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THE CHRISTIAN CHARACTER, HOW FORMED.
Such is the importance of religion (being, in fact, the great business of human life), and such the fascination of the cares of this world, that it behoves us to be continually upon our guard, lest the scenes through which we must necessarily pass, draw off our attention from things of infinitely more moment, though more distant; and thus the great end and purpose of our being be sacrificed to what is merely accidental or instrumental to it.
It is our consolation, however, that almost all our difficulties in the conduct of life, as it respects futurity, have no other source than want of attention of mind to the subject. For, so absolutely inconsiderable are the things of this life, in comparison with that which is to succeed it, that even an imperfect apprehension of the nature of our situation (if, in consequence of being sufficiently impressed and attended to, it be allowed to have its proper influence on our minds) would be sufficient to keep us in the path of our duty. But without attention and consideration, no motives, however just and weighty, can have any effect.
In reality, men miscarry, and miss the great end of their being, only in consequence of acting precipitately, and without attending to the necessary consequences of their actions. In other words, it is when they act irrationally, like brute beasts, governed by mere appetite and passion. And when they act in this manner, is it to be wondered at, that they do not attain the proper happiness of rational and intelligent beings? It is with great propriety, therefore, that faith is represented in the Scriptures as the great principle of the Christian life; that it was by faith, or in consequence of a firm belief in futurity, depending upon the promise of God, that all the worthies of the Old Testament were enabled to distinguish themselves as they did; and that it is still by faith that we Christians are to overcome the world. Now this efficacious faith is not a single act, or effort of the mind, or a simple conviction that a future event will take place, (for then every man who, if he were interrogated, would answer that he was a Christian, would be a good man,) but it is such a full persuasion of mind, and such a lively apprehension of a distant event, as shall give it its just influence, the same that it would have near at hand ; and this can only be acquired by frequent attention to it, and meditation upon it. Could this great end be attained, were truly Christian principles and prospects sufficiently impressed on our minds, it would be impossible for us to be guilty of any base or criminal action; and the great motives to the love of God and of our fellow-creatures, not being counteracted by any foreign influence, but having their natural and uncontroled effect upon the mind, we should “love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and our neighbour as ourselves.” And when those governing principles had taken deep root in our minds, they would lead to the practice of the whole of our duty; and, our hearts and affections being engaged, every thing right and good would be easy and pleasant to us. If these maxims be true, a great deal must be done by a man before he can be a Christian in the proper sense of the word, that is, “not in name and profession only, but in deed and in truth; ” because a habit and temper is to be formed, which can only be produced by the long continuance of proper actions. A truly Christian character is not to be formed but by a course of discipline and exercise, calculated to keep
great truths of Christianity; so as to overpower the influence of the objects which surround us, and which are continually soliciting our attention. If there be any one error in religion more dangerous in its tendency than others, it is the opinion which, in some form or other (and it is capable of endless modifications) has existed almost from the commencement of Christianity, viz. that religion properly so called, or that which renders a man acceptable in the sight of God, and fits him for heaven, is not a habit or disposition of mind, such as I have now mentioned, which evidently requires time and care to form; but some single act, or effort, whether proceeding from a man's self, or from God. If this be the case, the whole may commence and terminate in the shortest space of time, and it may as well take place at the last hour of life, as at any other. Consequently, in the prospect of this, men may continue to live in sin, secretly flattering themselves with the hope of a late but effectual repentance. But if repentance consist of a change of disposition and conduct, it is not even possible that a late, or what we call a death-bed, repentance, can be an effectual one. For true repentance can only take place in consequence of just views of things, sufficiently impressed upon the mind by careful reflection ; and since it is not a momentary operation, but a fixed character that is wanted, it is, in reality, but very little that can be done at any one particular time. A man, for instance, may at any time resolve to change his conduct; but that does not amount to an actual change. He may perform any single action; but a single action, though it may lead to, does not constitute a habit; and even a habit, or course of actions, must be continued a considerable time before it can be quite easy and familiar to him, so that his heart and affections shall be engaged in it; and then only is the character properly formed. Again, this character, arising from a fixed attachment of mind to our duty, ad
mits of degrees; for it may be a very weak or a very strong attachment; and our future reward will be in proportion to to the strength and confirmed state of all our good habits and dispositions: for, as great as is the diversity of human characters in this life, it is probable that the justice and wisdom of God will provide as great a diversity in their future retribution. Besides, the opinion that the great business of religion is the work of a moment, unavoidably subjects men to the grossest and most fatal delusions. Indeed, how can it be otherwise, when the thing to be attained passes wholly within a man's own breast, and is generally spoken of as a thing that is incapable of verbal description; the consequence of which must be, that persons of a warm imagination will presume, on any insignificant emotion, that they have experienced this happy change, and valuing themselves upon it, will be apt to condemn and despise the rest of the world; while persons of a timid disposition will be tormented with doubts and despair. Not being content to judge of their hearts by their lives, they will be perpetually seeking for something that no man in his sober senses ever imagined he had found. All the representations which are given by our Saviour of the effect of the gospel, either in the hearts of individuals, or in the world at large, (which correspond to one another,) give us the idea of something that has a gradual progress, and no where of a sudden instantaneous effect. Thus we find it compared to seed sown in the ground, to a small quantity of leaven, to laboring in a vineyard, &c. all of which require a considerable time before a sensible effect is produced. The doctrines of the gospel, though established by miracles, did not produce their effect on the minds of men by a miraculous, but by a natural power. . Indeed, external miracles would have been superfluous upon this scheme; since God, by internal miracles only, might have converted the whole world. The gospel had that effect, and that only, which the ground on which it was sown admitted. The new views which it opened to mankind induced most of those who were convinced that it was of God; to come to a resolution to change their former conduct; but neither could their mere belief of Christianity, nor their consequent resolution, actually profit them, till it had time to bring forth the proper fruits of it, viz. good works and a change of character. And when men did thus become Christians, still the apostles never ceased urging them, not only to act up to their profession, but to go on to perfection, comparing the Christian course to a race, or other exercise, which required the greatest and most unremitted exertion of all their powers. If I be asked How this end is to be attained, or, in the language of the apostle, how we must gird up the loins of our minds, by what means is this lively and efficacious faith in the great practical principles of religion to be acquired I answer, with Paul, that faith comes by hearing; supposing the consequence of hearing to be believing, and that believing operates as it ought to do: for it naturally arises from giving sufficient attention of mind to the evidence on which our faith rests, and from frequent meditation on the objects of our faith; and it cannot be produced by any other means.