Chapter One

"THERE is no person, perhaps, who makes a profession of religion but has come to some decision or other on that all-important subject. People either believe on good or bad grounds that they are already religious, or they resolve to become so at a future time. True, many Sabbaths may have been spent, and many sermons heard, and many funerals attended which have awakened no serious thoughts, nor led to such questions as these: Am I saved? —What shall I do to be saved? In the case of many, more or less in the a a case of all, who are mere hearers of the Word, familiarity with divine things breeds indifference; if not contempt. Under its influence they become as insensible to the most solemn threatenings of the law as the inhabitants of the Indies to the thunderstorms that, though terrific, are common there. The mercy of God, and the bleeding love of Jesus are set forth in the sermons of every Sabbath, and the symbols of every sacrament, but they are as little impressed by these as by the nightly glories of the starry sky. Death is such a common event, an obituary so certainly finds a place in every newspaper, and they are so accustomed, on inquiring, to hear that this old acquaintance is dying, and that one is dead; they are invited to so many funerals, and meet so many hearses in the street with their nodding plumes and sable array - and, till more decent customs were adopted, they so often saw the mouldering relics of the dead " scattered at the grave's mouth, as when one cutteth and cleaveth wood on the earth," that they grow familiar with death; and can hear him knocking at a neighbour's door without once thinking that whether they are ready or unready, his hand shall be at theirs.
True; and pity 'tis 'tis true! Yet there are occasions which awaken serious thoughts in the most careless— however they may endeavour to suppress and banish them. Some event occurs, like a clap of thunder, to rouse the sleeping conscience; and, calling up terrible visions of death, of judgment, and of hell, she insists on men thinking of the subjects that belong to their peace; and one of two things happens : either they conclude, on insufficient grounds, that they are saved, or, as is much more common, they resolve to be so at some future time.
In the first case, without altogether ignoring Jesus Christ and His salvation, they trust to something meritorious in their works, or in themselves. One builds much on his honesty,—his motto the adage,'' An honest man's the noblest work of God;" another on his integrity—his boast this, that "his word is as good as his bond;" another on his charity—seeking no better inscription for his tombstone than one I have read in an old churchyard, "He was kind to the poor!" They have, or fancy they have, amid many sins, some virtues. These be thy gods, O Israel! Alas! that we should forget that sinners cannot get to heaven on the fragments of a broken law, as in St. Paul's shipwreck some got ashore on the planks of the broken ship. St. Paul himself has made that plain. Speaking of the works of the flesh—adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like—they, he says, who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. And what does it matter, though men are not guilty of all, if they are guilty of one of these sins? " Cursed," says the God with whom we have to do, "is every one who continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them." Other hope therefore man has none but what lies in accepting the righteousness which, wrought out by Christ and imputed to believers, is not of works, but of faith. And how sad it is to see men leave this solid rock, and having to build a house, against whose rocking walls fierce winds shall rave, and angry waters roar, build it on a sand-bank that the last flood cast up, and the next shall sweep away.
But those I have now to do with, belong to a different class. They are convinced that they have no righteousness of their own; yet they put off embracing Christ's,—they fear, were they to die this night or drop down dead this moment, that they would be lost; yet they delay to seek a Saviour till the evil days come, and the years draw nigh when they shall say they Have no pleasure in them. A dangerous delay; a very desperate venture! Yet not one for which a " heart deceitful above all things and desperately wicked," cannot, urge some specious pleas. All who put off salvation have reasons, of a kind, to plead for the step they take. So had those who, with the forms of polite respect, declined an invitation to the "great supper" "I have bought a piece of ground", says one, and "I must needs go and see it, I pray thee have me excused"—"I have brought five yoke of oxen", says a second, "and I go to prove them, I pray thee have me excused"—and, with less manners but more appearance of reason, "I have married a wife", says a third, "and therefore I cannot come". Even so procrastinators have reasons, though not so plausible, for declining, meanwhile, Jesus' gracious invitations. But whether it is that they are so engaged in the world's business that they have no time, or are so bewitched with its pleasures that they have no inclination to turn religious, one idea is common to them all—this, namely, that not childhood, nor youth, nor manhood, but old age is the most suitable period for becoming devout. They argue thus: In old age we shall have less to do with the business of this world, and have consequently more leisure for that of the next; then this world will afford us little enjoyment — our passions, lik fierce fires, will have burned themselves out;. our bodies, withered and bent with a load of infirmities, will be incapable of debauchery or excess—and, with more time, we shall thus have inclination to turn to religion. vessel that, racked by storms, is torn to pieces and gaping at every seam, makes all haste to port: so will we. Unfitted by age for active pursuits, and compelled to withdraw from the giddy circle that goes its round of pleasure, we shall be left to quiet scenes and twilight hours favourable to meditation. Brought in the course of three-score years and ten to the borders of another world, it cannot fail to occupy much of our thoughts; nor when the head has turned grey, and the hands are palsied, and the limbs shrunk and tottering, and ears are deaf and eyes are dim, can we miss to recognise these as the heralds of the grim king, and hear the voice that says, Be ready, the Judge is at the door!
Is this our hope ? Hope tells a flattering tale. It is a wild fancy—a mockery and baseless delusion. See how God, with one blow of His hand, one sentence of His Word, dashes the fabric to pieces! Talk of old age, grey hairs, passion quenched, life's quiet evening, and sands running to the threescore years and ten! -what if He should say, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee?
To uproot an idea which stands in the way of all attempts at, and hopes of early piety, I observe that conversion is more difficult in old age than I any other period.
At whatever age it takes place, this is properly the work of God - "not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit" said the Lord of hosts;" or as our Saviour said to Nicodemus, "Except ye be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God" Be he Jew or Gentile, old or young, learned or ignorant, with many or few religious advantages, no man can become a partaker of the present or future blessings of grace unless he is born again; is changed into the divine nature; is renewed in spirit; has Christ formed within him: is, in short, so far as his motives and affections, principles and practice are concerned, made a 'new creature in Jesus Christ'. Regarded as a work of God, this change, I admit, cannot be more difficult at one age than another. With equal ease the great ocean bears ships and seaweed on its bosom, the earth carries mountains and molehills on its back; and still more are all things equally easy to God—to preserve, for instance, an angel or an insect in life, to kindle a sun or a glow-worm's fire, to create a world or a grain of sand. And as it had been as easy for divine power to raise Adam, who had been dead four thousand years, as Lazarus, who had been dead only four days, or to raise Lazarus after four years as after four days in the tomb, it is not more dif- ficult for God to convert an old than a young sinner. The dying thief was saved in the jaws and very throat of death—he stept into heaven from the edge of hell: John Baptist, again, was born the second time before being born the first, being sanctified from his mother's womb—and both these events were equally within the compass of His power, to whom nothing is impossible —who has, in any case, but to say and it is done : to command, and it standeth fast. Therefore let none despair.
Nevertheless, since we are fellow-workers with God, there is a sense in which the difficulties of conversion increase with years—every year adding strength to our sinful habits; deepening, as by the constant flow of water, the channels in which they run.
Take a sapling, for example. It bends to your hand, turning this or that way as you will. When seventy springs have clothed it with leaves, and the sun of seventy summers, ripening its juices, has added to its height and breadth, who is strongest? Now, it scorns not your, but a giant's strength. Once an infant's arm could bend it; but, with head raised proudly to heaven, and roots that have struck deep in the soil and cling to the rocks below, now it braves winter's wildest tempests. They may break its trunk, they cannot bend it; nor is it but in death that it lays its head on the ground. Every year of the seventy, adding fibres to its body and firmness to the fibres, has increased the difficulty of bending it. That was less easy the second year than the first, and the third than the second ; till, as time went on, what was once easy grew difficult, and what was once but difficult became impossible. Who, wishing to give it a peculiar bent, would wait till the nursling had become a full-grown tree, or stood in its decay, stiff and gnarled, hollow in heart and hoar with age ? None but a fool. Yet, with folly greater still, we defer what concerns our conversion, a saving change and our everlasting welfare, till long years have added to the power, and strengthened the roots, of every wicked, worldly habit. Oh that men were wise, that they understood this!
Human life, to borrow an example from it, furnishes many, and some very melancholy, illustrations of this growth and power of evil habits. Take the case of the poor drunkard, for instance. The rust of years eats into other chains, making it easier to snap them asunder; but the links of his grow stronger with time. Other cups may quench thirst, his but increases it: till the love of drink becomes, not a passion, but a madness; and, deaf to all arguments, and less blind than careless to all consequences, he holds out the goblet in palsied hand to cry, "Give! give!" The day was when that wreck of honesty and manly strength—that sad ruin of grace and womanly beauty, was filled with sorrow and remorse; but these feelings became more and more enfeebled, while drinking habits, fed by every new indulgence, increased in strength — making reformation less hopeful by every day's delay. And now, like a boat swept on in a foaming rapid, which neither oar nor arm can stem, with all the dread consequences full in sight—a ruined character, a beggared family, his body descending into an untimely grave, his soul to the doom of these awful words, "no drunkard shall inherit the kingdom of heaven" —he yields to a torrent that sweeps means, character, wife, children, body and soul, into one common ruin.
With such touching and terrible illustrations before their eyes, men talk of delaying to turn to God, for ten, twenty, or forty years! Is it painful now to tear the world from our hearts?—when the love of it has grown with our growth, and strengthened with our strength, when it has spread its roots wider, and struck them deeper, to tear it up will demand a mightier effort, and inflict a greater pain. If sin has already so seared the conscience, that we can hear another St. Paul reason of "righteousness, temperance, and judgment," nor tremble in our seats as the Roman trembled on his throne, in what state shall our conscience be when the sins of future years have passed over it like a hot iron—searing, till, all sensibility destroyed, it becomes as hard as horn; like callous flesh, which the knife finds it difficult to penetrate, and impossible to pain? This is no exaggeration. Of all tasks, we know none so difficult as to touch the. feelings, and rouse the conscience of godless old age.
Besides, will conversion be more likely and easy when age has dimmed our eyes, and the Bible is become "as the words of a book that is sealed"—when the church-bell rings for others, but not for us; and, unable to creep beyond the door, our Sabbaths are lonely and silent? Which is the better time— when, in the enjoyment of health, we can give undistracted attention to the things that concern our peace, or, when sinking under the infirmities of years, or racked with the pains of disease, we are reduced to such weakness, or suffer such torture, that we can neither pray, nor join in prayer?
Besides, second childhood, to a greater or less extent comes with age—the faculties of the mind failing with, sometimes even before, those of the body. Like the leaves of the ash-tree, these which were the last to appear, are occasionally the first to depart; leaving the mind a more melancholy wreck than its shattered, crazy tabernacle. And where the soul, asserting its immortality, seems to grow larger, like a setting sun at the close of day, and its faculties survive amid the decays of age, it is by no means rare to see life's last hours passed in a disordered day-dream.; their realities offering a striking contrast to the phantoms and fancies of the dying chamber—fancies which restore the preacher to his pulpit; the weaver to his loom; the merchant to 'change; the sailor to the slippery deck ; the soldier, who has no enemy now to fight but death, to the battle-field, where, deliriously shouting out the word of command, he mixes in the melee, or heads the desperate charge. What man in his right mind would select such times and scenes for working out his salvation? Which is better—to remember your Creator now, or delay till conversion is a thousand times more difficult; sinful habits have struck a deeper root; age has dulled the mind, deadened the feelings, and seared the conscience—till you are but the wreck and shadow of what you were; and all your pitiful attempts to turn to God only recall the warning, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots ? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil."
Conversion in old age is a very doubtful matter.
It is doubtful whether we shall ever reach old age. Few do; and the probability is that we never shall. It is still more doubtful whether, suppose we do, we shall be more serious than in earlier years. The probability is all the other way—it being true of other sinners besides seducers, that they, as Scripture says, "wax worse and worse." But suppose that we are spared to old age, and by devout attention we give to the Bible, to prayer and the house of God, appear to have undergone a gracious change, it lies open to the gravest suspicion. The possibility of conversion at the eleventh hour I do not deny; still its reality is exceedingly doubtful. Take the case, for instance, of a convicted thief. You find him where silver plate, gold, and jewels glitter temptations on his eye. Alarmed, you reckon up your money, examine your treasures to be agreeably disappointed. They are safe; and you naturally conclude that he has turned over a new leaf and become an honest man. But, however willing to judge charitably, how would your confidence in him vanish on discovering that his hands were shackled, and that, though it was in his heart, it was not in his power to rob you? So far as many gross vices are concerned, such is exactly the position of hoary-headed sinners. Age has frozen their passions, and unfitted them for pleasures after which they once "ran greedily;" and so many infirmities have come with years, that a regard to health, and to life itself, forcing them to refrain from debauchery, produces an apparent reformation. A boat rotten in every plank, and gaping at every seam, has to avoid the seas and swell that others brave; and it were death to old men to venture on debaucheries in which others indulge. Thus the decorum which in some cases marks the closing years of such a» had been notorious for vice, may be due to other causes than an inward, saving, and gracious change. The lion has not become a lamb when he has lost his teeth.
But here is a hoary penitent. Poor old man, he trembles to hear of death and judgment; his aged limbs carry him to what he once neglected—the house of God ; the glasses through which he scans his Bible are bedewed and dimmed with tears; bitterly lamenting his sins, he warns others ; and on knees unused to bend he pours forth prayers for pardon in tones of deepest earnestness. It seems cruel to entertain doubts of such a case. But what is it we doubt ? Not that he is sorry for his sins after a fashion; not but that he would give a world, which he must soon part from, to be saved. In this case we may cling to the hope that He who can save at the uttermost has called him at the eleventh hour; still, this sorrow may only correspond to what the felon feels for crimes which have brought him to the gallows—cut short a mad and guilty career. Sorrow for sin, and wishes to be saved ? What death-condemned man does not feel these, does not bitterly lament the hour he embrued his hands in blood, does not petition the Crown to spare his life, would not give the world for a file to cut his chain —for a key to unlock his prison? Repentance for crimes at the foot of a gallows is not more open to suspicion than repentance for sins on the brink of a burning hell.
Solemn warnings have come from scaffolds; but no one standing on the brink of time, with the white cap on his head, and his feet trembling on the drop, as he made his last speech to the awestruck crowd, ever uttered voice so full of warning as the recorded experience of the chaplain of a large jail in England. With the death-bell slowly tolling, he had accompanied many to the scaffold, and also prepared not a few for execution who were unexpectedly reprieved. Of these a large number seemed to be converted. Their repentance appeared sincere; and had they suffered the penalty of their crimes, he and others would have believed that, whom earth rejected, Heaven in its mercy had received—for the sake of Christ's righteousness acquitting at its bar those whom man had condemned at his. But they were spared—to lead a new life? Alas, no! Thrown back into the world, the reality of their conversion was put to the test. The glittering coin was tested, exposed to a fiery trial; and what, deceived others, deceived perhaps themselves, proved counterfeit. With hardly an exception, all who seemed to be converted within the prison, under the shadow of the gallows—in circumstances to the condemned corresponding with old age and the closing days of life—returned to their former courses; went back like the dog to his vomit, and the sow that is washed to her wallowing in the mire. A melancholy fact! What a dark suspicion does it cast on late conversions ? In these cases the sun that sets on this world may rise to shine in a better; but dark clouds obscure such a close of life; and so long as men will risk their souls on these desperate ventures, however trite the remark, it cannot be too often, or too loudly, or too solemnly repeated, that the Bible, which ranges over a period of four thousand years, records but one instance of a death-bed conversion —one that none may despair, and but one that none may presume.
Go To Chapter Two

Home | Links | Sermons | Literature | Biography | Photos