« PreviousContinue »
Nothing in the moral concerns of man is of much importance to him, until it is formed into a habit. Every opinion, and every impression, which is transiently entertained, is entertained to little purpose. If it produce any consequences; they are momentary, and useless. In the mean time, other things, of an unhappy tendency, having already become habitual, and possessing the controlling power of habit, return with speed and violence, and drive away the feeble and short lived influence of such opinions, and impressions. Thus that, which, if continued, might become the glory and beauty of man, is as the flower of the grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.
Habits are formed only by Repetition. That which is often repeated, becomes, by the mere tendency of nature, more and more interesting, and necessary; and acquires, therefore, a daily increasing power over man. After it has continued for a season, and gained a certain degree of strength, it becomes in a sense immoveable; acquires a decisive control over the conduct; and is rarely, and not without extreme difficulty, overcome.
This influence of habit seems to be inwrought, as a primary characteristic, in the very nature of Intelligent beings. No other consideration will explain, at least in many situations, the permanent continuance of either virtue or vice. Under this influence only, does the drunkard resist all motives, and adhere immoveably to his cups; the idler to his sloth; the swearer to bis profaneness; the spendthrift to his prodigality; the thief to his stealing; and all other sinners to their respective iniquities. Under this influence, the mature Christian overcomes the most powerful temptations; and advances firmly to the rack, or the saggot. Under the same influence, will the inhabitants of Hell persist in their rebellion, in spite of all the motives, which so powerfully persuade them to cease from sin. Finally, the Church of the first-born, and the innumerable company of Angels, will, under the same influence also, persevere in their obedience, whatever temptations may solicit them to revolt from God.
Moral habits, their strength, and their consequences, are all produced by a repetition of those things, of which they are constituted, in the mind. In other words, they are produced by frequent meditation on the several subjects, out of which they
are formed, together with a repeated indulgence of the emotions, which such meditation creates. Ultimately, therefore, they grow out of Religious Meditation.
Of self-examination, proposed as the second head of discourse, I observe,
1. That it alone makes us acquainted with Ourselves.
Every man has a certain moral character; partly like that of others, and partly peculiar to himself. This character, in both respects, is incapable of being known without self-examination. Our own hearts answer, generally to the hearts of others, as the face to the face in water. By knowing our own hearts only, can we, therefore, know effectually the general character of man. It may, perhaps, be said, that this character is delineated with perfect exactness, and supreme skill, in the Scriptures ; and by searching them may, therefore, be known. The position I admit: the consequence I deny. The instruction, given us in the Scriptures concerning this subject, will never be understood, unless applied to ourselves in the examination of our own hearts. Invaluable as the knowledge is, which they communicate concerning this subject, it is, like all other knowledge, never realized, never made our own, except by meditation.
But there are many things in our own characters, which are peculiar to ourselves. All these exist in the heart alone : and there only can they be either taught, or learned. Even the very opinions, which we entertain, together with the manner and degree in which we entertain them, will ever be imperfectly understood by us without this investigation for ourselves. We suppose ourselves to embrace many opinions, which, a critical inquiry will show, we have never received. Many others we imagine ourselves to have admitted without a doubt, which by this trial we shall find regarded by us, only in an uncertain and conjectural manner.
Still more ignorant are we of our dispositions. About no subject have the apprehensions of man been more erroneous, than about his will, affections, and propensities. Self-Knowledge, in this respect chiefly, has been proverbially acknowledged to be extremely difficult, as well as highly important. Hence the mcmorable observation, Id, quosde OeQUTOV, e coelo descendit: an observation, grounded, perhaps, equally on the usefulness, and the difficulties, of the precept. Whatever man can accomplish in this arduous concern must be accomplished by self-examination. He must watch carefully every movement of his disposition; the commencement, and the progress, of every affection, aim, resolution, and habit; the manner, in which every thing affects him; and the means, by which he is affected; the causes of his suc. cess, and his failures, in regulating the state of his mind; and, generally, all his movenients within, and all his impulses from without.
In this way, and in this alone, can the sinner learn effectually, that he is a sinner. In this way only, will he discern the nature, and extent, of his guilt; the strength of his evil propensities; the obstinacy of his unbelief, and impenitence; the uniformity of his disobedience; the completeness of his ruin; his exposure to final condemnation; and his utter indisposition to return to God. All these things he learns only, and effectually, by observing them, as they exist, and operate, in himself; or arise, as conse. quences, from the state of his own mind. Whatever knowledge he may possess of them from instruction, even from that of the Scriptures; it can never be of any serious use to him, until he has made it his own by an investigation of his heart, and life. Whatever he may have heard, or read, of sin, and guilt, and danger; it is, to him, merely news concerning other men; not knowledge of himself. Other men, according to the views, which he entertains before he commences the examination of himself, are sinners, odious to God, children of wrath, and in danger of perdition. But for himself, he is almost innocent, and perhaps entirely safe. Should you prove the contrary to him by arguments, which he will acknowledge to be unanswerable ; you have gained nothing. The application to himself will still be wanting: and the story might almost as well have been told to another person, or communicated in an unknown tongue.
In the same manner only, does the Christian learn, that he is a Cbristian. To decide this great point, even hopefully, his beart and his life must pass before him in continual review. The doctrines, by which he is governed, the affections which he exercises, the actions which he performs, and the views with which Vol. V.
they are performed, must be daily scrutinized : and from them all must be derived the momentous result. Without this diligent investigation of himself, no man, however long, or however eminently, he has possessed the Christian character, can, even with well founded hope, conclude that he is a Christian. In the same manner, also, must every question, which we ask concerning our moral character, be answered. Unless we thus explore ourselves, whatever may be our state, we cannot understand it; and shall on the one hand, be exposed to all its evils, and lose on the other, no small part of its blessings.
2. Self-examination naturally prepares men to turn from sin to holiness, and to advance from one degree of holiness to another.
Conviction of sin is eminently the result of self-examination : as, I think, must already be evident to a very moderate attention. Equally applicable is this remark to all apprehensions concerning our future destiny; all efficacious fears concerning the anger of God; all affecting views of our helplessness; all thorough convictions of the necessity of betaking ourselves to Christ for salvation. They, that are whole, need not a physician. But all are whole, in the sense intended by our Saviour, until convinced of their diseased condition by solemnly attending to their own
So long as this is not done, there will be no recourse to the Physician of the soul.
Two objections, or at least two difficulties, may here, perhaps, arise in the minds of my audience. One is, that the effect, which I have altributed to self-examination, is to be attributed to the Spirit of Grace. The other is, that I have elsewhere attributed the same ef. fect to Prayer. On the former I observe, that the Spirit of Grace operates on the mind, in this state of its moral concerns, chiefly by leading it to a solemn investigation of itself. On the latter I observe, that Prayer has this efficacy in the manner, recited in a former discourse, principally by prompting us to examine ourselves more effectually, than any other exercise of the mind, and more thoroughly to explore our moral condition. Self-examination is the primary mean, by which the Spirit of God brings the soul into this state. This glorious Agent can, I acknowledge, accomplish this work in any other manner, which he shall choose. But this seems plainly to be the manner, in which it is usually accomplish
ed. Indeed it seems difficult to conceive how convictions of sin, wbatever might be their cause, could exist, at least to any extent, without self-examination. To such convictions it seems absolute. ly necessary, that the soul should know its own guilt: and to this knowledge it seems equally indispensable, that it should explore its own moral character and conduct.
Of prayer it may be truly said, that its nature is very imperfectly understood by him, who does not know that, to a considerable extent, it is employed in the most. solemn, the most intimate, and the most effectual, examination of ourselves. The advantages, which prayer furnishes for this employment, are singular, and supreme. But no man will ever avail himself of them, who does not more or less occupy the intervals, between the seasons of prayer, in communing diligently with his own heart. It was in this view of prayer, that I exhibited it as contributing so efficaciously to a solemn conviction of his guilt in the mind of the sinner.
Nor is this employment less effectual in enabling us to advance from one degree of grace to another. To do this, the Christian must know his present and past condition ; that he may renounce whatever is amiss, and retain whatever is commendable. Unless be know his sins, how can he renounce them? Unless he know bis weaknesses, how can he guard against them? Unless he perceive the means of his success, in past cases, how can he adopt them again? Unless he discern the causes of former failwes, how can he be safe from future ones? If he have no acquaintance with his backslidings, how can he either repent, or reform? If he be ignorant of the means, by which he has heretofore improved in holiness, how can he be enabled to improve bereafter? Thus the most important conduct of man, as a moral being, is eminently dependent on the investigation of himself.
From self-examination, also, spring, in a great measure, all our resolutions of amendment. The seasons, in which, by look. ing into ourselves, we learn our guilt, our danger, and the indispensable necessity of an alteration in our lives, are those, in which the mind exerts itself, in earnest, to accomplish such alteration. In this situation alone, are resolutions made, of sufficient strength, and solemnity, materially to affect the life. To