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Feed My lambs. - John 2:15.
Those who read their Bibles will recollect the connection in which these words occur, and by whom they were spoken. They were addressed by the Lord Jesus Christ to Peter, after he had denied his Lord, and had subsequently professed repentance. Our Lord asked him this question, to remind him, in an affecting manner, at once of his sin and of the love of Christ: "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me more than these?" - strongly implying a doubt whether he did love Him. Peter answers: "Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee." Then Christ said unto Him: "Feed My lambs"; and repeated the question, as if He would read his inmost soul: "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?" Peter was still firm, and promptly answered again: "Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee."
Jesus still asked him the question again, the third time, emphatically. He seemed to urge the point, as if He would search his inmost thoughts, to see whether Peter would ever deny Him again. Peter was touched; he was "grieved," it is said; he did not fly into a passion, nor did he boast, as formerly: "Though I should die with Thee, yet will I not deny Thee"
(Matthew 26:35); but he was grieved; he was subdued; he spoke tenderly; he appealed to the Savior Himself, as if he would implore Him not to doubt his sincerity any longer: "Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee." Christ then gave him his final charge: "Feed My sheep" (v. 17).
By the terms "sheep" and "lambs" the Savior undoubtedly designated Christians, members of His Church; the lambs probably represent young converts, those that have but little experience and but little knowledge of religion, and therefore need to have special attention and pains taken with them, to guard them from harm, and to train them for future usefulness.
And when our Savior told Peter to feed His sheep, He doubtless referred to the important part which Peter was to perform in watching over the newly-formed Churches in different parts of the world, and in training the young converts, and leading them along to usefulness and happiness.
My last Lecture was on the subject of giving right instruction to anxious sinners; this naturally brings me to consider the manner in which young converts should be treated, and the instructions that should be given to them.
I. Several things that ought to be considered, in regard to the hopes of young converts.
II. Several things respecting their making a profession of religion, and joining the Church.
III. The importance of having correct instruction given to young converts.
IV. What should not be taught to young converts.
V. What particular things are specially necessary to be taught to young converts.
VI. How young converts should be treated by Church members.
I. THE HOPES OF YOUNG CONVERTS.
1. Nothing should be said to create a hope. That is to say, nothing should ordinarily be intimated to persons under conviction calculated to make them think they have experienced religion, till they find it out themselves.
I do not like this term, "experienced religion," and I use it only because it is a phrase in common use. It is an absurdity in itself What is religion?
Obedience to God. Suppose you should hear a good citizen say he had experienced obedience to the Government of the country! You see that it is nonsense. Or suppose a child should talk about experiencing obedience to his father. If he knew what he was saying, he would say he had obeyed his father; just as the apostle Paul says to the Roman believers: "Ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you"
What I mean to say is that ordinarily it is best to let their hope or belief that they are converted spring up spontaneously in their own minds.
Sometimes it will happen that persons may be really converted, but, owing to some notions which they have been taught about religion, they do not realize it. Their views of what religion is, and its effect upon the mind, are so entirely wide of the truth that they do not think they have it.
I will give you an illustration on this point.
Some years since, I labored in a place where a revival was in progress, and there was in the place a young lady from Boston. She had been brought up a Unitarian. She was a person of considerable education, and was intelligent on many subjects; but on the subject of religion she was very ignorant. At length she was convicted of sin. She became awfully convinced of her horrible enmity against God. She had been so educated as to have a sense of propriety; but her enmity against God became so great, and broke out so frightfully, that it was horrible to hear her talk. She used to come to the anxious meetings, where we conversed with each person separately; and her feelings of opposition to God were such that she used to create disturbance. By the time I came within two or three seats of her, where she could hear what I said in a low voice to the others, she would begin to make remarks in reply, so that they could be heard. And she would say the most bitter things against God, against His providence, and His method of dealing with mankind, as if God were an infinite tyrant. I would try to hush her, and make her keep still, because she distracted the attention of others. Sometimes she would stop and command her temper for a time, and sometimes she would rise and go out. I have seldom seen a case where the enmity of the heart rose so high against God. One night, at the anxious meeting, after she had been very restless, as I went towards her, she began as usual to reply, but I hushed her, and told her I could not converse with her there. I invited her to see me the next morning, when I told her I would talk with her. She promised to come; but, said she: "God is unjust - He is infinitely unjust. Is He not almighty? Why, then, has He never shown me my enmity before? Why has He let me run on so long?
Why does He let my friends at Boston remain in this ignorance? They are the enemies of God as much as I am, and they are going to hell. Why does He not show them the truth in regard to their condition?" And in this temper she left the room.
The next morning she came to see me, as she had promised. I saw, as soon as she came in, that her countenance was changed, but I said nothing about it. "Oh," said she, "I have changed my mind, as to what I said last night about God; I do not think He has done me any wrong, and I think I shall 'get religion' some time, for now I love to think about God. I have been all wrong; the reason why I had never known my enmity before was that I would not. I used to read the Bible, but I always passed over the passages that would make me feel as if I were a lost sinner; and those passages that spoke of Jesus Christ as God I passed over without consideration; but now I see that it was my fault, not God's fault, that I did not know any more about myself; I have changed my mind now." She had no idea that this was religion, but she was encouraged now to expect religion at some future time, because she loved God so much. I said nothing to make her imagine that I thought her a Christian, but left her to find it out. And, for a time, her mind was so entirely occupied with thinking about God that she never seemed to ask whether she "had religion" or not.
It is a great evil, ordinarily, to encourage persons to hope they are Christians. Very likely you may judge prematurely. Or if not, it is better, in any case, that they should find it out for themselves - that is, supposing they do not see it at once.
2. When persons express a hope, and yet express doubts, too, it is generally because the work is not thorough. If they are converted, they need breaking up. They are still lingering around the world, or they have not broken off effectually from their sins, and they need to be pushed back, rather than urged forward. If you see reason to doubt, or if you find that they have doubts, most probably there is some good reason to doubt.
Sometimes persons express a hope in Christ, and afterwards remember some sin that needs to be confessed to men; or some case where they have slandered, or defrauded, where it is necessary to make satisfaction, and where either their character, or their purse, is so deeply implicated that they hesitate, and refuse to perform their duty. This grieves the Spirit, brings darkness over their minds, and justly leads them to doubt whether they are truly converted. If a soul is truly converted, it will generally be found that, where there are doubts, there is on some point a neglect of duty. They should be searched as with a lighted candle, and brought up to the performance of duty, and not suffered to hope until they do it.
Ordinarily, it is proper just there to throw in some plain and searching truth, that will go through them, something that will wither their false hopes. Do it while the Spirit of God is dealing with them, and do it in a right way, and there is no danger of its doing harm.
To illustrate this: I knew a person who was a member of the Church, but an abominable hypocrite - proved to be so by her conduct, and afterwards fully confessed to be so. In a revival of religion she was awakened and deeply convicted, and after a while she got a hope. She went to a minister to talk with him about her hope, and he poured the truth into her mind in such a manner as to annihilate all her hopes. She then remained under conviction many days, and at last she broke out in hope again. The minister knew her temperament, and knew what she needed, and he tore away her hope again. Then she broke down. So deeply did the Spirit of God PROBE her heart that, for a time, it took away all her bodily strength. Then she came out subdued. Before, she had been one of the proudest of rebels against God's government, but now she became humbled, and was one of the most modest, tender, and lovely of Christians. No doubt that was just the way to deal with her. It was just the treatment that her case required.
It is often useful to deal with individuals in this way. Some persons are naturally unamiable in their temper, and unlovely in their demeanor. And it is particularly important that such persons should be dealt with most thoroughly whenever they first begin to express hope in Christ. Unless the work with them is, in the first place, uncommonly deep and thorough, they will be vastly less useful, and interesting, and happy, than they would have been had the probe been thoroughly and skillfully applied to their hearts. If they are encouraged at first, without being thoroughly dealt with; if they are left to go on as though all were well; if they are not sufficiently probed and broken down, these unlovely traits of character will remain unsubdued, and will be always breaking out, to the great injury both of their personal peace and their general influence and usefulness as Christians.
It is important to take advantage of such characters while they are just in these peculiar circumstances, so that they can be molded into proper form.
Do not spare, though it should be a child, or a brother, or a husband, or a wife. Let it be a thorough work. If they express a hope, and you find they bear the image of Christ, they are Christians. But if it should appear doubtful - if they do not appear to be fully changed, just tear away their hope, by searching them with discriminating truth, and leave the Spirit to do the work more deeply. If still the image is not perfect, do it again - break them down into a childlike spirit, and then let them hope. They will then be clear and thorough Christians. By such a mode of treatment I have often known people of the crookedest and most hateful natural character so transformed, in the course of a few days, that they appeared like different beings. You would think the work of a whole life of Christian cultivation had been done at once. Doubtless this was the intent of our Savior's dealing with Peter. He had been converted, but became puffed up with spiritual pride and self confidence, and then he fell. After that, Christ broke him down again by three times searching him with the inquiry: "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou Me?" After which he seems to have been a stable and devoted saint the rest of his days.
3. There is no need of young converts having or expressing doubts as to their conversion. There is no more need of a person doubting whether he is now in favor of God's government than there is for a man to doubt whether he is in favor of our Government or another. It is, in fact, on the face of it, absurd for a person to talk of doubting on such a point, if he is intelligent and understands what he is talking about. It has long been supposed to be a virtue, and a mark of humility, for a person to doubt whether he is a Christian, but this notion that there is virtue in doubting is a device of the devil. "I say, neighbor, are you in favor of our Government, or do you prefer that of Russia?"Why, I have some hopes that I love our own Government, but I have many doubts." Wonderful! "Woman, do you love your children?" "Why, sir, I sometimes have a trembling hope that I love them, but you know the best have doubts."Wife, do you love your husband?"I do not know - I sometimes think I do, but you know the heart is deceitful, and we ought to be careful and not be too confident."
Who would have such a wife? "Man, do you love your wife, do you love your family?"Ah, you know we are poor creatures, we do not know our own hearts. I think I do love them, but perhaps I am deceived."
Ordinarily, the very idea of a person expressing doubts renders his piety truly doubtful. A real Christian has no need to doubt; and when one is full of doubts, ordinarily you ought to doubt for him and help him doubt.
She is conscious of the exercise of this affection. And she sees it carried into action every day. In the same way a Christian may know that he loves God; by his consciousness of this affection, and by seeing that it influences his daily conduct.
In the case of young converts, truly such, these doubts generally arise from their having been wrongly dealt with, and not sufficiently taught, or not thoroughly humbled. In any case they should never be left in such a state, but should be brought to such a thorough change that they will doubt no longer.
It is inconsistent with usefulness for a Christian to be always entertaining doubts; it not only makes him gloomy, but it makes his religion a stumbling block to sinners. What do sinners think of such a religion? They say: "These converts are afraid to think they have got anything real; they are always doubting whether it is a reality, and they ought to know whether there is anything in it or not. If it is anything, these people seem to have it, but I am inclined to think it rather doubtful. At any rate, I will let it pass for the present; I do not believe God will condemn me for not attending to that which appears so uncertain." No, a settled hope in Christ is indispensable to usefulness; and therefore you should deal so with young converts, as to lead them to a consistent, well-grounded, stable hope. Ordinarily, this may be done, if pursued wisely, at the proper time, and that is at the commencement of their religious life. They should not be left till it is done.
I know there are exceptions; there are cases where the best instructions will be ineffectual; but these depend on the state of the health, and the condition of the nervous system. Sometimes you find a person incapable of reasoning on a certain topic, and so his errors will not yield to instruction. But most commonly they mistake the state of their own hearts, because they judge under the influence of a physical disease.
Sometimes persons under a nervous depression will go almost into despair. Persons who are acquainted with physiology would easily explain the matter. The only way to deal with such cases is first to recruit their health, and get their nervous system into a proper tone, and thus remove the physical cause of their gloom and depression; then they will be able to receive and apply your instructions. But if you cannot remove their gloom and doubts and fears in this way, you can at least avoid doing the positive harm that is wrought by giving wrong instructions.
I have known even experienced Christians to have fastened upon them the error of thinking it was necessary, or was virtuous, or a mark of humility, to be always in doubt; and Satan would take advantage of it, and of the state of their health, and drive them almost to despair. You ought to guard against this, by avoiding the error when teaching young converts. Teach them that instead of there being any virtue in doubting, it is a sin to have any reason to doubt, and a sin if they doubt without any reason, and a sin to be gloomy and to disgust sinners with their discouragement. And if you teach them thoroughly what religion is, and make them SEE CLEARLY what God wishes to have them do, and lead them to do it promptly and decidedly, ordinarily they will not be harassed with doubts and fears, but will be clear, openhearted, cheerful, and growing Christians - an honor to the religion they profess, and a blessing to the Church and the world.
II. MAKING A PROFESSION OF RELIGION.
I proceed to mention some things worthy of consideration in regard to young converts making a profession of religion, or joining the Church.
1. Young converts should, ordinarily, offer themselves for admission to some Church of Christ immediately. By "immediately," I mean that they should do it the first opportunity they have. They should not wait. If they set out in religion by waiting, most likely they will always be waiting, and never do anything to much purpose. If they are taught to wait under conviction, before they give themselves to Christ; or if they are taught to wait after conversion, before, by joining the Church, they give themselves publicly to God, they will probably go halting and stumbling through life. The first thing they should be taught, always is: NEVER WAIT, WHERE GOD HAS POINTED OUT YOUR DUTY. We profess to have given up the waiting system; let us carry it through and be consistent.
2. While I say it is the duty of young converts to offer themselves to the Church immediately, I do not say that, in all cases, they should be received immediately. The Church has an undoubted right to assume the responsibility of receiving them immediately or not. If the Church is not satisfied in the case, it has the power to bid candidates wait till inquiries can be made as to their character and their sincerity. This is more necessary in large cities than it is in the country, because so many applications are received from persons who are entire strangers. But if the Church thinks it necessary to postpone an applicant, the responsibility is not his. He has not postponed obedience to the dying command of Christ, and so he has not grieved the Spirit, and so he may not be essentially injured if he is faithful in other respects. Whereas, if he had neglected the duty voluntarily, he would soon have got into the dark, and would very likely have backslidden.
If there is no particular reason for delay, ordinarily the Church ought to receive them when they apply. If they are sufficiently instructed on the subject of religion to know what they are doing, and if their general character is such that they can be trusted as to their sincerity and honesty in making a profession, I see no reason why they should be delayed. But if there are sufficient reasons, in the view of the Church, for making them wait a reasonable time, let the Church so decide, on its responsibility to Jesus Christ. It should be remembered, however, what is the responsibility which the Church thereby assumes, and that if those are kept out of the Church who ought to be in it, the Holy Spirit is grieved.
It is impossible to lay down particular rules on this subject, applicable to all cases. There is so great a variety of reasons which may warrant keeping persons back, that no general rules can reach them all. Our practice, in this Church, is to propound persons for a month after they make application, before they are received into full communion. The reason of this is, that the Session may have opportunity to inquire respecting individuals who offer themselves, as so many of them are strangers. But in the country, where there are regular congregations, and all the people have been instructed from their youth in the doctrines of religion, and where everybody is perfectly known, the case is different, and ordinarily I see no reason why persons of good character should not be admitted immediately. If a person has not been a drunkard, or otherwise of bad character, let him be admitted at once, as soon as he can give a rational and satisfactory account of the hope that is in him.
That is evidently the way the apostles did. There is not the least evidence in the New Testament that they ever put off a person who wanted to be baptized and to join the Church. I know this does not satisfy some people, because they think the case is different. But I do not see it so.
They say the apostles were inspired. That is true; but it does not follow that they were so inspired to read the characters of men, as to be prevented from making mistakes in this matter. On the other hand, we know they were not inspired in this way, for we know they did make mistakes, just as ministers may do now; and, therefore, it is not true that their being inspired men alters the case on this point. Simon Magus was supposed to be a Christian, and was baptized and admitted into communion, remaining in good standing until he undertook to purchase the Holy Ghost with money.
The apostles used to admit converts from heathenism immediately, and without delay. If they could receive persons who, perhaps, never heard more than one Gospel sermon, and who never had a Bible, nor ever attended a Sabbath School or Bible Class in their lives, surely it is not necessary to create an outcry and alarm, if a Church should think proper to receive persons of good character, who have had the Bible all their lives, and have been trained in the Sabbath School, and have sat under the preaching of the Gospel, and who, therefore, may be supposed to understand what they are about, and not to profess what they do not feel.
I know it may be said that persons who make a profession of religion now, are not obliged to make such sacrifices for their religion as the early believers were, and, consequently, people may be more ready to play the hypocrite. And, to some extent, that is true. But then, on the other hand, it should be remembered that, with the instructions which they have on the subject of religion, they are not so easily led to deceive themselves, as those who were converted without the precious advantages of a religious education. They may be strongly tempted to deceive others, but I insist that, with the instructions which they have received, the converts of these great revivals are not half so liable to deceive themselves, and take up with a false hope, as were those in the days of the apostles. And on this ground I believe that those Churches that are faithful in dealing with young converts, and that exhibit habitually the power of religion, are not likely to receive so many unconverted persons as the apostles did.
It is important that the Churches should act wisely on this point. Great evil has been done by this practice of keeping persons out of the Church a long time in order to see if they were Christians. This is almost as absurd as it would be to throw a young child out into the street, to see whether it will live; to say: "If it lives, and promises to be a healthy child, we will take care of it," when that is the very time it wants nursing and taking care of, the moment when the scale is turning whether it shall live or die. Is that the way to deal with young converts? Should the Church throw her new-born children out to the winds, and say: "If they live there, let them be taken care of; but if they die there, then they ought to die"? I have not a doubt that thousands of converts, in consequence of this treatment, have gone through life without joining any Church, but have lingered along, full of doubts and fears, and darkness, and in this way have spent their days, and gone to the grave without the comforts and usefulness which they might have enjoyed, simply because the Church, in her folly, has suffered them to wait outside the pale, to see whether they would grow and thrive, without those ordinances which Jesus Christ established particularly for their benefit.
Jesus Christ says to His Church: "Here, take these lambs, and feed them, and shelter them, and watch over them, and protect them": and what does the Church do? Why, turn them out alone upon the cold mountains, among the wild beasts, to starve or perish, to see whether they are alive or not!
The whole system is as unphilosophical as it is unscriptural. Did Jesus Christ tell His Churches to do so? Did the God of Abraham teach any such doctrine as this, in regard to the children of Abraham? Never. He never taught us to treat young converts in such a barbarous manner. The very way to lead them into doubts and darkness, is to keep them away from the Church, from its fellowship, and its ordinances.
I have understood there is a Church which has passed a resolution that no young converts shall be admitted till they have "had a hope" for at least six months. Where did they get any such rule? Not from the Bible, nor from the example of the early Churches.
3. In examining young converts for admission their consciences should not be ensnared by examining them too extensively or minutely on doctrinal points. From the manner in which examinations are conducted in some Churches, it would seem as if they expected that young converts would be all at once acquainted with the whole system of divinity, and able to answer every puzzling question in theology. The effect of it is that young converts are perplexed and confused, and give their assent to things they do not understand, and thus their conscience is ensnared, and consequently weakened. Why, one great design of receiving young converts into the Church is to teach them doctrines; but if they are to be kept out of the Church until they understand the whole system of doctrines, this end is defeated. Will you keep them out till one main design of receiving them is accomplished by other means? It is absurd. There are certain cardinal doctrines of Christianity, which are embraced in the experience of every true convert; and these young converts will testify to them, on examination, if questioned in such a way as to draw out knowledge, and not in such a way as to puzzle and confound. The questions should be such as are calculated to draw out from them what they have learned by experience, and not what they may have got in theory before or since their conversion. The object is, not to find out how much they know, or how good scholars they are in divinity, as you would examine a school; it is to find out whether they have a change of heart, to learn whether they have experienced the great truths of religion by their power in their own souls. 76 You see therefore how absurd, and injurious too, it must be, to examine, as is sometimes done, like a lawyer at the bar cross-examining a suspicious witness. It should rather be like a faithful physician anxious to find out his patient's true condition, and therefore leading him, by inquiries and hints, to disclose the real symptoms of the case.
You will always find, if you put your questions rightly, that real converts will see clearly those great fundamental points - the Divine authority of the Scriptures, the necessity of the influences of the Holy Spirit, the Deity of Christ, the doctrines of total depravity and regeneration, the necessity of the atonement, justification by faith, and the justice of the eternal punishment of the wicked. By a proper course of inquiries you will find all these points come out, if you put your questions in such a way that they are understood.
A Church Session in this city has, as we are informed, passed a vote, that no person shall join that Church till he will give his assent to the whole Presbyterian Confession of Faith, and adopt it as his "rule of faith and practice and Christian obedience." That is, they must read the book through, which is about three times as large as this hymn- book which I hold, and must understand it, and agree to it all, before they can be admitted to the Church, before they can make a profession of religion, or obey the command of Christ. By what authority does a Church say that no one shall join their communion till he understands all the points and technicalities of this long Confession of Faith? Is that their charity, to cram this whole Confession of Faith down the throat of a young convert, before they let him so much as come to the Communion? He says: "I love the Lord Jesus Christ, and wish to obey His command."Very well, but do you understand and adopt the Confession of Faith?" He says: "I do not know, for I never read that, but I have read the Bible, and I love that, and wish to follow the directions in it, and to come to the table of the Lord."
"Do you love the Confession of Faith? If not, you SHALL NOT COME,"
is the reply of this charitable Session; "you shall not sit down at the Lord's table till you have adopted all this Confession of Faith." Did Jesus Christ ever authorize a Church Session to say this - to tell that child of God, who stands there with tears, and asks permission to obey his Lord, and who understands the grounds of his faith, and can give a satisfactory reason of his hope - to tell him he cannot join the Church till he understands the Confession of Faith? Shut the door against young converts till they swallow the Confession of Faith! Will such a Church prosper? Never!
No Church on earth has a right to impose its extended Confession of Faith on a young convert who admits the fundamentals of religion. They may let the young convert know their own faith on ever so many points, and they may examine him, if they think it necessary, as to his belief; but suppose he has doubts on some points not essential to Christian experience, - the doctrine of Infant Baptism, or of Election, or the Perseverance of the Saints; and suppose he honestly and frankly tells you he has not made up his mind concerning these points? Has any minister or Church a right to say, he shall not come to the Lord's table till he has finished all his researches into these subjects, that he shall not obey Christ till he has fully made up his mind on such points, on which Christians, and devoted ones too, differ among themselves? I would sooner cut off my right hand than debar a convert under such circumstances. I would teach a young convert as well as I could in the time before he made his application, and I would examine him candidly as to his views, and after he was in the Church I would endeavor to make him grow in knowledge as he grows in grace. And by just as much confidence as I have that my own doctrines are the doctrines of God, I should expect to make him adopt them, if I could have a fair hearing before his mind. But I never would bid one whom I charitably believed to be a child of God, to stay away from his Father's table, because he did not see all I see, or believe all I believe, through the whole system of divinity. The thing is utterly irrational, ridiculous, and wicked.
4. Sometimes persons who are known to entertain a hope dare not make a profession of religion for fear they should be deceived. I would always deal decidedly with such cases. A hope that will not warrant a profession of religion is manifestly worse than no hope, and the sooner it is torn away the better. Shall a man hope he loves God, and yet not obey Jesus Christ? Preposterous! Such a hope had better be given up at once.
5. Sometimes persons professing to be converts will make an excuse for not joining the Church, that they can enjoy religion just as well without it.
This is always suspicious. I should look out for such characters. It is almost certain they have no religion. Ordinarily, if a person does not desire to be associated with the people of God, he is rotten at the foundation. It is because he wants to keep out of the responsibilities of a public profession. He has a feeling within him that he had rather be free, so that he can, by and by, go back to the world again, if he likes, without the reproach of instability or hypocrisy. Enjoy religion just as well without obeying Jesus Christ! It is false on the face of it. He overlooks the fact that religion consists in obeying Jesus Christ.