in the sincere and diligent renunciation of it, and in the pursuit of that universal holiness which, by conforming us to his image, can alone prepare us for the enjoyment of the favour of God.
In this respect, then, "let us search and try our ways:" let us compare the dispositions of our hearts and the habits of our lives, our daily character and conduct, with the standard of holiness prescribed by the Gospel. Every disposition which is at variance with the Christian temper, it should be our constant endeavour, through divine grace, to subdue--every habit, contrary to the purity of the Christian character, to renounce--and every practice forbidden by the divine law, and inconsistent with our Christian profession, utterly to forsake.
My brethren, are we thus diligently engaged in the great business of our Christian calling--mortifying and correcting our evil tempers, and, through the renewing of the Holy Spirit, conforming our hearts and lives to the requisitions of the laws of God! It is not sufficient that we have embraced the Christian profession: it is not sufficient that, in the sense of our unworthiness, we have humbled ourselves before God, and cherish a lively dependence on his mercy through a Redeemer: it is not sufficient that we diligently attend on the means of grace. These exercises and acts are designed only as instruments of our renovation, by which we may be enabled to put off the body of sin to which we [157/158] are subject, and to "put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness;" and unless they are thus employed by us, they are neither acceptable to God, nor of any avail to our salvation. All our religious professions, and all our religious exercises, must be brought to this test--Whether they have effected a holy change in our hearts, and engaged us in the constant renunciation of all sinful dispositions and practices, and the faithful discharge of all our Christian duties.
Let us search then and try, brethren, whether our religious exercises and professions will stand this test. Is it our supreme desire, our fervent prayer, our constant endeavour, to obtain the victory over every sinful passion, to renounce entirely every thing that is evil, and to be holy in heart and life, conformed to the image and obedient in all things to the will of our heavenly Master? Does the imperfect progress which we make in obtaining the victory over sin, and in the exalted graces and duties of the spiritual life, while it humbles us before God in the acknowledgment of our weakness and in supplication for his succour, excite us to more circumspection, more diligence, more watchfulness, more zeal in the great work of our Christian calling?
My brethren, the Christian life is not a life of indolence. It does not admit of the wilful indulgence of any sinful passion. It is not compatible with the habitual practice of any sin. Heaven is the glorious prize for which the Christian is to contend; and heaven, infinitely rich, and full, and exalted in its rewards, will not be awarded but to [158/159] those who, in their conquest, by divine grace, of their sinful passions, and in the attainment of the Christian virtues, are born of God, and thus made meet for the enjoyment of his celestial glories.
5. With this general inquiry as to our progress in the renunciation of sin, and in the attainment of the Christian graces, ought to be connected a scrutiny as to the particular sin to which we may be the most prone, or the Christian virtue in which we may be the most deficient.
This scrutiny is essential to our obtaining the mastery over that sin to which we are most prone, and to the full attainment of the virtue in which we may be most deficient: and wilful devotion to any sin, and voluntary deficiency in any Christian grace, will disqualify us for the kingdom of God. Here then is a most important scrutiny, and demanding peculiar fidelity and perseverance; for self-love will be apt to conceal from us the sinful passion to which we are the most addicted, or the deficiency in any spiritual grace which most strongly marks us. Let us search and try, then, where is our weakness, and where is our deficiency. We may abstain from one sinful passion, and indulge in another: we may shun one vice, and rush into its opposite. We may cherish, for example, purity, and yet indulge revenge; and may avoid extravagance, and yet be enslaved by covetousness. We may distribute our wealth in those channels where it will be least wanted, but where it will advance our reputation--some civil and temporal project--and withhold it where it will do the most good, but the least redound to our credit--plans for advancing the spiritual happiness of our [159/160] fellow-men. We may avoid all excess in worldly pleasure, and yet indulge a morose, unsocial, and censorious temper. We may humble ourselves before God in the most profound expressions of our un-worthiness, and yet display towards our fellow-men a proud, domineering, and tyrannical spirit. We may inveigh against worldly pride and ostentation, and yet we may delight in the incense of spiritual flattery. In all these respects we may deceive ourselves--we may even deceive the world. But let us remember, we cannot deceive our God. He will search and prove us. And that we may escape his condemning scrutiny, let us search and try ourselves: let us, in the spirit of humility and prayer, faithfully examine our hearts and conduct; and whatever sinful passion we may have most frequently indulged, let that be the object of our most jealous caution; to whatever evil temper we may be the most prone, against this let us most sedulously guard; and in whatever Christian grace we may have been the most deficient, this let us cherish and pursue with increased ardour and zeal.
6. Let us search and try ourselves as to our attendance on those means of grace which are essential to our progress in the spiritual life.
Are we constant in our intercourse with heaven, by supplications and praises in private and in our families? Are we uniform in our attendance on the public worship of God, not only as a reluctant offering once on the day devoted to him, but in the regular afternoon as well as morning service of the sanctuary? Is our behaviour in his courts characterized by reverence, attention, and devotion? Do the prayers and praises by which we hold communion [160/161] with our God, occupy the chief place in our estimation I and hence do we, as we have opportunity, worship God in his sanctuary, on the weekly days of supplication and praise? Admitted into covenant with him by the sacrament of baptism, and having ratified our baptismal engagements in the apostolic ordinance appointed for the purpose, do we continue in the unity of the church by communion with its authorized ministry, and show forth the death of our Lord, commemorate his love towards us, and secure our title to his mercy and grace, in the holy feast of the supper? When we behold the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ symbolically given and shed for us sinners, are our hearts humbled in contrition; and in the impulses of holy gratitude and love, do we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, a spiritual sacrifice to him who was sacrificed for us?
These, brethren, are most important inquiries: for with the means and ordinances which he hath prescribed--and who shall say unto him, Why dost thou this?--it hath pleased God to connect his mercy and grace: and if the means and pledges of these gifts are neglected, or unworthily received by us, we cannot enjoy the gifts which they convey.
7. Lastly. It should be the subject of our most solicitous inquiry--Whether our hopes of salvation are founded only on the merits and grace of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
"There is salvation in no other. There is no other name by which we can be saved." [Acts iv. 12.] This is [161/162] the decree of the Being who made us, of the Almighty Sovereign who rules us, and of the eternal Judge whom we have offended, and at whose tribunal we are to receive our doom. Unremitted and faithful as we may and ought to be in struggling with our evil habits, in resisting temptation, and in renouncing every sinful practice; diligent and constant as we ought to be in the use of the means of grace, in adding to our "faith, virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, temperance; and to temperance, patience; and to patience, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, charity;" yet we must renounce all dependence on our own righteousness as the meritorious cause, and on our own strength as the effectual mean, of our salvation; and acknowledge, that through the mercy of God, and by the merits and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ only, are we justified, sanctified, and saved. We are, at the best, but unprofitable servants. Heaven, in its rewards, is as far above our merits as the attainment of it is above our unassisted strength. "Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name" be the glory and the praise.
My brethren, as sinners, we are all obnoxious to divine justice; and our only way of escape, is to turn from our iniquities to the service of the living God. We know these truths; we know also that it is of infinite moment that we act upon them. Why then do we delay] Death may find us thus delaying--(how many has it found thus delaying?)--and then eternity will receive us unprepared. In that eternity there is no pardon, no mercy, no [162/163] grace. "Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation." [2 Cor. vi. 2.] Pardon, mercy, grace, are now offered to us: now then let us secure them. "Let us return unto the Lord, and he will be gracious unto us, and to our God, and he will abundantly pardon us." [Isa. lv. 7.]