Edward Payson Archive

SEARCHING RETROSPECTION


FORMER INSTRUCTIONS RECOLLECTED AND APPLIED.

  “Now of the things which we have spoken unto you, this is the sum.” Hebrews 8:1

These words compose the preface to a brief recapitulation of the doctrines which the writer had stated more fully in the pre­ceding part of this epistle. I propose, on the present occasion, to make a similar use of them. If the apostle thought it proper to repeat what he had written, and which might, therefore, if forgotten, be easily read afresh, it surely cannot be improper for the speaker to remind you of what has been merely spoken in your hearing, and which, if forgotten, you have no opportunity to review. And as it cannot be improper, so I trust it may not be altogether unprofitable, to give you a brief and general sum­mary of the truths which have been exhibited in this place for a few months past. The beneficial effects which such a measure has a tendency to produce, and which it possibly may produce, are great and numerous. It may convince you, that a much larger portion of God’s revealed truth has been presented to your view, in a comparatively short space of time, than you are perhaps aware of. It may lead you to inquire, what effect all this truth has produced. If when heard, it made any impres­sions upon your minds, a review of it may revive those impressions. If it made no impression, you may be led to inquire the cause. For these and other reasons which will presently appear, I propose to recall your attention to the subjects of my late discourses. In doing this, I shall go back only to the last Sabbath of the last year, and endeavor to give you a general view of the truths, which, since that time, have been exhibited to this church and society.

On the last Sabbath of the last year, you were addressed from these words of our Lord, selected from a familiar parable: And the door was shut. It was shown that the door here mentioned was the door of admission to a place in which Christ was, and the following proposition was stated as the doctrine of the text: The time is approaching, when the door of admission to every place where Christ is, will be shut against all whom that time finds unprepared. This, it was remarked, implies that the door is now open, open to the prayers and the praises of all who will enter in. The door of admission to the means of grace and ordinances of religion in which Christ manifests himself, is open; the door of admission to his church is open; the door of admission to heaven is open. But the time is approaching, when all these doors will be shut forever against the persons, and against the prayers of all whom death finds unprepared. You were reminded that before the close of the present year, the door would thus be shut against some of you, and you were invited, entreated, urged by every motive, to guard against final exclusion from Christ and from heaven, by entering in without delay. The church were also reminded that the door of use­fulness would soon be shut against them, that the only opportu­nity of praying for their children and friends, and laboring for their salvation, would soon be gone forever. I know of no effect produced by this sermon. It may possibly have produced some temporary effect on the church. On the congregation I have no reason to suppose it produced any.

Soon after this, your attention was called to these words of Jehovah: I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me [Isa. 46:9].In a discourse on these words, an attempt was made to present God to your view, as he is exhibited in the Scriptures. Proofs and illustrations were exhibited of the fact, that he is an eternal, self-existent, independent Spirit, infinite in power, in knowledge, in wisdom, in goodness, justice, faithful­ness, mercy and truth, the Creator, Preserver, and rightful Sovereign of all creatures and all worlds. His claims to our supreme love, confidence and obedience, founded on these per­fections and relations, were pressed upon you, and you were urged by all that is great, and by all that is good in his charac­ter, to submit to him and choose him as your God. At the same time, the infinite evil, malignity and danger of sin, as committed against such a Being, were presented to your view, and you were entreated to hate it, forsake it, repent of it.

The next discourse, of which I would remind you, was on these words: Am I in God’s stead? The sentiment deduced from this passage was, that no creature can supply to us the place of God, or do that for us which God can do, and which is necessary to our happiness. This sentiment was explained, and its truth made evident, by an appeal to facts. It was shown that no created object can make us happy, even in this world, that no creature can guard us against affliction, from sickness, or death, or pardon our sins, or sanctify our natures, and that all creatures united, can do nothing for us beyond the grave. Hence was inferred the folly, as well as sinfulness, of putting any created object in the place of God, and of neglecting him, in order to secure the applause, or escape the censures of mankind.

The first and great command is, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength [Deut. 6:5],was the subject of the next discourse which I shall mention. In meditating on this command, we considered its import, its reasonableness, and the justice of its claims to be called the first and great command. In explaining its import, we showed that it requires us to love God with the highest de­gree of affection, of which our natures are capable, to love him, of course, more than we love ourselves. The reasonableness of the command was argued, from the infinite perfection and loveliness of the Divine character, from the intimate relation which subsists between him and us considered as his creatures, from the numerous and inestimable favors which he has bestowed upon us, and from the impossibility of finding any other object worthy to rival him in our affections. In proof that this is justly called the first and greatest of God’s commands, it was stated that it does in effect include all the other commands of God, and that unless we obey it, we cannot obey a single precept of the divine law. In the improvement, it was shown, that we have all disobeyed this precept, that we are under the strongest obligations to repent of this disobedience, that if we repent of it, we shall be pardoned, that if we do not, our condemnation is certain and perfectly just.

All the people wept, when they heard the words of the law, [Neh. 8:9]was the text of another discourse, which, about the same time, so­licited your attention. The object of that discourse was, to show what reason sinful creatures like ourselves have, to feel those emotions of which weeping is the expression, when the law of God is exhibited to their view; or, in other words, why they ought to repent of having transgressed it. The reasons mentioned, were the unrivalled excellence of the law, the char­acter and works of its author, and the dreadful effects which transgressing it have produced upon our bodies, our souls, and our fellow creatures. It was further added, that the gospel of Christ is full of reasons why we should mourn and weep in view of our disobedience to the law, and that no one, who possesses a particle of love to his Saviour, can refrain from lamenting the degradation, the agonies to which our sins sub­jected him, but to which he cheerfully submitted for our sakes. In the improvement it was remarked, that we must either obey the numerous commands which call upon us to repent, or assert that they must be blotted from the Bible; that we must either condemn all who have repented of their sins, or imitate their example.

Permit me next to remind you of a discourse, in which the speaker exerted himself to the utmost extent of his power, to rouse you from the state of fatal security in which you seemed to be slumbering. The theme of this discourse was the follow­ing tremendous threatening: It is a people of no understanding; therefore he that made them will not have mercy on them, and he that formed them will show them no favor [Isa. 27:11]. In discoursing on this subject, I endeavored to show, that by understanding is here meant spiritual understanding, or that heavenly wisdom which consists in the knowledge of God, and of which the fear of God is said to be the beginning. It was farther remarked, that the persons to whom this threatening was originally ad­dressed, had long enjoyed the means of grace, —means, which, if rightly improved, would have made them wise unto salvation, but which they had neglected and abused. I endeavored to prove, by plain, undeniable facts, that you have been favored with even greater means and privileges, but that many of you have neglected to improve them, and are in consequence without understanding, in the sense of the text, and exposed to the threatenings which it denounces. The awful import of the threatening was then exhibited. We showed it to be this: God will deal with them in strict justice, according to the rules of his revealed law. In other words, he will treat them as they deserve; that is, first, he will either deny them the common blessings of his providence, or grant them those blessings in anger, and send a curse with them; secondly, he will either deprive them of their religious privileges and opportunities, or withhold his blessing and thus render them useless; thirdly, he will deny them the influences of his good Spirit, and give them up to blindness of mind and hardness of heart, and thus render their destruction certain. These awful truths we pressed upon you with the utmost earnestness, and concluded by reminding you, that should they produce no salutary effect, it would furnish additional reason to fear that God had determined not to have mercy on you, and to show you no favor.

What if some did not believe? Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid! [Rom. 3:3].In a discourse on these words it was shown, that man’s disbelief of God’s threat­enings will by no means prevent the execution of these threat­enings. It will not, because God foresaw that unbelief when he uttered them. It will not, because that unbelief, by calling his veracity in question, renders it necessary for him to establish it by fulfilling all his threatenings. It will not, because it never has done so. Our first parents did not believe God’s threatenings; the inhabitants of the old world, of Sodom, did not believe them; the Jews did not believe them; yet in all these cases they were executed. And so they ever will be.

For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God [1 Cor. 2:11].In a discourse on this passage, I remarked, that by the things of a man are evidently meant his secret thoughts and feelings. These we cannot know till they are expressed either by looks, actions or words. In other words, we cannot read the hearts of our fellow creatures. Much less can we read the heart of God, or know anything of his thoughts, feelings and designs, unless they are revealed to us by his Spirit, by whom alone they are known. Hence we inferred, that a revelation of the mind and will of God is unspeakably desira­ble, and even necessary for our happiness; that the revelation which he has given us in the Bible, is to be highly prized; that his goodness in granting it to us, claims our most thankful ac­knowledgements; that the aid of his Spirit, by whom it was dictated, is necessary to a right understanding of it; and that it is the height of folly to trust to our own reasonings and conjec­tures respecting what God ought to do, when he has actually in­formed us what he will do.

God is angry with the wicked every day. If he turn not, he will whet his sword, he hath bent his bow and made it ready. He hath also prepared for them the instruments of death [Ps. 7:11-13a]. In discoursing on this passage, I remarked, that all are wicked, who are not righteous; that God is highly and constantly displeased with the wicked, and feels towards them the strong antipathy of good to bad; that this displeasure being caused by the unut­terable holiness of his nature must continue forever; that he will express it, not by the rod, but by the sword, not by instruments of correction, but by instruments of death, and that it is impossible for them to escape its effects in any other way, than by turning from their sins, and turning to him.

The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth [Gen. 8:21]. In a discourse on these words, I attempted to explain and establish the doctrine of human depravity, or the depravity of man’s heart. It was remarked, that when we assert anything to be depraved, or corrupted, we mean that it is not what it originally was, or that it is altered for the worse. We mean the same, when we assert that the human heart is depraved. We mean that it is not what it was originally, but is altered for the worse. If we would ascertain how much it is altered for the worse, or what is the extent of its depravity, we must compare it with a perfectly good or holy heart. So far as it differs from such a heart, so far it is depraved. I then remarked,

  • That a perfectly good heart can have no feelings or de­sires which it would be wrong to express. But our hearts have such feelings and desires, therefore they are depraved.
  • A perfectly good heart will ever prompt its possessor to do all the good in his power. If then, our hearts do not prompt us to do good, they are depraved.
  • A perfectly good heart will always be in perfect subjection to reason and conscience. If our hearts do not submit to these guides, they are depraved.
  • A perfectly good heart is always perfectly obedient to the law of God. In other words, it leads its possessor to love God with all the heart, and his neighbor as himself. If our hearts are not thus obedient, if they do not thus love God and our neighbor, they are depraved.

Unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled [Titus 1:5]. In discoursing on this passage, I endeavored to show that the depravity of the heart, already mentioned, extended its corrupting influence to the intellectual faculties of man, rendering their minds blind to all spiritual objects, and their consciences insensible to the evil of many sins, which, in the estimation of God, are of the first magnitude. Hence it was inferred, that our understandings and consciences are not safe guides, without the word and the Spirit of God, and that we must, in obedience to the divine com­mand, trust in the Lord with all our heart.

If thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off,  and cast them from thee; it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maim­ed, rather than having two hands, or two feet, to be cast into everlasting fire [Matt. 18:8].In discoursing on this passage, I observed, that to offend, in the sense of the text, is to tempt, or cause us to sin, and endeavored to show that every object, which thus offends us, must be removed, however dear or necessary it may be.

Where their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched Mar9: 44, 46, 48]. The discourse on this text was delivered so recently, that I would hope it is not yet entirely forgotten; and that the bare mention of it, will be sufficient to recall its leading sentiments to your minds. Without further noticing it, therefore, I proceed to remark, that the discourses which I have mentioned, in which the terrors of the Lord were exhibited, were interspersed with nearly an equal number, in which the mercy of God, the way of salvation by Jesus Christ, and his gracious invitations were pressed upon your attention. In a sermon on the subject of the prodigal son, we showed you God’s readiness to receive and forgive returning sinners, even while they were yet a great way off. In another, on the text, God commendeth his love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, we attempted to display the wonderful love which he exhibited in the gift of his Son. In a third, we showed that in Jesus Christ dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and that he is ready to impart a portion of this fullness to all who come to him. In a fourth, we described his coming into the world; in a fifth, his ascension to heaven, and in a sixth his coming to judge the world.

Another on the passage, O Lord, I am oppressed, undertake for me [Isa. 34:14], you probably recollect. Faith, repentance, the manner in which we must pray, if we would pray acceptably, composed the subjects of the other discourses. Other texts, which I can only mention, were these: Have ye your hearts yet hardened? Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Noah walked with God. He that denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father. See that ye refuse not him that speaketh; for if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heav­en. These texts I mention, because the mention of them may possibly remind you of the sermons, with which they were con­nected.

A number nearly equal to all I have noticed must be passed over entirely, that we may reserve room for a suitable improve­ment of the subject. Of one more, however, I will remind you, which was preached little more than a month since, on the following text:—If the good man of the house had known at what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. After explaining the passage and its connection with the context, I endeavored to show how impenitent sinners and Christians would be affect­ed by knowing the time of their deaths, and urged both classes to live for one month, as they would do did they know that they had but a month to live. I promised, God assisting me, to en­deavor to preach as if my labors were to end with the month, and entreated you to hear as if, after that time had expired, you were to hear no more. I will only add, that so far as I can discover, there has been less religious zeal and sensibility mani­fested among us since then there was before.

But I can proceed no further in giving you a summary of the truth which has been exhibited. Had I been aware of the dif­ficulty of performing the task, I should not have undertaken it. I fear that you have found it wearisome, and scarcely can hope that it will prove in the smallest degree profitable. Let us, however, endeavor to make the best improvement of it which is in our power.

  • Let me request you to reflect seriously how large a portion of revealed truth and of that part of it too, which is most alarming, most interesting, and most calculated to reach the conscience and affect the heart, has been exhibited to you since the present year commenced. Nearly all the most important doctrines of the Bible and many of its most important precepts have been mentioned in the preceding sketch. Yet I have men­tioned little more than half of the discourses which you have heard from the speaker on the Sabbath. Of what you have heard from other ministers, and of the subjects discussed at our evening lectures, I have said nothing. My hearers, were you sensible that so much truth had been pressed upon you, that almost the whole contents of revelation had been, as it were, poured upon your heads within a few months?
  • Let me ask, whether all these truths ought not to have produced some lasting, salutary effect upon your temper and conduct? Can you conceive of truth more important, more interesting, more suited to influence the understanding, awaken the conscience, and affect the heart? Even if they were less important than they are, ought not the character and the author­ity of that God who has revealed them, to have secured our belief, our submission and obedience! In a word, if these truths do not affect men, do not reform them, do not induce them to work out their own salvation, can you conceive of any truths which will do it? Permit me to inquire,
  • What effect all this truth has produced upon you? Has it produced any salutary effects? Has it imparted to you any knowledge of God, of yourselves, of your duty? Has it made you wise to salvation’? Are any of you truly religious charac­ters now, who were not so at the commencement of the year? Are any attending seriously to religion now who then treated it with neglect? Have those of you who then professed a relig­ious character, made any progress in religion? Or has all this truth flowed over this assembly, like water over a rock and produced no effect? If it does not produce good effects, it pro­duces those which are bad. If it does not soften, it hardens the heart. If it does not prove a savor of life unto life, it proves a savor of death unto death, for God has solemnly declared that it shall not return unto him void, it shall produce effects of one kind or the other.

Indeed, it is evident from the very nature of things, that it must be so. When the declarations, the threatenings and the promises of God are urged upon the heart, it must either receive or reject them. And if it rejects them, then it must in the very act of rejecting them, harden itself, and increase its own obsti­nacy. Besides, whenever we hear the truth without yielding to it, we increase our guilt. We are guilty of a great sin, guilty of disbelieving what God asserts, of disobeying his commands. For all this, we must give an account. Of every portion of divine truth which is exhibited to us, and every opportunity which we enjoy of hearing it, we must give an account. If we derive no benefit from it, the fault is our own. Does not my word, says Jehovah, do good to them who walk uprightly? a question which is equivalent to an assertion that it does. If then, that portion of God’s word which you have heard, has done you no good, it is because you have not walked uprightly.

From these remarks, it appears that all on who the truth has produced no salutary effects, have been constantly increas­ing in sinfulness and guilt, and have done much to provoke God to forsake them forever. Perhaps, on hearing this, some will say, since this is the case, it will be advisable for us to hear the truth no more, and to absent ourselves, for the remainder of our lives, from the house of God. My hearers, I met, a few days since, with a well authenticated account of one, who, in a neigh­boring State, adopted this very resolution. In vain did his pas­tor and his pious friends urge him to renounce it. He maintain­ed it till he came to his dying bed. Then he saw its folly, its madness. His remorse was great, his dying agonies terrible; he died without hope. If you wish to die in a similar manner, imitate his conduct. If you wish to die in a manner equally terrible and hopeless, continue to hear the truth without believ­ing or obeying it; but if you would die the death of the right­eous, and have your latter end like his, you must not only hear, but believe and obey it.

4. Although it is never pleasant, and seldom proper, for a minister to speak of himself, yet I trust you will pardon me for reminding you how exceedingly discouraging and distressing it must be to the speaker, to see almost no salutary effects produ­ced by his labors, and to know that while they are producing no salutary effects, they are producing effects of an opposite kind. Put yourselves for a moment in his situation. Think what it must be with a body and mind exhausted and worn out, to toil in preparing a sermon which he is almost certain will do no good. Think what it must be to come, Sabbath after Sab­bath, for months together, and warn, threaten, and entreat, while none regard it. Above all, think what it must be, for a minister to see his people hardening in their sins, treasuring up wrath and rushing on to destruction, endless, irretrievable des­truction, while all his efforts to save them, are frustrated by their unbelief. If any of you are ready to censure me for despond­ing, and feeling tempted to suspend my exertions, let me ask them, what I shall do. What means shall I employ? What shall I say to you? What can I say, which I have not said? What reason have I to hope, that should I labor through the remainder of the year, my exertions will not still prove inef­fectual? Will you say, perhaps, God may bless them and render them effectual? Alas, how can I hope for this when I see so many, not only in the congregation, but in the church, doing all in their power, by their unbelief and hardness of heart, to grieve the Spirit of God, and provoke him to forsake us forever. We are far more undeserving of the blessing now, than we were at the commencement of the year. To some of you, all this may appear little better than weakness and folly, but were you called on, as are the ministers of Christ, to sit down and con­template in solitude the infallible truth of God’s word, and the awful threatenings which it contains; were you obliged to look steadily at death and judgment and the eternal world, and to contemplate the miseries of the wicked in the regions of des­pair; and then turn and see the living hastening to those miser­ies, you would find it no trifle. But perhaps some hearer will say, it may afford consolation and encouragement to reflect that the church at least will derive some benefit from the truths ex­hibited to them. The church, the church in its present state, afford encouragement! It is true, some few of them do, and most heartily do I thank them for it. But to contemplate it as a body, it affords anything rather than encouragement. I will not, however, judge them, but call upon them to judge them­selves. Say, professor—I address each individual—would it afford the speaker any encouragement to know just how much you have been affected by each of the discourses mentioned above? Would it afford him any encouragement to enter un­seen your closet, and listen to your prayers, and look into your hearts and see how much, or rather, how little you feel? I doubt not indeed that there are closets and hearts among you, a sight of which would console and encourage me; but can you doubt that were I to see the church as God sees it, every ray of hope and consolation, and encouragement, would vanish at once? Indeed, it is the little effect which the truth produces on those who profess to believe it, which more than anything else, occasions discouragement. Do you recollect, professor, what was said to you at the close of the sermon on the worm that never dies, and the fire that is not quenched? Has it produced any salutary effect? Do you recollect the statement that everyone who delights in the law of the Lord, and meditates therein day and night, shall be flourishing and fruitful like a tree plant­ed by the rivers of water? Did that produce any effect? Could I see you properly affected by the truth, could I see you escaping from that worldly spirit which now eats out all the life of your religion; could I see anything like a general prevalence of religious feelings and meditation among you, it would at once strengthen my hands, encourage my heart, and animate me to labor with hopes of success. But at present, if asked in the language of the prophet, what are those wounds in thy hands, I must answer in his words: They are those wherewith I was wounded in the house of my friends.


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