The Causes of Decline in Religion
The Georgia Baptist Association to the Churches which compose it, send Christian salutation.
Beloved Brethren, -- We address you this year on the causes of decline in religion, and on the means of revival. In bringing this subject before your consideration, we have been influenced by an earnest desire to do all that is in our power, both for the discharge of the duty which we owe you, and for your comfort and enlargement in the profession which you have made. The low state of vital piety among us; the smallness of the numbers joining themselves to our churches; the increase of error and schism; the disappearance of good signs, and the appearance of had ones, are some of the facts to which we appeal to justify the introduction of the subject which we have chosen. Whilst we would not be of the number or those who take pleasure in giving false alarms, and who conjure up phantoms of evil that they may shew their skill and courage in fighting them, we would as little desire to be found among those who are indifferent to every thing, and who are not roused by the most awful tokens of God to cry aloud and spare not. We take it as an undeniable principle, that the progressive history of the Church of Christ presents at all times, occasions either of mourning or joy, separately, or of both together. Such is often the prosperous condition of the church, that we have reasons to rejoice in its flourishing aspect. When good and wholesome doctrines are preached; when ordinances are observed; when the word of God has free course and is glorified; when many converts to righteousness crowd the gates of Zion; and when health and vigor every where pervade the body -- the friends of Christ must rejoice. But the reverse of this occasions mourning and dejection. When too many are turning from the ways of God, and a cold lethargy possesses the hearts of those who ought to be most forward in religion; when many profess to follow the Saviour become impatient of his doctrines and precepts, and do not like to have the whole truth told them; when a worldly canker lies corroding the very life of piety and godliness, and eats up every thing noble and disinterested; and when a morbid indifference to such a state is found to prevail, it is then surely time for the watchman to rise from his treacherous calm, and sound an alarm in God's holy mountain. Complaints of lukewarmness and declension have often prevailed from the influence of custom, and at different times many, no doubt, have adopted this language, from no other motive than because it was a common talk. -- And in truth, the occasions of lamentation are much more frequent than of rejoicing, so that whatever motive a complaining language may have, it is generally justified by actual circumstances. Those observers too, who do not examine things with care and skill, are apt to imagine that all present evils are the worst, and that the times on which they are fallen, are the worst times that any age has ever witnessed. Hence it is easy to fall into error in making up an opinion on the greatness and extent of any present disorder, especially when the disorder occurs in the Church of Christ.
Limited as our observation is, we can only look upon the outward appearance, whilst the state and operation of the internal affairs must necessarily he hid from our notice. It is often possible for an inward excitement to exist where the surface is calm and unruffled. So the signs of the times in spiritual things may denote a wide and awful indifference, whilst a secret power may he at work, and a hidden grace may be preparing the way for some unexpected display of divine goodness and love. Intense darkness often goes just before the opening light.
Holding these things in view, brethren, we proceed to make some remarks upon the causes of decline and the means of revival in religion. And the first cause we shall assign is,
1. The neglect of the word of God. The truths of Scripture are the only proper furniture for the Christian's heart, and the food which gives him strength and health; and though we admit that a critical knowledge of the whole Bible is not necessary to salvation, yet we must assert that a ready acquaintance with its leading truths is a matter essential to the growth of religion in the heart. It is not to be expected that every believer will have time to read elaborate commentaries on the word of truth; but every believer must be able to give a commentary from his own heart upon the contents of that word. This he cannot do unless he often examines it. That we may make this address more particular, let us consider some of the ways in which the scriptures may be neglected.
They are then neglected when those whose business it is to preach them bring them forward incorrectly or partially. Every preacher must be regarded as a spiritual pleader, a divine orator, who does not come forward to display his own skill and ingenuity, but to lay before his audience the facts and arguments by which he means to persuade them to come over to his cause and stand upon the Lord's side. Now his facts and arguments are the scriptures. There he must find all the instruments of that persuasion which he intends to lodge in the hearts of his hearers. In all cases where facts are brought in proof of any point, there must be an exact, explicit, and accurate statement. A little change or variation will frequently defeat the whole argument. A preacher who states a position and appeals to scripture for his proof, is bound to give the very language of the text, if he would prove his point. His proofs lose half their weight and authority when this is neglected, and room is left for evasions and objections. Besides this, in adhering to the letter of scripture we make it evident that we love it, and that we hold all its parts and appendages in sacred veneration, and are not willing that the least should be kept back. This punctuality in quotation is remarkably evident in the New Testament. The writers and speakers there, generally used the popular version of the Seventy, in the passages which they cited from the Old Testament, and so particular were they that we seldom find the variation of a single word. Many content themselves with giving what they call the substance of the scripture, without much regard to the words, and in consequence of this they generally lose sight of the substance. "All things shall work together for good to them that love God," is a quotation which very few would find fault with: but by looking into the text we shall discover that the change of the word work from the present to the future, causes a material disservice to the sense. The all things which work together, do not reserve their efficacy and happy influence to a future time, but are now actually working together for that great object. The same might be observed of many other texts. If the Holy Ghost has left us a form of sound words, those words should be dear to every one who labors in their ministration. Whatever lessens the proper authority of scripture must weaken the faith of those who believe and expose them to the seducing calm of lukewarmness and indifference in religion.
The word of God may be neglected when only certain parts of it are brought to view, whilst the remainder is omitted and suppressed. The scripture contains a rich abundance and a delightful variety. It is a field of flowers and nutritious herbage, where may he found a tender food for the sheep and lambs, and likewise a stronger nourishment for the laborious oxen. The judicious shepherd, therefore, will conduct his flock into all the departments of this lovely scene, that each may receive a portion in due season. It may so happen that ministers suit their preaching to the prevailing taste and disposition of their hearers, and if that taste be corrupt and vitiated, it is almost certain that God's word will not meet a fair treatment. Many like to be told that every thing in their salvation is the gift of God; and so far they like to be told the truth; but do they like just as well to be informed that they must labor for every thing pertaining to their salvation with as much care and solicitude as if it depended upon their labors? Many eagerly swallow every particle of truth which demonstrates the security of the saints and their final perseverence to glory, and thus they feed upon a good doctrine, and one which has the explicit warrant of scripture; but do they grasp with the same avidity and entertain with the same satisfaction the doctrine of watchfulness, crucifixion to the world, self-denial and circumspection, which have an equal support from scripture? Many would never be tired of election and predestination which too, are fundamental points; but would thus manifest the same good will to sanctification, charity and brotherly kindness? Some could sit and hear a volume upon the duties which pastors ought to perform for their people, how painstaking they should be, how much hardness they should endure, what zeal and disinterestedness they should possess, all which is the truth; but do they hear, with equal patience, what they ought to do for their pastors, what support they should give them, what worldly cares and labors they should take off their hands by generous contributions? It is impossible to prevent the decline of religion when the word of God is picked and divided, a part embraced and a part rejected. They who are guilty of this partiality may appear to flourish for a short time, and may stand forth in bodies apparently healthy. But some of their members are weak and diseased, and they no sooner experience a shock of the whole system, than the disorder falls into the sickly member, and they become a sad spectacle of wretchedness.
Where principles or sentiments which have not been subjected to the test of scripture, are held as maxims and rules of conduct, there is necessarily a neglect of inspiration -- the law and the testimony. We are apt to form strong attachments to opinions and doctrines to which we have long been familiarized. Their antiquity often confers upon them a kind of reverence which we yield imperceptibly, thinking that there must be something sacred in that which has been so long cherished. Hence has originated the authority of tradition, and the substitution of human inventions in the place of scriptural requirement. For illustration of this point, we observe that the idea obtains to a considerable extent, and has become a part of the belief of many, that if they can have a present confidence that they were once truly converted, however grievously they may now want the comfortable and realizing manifestation of God's Spirit, yet they will be finally saved. They acknowledge the want of present experiences of religious joy and satisfaction; have no liberty in prayer; have no foretastes of heaven; have no heart-rendings for sin, and in a word, seem ready to die to every thing that is like holiness and love -- but they still have a strong hope founded upon past experience, which they abuse by making it the vehicle of comfort, when God never intended that they should be quiet under the awful and disastrous tokens of their present state. Past experience is a good source of comfort when it corresponds with present experience, but if it be at variance with this, it deserves no confidence. The grand scriptural test is, "If any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his." It is very evident, that a genuine conversion contains the pledge of eternal salvation; but how is that conversion to be accounted genuine, which brings none of the fruits of that happy change? For a particular illustration, we advert to the language held by many on the subject of revivals. God, say they, has his own time to work, and it is not necessary for us to take any steps to bring about that which depends wholly upon his pleasure. If we try the latter part of the above sentence by the test of scripture, what becomes of it? Are we not to labor even for that "which the son of man shall give us?" Many good people talk very innocently about the revelations of the spirit of God, as if it was now the office of the Comforter to reveal new truths which had never before been revealed. This is another opinion which has not been brought under the test of scripture; because we learn from the sacred record, that it is not the office of the Spirit to make new revelations, but to confirm and apply that which is already made. For the system of revelation was finished near eighteen hundred years since. The above examples, if supported by facts, will serve to show how easily principles may be relied upon as authentic and scriptural, which cannot endure the only proper test. And if in their maxims and opinions it be possible for men to entertain many hurtful errors -- may not their customs and practices be equally liable to the censure of the divine word, whilst they firmly believe that they are justified by the word of God in what they do? Is it not enough for a Christian that he be found in the right way, he must know why he is in that way. He must be ready to give a reason of the hope that is within him, with meekness and fear. How can we do this, if not conversant with the word of God?
2. We find another cause of decline among professors of religion, in their not properly improving their baptism. We deservedly lay much stress on baptism as a great and holy rite. To preserve this ordinance in its simple, apostolic purity, we have boldly encountered the sneers of the world, and the censures of many other religious denominations. We have strenuously maintained that the great Protestant Reformation was incomplete, until the subject and the mode of baptism should be restored to its primitive simplicity and order. From such advocates it might he rationally expected that all the bearings of this sacred institution would be embraced and scrupulously exemplified. For, as an institution it teaches, with peculiar propriety, the origin and destination of the Christian. It introduces him to the church militant, lays the doctrine of Christ near his heart, honors him with membership in the Society of those who take Jesus for their guide and pattern, and stands as an everlasting memorial of his dedication to God. The believer who daily remembers his baptism and all the sacred considerations which it involves, can hardly fail to surrender himself by a daily devotion to Him who loved him and gave himself for him. But how often are the dreadful and holy obligations of baptism forgotten! How often does the soul which has been winged for an immortal flight, to fly at infinite glories, come down and grovel in the dust!
3. The abuse or neglect of the Lord's Supper may be regarded as another cause of decay in religion. How often have we been grieved when the sacred symbols of the Saviour's body and blood were offered, to see many require themselves to be passed by, giving the significant shake of the head, and thus in appearance at least, rejecting Christ. Ah, we have thought, is this your kindness to the friend of sinners? Is this the way in which you requite Jesus for all his pains in your behalf? Did he turn away his head when the cup of your sins was presented to his lips -- a cup "drugged by the hand of death, and brewed in hell?" Why then do you refuse to honor him by a memorial of his own making? Many think they do service to the cause, and mend the matter of their own unworthiness, when they refuse the offered emblems. But let them once for all remember, that if they reject the appointed figures of the Saviour; to be consistent, they should also reject Christ himself, and abjure the Christian profession.
4. The abuse of the Sabbath is another evil which spreads a damp upon religion, and chills the life of piety. Many find a pretext for disregarding the Lord's Day, in declaiming against Sunday-religion, We have generally remarked, that those who made it their duty to have no more religion on Sabbath than on any other day, seldom had at much any time. For, in truth, although a christain is a christian at all times, and always carries his religion about with him, yet there are certain periods allotted for the more particular exercise of the christian duties when the soul enjoys special communion with God, and draws near to him in holy acts. It has never yet happened that the neglect of the Lord's day and a prosperous state of religion existed together, at one and the same time; but it has uniformly happened that where coldness and indifference stretched out their deadly shade over the withering interests of piety, the Lord's day has been disregarded and the opportunities of this holy season misapplied. But, brethren, if any of you have known a prosperous state of religion to exist where the duties and exercises of this sacred day were lightly esteemed, we would willingly hear where and when it was. Was it in those happy Apostolic days when the church numbered its accessions by thousands? Was it at Troas, where Paul remained until the first day of the week to meet and join the disciples in breaking bread? Was it in those times when the churches had rest from persecution, and walking in the comfort of the scriptures were replenished with graces and numbers? Was it in any of those societies where Paul planted the seeds of the gospel and where Apollos watered, and where God gave the increase? Was it in Macedonia whence issued the importunate cry, come over and help us? No, it was at neither of these times and places, because these were occasions of zeal, labor and diligence.
5. The slender and incompetent support given to the ministers of religion is not the least obstacle to its happy progress. And here, dear brethren, we will not confine ourselves to general remarks; for we may safely leave other denominations of Christians to make their own arrangements on this subject; but we will address all who feel, or ought to fuel, for the healthful state, of religion among. Baptists. We are aware that in naming this matter we tread upon slippery ground, and may put in jeopardy what little influence we possess; that many of you have nice scruples on this subject, and have probably made up your mind long since. But all this shall not deter us from tell you the truth. All this shall not stop our mouths which must speak for God. We have told you once and again, and now tell you even weeping, that you could not adopt a more ready way to stifle the spirit of godliness in your hearts, in your families, and in your churches, than by withholding needful support from those who minister in holy things. Is every other kind of service which you receive thought to be worth something, the ministry only excepted? Shall every debt be paid, that only excepted which you owe to God, and his sanctuary? Shall the servant of Christ come to you month after month, and year after year, leaving his wife and children with a scanty subsistence at home, encountering fatigue, loss of rest and painful privations, to deliver his message to you, and after all scarcely receive enough from you to clothe himself decently? Brethren, you cannot bring a solid objection to the doing of that which God commands you to do, the message which the preacher deliversto you contains his warrant for demanding support, not as charity, but as a just and undeniable right.
6. Finally, we advert to the indulgence of a worldly spirit as a most dangerous and prevalent cause of decline in religion. We know of nothing by which Christians are sooner corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ than the spirit of the world. It is an enemy so insidious that its approaches are seldom perceived, until it has taken possession of the soul. There it operates with an influence destructive to prayer, to charity, to brotherly kindness, to liberal sacrifices and generous feelings. There it remains hardening the heart against all the calls of duty and the labors of love, producing much care and anxiety about temporal things, and a dreadful indifference to things eternal.
Secondly. We proceed to consider some of the means of revival. And here, we must observe, that one of the most direct methods is to obviate the causes of decline and take the obstructions out of the way. We are anxious that what we say on this part of our subject should be practical and impressive, for we are not addressing for form's sake, but from a deep sense of the duty which we owe you.
1. Then brethren, if you would see the revival of religion among your churches, learn to make some temporal sacrifices. You, who cannot give up a small portion of your earthly things for the honor and support of your religion, would surely not consent to part with all you have for such an object. Yet the genuine sons of faith "took joyfully the spoiling of their goods," rather than dishonor their religion. Would you who cannot give your money at the command of Christ, be willing to give your lives for him? But we entreat you to listen for a moment to our most affectionate counsel. As it may happen that few individual churches consider themselves able to employ a minister the whole of his time, let two or three churches who live in visiting distance of each other, appoint some of their more intelligent members to meet in consultation on the best method of obtaining a supply for their common necessities. Let these brethren form a committee to represent the two or three churches in question. This committee will proceed to ascertain what minister will probably answer the joint wishes of the churches, and having fixed upon one, let them next proceed to ascertain from such minister, whether he will serve them, and what amount will be necessary for the support of himself and family, so that his whole time may be given to the calls of duty in the churches which he may undertake to attend. After this information is obtained, let the same committee return to their churches, make a report, and begin at once to inquire whether the joint efforts of the two or three churches can make up a sufficient sum for their intended minister. Should it be found that they can support him, then let him undertake the important duty, visiting and preaching daily. He should not only preach on Sabbaths, but he should be often at the houses of his brethren, praying with their families, expounding the scriptures to them, exhorting and admonishing the younger members of the families, inquiring the manner in which they spend their Sabbaths, and entreating them with affectionate tenderness to embrace the morning of life for the service of God. Let this course of duty on his part, be not merely occasional, but fixed and stated, so that he would be known and loved wherever he went, and a much readier support would be afforded him.
2. Let ministers who may be thus situated give public notice in their congregations that they will attend an hour or two before the usual time of preaching in order to meet in the house of God all those who feel anxious about their salvation, to make special prayers to God for them, and to vary their prayers to suit all the cases of those who may be bowing together before the throne or grace. These prayers may be accompanied with tender addresses and affectionate admonitions, whilst the great principles of the Christian faith should not be overlooked. Such a course would be attended with the happiest effects. The Pastor would then at once meet the praying and inquiring members of his congregation. He would come to them in the warmth of devotion and in the gracious flowings of charity. He would find them melted by the love of Christ, and that his words would obtain a ready access to their hearts. We entreat you to begin at once this momentous exercise and reduce our advice to practice.
3. Give a diligent attendance upon all the means of grace. When we speak of the means of grace, we address ourselves to your faith, not to any human system whose influence has probably wrested the scriptures themselves, and warped your own minds. The very ideas of means and grace may seem contradictory and inconsistent, but as we do not undertake to reconcile varying appearances we shall only find it necessary to point to the facts on which this doctrine relies for support. The command of God makes faith the duty of all who hear the word, and yet the Apostle distinctly affirms that it is a gift. "Unto you, it is given on behalf of Christ, not only to believe on his name, but also to suffer for him." Faith and patience are both here represented as gifts or graces, and it would be a needless waste of time to adduce passages to shew that each of these is repeatedly commanded as a duty. Repentance was commanded as one of the primary doctrines of our Lord's precursor, and in a variety of forms was enjoined by our Saviour himself and his apostles; but it is unequivocally declared in the lively oracles, "Him hath God exalted with his right hand, to be a prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins." The same might be demonstrated, either by direct proof or clear inference, of many other graces of the divine spirit. The attainment of heaven, that stupendous gratuity which can only be measured by the boundless duration of eternity, is to be the object of our persevering labors and solicitudes. "Labor not for the meat that perishes, but for that which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of Man shall give unto you." If we be required to explain the mystery of employing active exertions for the attainment of that good which after all must come from the bounty of Heaven, we must have the candor to acknowledge our incapacity to afford any satisfactory solution of this difficulty Attempts have been made to elucidate the case, and to reconcile the apparent opposition betwixt the ideas of duty and grace; but the subject remains in the same state of unexplored sublimity,and there must continue, not for the excitement of busy curiosity, but to challenge our faith and command our reverence. Science and philosophy have their ultimate laws, beyond which definition fails, and reason casts a gloom: and why should not religion also have its ultimate laws upon which faith may rest with a confidence which shall not fluctuate, and where hope may wait with eagle eye to seize the first dawnings of immortality.*
Before concluding this address we advert again to the duty of supporting ministers as an important and necessary means of grace, in order that we may lay before you the scripture proofs on this subject. Our first proof is from 1 Corinthians 9:7-15."Who goeth a wayfare at any time at his own charges? Who planteth a vineyard and eateth not of the fruit thereof? Or who feedeth a flock and eateth not of the milk of the flock? Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth the corn. Do ye not know, that they who minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they who wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? Even so hath the Lord ordained that they who preach the gospel should live of the gospel."We know indeed it is objected that even Paul himself is an exception to this rule. But this very exception proves the existence of the rule. How strange then is the perversion which makes the exception a rule, and the rule an exception? But even Paul is not always an exception. In Corinth, where he preached the gospel freely, he says, "I have robbed other churches, taking wages of them to do you service. And when I was present with you and wanted I was chargeable to no man; for that which was lacking to me, the brethren who came from Macedonia supplied." To the Philippians he makes the following beautiful acknowledgement. "In Thessalonica, ye Philippians sent once and again to my necessity. Not because I desire a gift, but I desire fruit that may abound on your account. But I have all and abound; I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God." From the above passages it is evident that even Paul was not backward in asserting the right of a minister to support, in direct application to himself.
"In the United States," says an English divine, "we are told a minister cannot bring an action to recover his salary; since their law determines, that it is a Pastor's business to teach his charge to be honest, and if he had done his duty there would be no occasion to bring his suit. If you value your own character and that of your minister, give him your generous support."
Finally. If you would see religion revive in your churches, seek good Pastors, support them well and obtain all their time for God; place them above necessity, do not be afraid of making them proud by making them easy, because riches will be as great a snare to you as it is to them; be found much in prayer, much in faith, much in charity and all in Christ.
JESSE MERCER, Moderator.
JABEZ P. MARSHALL, Clerk.
* See Baptist Magazine for September 1822.
[From Jesse Mercer, A History of the Georgia Baptist Association, Washington, GA., 1838. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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