Taken from "Timely Cautions" in The Sword and the Trowel, September 1879.
We have great reason to bless God for the rich mercies we have enjoyed as a church and people for many years, in the unity of the brotherhood, the zeal of the workers, the number of conversions, the success of all our enterprises, and the growth of the whole body. It is on my heart to say a word upon another subject which presses heavily upon my heart. I beseech you, by the mercies of God and by the love of Christ Jesus your Lord, that as members of this church you do nothing which would grieve the Spirit of God, and cause Him to depart from among us. Remember how Israel suffered defeat because of Achan: one man only, and one family only, had broken the Divine rule, but that sufficed to trouble the whole camp (Joshua 7:1-13). Achan had taken of the accursed thing and hid it in his tent, and all Israel had to suffer defeat because of it; how much more may a people suffer if sin become general among them and is allowed to walk abroad unrebuked!
The falling away of many professing Christian families
At this time, I am greatly mistaken if the Church of God is not suffering grievously from the sin of its own members, sin in its own midst. As I look abroad, I am grieved and have great heaviness of spirit at what I see among professing Christians, not here and there, but almost everywhere. Many Christians nowadays do not order their families with godly discipline, as is proper among saints. I am thunderstruck to hear of Christian men who allow their sons to drink, to keep late hours, and even to swear, while their daughters are dressed as gaudily as the gayest of the gay. It grieves me that some professors have no family prayer and have no command over their children whatsoever, but seem as if they thought that the duty of a father was to let his children have their own way in all things and make him their slave. We have too many of the race of Eli who perhaps say, "Do not so," but exercise no authority, and put no real check upon the sins of their sons (1 Samuel 2:22-36). This is a great source of evil.
The Lord said, "I know Abraham that he will command his children and his household after him" (Genesis 18:19); and where households are not ordered aright, we cannot expect that the Lord will show special favor to the parents. A husband is the king of his household; and if he allows everything to be in a state of anarchy, he must blame himself in some measure. A husband cannot always govern his wife, for here and there a Jezebel is to be met with; but there are certain things which he should never permit in her if he be a Christian man; and if he fails in his duty of preventing and forbidding sin, God will certainly visit him for it. In ourselves, and in our partners, children, or servants, evils are not to be winked at, but put down with a strong hand. May God grant us wisdom and strength of mind to discharge our duty at home! To show piety at home is to show real piety. There was a time when there was no professing family without family prayer, but now there are scores in which it is never offered. Some of you can remember that if your father was absent on business, your mother carried on the daily sacrifice; and when mother was sick, there was found a boy or girl who would read the Scriptures and pray, so that the holy fire was not allowed to go out. If there be no gathering together for prayer in the morning, how can we expect to prosper in the duties of the day? If there be no meeting for prayer at night, how can we expect the Lord to guard the tents of Jacob through the night watches? If prayer be neglected in our families, how can we hope to see its spirit pervading our churches?
Avoid unholy amusements at all costs
Another very serious matter concerns the amusements of professing Christians. I see it publicly stated—by men who call themselves Christians—that it would be advisable for Christians to frequent the theater so that the character of the drama might be raised. The suggestion is about as sensible as if we were bidden to pour a bottle of lavender water into the great sewer to improve its aroma! If the Church is to imitate the world, in order to raise its tone, things have strangely altered since the day when our Lord said, "Come ye out from among them, and touch not the unclean thing" (2 Corinthians 6:17). Is Heaven to descend to the infernal lake to raise its tone? Such has been the moral condition of the theater for many a year, that it has become too bad for mending; and even if it were mended, it would become corrupt again. Pass by it with averted gaze, the house of the strange woman is there (Proverbs 4:15-16; 9:13-18).
The theater should be scrupulously avoided by Christians
It has not been my lot ever to enter a theater during the performance of a play; but I have seen enough, when I have come home from distant journeys at night, while riding past the play-houses, to make me pray that our sons and daughters may never go within the doors. It must be a strange school for virtue which attracts the harlot and the debauchee. It is no place for a Christian, for it is best appreciated by the irreligious and worldly. If our church members fall into the habit of frequenting the theater, we shall soon have them going much further in the direction of vice, and they will lose all relish for the ways of God. Theater-going, if it becomes general among professing Christians, will soon prove the death of piety. One finds the taste for such things increasing on all hands, insomuch that we cannot enter places of entertainment once dedicated to science and art without finding ourselves before long in the presence of something like a theatrical performance. I do not doubt that these things, which may be in themselves harmless enough, have tended to create and foster the taste which leads ultimately to the theater and its surroundings. Who can suppose amusements surrounded with the seductions of vice to be fit recreation for a pure mind? Who could draw near to God after sitting to admire the performances of a lewd woman? When manners are growing every day more lax and licentious, shall the Nonconformists of England cease from their godly protests, and lower the standard of their lives? If they do so, their spiritual power is departed, and their reason for existence is gone.
Christians must bolster and maintain high, strict standards
If there ever could be a time when Christians might relax their rigidity, it surely is not now when the very air is tainted with pollution, and our streets ring with the newsboys' cries vending filthy papers and abominable prints. It is sad to hear how people talk about acts of sin nowadays; how young men and women, without blushing, talk of deeds which deprave and destroy, as though they were trifles, or themes for jests. It is a thousand pities that the ends of justice should require the publishing of unsavory details. I suppose there are grave objections to certain cases being heard more privately; otherwise, it would assuredly be better for public morals. As for those who not only commit lewdness, but take pleasure in those who do it, "Oh, my soul, come not thou into their secret." My heart often cries, "Oh, that I had the wings of a dove, that I might fly away and be at rest." It will, indeed, be ill for the Church of God if her members should become impure. In these days, we must be doubly strict, lest any looseness of conduct should come in among us. Actual sin must be repressed with a strong hand, but even the appearance of evil must be avoided.
Pursue purity at all costs
My dear brethren and sisters, be ye pure; whatever you are not, be pure in heart, in lip, and in life. Never indulge an evil imagination, much less speak that which is unclean; let it not once be named among you, as becometh saints. A lascivious glance, a doubtful word, a questionable act must be earnestly avoided; anything and everything that verges upon the unchaste must be shunned. Only the pure in heart shall see God (Matthew 5:8). We are all subject to human passions, and this wretched flesh of ours is all too easily fascinated by those who would minister to its indulgences; and before we know where we are, the soul is led into captivity. Watch unto prayer; watch especially in these evil days. Cry, "Lead us not into temptation" (Matthew 6:13); and if the prayer be sincere, you will keep far from doubtful haunts. Make a covenant with your eyes that you will not look upon that which pollutes (Job 31:1), and stop your ears from hearing of licentiousness. Pray God to keep your heart pure and holy. Watch your lips lest they spread corruption when speaking of sin. I do not fear so much your going into gross open sin as your doing that which will take you a little way upon the road to it.
Apostasy is inevitable for the careless
I think it is Augustine who tells a story of a young friend of his, who had the greatest horror of everything connected with the Roman amphitheater. A heathen friend tried to persuade him to enter the Colosseum; and as he was very hard pressed, and was under some obligation to that friend, he determined to go just once, but to keep his eyes and ears closed all the time. It would seem to be a very small risk to sit there as one who was blind and deaf; but, in the middle of the sports, the people so loudly applauded a certain gladiator, who had pleased them, that the young man opened his eyes to discover what it was about. From that moment, he was spellbound; he looked on, and enjoyed the sight; and though, before, he could not bear the very mention of it, he came at last to be a regular frequenter of the cruel sports, and a defender of them, and after a short time he abandoned his profession of Christianity. Beware of the leaven of worldly pleasure, for its working is silent but sure, and a little of it will leaven the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5:6). Keep up the distinction between a Christian and an unbeliever, and make it clearer every day.
Have you never heard of the minister who complained of the devil for running off with one of his church members? The fiend replied, "I found him on my premises, and therefore I claimed him." I, also, may say, "Stop!" to the arch-deceiver, but it will be of no use if he finds you in his domains. Every fowler claims the bird which he finds in his own net. This is the argument, "I caught him in my net, and therefore he is mine." We shall in vain try to dispute this right of property with the archenemy, for possession is nine points of the law.
The worldling: "We must not be too rigid."
Avoid the appearance of evil. "But we must not be too rigid," says one. There is no fear of that in these days. You will never go too far in holiness, nor become too like your Lord Jesus. If anybody accuses you of being too strict and precise, do not grieve; but try to deserve the charge. I cannot suppose that, at the last great day, our Lord Jesus Christ will say to anyone, "You were not worldly enough. You were too jealous over your conduct, and did not sufficiently conform to the world." No, my brethren, such a thing is impossible. He who said, "Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48) has set before you a standard beyond which you can never go.
The swine: "Are we to have no enjoyments?"
"Well, but," says one, "are we to have no enjoyments?" My dear friend, the enjoyments which are prepared for Christians are many and great, but they are not such as savor of sin and folly. Do you call vice and folly amusements? Then I do not grudge you your mirth. When I go down into the country, I see the farmer's men carrying out great pails of hogwash for the swine, and I never grudge them their dainty meal. I never protest against their having a full trough twice over. But do I partake with them? Not I. Not I! I have no taste that way. Do I therefore deny myself? Certainly not! It never struck me that there was anything desirable in their rich mixture. I have no doubt that it has a fine flavor to the creatures for whom it is prepared; at least, it is very strong, and seems to be highly appreciated. So, when people can enjoy the pleasures of the world and sin, let them have them: poor souls, they have nothing else to enjoy, they have no Paradise for their hereafter, they have no Jesus' bosom to lean their heads upon for the present, let them have that which makes them happy while they can be so. But when I am talking to the children of God, I adopt another tone, since for you these things have no charms if you have, indeed, tasted the high delights of fellowship with God.
The bastard: "I should enjoy a little sin."
"But," say you, "I should greatly enjoy a little of the pleasures of sin." Judge yourselves, then, to be falsely called children of God. "He that is born of God doth not commit sin" (1 John 3:9); by which is not meant that he does not fall into sins of infirmity, but that it is not his delight to commit sin, it is not his way; he is a new creature, and he finds his joy and pleasure in living as near to God as possible.
The insane: "How far may we go in conformity to the world?"
"How far may we go in conformity to the world?" is a question that is frequently asked in some men's hearts, if not in so many words. Have you never heard the story of the lady who needed a coachman? Two or three called to see her about the situation, and, in answer to her inquiries, the first applicant said, "Yes, madam, you could not have a better coachman than myself." She replied, "How near do you think you could drive to danger without an accident?" "Madam, I could go within a yard of it, and yet you would be perfectly safe." "Very well," she said, "you will not suit me." The second one had heard the question upon which the other had been rejected, and therefore he was ready with his answer, "Danger! Madam, why I could drive within a hair's breadth, and yet be perfectly safe." "Then you will not suit me at all." When number three came in, he was asked, "Are you a good driver?" "Well," he replied, "I am careful, and have never met with an accident." "But how near do you think you could drive to danger?" "Madam," he said, "that is a thing I never tried, I always drive as far away from danger as ever I can." The lady at once replied, "You are the kind of coachman I want, and I will engage you at once."
Maintain a Holy Fear of Sin
Get such a coachman as that yourself, to guide your own heart, and lead your own character. Do not see how near you can go to sin, but see how far you can keep away from it. If you do not take that advice, and if the Spirit of God does not work in you purity of life, by-and-by the church will have to hold up its hands, and say, "Who would have thought it? These were the nice young people of whom so much was expected; these were the good people who used to say, 'You must not be too strict,' and where are they now?" To avoid the worst, keep clear of the bad. As for your Lord's work, be bound to the altar of Christ, and be united forever to Him; and I am sure, if such be the case, you will not find that you are losers by giving up worldly pleasures. The Lord's ways are ways of pleasantness, and all His paths are peace (Proverbs 3:17). There is a safe and sweet pleasantness in holy living, and the pleasantness lies very much in the fact that an abounding peace springs from it. God grant us grace to keep in these peaceful paths, even though others should call us Puritans, and ridicule our holy fear of sin! Amen.