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And what is the first example, which fixes their attention ? Is it not your own ? Are not you the first props, to which these tendrils attach themselves? And is it not time to ask yourselves, whether you will consent, that they should follow you throughout the whole of your character? Is it not time to examine, whether there be not in you some vicious habit, which, notwithstanding your caution, frequently presents itself to their greedy observation, thus recommended by all the weight of parental authority ?
But, though the doctrine of the early operation of habit be full of admonitions, which the affectionate parent can hardly hear without the liveliest anxiety, it presents consequences, also, full of consolation and pleasure. God hath set the evil and the good, one over against the other; and all his general laws are adapted to produce effects ultimately beneficial. If the love of sensual pleasure become inveterate by indulgence, the pure love of truth and goodness, also, may, by early instillation and careful example, become so natural and constant, that a violation of integrity, and offence against gratitude, a breach of purity, or of reverence toward God, may prove as painful as a wound. You know, how common are the promises of scripture to early piety. Now these promises are not arbitrary and partial annexations of reward to a quality, which is not really of more intrinsic worth at one period, than at another; but they express the security and perfection in virtue, which that character may attain, which is early hallowed in the service of God. Those, who seek God early, shall easily find him. Begin, then, now that they have no steps to retrace. Their hearts are now all alive to gratitude, their minds full of curiosity, ready to drink in instruction, selfishness has not yet monopolized all the avenues to their affections; you have no hard associations to break, no deep-rooted prejudices to clear away. Their only prejudice is one that will
assist your endeavours, that is, an unsuspecting reliance on your knowledge, wisdom, love and power. Associate, then, in their minds, the idea of God with the recollection of yourselves; and remember, that, if they have found you excessively indulgent, or habitually negligent, or unreasonably severe, or manifestly partial, or notoriously indifferent to their moral progress, you are not to wonder, if they transfer to the universal parent the character, which they have found to belong to their fathers after the flesh.
The second reflection, suggested by this survey of the moral constitution and condition of man, is, the folly and danger of delaying repentance. Look back, I entreat you, on your past lives, and number, if you can, the resolutions you have broken. And why is it, that we see so little of reformation, after a certain period, after the employments and mode of life are established ? It is, because the time of repentance is perpetually procrastinated; because, when conscience, like an odious creditor, begins to expostulate with you, you find some excuse for dismissing her claims; you say, at every application, go thy way for this time, when I have a more convenient season, I will call for thee. She retires unsatisfied; the debt accumulates, and your resources are daily diminishing, till the hour of death arrives, and completes the bankruptcy of the soul.
It has been most acutely and justly observed, that all resolutions to repent, at a future time, are necessarily insincere, and must be a mere deception; because they imply a preference of a man's present habits and conduct; they imply, that he is really unwilling to change them, and that nothing but necessity would lead him to make any attempt of the kind. But let us suppose the expected leisure for repentance to have arrived; the avaricious or fraudulent dealer to have attained that competency, which is to secure him from want; the profligate and debauched to have passed the slippery season of youth, and to be established in life; the gamester, by one success. ful throw, to have recovered his desperate finances; the dissipated and luxurious to have secured a peaceful retreat for the remainder of his days—to each of these the long anticipated hour of amendment, the opportune leisure for religion has, at length, arrived; but where, alas, is the disposition, where the necessary strength of resolution ! How rare, and, I had almost said, how miraculous, is the instance of a change!
The danger of delay, even if we suppose this uncertain leisure and inclination to be secured, is inconceivably heightened, when we consider, further, the nature of repentance, It is a settled change of the disposition from vice to virtue, discovered in the gradual improvement of the life. It is not a fleeting wish, a vapoury sigh, a lengthened groan. Neither is it a twinge of remorse, a flutter of fear, nor any temporary and partial resolution. The habits of a sinner have been long in forming. They have acquired a strength, which is not to be broken by a blow. The labour of a day will not build up a virtuous habit on the ruins of an old and vicious character. You, then, who have deferred, from year to year, the relinquishment of a vice; you, if such there be, who, while the wrinkles are gathering in your foreheads, are still dissatisfied with yourselves, remember, that amendment is a slow and laborious pro
Can you be too assiduous, too fearful, when you consider, how short the opportunity, and how much is required, to complete the work of reformation, and to establish the dominion of virtue ?
It is impossible to dismiss this subject, without considering a common topic, the inefficacy of a death-bed repentance. It is to be feared, that charity, which hopeth and believeth all things, has some. times discovered more of generous credulity, than of
well-founded hope, when it has laid great stress, and built much consolation, on the casual expressions and faint sighs of dying men. Far be it from us to excite suspicion, or recal anxiety in the breast of surviving friendship, or to throw a new shade of terrour over the valley of death ; but better, far better, were it for a thousand breasts to be pierced with temporary anguish, and a new horrour be added to the dreary passage of the grave, than that one soul be lost to heaven by the delusive expectation of effectual repentance in a dying hour. For, as we have repeatedly asked, what is effectual repentance ? Can it be supposed, that, where the vigour of life has been spent in the establishment of vicious propensities, where all the vivacity of youth, all the soberness of manbood, and all the leisure of old age, have been given to the service of sin, where vice has been growing with the growth, and strengthening with the strength, where it has spread out with the limbs of the stripling, and become rigid with the fibres of the aged, can it, I say, be supposed, that the labours of such a life are to be overthrown by one last exertion of a mind, impaired with disease, by the convulsive exercise of an affrighted spirit, and by the inarticulate and feeble sounds of an expiring breath ? Repentance consists not in one or more acts of contrition ; it is a permanent change of the disposition. Those dispositions and habits of mind, which you bring to your dying bed, you will carry with you to another world. These habits are the dying dress of the soul. They are the grave-cloths, in which it must come forth, at the last, to meet the sentence of an impartial judge. If they were filthy, they will be filthy still. The washing of baptismal water will not, at that hour, cleanse the spots of the soul. The confession of sins, which have never been removed, will not furnish the conscience with an answer to- . wards God. The reception of the elements will not then infuse a principle of spiritual life, any more than unconsecrated bread and wine will infuse health into the limbs, on which the cold damps of death have already collected. Say not, that you have discarded such superstitious expectations. You have not discarded them, while you defer any thing to that hour, while you venture to rely on any thing but the mercy of God toward a heart, holy, sincere and sanctified, a heart, which loves Heaven for its purity, and God for his goodness. If, in this solemn hour, the soul of an habitual and inveterate offender be prepared for the residence of pure and spotless spirits, it can be only by a sovereign and miraculous interposition of omnipotence. His power we pretend not to limit. He can wash the sooty Ethiop white, and cause the spots on the leopard's skin to disappear. We presume not to fathom the counsels of his will ; but this we will venture to assert, that if, at the last hour of the sinner's life, the power of God ever interposes to snatch him from his ruin, such interposition will never be disclosed to the curiosity of man. For, if it should once be believed, that the rewards of heaven can be obtained by such an instantaneous and miraculous change at the last hour of life, all our ideas of moral probation, and of the connexion between character here and condition hereafter, are loose, unstable, and groundless, the nature and the laws of God's moral government are made, at once, inexplicable, our exhortations are useless, our expe. rience false, and the whole apparatus of gospel means and motives becomes a cumbrous and unnecessary provision.
What, then, is the great conclusion, which we should deduce from all that we have said of the nature of habit, and the difficulty of repentance? It is this. Behold, now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation. If you are young, you cannot be. gin too soon ; if you are old, you may begin too late.