THE DA GER OF DEFERRI G SALVATIO . STEPHE OLI , D.D., LL.D.
Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time ; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee. — Acts, xxiv., 25. This text announces the result of an interview, or, more properly, perhaps, of several interviews, between the Roman governor of Judea and the apostle Paul. It exhibits at once the power of the Gospel over the human mind, and its in-
334 THE DA GER. OF DEFER R I ability to overcome the opposition of a heart resolved not to submit to its authority. Here was a heathen ruler, who exercised absolute dominion over millions, including crowned heads among his subjects. His education, which was no doubt such as the Roman nobility usually received, elaborate and extensive, was as unfavorable as possible to the claims of the Gospel, and tended rather to a general skepticism than to a firm belief in any form of religion, true or false. That he was an unrighteous governor, and a bad, time-serving man, his conduct in this transaction, independently of any other parts of his history, sufficiently demonstrates. On the other hand, the advocate of the Gospel appeared under the greatest disadvantages. He was endowed Avith unquestionable ability, but he was covered with reproach and dishonor. He was a prisoner awaiting his trial for alleged crime, and dependent not only for justice, but for liberty and life, on the tyrant before whom he " reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come." Under these circumstances, he was divested of all means of influence besides the divinity of his theme and of his mission ; but these were enough. " Felix trembled, and answered. Go thy way for this time ; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee."
1. Here we have a convinced sinner feeling and acknowledging his obligations, and deliberately resolving not to do his duty. He represents the whole class of impenitent sinners. He is the type of all irrehgious men living under the good influences of the ministrations of the Gospel. I but repeat a declaration which most men acknowledge, and all feel to be true, when I say that impenitent sinners believe the Gospel to be God's only way of saving the human race. This conviction is derived from education — from attendance on the means of grace — from reading the Scriptures and religious books — from an unavoidable participation in the moral sentiments of the community in which we live — from the general influences of the Holy Spirit, in virtue of which every
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individual has so much Hght and life imparted to him as may be needful to an incipient movement toward a Christian faith and a holy life. 2. And this conviction of the truth and excellence of the Gospel is accompanied by a universal conviction that it is our bounden duty to embrace it. Irreligious men seldom hesitate to admit that it is God's will they should be Christians, and that they are under the most sacred obligations to become such. They freely confess that their own consciences and understandings concur with the warnings of the pulpit on this point, and that they persevere in irreligion, not for the want of these inward monitions, but in spite of them. In this daring and dangerous attitude, in this state of positive and unnatural conflict with their moral constitution, do irreligious men, one and all, deliberately place themselves, and deliberately stand in the sight of heaven and earth. 3. eed I say to them that they occupy a false position ? When in common life you say of an individual that he knows
better than to act or speak as he does — that he violates his own conscience in the course he is pursuing ; when you affirm of a public man that he does wrong, or speaks falsely knowingly — that he violates plain, acknowledged obligations — that he neglects obvious, well-knoivn duties, it is agreed, on all hands, that you have brought against a fellow-being the gravest charges, and that, if these charges are made good, he is inevitably a dishonored, ruined man. Against imputations such as these, the calmest, most phlegmatic spirit wakes up to defend itself. It can not endure the reproach, and will sacrifice all things earthly to wipe it away. We can endure to have ignorance, or error, or sloth, or carelessness imputed to us, but not to have it said that we slight our own sense of right and wrong — that we willingly and consciously offend — ^that we give no heed to conscience and truth. So it is when our fellow-creatures are the parties to be affected by our delinquencies.
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4. In matters of religion, where God and our crucified Savior are the parties, how is it ? There is no longer any sense of shame or of self-degradation. The irreligious man is calm, and coolly pleads guilty when charged with sinning against God, and that in defiance of conscience — with flagrant ingratitude to Christ, who died for him, and with setting an example of unbelief and impiety, which, from the nature of his relations to other men, will probably bring upon several of them all the evils of eternal damnation. Here, unquestionably, is to be found a chief argument for the radical, thorough aepravity of men. They are capable of neglecting their highest duties — of living from year to year in acknowledged conflict with their own consciences — of moving onward to hell with their eyes open, and of leading with them to that intolerable estate, and that without any relenting, a train of their fellow-creatures, and even their own sons and daughters.
This is, by eminence, the sin of men. They know their duty, and will not do it. They see their danger, and will not avoid it. " This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil." I have said already that the irreligious man is in a false position — that he wages war upon his own nature and happiness. What fact in the history of man is so dark and inexplicable as this, that a sensitive being, who through his entire lifetime flees from suffering as the chief of evils — a rational being, who toils for enjoyment as the chief good, will yet be satisfied with nothing less than trying the infinite agonies of the lost, and an utter forfeiture of the pro fie red crowns, and thrones, and spotless robes of heaven ! Such a choice manifestly could not be made by a rational mind, outright and unconditionally. There must always be present the agency of some pernicious, misleading influence. 5. Irreligious men are only able to resist the urgent clamis of the Gospel by resolving to obey them at some future time. " When I have a convenient season, I will call for thee." I
THE WORK OF OUIl SALVATIO . 337 have shown how this spirit of procrastination is an offense against the reason and the well-being of man. Let us contemplate its aspects toward God. " Felix trembled." He felt the pressure of a present and urgent obligation. It is of the nature of these appeals of the word and Spirit of God, that they require immediate, unreserved obedience. They not only intimate God's will concerning us, that we should become pious, but they constitute and are the divine movement that has come upon us to make us so. It is Christ knocking at the door — the kingdom of heaven entering the soul — eternal light beginning to shine upon us, and to send into the moral system the pulses of a renovated, better, higher life. ow he who takes it upon him to postpone the consummation sought to be accomplished by the sending out of this divine mission, does not merely decline an overture.
He shuts out a manifestation, and resists an impulse. He says of the Son of God, " I will not have this man to reign over me," and at the same time thrusts him out as a pretender and a usurper. He violently arrests God's administration. He deliberately thwarts the great plans and agencies of recovering grace. He does despite to the Holy Spirit, and tramples on the blood of Christ, and on the cross, from which it was poured out for his healing. The sinner must not dream that he can be passive, a mere neutral in such a crisis. He is, and needs must be, against Christ, so long as he is not decidedly and avowedly for him. 6. The thought of occupying such a position as I have defined, even for a moment — of incurring the unutterable peril and guilt of fighting against God, in a single onset, is intolerable to the soul of a rational being. It is to be remembered, however, that irreligious men spend their lives in this warfare. Like the builders of ehemiah, they carry a sword in one hand, while they perform the common functions of hfe with the other. They wear their armor all the day long, and put themselves in array against the Highest incessantly. P
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The influences that would lead to piety operate with greater or less force from day to day, and from year to year. The convictions of duty dwell in the soul, and minister perpetual strength and light to the moral forces. Opposition to them must be ever active and vigilant. So the dreadful sin of resisting God takes the form, not of a paroxysm, but of a habit. It reproduces itself in each successive volition, and incurs anew its damning guilt as often as we do wrong, knowing how to do right.
7. I would not be understood to inculcate the erroneous sentiment that the struggle against sin continues through life to grow more and more violent. This is not the teaching of experience on this momentous subject. The guilt of an unrepenting sinner, we know very well, increases every day. " He treasures up wrath against the day of wrath." His enmity is unquestionably strengthened by every act of disobedience to God. He becomes, therefore, the more fixed in his bad position. Yet it by no m.eans follows that the controversy rages with increasing fury. On the contrary, irreligious men devise a multitude of expedients to mitigate the inconveniences and soothe the exasperations that grow out of their relations to God. The hope — ^the purpose on which their procrastination is founded, can of itself minister alleviation. They will yet be converted, and so elude the greater evils with which the pulpit seeks to disturb them. This is the great soother of their fears. The pains and the appreciation of conscious guilt and actual danger are also greatly diminished by more transient devices. Sinners look away from their condition and danger, and stifle reflection by giving a broad welcome to the pleasures and pursuits of the world. They also continue to maintain themselves in their bad position, with some measure of self-respect and repose of mind, by nursing some doubts with regard to the magnitude or reality of the evils threatened, or to the reasonableness or obligation of a portion of the duties enjoined upon them.
THE WORK OF OUR SALVATIO . 339 They cherish objections to certain doctrines, or ministers, or usages, which happen to be specially obnoxious as the instruments or media through which divine truth is brought into troublesome proximity to their consciences. These objections are coined only to serve a purpose, and to shed a soothing influence over the period that must intervene between the present and the " convenient season," when they mean to call for God to come back again ; but they frequently attach themselves permanently to the Gospel itself, and so lead the vic-
tim of delay to incurable skepticism. 8. It is but another step in the sinner's progress that leads him to feel that he is wronged and injured by being pressed and annoyed with topics which he has concluded to regard, for the present at least, and during the truce which he has made with hell, as unimportant, or unreasonable, or out of time. He becomes impatient and angry. His rights are intruded upon Why should he be disturbed about duties which he has deliberately assigned to "a convenient season ?" Whose business but his own is this ? If the minister and the Church continue faithful to his soul, which they seldom do under such discouragements, they become enemies, and are repelled by coldness, or reserve, or reviling, from approaching too familiarly the castle of one who, having bidden God away from him for a time, will not be molested till the convenient season come for calling Him back again. II. " When I have a convenient season, I will call for thee." We have seen the results of procrastination. Let us attend to the reasoning upon which it is based. The sinner expects more facilities for beginning his religious course. What would constitute " a more convenient season," we may learn by inquiring what are the chief obstacles to his present conversion. These are, perhaps, 1. A distaste for religion. In spite of his principles and convictions, the unconverted man feels a strong repugnance to the terms of the Gospel. His heart " is not subject to the
340 THE DA GER OF DEFERRI G, ETC. law of God, neither indeed can be." "Will the future be a convenient season in this respect ? So far from it, his tastes become more and more corrupt. 2. Another obstacle to immediate conversion is the love of the world — its pleasures — associations — honors — wealth.
Do these hinderances grow less by procrastination ? They are often powerful upon the young, but they may be easily resisted. Acting chiefly upon the imagination, and fortified by no established habits, a little resolution is sufficient to break their charm ; but upon men fully immersed in the pursuits of business and ambition, the world exerts an influence of the most fearful character. They seem spell-bound — infatuated — helpless. 3. Another hinderance to immediate conversion is a Avant of sensibility to religious truth, even when fully believed. Even awakened persons complain that they can not feel — can not realize their sin — ingratitude — danger. ow the direct and inevitable tendency of procrastination is to increase this stupidity. The heart grows harder — the conscience more blind and callous, by every act of resistance to duty and the Spirit. This is a well-known law of our moral nature. 4. Men, as they often allege, are kept from immediate repentance by the want of powerful divine influence upon their hearts. They wait for more mighty drawings of the Holy Spirit. Will the future be a more convenient season in this respect ? Will God be conciliated by rebellion ? Will the Spirit be given more abundantly to those — not those who pray for it, but to those who resist it ? Are we not admonished of the danger of resisting — grieving — quenching the Spirit ? The sinner, in the text, presumes upon his ability to be converted when he pleases. " Go thy way for this time ; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee." And thus it is with all sinners who put off present repentance. They claim dominion over God, and they will make His purpose bend to their convenience. They insolently repel him now, and will call for him when they want him — when convenient to themselves. Will God submit to their dictation ? " Because I have called and ye refused ; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded ; but ye have set at naught all my counsel, and would none of my reproof; I also will laugh at your calamity ; I will mock when your fear cometh ; when your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction
cometh as a whirlwind ; when distress and anguish cometh upon you : then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer ; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me."*
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