THOUGH feeble and faint the first dawn of light which glimmers through the midst of darkness and announces the approach of the glorious luminary of the heavens, it shineth more and more until it bursts forth in the full splendour of perfect day.
Behold, brethren, the comparison by which the text denotes the life of the just man. Faint and feeble the beginnings of his spiritual life; but it increases in strength and splendour, it shines more and more with the Christian graces, until, in the jinal state of bliss, every cloud which in this imperfect life shaded it being dispelled, it steadily sends forth the eternal lustre of celestial glory.
The life of the righteous should be progressive in goodness. Daily advancing in all holy virtues and graces, his love to his God, his trust in his Saviour, his pious and devout affections should constantly become more sincere and strong, and his active sympathy and benevolence should burn with a brighter and brighter flame. The great work of crucifying the flesh with its corrupt affections, and of overcoming the world, its sinful temptations and pleasures, should be unceasingly [438/439] pursued. Thus all the divine, social, and personal virtues would be displayed in his life and conversation, with increasing brightness. "The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day."
The service, then, to which Christians are called, is not an inactive service; it demands more than feeble, occasional, relaxed exertions; it is not satisfied with present attainments, nor does it permit Qs to be stationary in our course; enjoining persevering, increasing efforts, it calls continually for brighter displays of those pious, humble, holy, and benevolent virtues which shed around their possessor a resplendent and attractive lustre, and prepare him for shining with immortal glory in the courts of the celestial Zion.
The duty of advancing in the holy graces and virtues of the Christian service is demanded by the nature of the service itself; it is enforced by the command of God; it is urged by the dictates of gratitude and interest.
The duty of advancing in all the graces and virtues of the Christian life is demanded by the nature of the service.
This service consists in a constant warfare with all the sinful passions and temptations of our fallen nature; requiring the old man, which is corrupt after the flesh, to be put off, and the new man to be put on, which, after God, is created in righteousness and true holiness. The flesh, with its affections and lusts, is to be crucified, and we are to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and to be fruitful in every good work.
The Christian service setting before us this high standard, admits of no relaxation of effort. The [439/440] holiness at which we are to aim is so pure and exalted, that our advances to it must necessarily be gradual and progressive; and no man will be entirely freed from the dominion of sin, and completely established in purity and virtue, until the period when this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and mortality be swallowed up of life.
Consider then, Christians, how numerous and exalted the graces which should adorn your character--how sincere and ardent should be your love and gratitude towards your God and Saviour--how profound your humility, your submission, and your penitence--how active your benevolence, how lively your sympathy and your compassion--how unaffected your meekness, your forbearance, your gentleness, and kindness--how inflexible your integrity, fidelity, and justice--how uniform and rigid your sobriety, your temperance, your government of your passions--how complete your superiority to the sinful and transitory pleasures of the world--how fervent your desires after the perfection and bliss of heaven!--consider these numerous virtues and graces, which you are not merely to possess, but in which you are to excel, and surely you will not pretend that you have already attained, and that you have no further advances to make in the Christian course. The view of the exalted nature of the Christian service, humbling all our aspiring pretensions, will impress on us the truth, that, however great our pious attainments, however bright our graces and virtues, they are still far below the standard at which we are required to aim, are still faint and feeble in their lustre, and that they must shine more and more unto the perfect day.
 The duty of progressive religion, of advancing in all the attainments of the Christian service, thus demanded by the nature of the service itself^ is enforced by the command of God.
He has fixed no human, no finite standard of virtue, at which we may rest, and boast, with confident presumption, that we have already attained. He commands us to "be perfect, as he himself is perfect;" to "be holy, as the Lord our God who hath called us is holy." The perfection, then, at which he has enjoined us to aim, forbids all intermission of our efforts, and that confidence in our own attainments which cherishes indolence and inactivity. God, in calling us to aspire after his Own infinite perfection, has plainly and forcibly impressed on us the necessity of increasing diligence and zeal, and of constant progress in holiness and virtue. The standard at which we are to aim being infinite, there can be no point, in our advances to it, at which we can stop. If we relax our efforts in the spiritual life--if we are contented with any present acquisitions, however exalted--if we do not forget the things which are behind, and counting nothing done while any thing remains to be done, press forward with holy zeal to higher attainments, to brighter and more exalted virtues--we shall violate the express injunctions of that Almighty Sovereign who has required of us continual advancement in holiness, not only to assimilate us to his own divine image, and to fit us for the enjoyment of his holy presence, but as the test of our fidelity, our sincerity and ardour in his service.
But the duty of advancing in the attainments and graces of the Christian life, thus enforced by [441/442] the command of God, is urged by the dictates of gratitude.
It is only by a holy life that we can glorify Our Almighty Maker, the beneficent Benefactor who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; it is only by excelling in all the graces and virtues of the Christian life, that we can testify our gratitude to that Almighty Deliverer who paid, with his own blood, the price of our ransom from sin and death; and it is only by denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, and living righteously, soberly, and godly in the world, that we can answer the end for which the eternal Son of the Father came into the world, which was to redeem us from all iniquity, and to purify us unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
Your advancement in holiness and virtue is therefore, O Christians, the test of your gratitude to your God and Saviour. In proportion as you excel in all holy dispositions and virtues, will you evidence the sincerity and the ardour of that most noble and exalted of all virtues, gratitude to your Maker and Redeemer; and if you consider the many mercies that thus call for gratitude, you will feel the force of this consideration in animating your progress in the service of your God. For the gift of a rational and immortal nature, which, raising you far above the brute creation, assimilates you to the intelligences of heaven, and even to God himself, you are bound to praise him who made you after his own image. For the innumerable enjoyments of the present life, and for the brighter hopes of future bliss, you are called to praise him who delighteth in doing good to his creatures. Infinitely exulted are the spiritual mercies which he hath conferred [442/443] on us. His only-begotten and well-beloved Son he gave for our redemption; the light of his favour he sheds upon us; from death and hell he hath ransomed us; the transcendent glories of heaven he prepares for us. If we are ungrateful for these infinite and eternal mercies of our God, we must not talk of our gratitude, or boast of our sensibility. And how shall we display the grateful feelings of our hearts but by constant, zealous exertions in his service--by devoting ourselves, with unceasing ardour and fidelity, to his honour and glory! No attainments will be valued, no exertions counted great, when we consider how vast is our debt of gratitude to our Redeemer and God; we shall praise our heavenly Benefactor with increasing ardour, while we have our breath--we shall serve our gracious God and Saviour with increasing fidelity, while we have our being. Eternity, O our God, will take up the work of praising thee; and the services of eternity, augmenting in fervour and in strength, will be inadequate to the debt of love which we owe thee.
Our continual progress in holiness and virtue, the test of gratitude to our God and Saviour, is also enforced by the dictates of interest.
We cannot remain stationary in our course: if the dominion of divine grace in our hearts does not increase in strength and power, sin will be making insidious but successful inroads on our piety and virtue. Our active and ardent powers, (such is the constitution of the human mind,) will advance either in the paths of virtue, or in the career of sin and folly. As you value, therefore, your present attainments, as you fear relapsing into folly and sin, press forwards continually with more vigorous zeal [443/444] in the service of your God. Constant and earnest' endeavours after more exalted holiness and virtue are your only security for the possession of your present acquirements, your only safeguard against the assaults of temptation and the insidious arts of that adversary who seeks for a moment of ease and security to make you his prey.
Our spiritual peace and joy will be in proportion to our advancement in the ways of religion. The more lively our love to our God, and the more, faithfully we endeavour to serve him, the more shall we enjoy the refreshing comforts of his presence. The more ardent and sincere our gratitude to the Saviour, and the more faithfully we devote ourselves to him, the more consoling and triumphant will be our affiance on his merits. The more we love the law of God, the greater will be our peace; the more the dominion of sin is subdued in our hearts, the greater will be our happiness and joy. In proportion, Christians, to the brightness of your graces, the triumphs of your faith, and the sincerity of your obedience, will be your rejoicing in that God whose secret is with the righteous. As your path shines more and more unto the perfect day, the light of God's countenance will shine brighter upon you, until, in the courts of the celestial Zion, it encircles you with unspeakable glory. In that kingdom, where one star differeth from another star in glory, your rewards will be in proportion to your attainments in virtue, to the purity and strength of your Christian graces. Let this animating consideration rouse you to more vigorous zeal in the service of your God. What more powerful motives can possibly be presented to you? While the merits of your blessed Redeemer render your [444/445] obedience acceptable to God, and his grace gives you strength for the highest attainments, you have the animating promise, that every advance which you make in holiness and virtue shall advance your glory and bliss hereafter. Here then direct every power of your souls; here then stir up within you a holy emulation. Blest indeed the lowest ranks in the kingdom of heaven--more blest the seats that are near the throne of the divine glory. Aspire after them, O Christians! The brighter the virtues of your warfare, the brighter the crown which will reward your victory. The brighter the path of duty which you traverse in this season of your probation, the brighter the blissful and eternal day which will succeed it.
With so many motives to urge you, labour then to advance continually in the graces and virtues of the Christian service, to grow in grace, and in the knowledge of your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Your progress in the Christian life will depend on your exercise of devout meditation--on your attendance on the public ordinances of religion--on your cherishing in your minds the divine power of faith--and on private prayer.
Frequently meditate on the perfections of God, on the infinite mercy and grace of his eternal Son, on the excellence of the divine service, on the guilt and misery of sin, on the numerous and exalted rewards of piety and virtue. Frequently call to mind the uncertainty of life and the vanity of its joys, the certainty of death and the eternity which is to succeed it, the torments of hell, the glories of heaven. Thus frequently and seriously meditate on all the infinitely momentous truths of religion, and their importance will be more deeply impressed [445/446] on your minds, your hearts will be the more earnestly engaged in the pursuit of them, the world will have less sway over you; you will live more for eternity, more for God; every grace and virtue will be brightened; your path will shine more and more unto the perfect day.
Devoutly and regularly attend on all the institutions and ordinances of religion. They are the channels of divine mercy and grace. Bring to them humble and penitent hearts, and they will unite you to your God; they will quicken your zeal and ardour in his service; they will arm you against the temptations of the world; they will shed on your souls those divine joys which will animate you in the service of your God; they will advance you in all the graces and virtues of the Christian life, leading you from strength to strength, until at length you appear before the Lord of hosts in the heavenly Zion.
As the quickening principle of the spiritual life, labour to cherish in your hearts the divine power of faith. It is the inspired declaration--"The just shall live by faith." In proportion to the strength of this principle will be your sincerity, your zeal and ardour in the Christian life. For it is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen:" it brings to the mind, as if they were seen and present, spiritual and eternal truths. The more lively and strong your belief that God is your Sovereign and Judge, that Jesus Christ is your all-sufficient Intercessor and Redeemer, that the torments of hell or the glories of heaven await you beyond the present uncertain scene, the more will you disregard all sublunary objects when compared with the things of eternity, [446/447] and the more earnest and the more successful will be your progress in the great work of your salvation.
But ineffectual will be all your efforts, unless they are sanctified and quickened by frequent and devout prayer.
It is "prayer which opens heaven, and lets down" upon the soul that mercy which is its only solace, that grace which is its only safeguard. He who, by fervent prayer, lives, if I may so speak, in heaven, will display on earth a portion of its purity, and enjoy on earth a foretaste of its glories. Prayer is the soul of the new man in Christ Jesus. Destitute of this principle, he languishes and dies. "Pray without ceasing," says an inspired apostle; evidently directing us not only to stated exercises of devotion, but to that lively and grateful sense of the divine presence, that constant aspiration after the divine favour, those secret and frequent ejaculations of supplication and praise, in which consists the spirit of prayer. Pray thus without ceasing; exalted will be your Christian attainments, exalted your joys. When engaged in the busy scenes of life, lift up your souls to God, and you will disarm the world of its temptations and snares. When the blessings of nature and the bounties of Providence gladden your hearts, lift up those hearts to God; brighter will be the joy irradiating your bosoms. When sunk in the shades of adversity, direct the prayer of humble hope to him who is the Protector of those who trust in him, and holy serenity and hope shall beam upon your desponding spirits.
Finally, brethren, in your course to the heavenly Jerusalem, let prayer be your guide and inseparable [447/448] companion, and your path shall be as the shining light, shining more and more unto the perfect day. The path of the just, refreshed by the lights of God's favour, thus terminates in everlasting glory. But the way of the wicked is darkness; bright and joyous as may be their prospects in this world, the path which they are pursuing leads to death, and will take hold on hell. Let them awake, ere they stumble on the dark mountains, and the things that belong to their peace be for ever hidden from their eyes.