SOME live fast; and growing old in constitution while yet
young in years, die before their timetheir "sun is gone down while it is
yet day." Others work fast. Animated by ambition, and sustained by untiring
energy, they win for brows not yet touched by its silver the fortunes and
honours of age. Alexander the Great, for example, ere he was two-and-thirty
years old, had conquered Greece, Palestine, Egypt, Persia; fought I know not
how many battles, and gained I know not how many victories. Ere he had numbered
half the years of human life, this remarkable man had earned the proud title of
the conqueror of the world ; bestriding it like a colossus, he covered it with
his shadow, and at death, shook it by his fall.
Leaving old to come down to modern times, some half-century ago, he who guided the helm of this great empire had just entered on manhood; yet amid a hurricane of revolution that shook ancient kingdoms and hurled monarchs from their thrones, he was hailed as the "pilot that weathered the storm." Nor is the history of the two greatest generals of our, or of almost any other, days, less remarkable; seeing that ere the sun of either had reached its meridian, or there was a grey hair in their heads, both had shaken Europe with their battles, and filled the whole world with their fame. It is in the early part of the season that trees make those shoots which the last months ripen : it is youth that lengthens the bones which future years mature and strengthen. Though they do not reach their vigour, most men and women reach their height before they are twenty; and so, as history shows, with some few and famous exceptions, the greatness of all distinguished statesmen, warriors, orators, philosophers, poets, though age was required to bring their talents to perfection, has been decked out in the season of their youth.
The history of most pious men presents the same features. Few people are converted when they are old; some are in manhood ; but in most, the seeds of the new life, though they lie dormant for months, perhaps for years, are sown in the spring-time of life. When his persecutors set before the aged martyr a heathen altar and a stake, bidding him decide to sacrifice to the gods or burn in the fire, he boldly chose death, saying, "I have served my Master too long, and loved Him too well, to forsake Him now"! And as, on the one hand, no man who, like, him, remembered his Creator in the days of his youth, forgets, or is forgotten by Him, when his head is hoary on the other hand, few have remembered their Creator in manhood, or old age but those who were brought to Christ before mid-life. A pious old age following a youth of vice, and a manhood of worldliness and indifference to religion, is not the rule, but the exceptionand a rare exception. There is a close analogy here between the phenomena of the material and the spiritual world; conversions in old age, or advanced manhood, being as uncommon as a fine afternoon with cloudless skies and a glowing sunset, unless the rain ceases, and the weather clear before twelve o'clock.
Look, for example, at the brightest names, the greatest saints in Scripture history. Almost all were examples of early piety. Look at David! Called by Samuel in his boyhood to be a king, but ere that anointed with oil more precious than flowed from the prophet's horn, how young his years, yet how mature his piety; and how wonderful the faith which accepted the giant's challenge, and entering the lists against a son of Anak, proved itself the strongest of the two! Look at Josiah wearing the crown when eight years old ; the youngest king who ever sat on a throne, yet swaying the helm of state with a firmness that astonished his oldest and ablest statesmen. It was a sight to see that child seated on David's throne; robed priests and grey-haired councillors bowing before him; and the boy, with a hand that hardly grasps the round of the sceptre, guiding it with a wisdom that would have saved the kingdom from shipwreck had that been possible. But the palace presented a still more illustrious spectacle; this boy, belonging to a class that has few kings in it, walking with God when his years were only twelve, and his feet were surrounded by the snares and temptations of a court. More than that, he was working for Godwith the energy of a Luther attacking abuses, bringing out God's own Word to the light of day, and pursuing the work of public reformation with zeal which has never been surpassed in the best periods of the Church's history. Look also at Daniel and his three companionsthe captive youths who maintained their purity amid the seduction of a heathen court, and, though borne away into distant exile, unlike many of our youths, remembered in Babylon the: house of their God and the land of their fathers. With prayer, they sustained; their faith, and sanctified their chamber; and many a time the sentinels, as they walked their nightly rounds, heard them singingstrange sounds within palace wallsthe songs of Sion and of Jerusalem, their chiefest joy. Unless piety had struck its roots deep when their hearts were soft, yet young and tender, and had grown with their growth, and strengthened with their strength, it had never endured their fiery trial; nor stood erect against a power that bowed the heads of the multitude before the royal image like reeds or corn before the wind. They grew up into the stoutest men, with frames of strongest bone and toughest muscle, who are not stinted, but are well fed in youth; and to early piety those brave, ancient witnesses owed the faith that stood undaunted before the ravening lions and the blaze of the fiery furnace.
In further recommending early piety, I observe that youth is the best period for acquiring religious knowledge.
This remark holds so true of all knowledge, secular as well as sacred, that in another country they use this striking saying, "What the boy does not learn, the man does not know." In powers of attention, if volatile, easily roused, in restless activity, an insatiable, curiosity, enthusiasm, buoyant spirits; and a ready as well as tenacious memory, God has given to youth such an aptitude for acquiring knowledge that it may well be called the seed-time of life; and to this season let both parents and children, teachers and scholars, apply the wise man's advice, "In the morning sow thy seed." It is the young and tender root that penetrates the soil; it is when its fibres are delicate that, entering the fissures, and following all their windings, it passes into the heart of the rock; and the earlier the mind, brought in contact with religion, is turned on its great and greatest subjects, the better hold it takes of them; and though at first feeling lost in a maze of mysteries, the more thoroughly in after life will it comprehend, and, like a root warped around the rock, the more firmly will it hold them.
Of the advantage of a thorough religious instruction in early life, where could I find a better illustration than in my own countrymentheir faults, which I would rather correct than conceal, notwithstanding? Germany, while boasting of them, has to a large extent abandoned the faith of Luther and her other great Reformers. Geneva prides herself on having been, if not the birth-place, for that honour belongs to France, the home of Calvin; yet his creednot in any of its peculiar but in all of its broadest evangelical doctrinesis repudiated in most of her pulpits. Her pastors preach doctrines which his soul abhorred, and her people love to have it so. In other countries, what a diversity of religious opinions prevail, not among different churches only, but within the distracted bosom of the same church !these lands, not merely in their ecclesiastical but in their doctrinal systems, wearing creeds of as many colours as Joseph's coat.
Now why is it that, notwithstanding the divisions in Scotland, her people, to whatever section of the Presbyterian Church they attached themselves, have clung with proverbial tenacity to their fathers' faith; and in the contest with Popery or Infidelity, Antinomianism or Socinianism, have stood as firm as her sons in bloody battles and on other fields ? When other churches have left their old anchorage, and, "driven with the wind and tossed," have made shipwreck of the faith, how is it that during the last three centuries the people of Scotland have stood by the old truth as "steadfast and immovable" as the mountains that guard her glens, or the rocks that girdle her storm-beaten shores? How is it that here, where we have our full share of ecclesiastical-divisions, no minister of the gospel has lapsed into Popery, and hardly one of her people ?not more, certainly, than will be found in every age flying off, at a tangent, into some religious absurdity? How is it that Rome has made so few recruits here?that the Scarlet Woman has seduced so few with her music, painting, dramatic spectacles, and meretricious ornaments? These are facts, and, though we say it in no spirit of boasting, very remarkable facts.
Now, since there is no effect without a cause, there must be some way of accounting for this. Nor is it far to seek. The circumstances admit of an obvious and easy explanation. When George Whitefield came to Edinburgh nothing struck or pleased him so much as the sound that rose in the church when he happened to quote a passage of Scripturegiving book, chapter, and verse. His hearers, as was their wont, had taken God's Word with them to God's house, and as they turned up the passage, the leaves of two thousand Bibles rustled, like the sound of the wind among trees, in his astonished ear. To their thorough Bible-knowledge instruction, illustrated by that anecdote, and given to her youth in the house and in all her schools, and to the complete drill and training which her children, young men and women get in that Shorter Catechism which, the work chiefly of English divines, and a remarkable compend of theology, takes a hold of the mind singularly firm, Scotland owes it that though a hundred storms have blown, and blown their worst, she rides today over the very ground where the Reformers dropped their anchor three centuries ago. The tenacity with which, in spite of all their faults, and differences, and divisions, my countrymen have adhered to their ancient and common faith, illustrates the effectfor to nothing else can it be ascribedof a thorough religious training in youth. Rich store of divine knowledge are then most easily; acquired. Deep and saving impressions are then most easily made. It is young recruits that become the best soldiers, and young apprentices the best mechanics; and the best Christians, in like manner, are those of whom, trained by a Lois or a Eunice, a saintly mother or mother's mother, we can say, in St. Paul's words to Timothy, "From a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus."
In youth the heart is most impressible. Children are emotional - as easily moved by anything calculated to make them weep or laugh, love or hate, be grave or gay, be sad or merry, as the surface of a lake by the breeze that sweeps over it. But the affections of childhood, having at that inexperienced and unripe age no sound judgment to direct them, resemble those pliant tendrils which are ready to attach themselves to any object whatever; to cling, to twine themselves as readily in close;
to embrace around some broken branch that lies rotting on the earth, as around the tree on whose strong and stately stem they might climb to the skies. Besides being characterized by a want of sound judgment, childhood wants steadiness in its affections. They are easily transferred to new objects. The impressions made on its heart are lively, but not deep or abiding. How soon the infant forgets a dead mother; and; with the arms it throws around her neck transfers its love to the nurse that fills a mother's place. Before the sod is green above his grave, the boys that wept a father's loss, and walked so pale and pitiful behind his coffin, have resumed their gaiety; and, but that memory sometimes casts a passing shadow on their enjoyments, are as bright and buoyant as the happiest of their playmates. Calamity passes through their hearts, not like a ploughshare through the soil, but a ship's keel through the sea; the furrow soon fills up, and in a short while childhood retains hardly any more trace of trials in its heart than of tears on its cheek.
In manhood, on the other hand, the judgment is or should be ripe; but what the intellect has gained in ripeness, the heart has lost in tenderness, in impressibility. Cooled by age as well as by contact with the world, it has lost the glow of early days; and since religion addresses itself both to the judgment and the affections, both to the understanding and the feelings, as well to the head as to the heart, youth, since, lying midway between childhood and manhood, it possesses. the lively affections of the first, and the somewhat matured reason of the second, is, therefore, of all the ages of life, the most favourable for receiving saving impressions and turning to God.
At the mouth of our great valleys, on the shores of those noble estuaries where our largest rivers join the arms of the sea, there lie alluvial lands, flat and fertile. There, in former ages, vast floods that filled the glens and swept their hillsides, deposited the rich soil they carried in their muddy waters. There, now the husbandman raises his richest crops; not, however, unless in tilling the land, ploughing and sowing the fields, he seizes that auspicious time between the wet and the dry, when the clayey loam is neither hard nor soft, but between the two. Such a season youth offers for that higher cultivation, where the seed is the word of eternal life, the soul is the soil, preachers are the sowers, angels shall be the reapers, and heavenly, eternal blessings are the rewards of faith and patience, of love and labour. Once gone, this most auspicious period never returns. Once lost, it is never recovered.
The prayer, " Remember not against me the sins of my youth," no doubt holds out hope to such as have let slip this precious time. Thank God, they are not to despair. Still, though Almighty grace may work a saving change at a later, and even in the latest period of life, not only does the probability of that grow less with every year's, and every hour's delay, but the finest specimens of piety are found in those who were converted and called when, as in the case of the good King Josiah, their hearts were young and tender. The practice of sin, persevered in, and prolonged over a period of guilty years, so blunts the conscience that it never recovers the fineness of its edge; nor is the heart capable of receiving the most delicate and beautiful impressions of Christ's image, unless they are stamped on it while, like metals or melted wax, it is soft and tenderere it has grown hard and cold.
And what so adapted to youth as religion; what offers so many, such suitable, and such noble objects to its affections ? Youth is enthusiastic: and what field for the loftiest enthusiasm like the salvation of a miserable and perishing world? Youth is brave : and more courage is often required of the Christian than of him who throws himself into the life-boat, and pulls through the breakers to the sinking wreck. Men have found it a harder thing to stand up for Christ before a battery of ridicule than dashing through the smoke of battle, to charge a battery of cannon.
Youth is generous: and where such scope for the purest generosity as in the call to take up our cross, deny ourselves daily, and follow Jesus in living and labouring for the good of others ? Youth is earnest and impetuous: and this is the very temper religion urgently requires ; it calls us to give all diligence to make our calling and election sure, since we know not what an hour may bring forth; this, not another, being the accepted time; today, not tomorrow, being the day of salvation. The door is closing, and the grave is opening : haste, for your life, it says; leap into the ark: another day, another hour, even another moment, may be a long eternity too late. Once more, youth is prone to love: and in all God's universe what object so fair, so lovely, so worthy of our warmest affections, as He, the dear, Divine Redeemer, to whose bleeding brows belongs the wreath that David wove for Jonathan's, "Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of woman."
It is well to give Jesus even blighted affections and a broken heart; it is well, when the world cannot fill our hearts, to turn our trembling steps from its broken cisterns to the fountain of living water; it is well, when experience has taught us that earth has no pillow without its thorns, to go and lay the aching, weary head on Jesus' bosom; it is well when the battered ship, with sails blown to ribbons and masts gone by the board, makes through the roaring sea for a harbour of rest and refuge; it is well when man turns from his shattered fortunes, and maids from their false lovers, and mothers from their sweet, pale, lifeless coffined idols, to throw themselves at the feet or into the arms of Jesus. But it is better still, seeking Him early, to give our youth to Christ; with its glistening dews to bathe the Rose of Sharon; to honour, God with our first fruits ; to assign the Saviour such a place in our hearts as His poor, mangled body found in Joseph's tombone where no man had been laid.
It is a grand testimony to religion to see a grey and bent old man standing by the door of mercy, and with voice and hand, with loud and urgent knocking, imploring God to open and let him in; but much nobler the testimony, and finer the spectacle, while he is muttering of the world, "Vanity, vanity, and vexation of spirit," to see a youth in the very flower and beauty of his age refuse her tempting cup; turn away his head from her alluring smiles ; and, in happy ignorance of her forbidden pleasures, resolve to give himself to Christ and a life of high and holy virtues - saying, both of the fair tempter and her temptations, "My soul, come not thou into their secret; with them, mine honour, be not thou united"
Youth, as securing him the best of our life, should be consecrated to God. In old age, men oner Him but the dregs of the cup; and a wonder it is that any one is spared to have dregs to offer. When men employ their time and talents, their health, their strength, their genius, not to serve, but injure, the cause of God, and turning His gifts against the Giver, wound the very hand that blesses them,one wonders at the long-suffering and patience of God ; that He does not shake them off, as St. Paul did the viper, into the fire. Who can think of the load of obligattions under which daily mercies lay us, on the care of that ceaseless Providence, without which we would expire any instant, our health would turn into sickness, our reason into madness, and our blessings into curses,and especially on what, in the person of His beloved Son, God has done and given to save us, who can reflect on these things and not be astonished at the base ingratitude which would put Him off with the wretched services of old age; the forced reformation and repentance of a dying bed? Ingratitude and insensibility this, against which God with a sublime majesty might appeal again to creation, saying, "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider. Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil doers, children that are corruptors; they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel."
There are many formidable and fatal heresies. Some deny the divinity of our blessed Lord, reducing the Son of God to the common level of humanity. Some strip the Holy Bible of its lofty claims to inspiration, reducing it to the common level of other books. Some repudiate the doctrines of the fall of man; of the corruption of our nature; of the atonement; of the imputation of our sin to Christ, and of His righteousness to us. But, with whatever horror we may regard such dangerous errors, there is no error more dangerous or fatal, more likely to sink a man into perdition, than the notion that it is sufficient to seek God at the close of a life devoted to sinful pleasures, and passed in worldly pursuits. Other heresies slay their thousands; this, I fear, its tens of thousands.
In His dear Son, God has given to us the best He had to bestow; and is He not entitled to the best of ours in return ? Insult is harder to bear than injury, and what more insulting to the kindness, love, mercy, and majesty of our God than in effect to say, I will turn to Him when I can do no better; so long as I can sin safely, I will do it; so long as my portion lasts, careless of my Father's displeasure, I'll play the prodigal, nor seek His house till want sends me a beggar to His doortill the roar of the cataract warns me that to persevere will be to perish. I will sail down the stream of pleasure, nor heed the voice that entreats me to turn, crying, " Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die!"
Suppose, then, it were as easy to bend a bough when its bark is hoar with age, as when it was green and young; suppose it as easy to stop the course of a stone when it is whirling, smoking, leaping, thundering down into the valley, as when, just loosened, it began to move from its bed; suppose it as easy to turn the river from its course, where it sweeps on to the sea, as the rill by its mossy fountain; suppose it as easy to mould the clay, when grown dry and hard, as when it will receive on its plastic surface the impression of a new-blown leaf; suppose you could expect to reap a crop from land neither ploughed nor sown till trees were bare and hills were white; suppose old age were a favourable time to be saved;are the poor services that it can render such as this lost world needs such as the interests of the Church of God requiresuch as the cross of Calvary deservessuch as He who gave His Son for us should receive at our hands ? Let us reject the notion ? How plainly is it rejected, how strongly condemned, in this touching expostulation : "A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master. If then I be a father, where is mine honour ? and if I be a master, where is my fear ? If ye offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil; and if ye offer the lame and sick, is it not evil ? Offer it now unto thy governor; will he be pleased with thee, or accept thy person? saith the Lord of Hosts! " Rejecting a thought that equally insults the majesty of Heaven and the mercy of the Cross, let us offer the best, first fruits of our life to God, and Remember our Creator in the days of our youth.
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