A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
By WILLIAM LAW, A.M.
CHAPTER IIIOf the great danger and folly, of not intending to be as eminent and exemplary as we can, in the practice of all Christian virtues.
ALTHOUGH the goodness of God, and His rich mercies in Christ Jesus, are a sufficient assurance to us, that He will be merciful to our unavoidable weakness and infirmities, that is, to such failings as are the effects of ignorance or surprise; yet we have no reason to expect the same mercy towards those sins which we have lived in, through a want of intention to avoid them.
For instance; the case of a common swearer, who dies in that guilt, seems to have no title to the Divine mercy; for this reason, because he can no more plead any weakness or infirmity in his excuse, than the man that hid his talent in the earth could plead his want of strength to keep it out of the earth.
But now, if this be right reasoning in the case of a common swearer, that his sin is not to be reckoned a pardonable frailty, because he has no weakness to plead in its excuse, why then do we not carry this way of reasoning to its true extent? why do not we as much condemn every other error of life, that has no more weakness to plead in its excuse than common swearing?
For if this be so bad a thing, because it might be avoided, if we did but sincerely intend it, must not then all other erroneous ways of life be very guilty, if we live in them, not through weakness and inability, but because we never sincerely intended to avoid them?
For instance; you perhaps have made no progress in the most important Christian virtues, you have scarce gone half way in humility and charity; now if your failure in these duties is purely owing to your want of intention of performing them in any true degree, have you not then as little to plead for yourself, and are you not as much without all excuse, as the common swearer?
Why, therefore, do you not press these things home upon your conscience? Why do you not think it as dangerous for you to live in such defects, as are in your power to amend, as it is dangerous for a common swearer to live in the breach of that duty, which it is in his power to observe? Is not negligence, and a want of sincere intention, as blameable in one case as in another?
You, it may be, are as far from Christian perfection, as the common swearer is from keeping the third commandment; are you not therefore as much condemned by the doctrines of the Gospel, as the swearer is by the third commandment?
You perhaps will say, that all people fall short of the perfection of the Gospel, and therefore you are content with your failings. But this is saying nothing to the purpose. For the question is not whether Gospel perfection can be fully attained, but whether you come as near it as a sincere intention and careful diligence can carry you. Whether you are not in a much lower state than you might be, if you sincerely intended, and carefully laboured, to advance yourself in all Christian virtues?
If you are as forward in the Christian life as your best endeavours can make you, then you may justly hope that your imperfections will not be laid to your charge: but if your defects in piety, humility, and charity, are owing to your negligence, and want of sincere intention to be as eminent as you can in these virtues, then you leave yourself as much without excuse as he that lives in the sin of swearing, through the want of a sincere intention to depart from it.
The salvation of our souls is set forth in Scripture as a thing of difficulty, that requires all our diligence, that is to be worked out with fear and trembling. [Phil. ii. 12]
We are told, that "strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." [Matt. vii. 14] That "many are called, but few are chosen." [Matt. xxii. 14] And that many will miss of their salvation, who seem to have taken some pains to obtain it: as in these words, "Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able." [Luke xiii. 24]
Here our blessed Lord commands us to strive to enter in, because many will fail, who only seek to enter. By which we are plainly taught, that religion is a state of labour and striving, and that many will fail of their salvation; not because they took no pains or care about it, but because they did not take pains and care enough; they only sought, but did not strive to enter in.
Every Christian, therefore, should as well examine his life by these doctrines as by the commandments. For these doctrines are as plain marks of our condition, as the commandments are plain marks of our duty.
For if salvation is only given to those who strive for it, then it is as reasonable for me to consider whether my course of life be a course of striving to obtain it, as to consider whether I am keeping any of the commandments.
If my religion is only a formal compliance with those modes of worship that are in fashion where I live; if it costs me no pains or trouble; if it lays me under no rules and restraints; if I have no careful thoughts and sober reflections about it, is it not great weakness to think that I am striving to enter in at the strait gate?
If I am seeking everything that can delight my senses, and regale my appetites; spending my time and fortune in pleasures, in diversions, and worldly enjoyments; a stranger to watchings, fastings, prayers, and mortification; how can it be said that I am working out my salvation with fear and trembling?
If there is nothing in my life and conversation that shows me to be different from Jews and Heathens; if I use the world, and worldly enjoyments, as the generality of people now do, and in all ages have done; why should I think that I am amongst those few who are walking in the narrow way to Heaven?
And yet if the way is narrow, if none can walk in it but those that strive, is it not as necessary for me to consider, whether the way I am in be narrow enough, or the labour I take be a sufficient striving, as to consider whether I sufficiently observe the second or third commandment?
The sum of this matter is this: From the abovementioned, and many other passages of Scripture, it seems plain, that our salvation depends upon the sincerity and perfection of our endeavours to obtain it.
Weak and imperfect men shall, notwithstanding their frailties and defects, be received, as having pleased God, if they have done their utmost to please Him.
The rewards of charity, piety, and humility, will be given to those, whose lives have been a careful labour to exercise these virtues in as high a degree as they could.
We cannot offer to God the service of Angels; we cannot obey Him as man in a state of perfection could; but fallen men can do their best, and this is the perfection that is required of us; it is only the perfection of our best endeavours, a careful labour to be as perfect as we can.
But if we stop short of this, for aught we know, we stop short of the mercy of God, and leave ourselves nothing to plead from the terms of the Gospel. For God has there made no promises of mercy to the slothful and negligent. His mercy is only offered to our frail and imperfect, but best endeavours, to practise all manner of righteousness.
As the law to Angels is angelical righteousness, as the law to perfect beings is strict perfection, so the law to our imperfect natures is, the best obedience that our frail nature is able to perform.
The measure of our love to God, seems in justice to be the measure of our love of every virtue. We are to love and practise it with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. And when we cease to live with this regard to virtue, we live below our nature, and, instead of being able to plead our infirmities, we stand chargeable with negligence.
It is for this reason that we are exhorted to work out our salvation with fear and trembling; because unless our heart and passions are eagerly bent upon the work of our salvation; unless holy fears animate our endeavours, and keep our consciences strict and tender about every part of our duty, constantly examining how we live, and how fit we are to die; we shall in all probability fall into a state of negligence, and sit down in such a course of life, as will never carry us to the rewards of Heaven.
And he that considers, that a just God can only make such allowances as are suitable to His justice, that our works are all to be examined by fire, will find that fear and trembling are proper tempers for those that are drawing near so great a trial.
And indeed there is no probability, that any one should do all the duty that is expected from him, or make that progress in piety, which the holiness and justice of God requires of him, but he that is constantly afraid of falling short of it.
Now this is not intended to possess people's minds with a scrupulous anxiety, and discontent in the service of God, but to fill them with a just fear of living in sloth and idleness, and in the neglect of such virtues as they will want at the day of Judgment. It is to excite them to an earnest examination of their lives, to such zeal, and care, and concern after Christian perfection, as they use in any matter that has gained their heart and affections. It is only desiring them to be so apprehensive of their state, so humble in the opinion of themselves, so earnest after higher degrees of piety, and so fearful of falling short of happiness, as the great Apostle St. Paul was, when he thus wrote to the Philippians: "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: . . . but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." And then he adds, "Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded." [Phil. iii. 12-15]
But now, if the Apostle thought it necessary for those, who were in his state of perfection, to be "thus minded," that is, thus labouring, pressing, and aspiring after some degree of holiness, to which they were not then arrived, surely it is much more necessary for us, who are born in the dregs of time, and labouring under great imperfections, to be "thus minded," that is, thus earnest and striving after such degrees of a holy and Divine life, as we have not yet attained.
The best way for any one to know how much he ought to aspire after holiness, is to consider, not how much will make his present life easy, but to ask himself, how much he thinks will make him easy at the hour of death.
Now any man that dares be so serious, as to put this question to himself, will be forced to answer, that at death, every one will wish that he had been as perfect as human nature can be.
Is not this therefore sufficient to put us not only upon wishing, but labouring after all that perfection, which we shall then lament the want of? Is it not excessive folly to be content with such a course of piety as we already know cannot content us, at a time when we shall so want it, as to have nothing else to comfort us? How can we carry a severer condemnation against ourselves, than to believe, that, at the hour of death, we shall want the virtues of the Saints, and wish that we had been amongst the first servants of God, and yet take no methods of arriving at their height of piety, whilst we are alive?
Though this is an absurdity that we can easily pass over at present, whilst the health of our bodies, the passions of our minds, the noise, and hurry, and pleasures, and business of the world, lead us on with eyes that see not, and ears that hear not; yet, at death, it will set itself before us in a dreadful magnitude, it will haunt us like a dismal ghost, and our conscience will never let us take our eyes from it.
We see in worldly matters, what a torment self-condemnation is, and how hardly a man is able to forgive himself, when he has brought himself into any calamity or disgrace, purely by his own folly. The affliction is made doubly tormenting, because he is forced to charge it all upon himself, as his own act and deed, against the nature and reason of things, and contrary to the advice of all his friends.
Now by this we may in some degree guess how terrible the pain of that self-condemnation will be, when a man shall find himself in the miseries of death under the severity of a self-condemning conscience, charging all his distress upon his own folly and madness, against the sense and reason of his own mind, against all the doctrines and precepts of religion, and contrary to all the instructions, calls, and warnings, both of God and man.
Penitens was a busy, notable tradesman, and very prosperous in his dealings, but died in the thirty-fifth year of his age.
A little before his death, when the doctors had given him over, some of his neighbours came one evening to see him, at which time he spake thus to them:--
I see, my friends, the tender concern you have for me, by the grief that appears in your countenances, and I know the thoughts that you have now about me. You think how melancholy a case it is, to see so young a man, and in such flourishing business, delivered up to death. And perhaps, had I visited any of you in my condition, I should have had the same thoughts of you.
But now, my friends, my thoughts are no more like your thoughts than my condition is like yours.
It is no trouble to me now to think, that I am to die young, or before I have raised an estate.
These things are now sunk into such mere nothings, that I have no name little enough to call them by. For if in a few days or hours, I am to leave this carcass to be buried in the earth, and to find myself either forever happy in the favour of God, or eternally separated from all light and peace, can any words sufficiently express the littleness of everything else?
Is there any dream like the dream of life, which amuses us with the neglect and disregard of these things? Is there any folly like the folly of our manly state, which is too wise and busy, to be at leisure for these reflections?
When we consider death as a misery, we only think of it as a miserable separation from the enjoyments of this life. We seldom mourn over an old man that dies rich, but we lament the young, that are taken away in the progress of their fortune. You yourselves look upon me with pity, not that I am going unprepared to meet the Judge of quick and dead, but that I am to leave a prosperous trade in the flower of my life.
This is the wisdom of our manly thoughts. And yet what folly of the silliest children is so great as this?
For what is there miserable, or dreadful in death, but the consequences of it? When a man is dead, what does anything signify to him, but the state he is then in?
Our poor friend Lepidus died, you know, as he was dressing himself for a feast: do you think it is now part of his trouble, that he did not live till that entertainment was over? Feasts, and business, and pleasures, and enjoyments, seem great things to us, whilst we think of nothing else; but as soon as we add death to them, they all sink into an equal littleness; and the soul that is separated from the body no more laments the loss of business, than the losing of a feast.
If I am now going into the joys of God, could there be any reason to grieve, that this happened to me before I was forty years of age? Could it be a sad thing to go to Heaven, before I had made a few more bargains, or stood a little longer behind a counter?
And if I am to go amongst lost spirits, could there be any reason to be content, that this did not happen to me till I was old, and full of riches?
If good Angels were ready to receive my soul, could it be any grief to me, that I was dying upon a poor bed in a garret?
And if God has delivered me up to evil spirits, to be dragged by them to places of torments, could it be any comfort to me, that they found me upon a bed of state?
When you are as near death as I am, you will know that all the different states of life, whether of youth or age, riches or poverty, greatness or meanness, signify no more to you, than whether you die in a poor or stately apartment.
The greatness of those things which follow death makes all that goes before it sink into nothing.
Now that judgment is the next thing that I look for, and everlasting happiness or misery is come so near me, all the enjoyments and prosperities of life seem as vain and insignificant, and to have no more to do with my happiness, than the clothes that I wore before I could speak.
But, my friends, how am I surprised that I have not always had these thoughts? for what is there in the terrors of death, in the vanities of life, or the necessities of piety, but what I might have as easily and fully seen in any part of my life?
What a strange thing is it, that a little health, or the poor business of a shop, should keep us so senseless of these great things, that are coming so fast upon us!
Just as you came in my chamber, I was thinking with myself, what numbers of souls there are now in the world, in my condition at this very time, surprised with a summons to the other world; some taken from their shops and farms, others from their sports and pleasures, these at suits of law, those at gaming tables, some on the road, others at their own firesides, and all seized at an hour when they thought nothing of it; frightened at the approach of death, confounded at the vanity of all their labours, designs, and projects, astonished at the folly of their past lives, and not knowing which way to turn their thoughts, to find any comfort. Their consciences flying in their faces, bringing all their sins to their remembrance, tormenting them with deepest convictions of their own folly, presenting them with the sight of the angry Judge, the worm that never dies, the fire that is never quenched, the gates of hell, the powers of darkness, and the bitter pains of eternal death.
Oh, my friends! bless God that you are not of this number, that you have time and strength to employ yourselves in such works of piety, as may bring you peace at the last.
And take this along with you, that there is nothing but a life of great piety, or a death of great stupidity, that can keep off these apprehensions.
Had I now a thousand worlds, I would give them all for one year more, that I might present unto God one year of such devotion and good works, as I never before so much as intended.
You, perhaps, when you consider that I have lived free from scandal and debauchery, and in the communion of the Church, wonder to see me so full of remorse and self-condemnation at the approach of death.
But, alas! what a poor thing is it, to have lived only free from murder, theft, and adultery, which is all that I can say of myself.
You know, indeed, that I have never been reckoned a sot, but you are, at the same time, witnesses, and have been frequent companions of my intemperance, sensuality, and great indulgence. And if I am now going to a judgment, where nothing will be rewarded but good works, I may well be concerned, that though I am no sot, yet I have no Christian sobriety to plead for me.
It is true, I have lived in the communion of the Church, and generally frequented its worship and service on Sundays, when I was neither too idle, or not otherwise disposed of by my business and pleasures. But, then, my conformity to the public worship has been rather a thing of course, than any real intention of doing that which the service of the Church supposes: had it not been so, I had been oftener at Church, more devout when there, and more fearful of ever neglecting it.
But the thing that now surprises me above all wonders is this, that I never had so much as a general intention of living up to the piety of the Gospel. This never so much as entered into my head or my heart. I never once in my life considered whether I was living as the laws of religion direct, or whether my way of life was such, as would procure me the mercy of God at this hour.
And can it be thought that I have kept the Gospel terms of salvation, without ever so much as intending, in any serious and deliberate manner, either to know them, or keep them? Can it be thought that I have pleased God with such a life as He requires, though I have lived without ever considering what He requires, or how much I have performed? How easy a thing would salvation be, if it could fall into my careless hands, who have never had so much serious thought about it, as about any one common bargain that I have made?
In the business of life I have used prudence and reflection. I have done everything by rules and methods. I have been glad to converse with men of experience and judgment, to find out the reasons why some fail and others succeed in any business. I have taken no step in trade but with great care and caution, considering every advantage or danger that attended it. I have always had my eye upon the main end of business, and have studied all the ways and means of being a gainer by all that I undertook.
But what is the reason that I have brought none of these tempers to religion? What is the reason that I, who have so often talked of the necessity of rules, and methods, and diligence, in worldly business, have all this while never once thought of any rules, or methods, or managements, to carry me on in a life of piety?
Do you think anything can astonish and confound a dying man like this? What pain do you think a man must feel, when his conscience lays all this folly to his charge, when it shall show him how regular, exact, and wise he has been in small matters, that are passed away like a dream, and how stupid and senseless he has lived, without any reflection, without any rules, in things of such eternal moment, as no heart can sufficiently conceive them?
Had I only my frailties and imperfections to lament at this time, I should lie here humbly trusting in the mercies of God. But, alas! how can I call a general disregard, and a thorough neglect of all religious improvement, a frailty or imperfection, when it was as much in my power to have been exact, and careful, and diligent in a course of piety, as in the business of my trade?
I could have called in as many helps, have practised as many rules, and been taught as many certain methods of holy living, as of thriving in my shop, had I but so intended, and desired it.
Oh, my friends! a careless life, unconcerned and unattentive to the duties of religion, is so without all excuse, so unworthy of the mercy of God, such a shame to the sense and reason of our minds, that I can hardly conceive a greater punishment, than for a man to be thrown into the state that I am in, to reflect upon it.
Penitens was here going on, but had his mouth stopped by a convulsion, which never suffered him to speak any more. He lay convulsed about twelve hours, and then gave up the ghost.
Now if every reader would imagine this Penitens to have been some particular acquaintance or relation of his, and fancy that he saw and heard all that is here described; that he stood by his bedside when his poor friend lay in such distress and agony, lamenting the folly of his past life, it would, in all probability, teach him such wisdom as never entered into his heart before. If to this he should consider how often he himself might have been surprised in the same state of negligence, and made an example to the rest of the world, this double reflection, both upon the distress of his friend, and the goodness of that God, who had preserved him from it, would in all likelihood soften his heart into holy tempers, and make him turn the remainder of his life into a regular course of piety.
This therefore being so useful a meditation, I shall here leave the reader, as I hope, seriously engaged in it.
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This document is from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library
at Calvin College. Last updated on July 16, 1999.