This is the third installment of a series from the book with the above-named title. You may read the earlier installments here.
The Nature and Forms of Self-Deception (cont’d and concluded)
Others are deceived by taking reformation for regeneration.
A good man out of the good treasure of his heart will indeed bring forth good things. His character will be determined by his conduct. The heart is no better than the life. If the fountain be pure, the streams will be so too. In vain however do we attempt to cleanse the streams while the fountain remains corrupt. Such was the case with the Pharisees. Our Savior appropriately compares them with “whited sepulchers,” which, however beautiful they may be without, are “within full of all uncleanness.”
It is no uncommon thing for one form of sin to be exchanged for another. A man may abandon a course of open profligacy only to settle down upon a system of self-righteousness. We read of those who “turn to the Lord feignedly, but not with their whole heart.”
Nothing short of a radical change can constitute us Christians. Man by nature is not partially but entirely depraved. It is not enough therefore to do better. This would suppose the existence of some previous goodness; whereas regeneration is the beginning of holiness. The change, moreover, respects not merely the life, but the heart. It does not consist in improving any principle of holiness already existing, but in exercising the first holy affection.
In the present day of reforms, peculiar caution is necessary lest a mere renunciation of certain vices be substituted for the “renewing of the Holy Ghost.” The temperance cause has done much to modify human conduct as well as to ameliorate human misery. It has often too proved a pioneer to religion. We can heartily bid it “God-speed,”” and can most earnestly pray for its final triumph; and yet it must not be concealed that to become sober is no proof that we have become Christians.
The form of godliness is often assumed where its power is absent.
By the form, we understand the observance of the mere externals of religion; by the power, the practical influence of religion upon the heart and the life — dominion over sin, a sense of pardon, communion with God, the spirit of prayer, patience under suffering, victory over death, and the joyful hope of a blessed immortality. Now, though the power of religion can hardly exist without the form, “the form may and often does exist without the power. Profession is not possession. The picture of a man is not a man. It may have a strong resemblance, but it wants the most essential part — vitality. We may have “a name to live,” and yet be spiritually dead —” may call Jesus “Lord,” and yet practically disregard his authority — may sing with the lip, and yet make no “melody in the heart” — may bow the knee to God in prayer, and yet never prostrate ourselves before him in spirit — may appear among the guests at the Lord’s supper, and yet, instead of being clad with the “wedding garment,” come with a dress of our own.
No class of men were ever more regular in their observance of the rites and ceremonies of religion than the Pharisees. They fasted twice in the week, and gave tithes of all that they possessed — they made broad their phylacteries, and enlarged the borders of their garments; and yet all their external sanctity was but a cloak to hide the deep depravity of the heart.
Other motives than those derived from the influence of the Gospel may secure attention to the forms of religion. Early education, a regard to their standing in society, or the goadings of an awakened conscience, have induced multitudes to abound in such observances when the heart has been far from God. Mr. Whitefield, in speaking of his state previous to his conversion, remarks: “When I was sixteen years of age I began to fast twice a week for thirty-six hours together, prayed many times a day, received the sacrament every Lord’s day, fasting myself almost to death all the forty days of Lent, during which I made it a point of duty never to go less than three limes a day to public worship, besides seven times a day to my private prayers, yet I knew no more that I was to be born again in God, born a new creature in Christ Jesus, than if I had never been born at all.”
Gifts are often mistaken for graces.
Many have regarded themselves as eminent Christians from the circumstance of their being fluent in prayer, talented in conversation, eloquent in address, or distinguished for their attainments in biblical knowledge. The most splendid talents, however, may be connected with an unsanctified heart. Saul had the spirit of prophecy, and Judas probably wrought miracles. The language of the apostle clearly implies that a man may speak with the tongues of men and angels, may have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, may have all faith, so that he could remove mountains, may bestow all his goods to feed the poor, and give his body to be burned, and yet be destitute of that charity without which all our attainments and performances are but “as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.” 1 Cor. 13:1-3.
Men may be endowed with talents by which they may be rendered highly useful to others, while they become “castaways” themselves. They may preach the Gospel with discrimination, and even with success, while that Gospel exerts no sanctifying influence upon their own hearts. They may guide others to heaven, and in the end be excluded themselves. “There were builders of the ark whose floating corpses were sunk beneath it when it rose upon the bosom of the flood. There were donors of the tabernacle who were as lepers thrust beyond the camp, or as blasphemers stoned without relief. There were artificers of the temple who never there left their offerings, and never there worshipped God.”
Sectarian attachment and party zeal are often mistaken for Christian devotedness.
The Pharisees, with all their aversion to true piety, “compassed sea and land to make one proselyte.” The zeal of papists in the propagation of error has often exceeded that of protestants in the propagation of truth. There are sects noted for their fanaticism and delusion, whose efforts to gain converts could hardly be surpassed by the most devoted and self-denying Christians. Those who are strangers to piety may no doubt be as full of zeal as those who are under its influence, while the motives by which they are governed may differ essentially. It is possible for men to preach, to write, to pray, and to suffer for what they deem the cause of truth, when in fact they are influenced by no higher aim than a desire to promote the interests of a party. With all their apparent devotedness they may look with indifference upon the evident good effected in other branches of Zion. Instead of rejoicing in the success of other evangelical denominations, it may give them pain. While a revival of religion among themselves may be extolled as a wonderful work of God, the same favorable appearances exhibited among Christians of a different name may beget feelings of envy and jealousy.
Will the reader here pause, and carefully inquire on what ground he is resting his hope of future happiness? Beware of trusting to a “”refuge of lies.” Dig deep, and lay the foundation low. The day of trial is hastening on, and every fabric not built upon the Rock must totter and fall. “All is not gold that glitters.”” There may be the appearance of piety where there is not the reality. Rest, then, upon nothing that will not bear examination, and that will not endure the coming storm. It is not enough that you have a hope; see that you have “a good hope, through grace.”