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BY REV. EDWARD STRONG,
NEW HAVEN, CT.
"My people are bent to backsliding from me."-HOSEA xi. 7.
How often, in the Scriptures, is this allegation brought against the people of God! In how varied forms, and under how varied imagery! Surely, we exclaim, the standard of Christian duty is elevated indeed; and its divine author, of purer eyes, than to behold iniquity or look upon sin but with abhorrence. And so it is. The standard of Christian duty is not what many suppose. Nor is God what many suppose. He is not so indifferent to the maintenance of his law; not so indifferent to seemingly trivial departures from it; not so content to overlook backsliding.
There is always, in these allegations, an indication of deep emotion. It is apparent that the infinite heart of God is wounded by the serpent-tooth of his children's ingratitude--is offended by their fickleness and treachery, and is altogether in earnest when charging their guilt upon them. This is enough to impart a solemn interest to our meditation upon the charge contained in the text.
How singular the moral condition of a believer bent on backsliding. It is not a mere vacillation between God and mammon, holiness and sin, but a steady leaning, an earnest leaning toward the latter. It is the very disposition with which Israel, in the transit from Egypt to Canaan, turned back, in their hearts, to the land of their bondage. It is the disposition with which they preferred the leeks and onions of slavery, to the self-denials that were necessary in crossing the wilderness to the promised land-with which they made their molten calf, went after Baal, sacrificed to Moloch, and variously forsook God their Saviour. Its perverseness is but too apparent.
I. We will inquire who among us must plead guilty to the charge that they are bent on backsliding?
II. Contemplate their guilt.
III. Survey the consequences which timely repentance can alone
I. In the first place, by what marks may we identify those among us who may justly be considered as bent on backsliding?
1. The first mark is a neglect of secret and family prayer. I place these kinds of prayer together, because the neglect of one ordinarily follows neglect of the other. So fidelity in the one will ordinarily follow fidelity in the other. Neglect of prayer is, for the most part, at the beginning, middle and end of backsliding. It pervades the whole career of departure from God. The Christian never returns to God, nor God to him, till this neglect ceases. Ordinarily the closet is the first meeting place of the estranged parties. Visits of love and mercy, indwellings of the Holy Spirit are only vouchsafed to those whose earnest petitions indicate their appreciation of the value of these gifts.
Wherever, in the Church, you find an individual regarding his closet with disrelish, restraining prayer, often omitting it altogether, at other times content with a mere hurried performance of the externals of devotion, finding his thoughts even in the sacred place where "none but God is near," roving off to his employment-accustomed to resort thither, not from inward longing for communion with God, not from a conviction of moral weakness, and need of grace, but only to silence the demands of duty-happier to come forth than to enter there; happier, not because of an approving conscience and smiling Saviour, but because a task is over, and he may plunge again untrammeled into his wonted worldliness. Wherever you find an individual like this, you find one bent on backsliding; I might add, one who has already glided away to no inconsiderable distance from God. The eye of the Saviour looks deeper than our own, and that eye beholds the earnest bent of his mind. It sees his groveling disposition, his prayer-neglecting habit, and thus discerns one mark, and that a deep one, of his apostasy.
2. Another mark is habitual neglect of the Bible. Whoever walks closely with God takes delight in his word. He reads it often. He meditates upon it. He can say with the Psalmist, from his own blessed experience, "thy word is sweet to my taste." He is attracted to it as a medium of communion with God. He loves it because it contains those precious promises, which are like rivers of consolation and hope. He loves it for its purity. He loves it for those precepts, in obedience to which he finds a rich reward. Not so he who is bent on backsliding. He delights not in the Scriptures. He reads them accordingly, if at all, rather from a conviction of duty, than a felt satisfaction in thus communing with God. His soul is never bathed in them as in a pure fountain. He never fairly imbibes their celestial spirit, and so never derives from them a quickening power.
Fellow Christian! Is it so with you? Are you neglectful not only of private and domestic prayer, but also of the sacred word? Is it but seldom that you commune with its pages?
Then we may bring our appeal to your own consciousness. You can but confess that your affections do not centre as they should upon God. They are not identified as they should be with the Saviour's cause.
3. Backwardness or reluctance in efforts to do good, is another indication that a professing Christian is bent on backsliding. Have you then no deep impulse within, urging you to a degree of activity in religion, corresponding to what you exhibit in matters of worldly concern? Does a civil, political, or pecuniary enterprise, awaken an energy and zeal which you never evince for the Saviour's cause? If so, what does it indicate? If you are found rolling onward these enterprises, sympathising, speaking, acting, making your influence tell variously in their promotion, and yet when religion is the theme, and the Redeemer's glory the motive, you are mute, inactive, indifferent, what can be the only rational inference? I speak of any enterprise in which you feel a deep interest, one on which your heart is fixed, and I say that just as a reluctance to promote that enterprise, would argue little interest in it; so reluctance to promote religion by doing good, argues that you feel little interest in religion. If you never attempt to exert a positive influence for the Saviour, urging fellow Christians forward in duty, yourself leading the way, and inviting sinners to the place of worship, and to the Cross; if you do not this, even with the members of your own domestic circle, certainly you give evidence, both to God and man, either that you are not a Christian, or else are bent on backsliding.
4. Another mark by which to identify the class in question, is the undervaluing of religious ordinances. Lightly to esteem the house of God, its praises, prayers, instructions, hallowed associations, indicates a backsliding heart. If, for example, you lightly esteem the sacraments of baptism, and the Lord's Supper, deferring long the dedication of your children to God, approaching but seldom, or heartlessly, to take the sacred symbols of a crucified Saviour-if you enter the house of God, taking your place among his worshippers, you scarcely know why, unless it be from the influence of education, habit, and desire for the respect of Christian people. If you regard more forms and ceremonies, the pomp and parade of religion than its power-the shadow more than the substance-what inference can be drawn from this, except that either you are not a Christian or have become a backslider?
One who hungers and thirsts after righteousness cannot do thus cannot feel thus. The hungry will not regard the shadow of food. They want the substance. The thirsty will not regard the bubbling of the stream. They must have the water. So will not a Christian, whose heart is true to the Saviour, fixed upon him, be content with the forms of religion. He must feel its power. He must actually taste its sweetness.
Other marks of a backsliding believer there are. But we can only name them. They are, however, not unworthy of your serious regard. Censoriousness is one. It grows out of a want of Christian charity, and a felt personal imperfection. High regard for gayety and fashion is another. Preference of vain amusements to those whose entire innocence no one will question, and of frivolous company to the society of the spiritually-minded, indicates also, in a Christian professor, a heart bent to backsliding from God.
II. Secondly, we are to consider the guilt which this moral condition involves. If the marks already adverted to, belong to any in this assembly, I beg them seriously to ponder what remains to be said; especially now the ever accumulating guilt of occupying so strange a position relative to God and religion.
1. Consider, in the first place, that every such professor is acting the part of a hypocrite. We do not charge him with the guilt of wilful hypocrisy, but with that of practical hypocrisy. It is a charge, Christian brethren, which I grieve to make. however, is of less consequence than the question against whom among us it may fairly lie. Against whom do God and an accusing conscience bear witness? Is it I myself? God forbid that I should wholly acquit myself while criminating-if so it proveany of you.
Yet in all plainness, I must insist, that they who recognize in themselves the foregoing marks of backsliding, are acting a part of the hypocrite. What are those high professions made, hearer, before angels and men? If your life accord not with them,-if you endeavor not earnestly and always to be what you profess to be, and to do what you profess to do, the charge of hypocrisy must lie against you; the guilt of hypocrisy is at your door, nay, is actually upon your soul. So long as your disposition and manner of life are irreconcilable with the tenor of your religious vows, you are not what you profess; you are not what you would have others consider you; you have one kind of religion on your lips, and another in your heart. There are indeed vows of allegiance to God-protestations of friendship and discipleship to Christ, but nothing correspondent to these vows and protestations appears in your life. That life retracts them. It is eloquent of loyalty and love, not to the Saviour, but to the world. What shall this be termed if not hypocrisy? And if it be hypocrisy its guilt is enough apparent.
2. Again, the guilt of those who are obnoxious to the allegation of the text appears in this, that their influence goes to depress the standard of piety which the Saviour has fixed, to adulterate that system of truth and duty which he has given as the hope of the world. Christianity is a holy religion. Its aim is to bind the heart of man, by the magnetic energy of love, to Heaven. Its aim is to elevate thither all his aspirations. Its standard of duty
is high and sacred. Nor does it challenge the heart alone. For it aims to harmonize the external and the internal in man-to exhibit, both to celestial beings and to the world, the attractive beauty of a holy heart and a holy life; in other words, of renewed affections carried out in the Christian's life.
Now what we charge upon every Christian professor whose heart is bent to backsliding, is the guilt of adulterating this holy religion, and depressing, so far as his influence goes, its divine standard of duty. Born of heaven, Christianity comes to earth with heaven's own purity. It comes freighted with heaven's own fruition. What is it then we are doing when we put a base alloy into the gold of heaven? Intermingling principles of selfishness with those of a heaven-born beneficence? Better, far better, reject Christianity; better refuse its grace, than having embraced, to depress its standard of holiness. In the former case the rejector alone will perish; in the latter he may occasion the perdition of many.
The Creator loves indeed each individual soul, but he loves Christianity better, because it is a glorious scheme of salvation for myriads. What sentiments then must He cherish toward those who thus corrupt this fountain of health and life, destroying its beauty, and its adaptation to save?
Of course no Christian could intend to perpetrate so audacious a crime. The intention to work such mischief is not charged upon any one. But yet all this mischief is involved in the course pursued by every backslider. The life of a Christian must and will be taken as an exponent of what Christianity is—an interpreter of its divine principles and precepts. Often indeed do they prove false expounders of their boasted religion; but this will not prevent their expositions from being received. It will not prevent men of the world from imbibing thence their impressions of Christianity. Not at all. They may even know that these lives are little better than a libel on our holy religion, they will yet reason that if in outward deportment they fall not below the example of Christians, neither will they in respect to their destiny in the future life.
Yes, the backsliding Christian is an adulterator of Christianity. He does not give it to others, as the Bible does to him. He dishonors it. He brings it into disrepute. As far as his influence extends, at least for the time of his guilty wandering, he depresses it to the level of other systems of religion, tarnishing the glory of the Saviour by putting him into a catalogue of impostors. He adulterates the life-giving stream of mercy. Receiving it from God in its purity, and professing to exhibit to the world what it is, by his manner of life, he creates habitually a false impression. As he received Christ Jesus he does not walk in him. On the contrary, he begins soon to tamper with that which is forbidden, earnestly endeavoring to secure the coalescence in a monstrous union of Christianity and earthliness. Such is the