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5. Whatever involves the subject of religion in mystery is calculated to give a sinner false comfort. When a sinner is anxious on the subject of religion, very likely, if you becloud it in mystery, he will feel relieved. The sinner's distress arises from the pressure of present obligation. Enlighten him on this point, and clear it up, and if he will not yield, it will only increase his distress. But tell him that regeneration is all a mystery, something he cannot understand, and, by leaving him all in a fog, you relieve his anxiety.
It is his clear view of the nature and duty of repentance, that produces his distress. It is the light that brings agony to his mind, while he refuses to obey. It is that which makes up the pains of hell. And it will almost make hell in the sinner's breast here, if only made clear enough. Only cover up this light, and his anxiety will immediately become far less acute and thrilling, but if you take up a clear light, and flash it broadly upon his soul, then, if he will not yield, you kindle up the tortures of hell in his bosom.
6. Whatever relieves the sinner from a sense of blame is calculated to give him false comfort. The more a man feels himself to blame, the deeper is his distress; so, anything that lessens his sense of blame, of course lessens his distress - but it is a comfort full of death. If anything will help him to divide the blame, and throw a part of it upon God, it will afford him comfort, but it is a relief that will destroy his soul.
7. To tell him of his inability is false comfort. Suppose you say to an anxious sinner: "What can you do? You are a poor feeble creature, you can do nothing." You will thereby make him feel a kind of discouragement, but it is not that keen agony of remorse with which God wrings the soul when He is laboring to bring the sinner to repentance.
If you tell him he is unable to comply with the Gospel, he naturally falls in with that relief. He says to himself: "Yes, I am unable, I am a poor, feeble creature, I cannot do this, and certainly God cannot send me to hell for not doing what I cannot do." Why, if I believed that a sinner was unable, I would tell him plainly: "Do not be afraid, you are not to blame for not complying with the call of the Gospel: for you are unable, and God will not send you to hell for not doing what you have no strength to do - 'Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?'" I know it is not common for those who talk about the sinner being "unable," to be so consistent, and carry out their theory. But the sinner infers all this, and so he feels relieved. It is all false, and all the comfort derived from it is only treasuring up wrath against the Day of Wrath.
8. Whatever makes the impression on a sinner's mind that he is to be passive in religion is calculated to give him false comfort. Give him the idea that he has nothing to do but to wait God's time; tell him conversion is the work of God, and he ought to leave it to Him; and that he must be careful not to try to take the work out of God's hand; and he will infer as before, that he is not to blame, and will feel relieved. If he has only to stand still, and let God do the work, just as a man holds still to have his arm amputated, he feels relieved. But such instruction as this, is all wrong. If the sinner is thus to stand still, and let God do it, he instantly infers that he is not to blame for not doing it himself; and the inference is not only natural but legitimate.
It is true that there is a sense in which conversion is the work of God. But it is false, as it is often represented. It is also true that there is a sense in which conversion is the sinner's own act. It is ridiculous, therefore, to say that a sinner is passive in regeneration, or passive in being converted, for conversion is his own act. The thing to be done is that which cannot be done for him. It is something which he must do, or it will never be done.
9. Telling a sinner to wait God's time. Some years ago, in Philadelphia, I met a woman who was anxious about her soul, and had been a long time in that state. I conversed with her, and endeavored to learn her state. She told me a good many things, and finally said she knew she ought to be willing to wait on God as long as He had waited upon her. She said that God had waited on her a great many years before she would give any attention to His call, and now she believed it was her duty to wait God's time to show mercy to her and convert her soul. And she said this was the instruction she had received. She must be patient, she thought, and wait God's time, and, by and by, He would give her relief. Oh, amazing folly!
Here is the sinner in rebellion. God comes with pardon in one hand and a sword in the other, and tells the sinner to repent and receive pardon, or refuse and perish. And now here comes a minister of the Gospel and tells the sinner to "wait God's time." Virtually he says that God is not ready to have him repent now, and is not ready to pardon him now, and thus, in fact, throws off the blame of his impenitence upon God. Instead of pointing out the sinner's guilt, in not submitting at once to God, he points out God's "insincerity" - in making an offer, when, in fact, He was not ready to grant the blessing!
I have often thought such teachers needed the rebuke of Elijah, when he met the priests of Baal. "Cry aloud: for he is a God; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked" (1 Kings 18:27). The minister who ventures to intimate that God is not ready, and tells the sinner to wait God's time, might almost as well tell him that God is asleep, or gone on a journey, and cannot attend to him at present. Miserable comforters, indeed! It is little less than outrageous blasphemy of God. How many have gone to the judgment, red all over with the blood of souls that they have deceived and destroyed - by telling them God was not ready to save them, and that they must wait God's time. No doubt such a doctrine is exceedingly calculated to afford present relief to an anxious sinner. It warrants him to say: "God is not ready, I must wait God's time, and so I can live in sin a while longer, till He gets ready to attend to me, and then I will get religion."
10. It is false comfort to tell an anxious sinner to do anything for relief, which he can do, and not submit his heart to God. An anxious sinner is often willing to do anything else, but the very thing which God requires him to do. He is willing to go to the ends of the earth, or to pay his money, or to endure suffering, or do anything but make full and instantaneous submission to God. Now, if you will compromise the matter with him, and tell him of something else that he may do, and yet evade that point, he will be very much comforted. He likes that instruction. He says: "Oh, yes, I will do that; I like that minister, he is not so severe as others, he seems to understand my particular case, and knows how to make allowances."
It often reminds me of the conduct of a patient who is very sick, but has a great dislike for a certain physician and a particular medicine, but that is the very physician who alone understands treating his disease, and that the only remedy for it. Now, the patient is willing to do anything else, and call in any other physician. He is anxious and in distress, is asking all his friends if they cannot tell him what he shall do. He will take all the nostrums and quack medicines in the country - before he will submit to the only course that can bring him relief. By and by, after he has tried everything without receiving any benefit, if he survives the experiment he gives up this unreasonable opposition, calls in the physician, takes the proper medicine, and is cured. Just so it is with sinners. They will eagerly do anything, if you will only let them off from this intolerable pressure of present obligation to submit to God.
(a) Telling a sinner he must use the means - attend meetings and pray.
Tell an anxious sinner this: "You must use the means"; and he is relieved.
"Oh, yes, I will do that, if that be all. I thought that God required me to repent and submit to Him now. But if 'using the means' will answer, I will do that with all my heart." He was distressed before, because he was cornered, and did not know which way to turn. Conscience had beset him, like a wall of fire, and urged him to repent NOW. But this relieves him at once; he feels better, and is very thankful that he has found such a good adviser in his distress! But he may "use the means," as he says, till the Day of Judgment, and not be a particle the better for it, but only hasten his way to death. What is the sinner's use of means, but rebellion against God? God uses means - the Church uses means, to convert and save sinners, to impress them, and bring them to submission. But what has the sinner to do with such means? It is just telling him: "You need not submit to God now, but just use the means awhile, and see if you cannot melt God's heart down to you, so that He will yield this point of unconditional submission." It is a mere cavil to evade the duty of immediate submission to God. It is true that sinners, actuated by a regard to their own happiness, often give attention to the subject of religion, attend meetings, and pray, and read, and many such things. But in all this they have no regard to the honor of God, nor do they so much as intend to obey Him. Their design is not obedience, for if it were, they would not be unrepentant sinners. They are not, therefore, using means to be Christians, but to obtain pardon, and a hope. It is absurd to say that an unrepentant sinner is using means to repent, for this is the same as to say he is willing to repent; or, in other words, that he does repent, and so is not an unrepentant sinner. So, to say that an unconverted sinner uses means with the design to become a Christian, is a contradiction; for it is saying that he is willing to be a Christian, which is the same as to say he is a Christian already.
(b) Telling a sinner to pray for a new heart. I once heard a celebrated Sunday-school teacher do this. He was almost the father of Sunday Schools in America. He called a little girl up to him, and began to talk to her. "My little girl, are you a Christian?"No, sir."Well, you cannot be a Christian yourself, can you?"No, sir."No, you cannot be a Christian yourself, you cannot change your heart yourself, but you must pray for a new heart, that is all you can do; pray to God, God will give you a new heart." He was an aged and venerable man, but I almost felt disposed to rebuke him in the name of the Lord; I could not bear to hear him deceive that child, telling her, practically, she could not be a Christian. Does God say: "Pray for a new heart"? Never. He says: "Make you a new heart"
(Ezekiel 18:31). The sinner is not to be told to pray to God to do his duty for him, but to go and do it himself. I know the Psalmist prayed: "Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10). He had faith, and prayed in faith. But that is a very different thing from setting an obstinate rebel to pray for a new heart. An anxious sinner will be delighted with such instruction, saying: "I knew I needed a new heart, and that I ought to repent, but I thought I must do it myself. I am very willing to ask God to do it; I hated to do it myself, but have no objection that God should do it, if He will, and I will pray for it, if that is all that is required."
Telling the sinner to persevere. And suppose he does persevere? He is as certain to be lost as if he had been in hell ever since the foundation of the world. His anxiety arises only from his resistance; and if he would submit, it would cease; and will you tell him to persevere in the very thing that causes his distress? Suppose my child should, in a fit of passion, throw a book or something on the floor. I tell him: "Take it up," but instead of minding what I say, he runs off and plays. "Take it up!" He sees I am in earnest, and begins to look serious. "Take it up, or I shall get a rod." And I put up my arm to get the rod. He stands still. "Take it up, or you must be whipped." He comes slowly along to the place, and begins to weep. "Take it up, my child, or you will certainly be punished." Now he is in distress, and sobs and sighs as if his bosom would burst; but he still remains as stubborn as if he knew I could not punish him. Now I begin to press him with motives to submit and obey, but there he stands, in agony, and at length bursts out: "Oh, father, I do feel so bad, I think I am growing better." And now, suppose a neighbor to come in and see the child standing there, in all his agony and stubbornness. The neighbor asks him what he is standing there for, and what is he doing. "Oh, I am using means to pick up that book." If this neighbor should tell the child: "Persevere, persevere, my boy, you will get it by and by," what should I do? Why, I would ask him to leave the house; what does he mean by encouraging my child in rebellion?
Now, God calls the sinner to repent, He threatens him, He draws the glittering sword, He persuades him, He uses motives, and the sinner is distressed to agony, for he sees himself driven to the dreadful alternative of giving up his sins or going to hell. He ought instantly to lay down his weapons, and break his heart at once. But he resists, and struggles against conviction, and that creates his distress. Now, will you tell him to persevere? Persevere in what? In struggling against God! That is just the direction the devil would give. All the devil wants is, to see him persevere just in the way he is going on, and his destruction is sure.
(d) Telling a sinner to press forward. That is, to say to him: "You are in a good way, only press forward, and you will get to heaven." This is on the supposition that his face is toward heaven, when in fact his face is toward hell, and he is pressing forward, and never more rapidly than now, while he is resisting the Holy Ghost. Often have I heard this direction given, when the sinner was in as bad a way as he could be. What you ought to tell him is: "STOP, sinner, stop, do not take another step that way, it leads to hell." God tells him to stop, and because he does not wish to stop, he is distressed. Now, why should you attempt to comfort him in this way?
"Oh, yes," says the sinner, "I am willing to try, I have often tried to do it, and I will try again." Does God tell you to "try" to repent?
All the world would be willing to "try" to repent, in their way. Giving this direction implies that it is very difficult to repent, and perhaps impossible, and that the best thing a sinner can do is, to try and see whether he can do it or not. What is this, but substituting your own commandment in the place of God's. God requires nothing short of repentance and a holy heart; anything short of that is comforting the sinner in vain, "seeing in your answers there remaineth falsehood."
(f) Telling him to pray for repentance. "Oh, yes, I will pray for repentance, if that is all. I was distressed because I thought God required me to repent; but I can wait." And so he feels relieved, and is quite comfortable.