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ILLUSTRATED IN THE
HISTORY OF THE CHURCH AT EPHESUS.
REVELATION ii. 6,7.
Decay in religion, my brethren, is the crime charged upon the members of the Church at Ephesus, and so awfully visited upon them. They had lost their first love; coldness in the matters of personal religion had taken the place of zeal and devotedness. Their energies were wasted upon externals, while they suffered the religion of the inner man to decline and waste away. Alas, that in this respect, the members of the Church of Ephesus are not singular. In every congregation of professed Christians there are those, the history of whose religion bears most melancholy resemblance to that of the Ephesians; and I dare not to suppose, but that among you, whom I have now the privilege of addressing, there is many an individual, in reference to whose religious history God writes, “thou hast lost thy first love.”
In this concluding lecture on the epistle to the Church of Ephesus, I propose to confine my attention to a practical consideration of the subject of decay in religion ; and I ask you to go with me, while for this purpose I point out,
I. SOME MARKS BY WHICH DECAY IN RELIGION IS TO BE ASCERTAINED.
II. THE, AWFUL DANGER OF THIS DECAYING CON
I. I can select but a few among the most prominent, but enough to enable each of you who call yourselves by the name of Christ, to ascertain the real condition of your souls.
Decay in the spirituality of religion is to be discovered, when the mind is set more on carnal than on spiritual things. It is declared in Scripture, that " to be carnally-minded, is death; but to be spiritually-minded, is life and peace.” I have seen it remarked, that spiritual-mindedness is not only the sure and essential preparation for the life and peace of heaven, but an infallible criterion by which the life and flourishing condition of religion in the soul at present may be determined.* How, my brethren, does this criterion bear its weight upon your present condition ? Are your minds habitually interested in, and occupied about, spiritual things ? Is it, as it ought to be, your meat and drink to do the will of Him whom you venture to approach as your Father in heaven? Is the greatest concern which occupies your attention, that which relates to the
Tract of American Tract Society, on Spiritual Declension, written by Right Rev. C. P. McIlvaine.
salvation of your souls? Is the glory of your Divine Master your paramount principle of action ? Ah, my friends, if carnal things constitute your dearest delights; if you make your spiritual condition subordinate to any thing, there is at least one symptom of spiritual decay, for never was there a truth of Scripture which more conformed to that which is realized in Christian experience, than the one which says, “They that are after the Spirit, do mind the things of the Spirit.” And the melancholy reverse of that experience is told in another truth of holy writ—“they that are after the flesh, do mind the things of the flesh.”
Again : Decay in religion, is to be discovered when there is a growing disregard to the means and opportunities of grace.
The diligent use, my brethren, of what are commonly denominated the means of grace, is essentially connected with the maintenance of real religion, or what is beautifully called the life of God in the soul of man. The word of God must not only be read, as a part of a Christian's every-day employment, but it must be studied with the most deep and systematic attention. And with the study of the Bible must be connected the most serious selfexamination, and above all things, fervent prayer for the teaching of that blessed Spirit, without whose illuminating influence, all will be dark and apparently inappropriate to our condition. With this, which is meant to be understood as the private communion of the Christian with his God, must also be connected a diligent improvement of all those more public advantages which he may have the privilege of possessing. The public worship of God
in his holy temple, where he has seen fit to record his name; the public preaching of the Gospel, which God has seen fit to ordain as the grand instrument in the conversion of sinners, and in the building up of saints in their most holy faith ; that inestimable privilege of religion, the commemoration of the dying love of our Master and only Saviour Jesus Christ-these, with the minor means of social prayer and family prayer, and religious conversation among the people of God, will all be punctually and zealously attended to, where religion dwells in the heart as an active principle. “ The truth is, that the diligent use of means, and the prevalence of holy affections in the heart, have a reciprocal influence on each other. When love abounds, the means of grace will be prized and improved; when the means are neglected or improperly attended to, love will quickly cool and languish. There is no way of maintaining the Divine life, but by frequently approaching unto God, waiting upon Him for his holy influence, and thus withdrawing the mind from the world to contemplate spiritual realities."* “When, then, among the members of a Church, there appears an habitual coldness in- prayer; when there is among them no impressive sense of sin, no hungering after righteousness, no tenderness of heart, no spirit to embrace and rejoice in the promises of the Gospel, no disposition to look by faith to the crucified Saviour, and commune with God; when coldness and formality are become so dominant, that all the affecting thoughts and recollections connected with the supper of the Lord are of no avail ; and those who wait upon that ordinance, instead of renewing their covenant engagements with Christ, with deep repentance, and lively devotion under the remembrance of his dying love, can approach the solemn ordinance with no emotions more elevated than those of common seriousness; it should be taken for granted, that religion is in a state of dangerous decay, the tree doth not bring forth fruit in its season; the leaf thereof is withering; the hand of the husbandman is required to search it, and the outpourings of the Spirit to revive it, lest it perish.”
Again: Decay in religion is to be discovered, when there is any loss in tenderness of conscience.
It is the usual and legitimate effect of Divine grace, to make the conscience as tender, as it respects the touch of sin, as the apple of the eye is, as it regards the touch of any foreign substance. In an individual who is walking close with God, the least intrusion of transgression, even of thought, will be wept over with tears of penitence, and expelled. But if the conscience have lost its sensibility, so that it can now endure without emotion a feeling which would once have filled it with the acutest anguish, what shall we say? Can that soul be in a flourishing condition ? No! most assuredly.
Let me not be misunderstood. We must of necessity distinguish between a tender and a scrupulous conscience, for there is such a thing as scrupulosity about matters in themselves perfectly indifferent. Where the light of God's truth shines brightly on the soul, it will lose this needless scrupulosity, but its tenderness will remain undiminished; nay, increased in reference to every acknowledged duty.