[Preached at a Ministers' Meeting, held at Clipstone, April 27, 1791.]
WHEN the children of Judah were delivered from their captivity, and allowed, by the proclamation of Cyrus, to return to their own land, one of the principal things which attracted their attention was the rebuilding of the house of God, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians. This was a work which Cyrus himself enjoined, and upon which the hearts of the people were fixed. It was not, however, to be accomplished at once; and as the worship of God was a matter of immediate and indispensable concern, they set up an altar, on which to offer sacrifices and offerings, till such time as the temple should be built. In the second year after their return, the foundation of the Lord's house was laid; but opposition being made to it, by the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin, the work ceased all the days of Cyrus, until the reign of Darius, commonly distinguished by the name of Darius Hystaspes. During this period, which seems to have been about fourteen years, the people sunk into a spirit of indifference. At first they desisted from necessity; but afterwards, their attention being turned to the building and ornamenting of houses for themselves, they seemed very well contented that the house of the Lord should he waste. For this their temper and conduct the land was smitten with barrenness; so that both the vintage and the harvest failed them. God also raised up Haggai and Zechariah to go and remonstrate against their supineness; and the efforts of these two prophets were the means of stirring up the people to resume the work.
The argument which the people used against building the house of God was that the time was not come. It is possible they waited for a counter-order from the Persian court; if so, they might have waited long enough. A work of that nature ought to have been prosecuted of their own accord; at least they should have tried. It did not follow, because they were hindered once, that therefore they should never succeed. Or perhaps they meant to plead their present weakness and poverty. Something like this seems to be implied in the 4th verse, where they are reminded that they had strength enough to build and ornament houses for themselves. It looks as if they wished to build, and lay by fortunes for themselves and their families, and then, at some future time, they might contribute for the building of the house of God.
There is something of this procrastinating spirit that runs through a great part of our life, and is of great detriment to us in the work of God. We know of many things that should be done, and cannot in conscience directly oppose them; but still we find excuses for our inactivity. While we admit that many things should be done which are not done, we are apt to quiet ourselves with the thought that they need not be done just now: "The time is not come, the time that the Lord's house should be built."
In discoursing to you upon the subject, brethren, I shall take notice of a few of the most remarkable cases in which this spirit is discovered; and then endeavour to show its evil nature and dangerous tendency.
I. IN RESPECT TO THE CASES, OR INSTANCES, IN WHICH IT IS DISCOVERED. A small degree of observation on mankind, and of reflection upon the workings
of our own hearts, will furnish us with many of these; and convince us of its great influence on every description of men, in almost all their religious concerns.
1. It is by this plea that a great part of mankind are constantly deceiving themselves in respect to a serious attention to the concerns of their souls. These are, doubtless, of the last importance; and there are times in which most men not only acknowledge this truth, but, in some sort, feel the force of it. This is the case, especially, with those who have had a religious education, and have been used to attend upon the preaching of the gospel. They hear from the pulpit that men must be born again, must be converted, and become as little children, or never enter into the kingdom of God. Or the same things are impressed upon them by some threatening affliction or alarming providence. They feel themselves at those times very unhappy; and it is not unusual for them to resolve upon a sacrifice of their former sins, and a serious and close attention in future to the affairs of their souls. They think, while under these impressions, they will consider their ways, they will enter their closets, and shut to the door, and pray to the Lord that he would have mercy upon them; but, alas! no sooner do they retire from the house of God, or recover from their affliction, than the impression begins to subside, and then matters of this sort become less welcome to the mind. They must not be utterly rejected; but are let alone for the present. As conscience becomes less alarmed, and danger is viewed at a greater distance, the sinner, by degrees, recovers himself from his fright, and dismisses his religious concern, in some such manner as Felix did his reprover, "Go thy way for this time, when I have a convenient season I will call for thee."
It is thus with the ardent youth; in the hour of serious reflection, he feels that religion is of importance; but his heart, still averse from what his conscience recommends, rises against the thought of sacrificing the prime of life to the gloomy duties of prayer and self-denial. He does not resolve never to attend to these things; but the time does not seem to be come. He hopes that the Almighty will excuse him a few years, at least, and impute his excesses to youthful folly and imbecility. It is thus with the man of business; there are times in which he is obliged to retire from the hurry of life; and, at those times, thoughts of another life may arrest his attention. Conscience at those intervals may smite him for his living without prayer, without reflection, without God in all his thoughts; and what is his remedy? Does he lament his sin, and implore mercy through our Lord Jesus Christ? No, nor so much as promise to forsake it immediately; but this he promises, that when this busy time is over, and that favourite point is gained, and those intricate affairs are terminated, then it shall be otherwise. It is thus with persons in single life: they will be better when they got settled in the world. It is thus with the encumbered parent: she looks forward to the time when her family shall get off her hands. It is thus with the drunkard and the debauchee: wearied in their own way, they intend to lead a new life as soon as they can but shake off their old connexions, In short, it is thus with great numbers in all our towns, and villages, and congregations: they put off the great concern to another time, and think they may venture at least a little longer, till all is over with them, and a dying hour just awakens them, like the virgins in the parable, to bitter reflection on their own fatal folly.
2. This plea not only affects the unconverted, but prevents us all from undertaking any great or good work for the cause of Christ, or the good of mankind. We see many things that should be done; but there are difficulties in the way, and we wait for the removal of these difficulties. We are
very apt to indulge a kind of prudent caution, (as we call it,) which foresees and magnifies difficulties beyond what they really are. It is granted there may be such things in the way of an undertaking as may render it impracticable; and, in that case, it is our duty for the present to stand still; but it becomes us to beware lest we account that impracticable which only requires such a degree of exertion as we are not inclined to give it. Perhaps the work requires expense; and Covetousness says, Wait a little longer, till I have gained so and so in trade, till I have rendered my circumstances respectable, and settled my children comfortably in the world. But is not this like ceiling our own houses, while the house of God lies waste? Perhaps it requires concurrence; and we wait for every body to be of a mind, which is never to be expected. He who through a dread of opposition and reproach desists from known duty is in danger of being found among the "fearful, the unbelieving, and the abominable."
Had Luther and his contemporaries acted upon this principle, they had never gone about the glorious work of the Reformation. When he saw the abominations of popery, he might have said, These things ought not to be; but what can I do? If the chief priests and rulers in different nations would but unite, something might be effected; but what can I do, an individual, and a poor man? I may render myself an object of persecution, or, which is worse, of universal contempt; and what good end will be answered by it? Had Luther reasoned thus -- had he fancied that, because princes and prelates were not the first to engage in the good work, therefore the time was not come to build the house of the Lord -- the house of the Lord, for any thing he had done, might have lain waste to this day.
Instead of waiting for the removal of difficulties, we ought, in many cases, to consider them as purposely laid in our way, in order to try the sincerity of our religion. He who had all power in heaven and earth could not only have sent forth his apostles into all the world, but have so ordered it that all the world should treat them with kindness, and aid them in their mission; but, instead of that, he told them to lay their accounts with persecution and the loss of all things. This was no doubt to try their sincerity; and the difficulties laid in our way are equally designed to try ours.
Let it be considered whether it is not owing to this principle that so few and so feeble efforts have been made for the propagation of the gospel in the world. When the Lord Jesus commissioned his apostles, he commanded them to go and teach "all nations," to preach the gospel to "every creature;" and that notwithstanding the difficulties and oppositions that would he in the way. The apostles executed their commission with assiduity and fidelity; but, since their days, we seem to sit down half contented that the greater part of the world should still remain in ignorance and idolatry. Some noble efforts have indeed been made; but they are small in number, when compared with the magnitude of the object. And why is it so? Are the souls of men of less value than heretofore? No. Is Christianity less true or less important than in former ages? This will not be pretended. Are there no opportunities for societies, or individuals, in Christian nations, to convey the gospel to the heathens? This cannot be pleaded so long as opportunities are found to trade with them, yea, and (what is a disgrace to the name of Christians) to buy them, and sell them, and treat them with worse than savage barbarity! We have opportunities in abundance: the improvement of navigation, and the maritime and commercial turn of this country, furnish us with these; and it deserves to be considered whether this is not a circumstance that renders it a duty peculiarly binding on us.
The truth is, if I am not mistaken, we wait for we know not what; we seem to think "the time is not come, the time for the Spirit to be poured
down from on high." We pray for the conversion and salvation of the world, and yet neglect the ordinary means by which those ends have been used to be accomplished. It pleased God, heretofore, by the foolishness of preaching, to save them that believed; and there is reason to think it will still please God to work by that distinguished means. Ought we not then at least to try by some means to convey more of the good news of salvation to the world around us than has hitherto been conveyed? The encouragement to the heathen is still in force, "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved: but how shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach except they be sent?"
Let it be further considered whether it is not owing to this principle that so few and so feeble efforts are made for the propagation of the gospel in places within our reach. There are many dark places in our own land - places where priests and people, it is to be feared, are alike destitute of true religion, "all looking to their own way, every one for his gain from his quarter." Were every friend of Jesus Christ to avail himself of that liberty which the laws of his country allow him, and embrace every opportunity for the dissemination of evangelical principles, what effects might we hope to see! Were every true minister of the gospel to make a point of preaching as often as possible in the villages within his reach; and did those private Christians who are situated in such villages open their doors for preaching, and recommend the gospel by a holy and affectionate behaviour, might we not hope to see the wilderness become as a fruitful field? Surely, in these matters, we are too negligent. And when we do preach to the unconverted, we do not feel as if we were to do any good. We are as if we knew not how to get at the hearts and consciences of people. We cast the net, without so much as expecting a draught. We are as those who cannot find their hands in the day of battle, who go forth not like men accustomed to conquest, but rather like those inured to defeat. Whence arises all this? Is it not owing, at least a considerable degree of it, to a notion we have that the time is not come for any thing considerable to be effected?
3. It is this plea that keeps many from a public profession of religion by a practical acknowledgment of Christ. Christ requires of his followers that they confess his name before men; that they be baptized, and commemorate his dying love in the ordinance of the supper. Yet there are many who consider themselves as Christians, and are considered so by others, who still live in the neglect of these ordinances. I speak not now of those who consider themselves as having been baptized in their infancy, but of such as admit the immersion of believers to be the only true baptism, and yet do not practise it, nor hold communion with any particular church of Christ. It is painful to think there should be a description of professed Christians who live in the neglect of Christ's commands. What can be the motives of such neglect? Probably they are various: there is one, however, that must have fallen under your observation; that is, the want of some powerful impression upon the mind, impelling them, as it were, to a compliance. Many persons wait for something of this sort; and because they go from year to year without it, conclude that the time is not come; or that it is not the mind of God that they should comply with those ordinances; at least, that they should comply with them at present. Impressions, it is allowed, are desirable, provided it be truth or duty that is impressed; otherwise they deserve no regard: but be they as desirable as they may, the want of them can never justify our living in the neglect of known duty. Nor are they at all adapted to show us what is duty, but merely to excite to the performance of that
which may be proved to be duty without them. We might as well wait for impressions, and conclude, from the want of them, that the time is not come for the performance of other duties as those of baptism and the Lord's supper.
Some are kept from a public profession of Christ's name by mere mercenary motives. They have relations and friends that would be offended. The fear of being disinherited, or injured, in some sort, as to worldly circumstances, has made many a person keep his principles to himself, till such time as the party whose displeasure he fears shall be removed out of the way. This is wicked; as it amounts to a denial of Christ before men, and will, no doubt, expose the party, if he die without repentance for it, to be denied by Christ before his Father at the last day. "Lord," said one, "I will follow thee, but let me first go and bury my father" -- "Let me first go and bid them farewell who are at home," says another: "Jesus answered, Let the dead. bury their dead, follow thou me." "No man having put his band to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."
4. It is this plea that keeps us from a thorough self-examination and self-denial. The importance of being right in the sight of God, and our liability to err, even in the greatest of all concerns, render a close and frequent inquiry into our spiritual state absolutely necessary. It is a dangerous, as well as an uncomfortable life, to be always in suspense; not knowing what nor where we are, nor whither we are going. There are seasons, too, in which we feel the importance of such an inquiry, and think we will go about it, we will search and try our ways, and turn from our sins, and walk more closely with God. Such thoughts will occur when we hear matters urged home upon us from the pulpit, or when some affecting event draws off our attention from the present world, and causes us to reflect upon ourselves for our inordinate anxiety after it. We think of living otherwise than we have done; but when we come to put our thoughts into execution, we find a number of difficulties in the way, which too often deter us, at least for the present. -- Here is an undertaking that must first be accomplished, before I can have time; here is also a troublesome affair that I must get through, before I can be composed; and then here are such temptations that I know not how to get over just now: if I wait a little longer, perhaps they may be removed. -- Alas! alas! thus we befool ourselves; thus we defer it to another time, till the impressions on our minds are effaced, and then we are less able to attend to those things than we were at first. As one who puts off the examination of his accounts, and the retrenchment of his expenses, till, all on a sudden, he is involved in a bankruptcy; so do multitudes, in the religious world, neglect a close inspection into the concerns of their souls, till, at length, either a departure from some of the great principles of the gospel, or some foul and open fall, is the consequence.
5. It is this principle that keeps us from preparedness for death, and thus being ready when our Lord shall come. There is nothing that Christ has more forcibly enjoined than this duty: "Be ye also ready, for at such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh." -- "What I say unto you I say unto all, Watch." Why do the not immediately feel the force of these charges, and betake ourselves to habitual watchfulness, and prayer, and self-denial, and walking with God? Why are we not as men who wait for the coming of their Lord? Is it not from a secret thought that the time is not come? We know we must die, but we consider it as something at a distance; and thus, imagining that our Lord delayeth his coming, we delay to prepare to meet him, so that when he cometh he findeth us in confusion. Instead of our loins being girt, and our lights burning, we are engaged in a number of plans and pursuits, to the neglect of those things which, notwithstanding
the necessary avocations of life, ought always to engross our supreme attention.
Let us next proceed to consider,
II. THE EVIL NATURE AND DANGEROUS TENDENCY OF THIS PROCRASTINATING TEMPER.
I need not say much to prove to you that it is a sin. The conscience of every one of you will assist me in that part of the work. It is proper, however, in order that you may feel it the more forcibly, that you should consider wherein its evil nature consists.
l. It is contrary to the tenor of all God's commandments. All through the Scriptures we are required to attend to Divine things immediately, and without delay. "Work while it is called to-day; the night cometh when no man can work." -- "To-day, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts." -- "While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light." -- "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest."
God not only requires us, in general, to do what we do quickly, but calls us to serve him particularly under those temptations or afflictions which we find placed in our way. The terms of discipleship are, "Deny thyself; take up thy cross, and follow me." He does not call upon us to follow him barely when there are no troubles nor difficulties to encounter, nor allow us, when those difficulties occur, to wait a fairer opportunity; but to take our cross, as it were, upon our shoulders, and so follow him. It would be of use for us to consider every situation as a post in which God has placed us, and in which he calls upon us to serve and glorify him. If we are poor, we are required to glorify God by contentment; if afflicted, by patience; if bereaved, by submission; if persecuted, by firmness; if injured, by forgiveness; or if tempted, by denying ourselves for his sake. Nor can these duties be performed at other times; to put them off, therefore, to another opportunity, is the same thing, in effect, as refusing to comply with them at all.
2. To put off things to another time implies a lurking dislike to the things themselves. We do not ordinarily do so, except in things wherein we have no delight. Whatever our hearts are set upon, we are for losing no time till it is accomplished. If the people of Judah had "had a mind to work," as is said of them on another occasion, they would not have pleaded that the time was not come. Sinful delay, therefore, arises from alienation of heart from God; than which nothing can be more offensive in his sight.
But, further, it is not only a sin, but a sin of dangerous tendency. This is manifest by the effects it produces. Precious time is thereby murdered, and valuable opportunities lost, and lost beyond recall!
That there are opportunities possessed, both by saints and sinners, is plain from the Scriptures. The former might do abundantly more for God than they do, and might enjoy much more of God and heaven than they actually enjoy; and no doubt it would be so, were it not for that idle, delaying temper, of which we have spoken. Like the Israelites, we are slothful to go up to possess the good land. Many are the opportunities, both of doing and enjoying good, that have already passed by. Oh what Christians might the have been before now, had we but availed ourselves of all those advantages which the gospel dispensation and the free exercise of our religion afford us!
Sinners also, as long as life lasts, have opportunity of escaping from the wrath to come. Hence they are exhorted to "seek the Lord while he may be found," and to "call upon him while he is near." Hence, also, there is
a "door" represented as being, at present, "open;" which "the master of the house will," one day, "rise up and shut." The "fountain" is described as being, at present, "open for sin and for uncleanness;" but there is a period approaching when it shall be said, "He that is filthy, let him be filthy still!" It seems scarcely in the power of language to express the danger of delay in terms more forcible and impressive than those which are used in the above passages. Nor is there any thing in the idea that clashes with the Scripture doctrine of decrees. All allow that men have opportunity, in natural things, to do what they do not, and to obtain what they obtain not; and if this can be made to consist with a universal providence, which "performeth the things that are appointed for us," why should not the other be allowed to consist with the purposes of Him who does nothing without a plan, but "worketh all things after the counsel of his own will?" A price is in the hands of those who have no heart to get wisdom.
O thoughtless sinner! trifle no longer with the murder of time, so short and uncertain in its duration; the morning of your existence; the mould in which you receive an impression for eternity; the only period in which the Son of man has power to forgive sins! Should the remaining part of your life pass away in the same careless manner as that has which has already elapsed, what bitter reflection must needs follow! How cutting it must be to look back on all the means of salvation as gone for ever; the harvest past, the summer ended, and you not saved!
Suppose a company, at the time of low water, should take an excursion upon the sands near the seashore: suppose yourself of the company: suppose that, on a presumption of the tide's not returning at present, you should all fall asleep: suppose all the company, except yourself, to awake out of their sleep, and, finding their danger, endeavour to awake you, and to persuade you to flee with them for your life; but you, like the sluggard, are for "a little more sleep, and a little more slumber:" the consequence is, your companions escape, but you are left behind to perish in the waters, which, regardless of all your cries, rise and overwhelm you! What a situation would this be! How would you curse that love of sleep that made you refuse to be awaked -- that delaying temper that wanted to indulge a little longer! But what is this situation compared with that of a lost soul? There will come a period when the bottom of the ocean would be deemed a refuge; when, to be crushed under falling rocks and mountains, instead of being viewed with terror as heretofore, will be earnestly desired! Yes, desired, but desired in vain! The sinner who has "neglected the great salvation" will not be able to "escape," nor hide himself "from the face of him that sitteth upon the throne," nor from "the wrath of the Lamb!"
My dear hearers! consider your condition without delay. God says to you, To-day, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts. To-day may be the only day you have to live. Go home, enter the closet, and shut to the door; confess your sins; implore mercy through our Lord Jesus Christ; "Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him!"
[From Joseph Belcher, The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, Volume I, 1845; rpt. 1988, pp. 145-151. Document provided by David Oldfield, Post Falls, ID. Formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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