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TO THINK LESS OF OUR VIRTUES AND MORE OF OUR
Psalm li. 3.
My sin is ever before me. There is a propensity in the human mind, very general and very natural, yet, at the same time, unfavourable in a high degree to the Christian character; which is that, when we look back upon our lives, our recollection dwells too much upon our virtues ; our sins are not, as they ought to be, before us; we think too much of our good qualities or good actions, too little of our crimes, our corruptions, our fallings off and declension from God's laws, our defects and weak
These we sink and overlook, in meditating upon our good properties. This, I allow, is natural; ; because, undoubtedly, it is more agreeable to have our minds occupied with the cheering retrospect of virtuous deeds, than with the bitter, humiliating, remembrance of sins and follies. But, because it is natural, it does not follow that it is good. It may
be the bias and inclination of our minds; and yet neither right nor safe. When I say that it is
I mean that it is not the true Christian disposition ; and when I say
that it is dangerous, I have a view to its effects upon our salvation.
I say, that it is not the true Christian disposition ; for, first, how does it accord with what we read in the
Christian Scriptures, whether we consider the precepts, which are found there applicable to the subject, or the conduct and example of Christian characters.
Now, one precept, and that of Christ himself, you find to be this: " Ye, when ye shall have done all
, those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” (Luke, xvii. 10.) . It is evident that this strong admonition was intended, by our Saviour, to check in his disciples an overweening opinion of their own merit. It is a very remarkable passage. I think none throughout the New Testament'
And the intention with which the words were spoken was evidently to check and repel that opinion of merit which is sure to arise from the habit of fixing our contemplation so much upon our good qualities, and so little upon our bad ones. Yet this habit is natural, and was never prohibited by any teacher, except by our Saviour. With him it was a great fault, by reason of its inconsistency with the favourite principle of his religion, humility. I call humility not only a duty, but a principle. Humblemindedness is a Christian principle, if there be one; above all, humble-mindedness towards God. The servants, to whom our Lord's expression refers, were to be humble minded, we may presume, towards one another ; but towards their Lord, the only answer, the only thought, the only sentiment, was to be, “ We are unprofitable servants.” And who were they that were instructed by our Lord to bear constantly this reflection about with them? Were they sinners, distinctively so called ? were they grievous or notorious sinners ? nay, the very contrary; they were persons “who had done all those things that were commanded them!” This is precisely the description which our Lord gives of the persons to whom his lesson was
directed. Therefore, you see that an opinion of merit is discouraged, even in those who had the best pretensions to entertain it; if any pretensions were good. But an opinion of merit, an overweening opinion of merit, is sure to grow up in the heart whenever we accustom ourselves to think much of our virtues and little of our vices. It is generated, fostered, and cherished, by this train of meditation we have been describing. It cannot be otherwise. And if we would repress it; if we would correct ourselves in this respect; if we would bring ourselves into a capacity of complying with our Saviour's rule; we must alter our turn of thinking; we must reflect more upon our sins, and less upon our virtues. Depend upon it that we shall view our characters more truly, we shall view them much more safely, when we view them in their defects and faults and infirmities than when we view them only, or principally, on the side of their good qualities ; even when these good qualities are real. I suppose, and I have all along supposed, that the good parts of our characters, which, as I contend, too much attract our attention, are nevertheless real; and I suppose this, because our Saviour's parable supposes the same.
Another great Christian rule is, own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philip. ii. 12.) These significant words, “ fear and trembling,” do not accord with the state of a mind which is all contentment, satisfaction, and self-complacency; and which is brought into that state by the habit of viewing and regarding those good qualities, which a person believes to belong to himself, or those good actions, which he remembers to have performed. The precept much better accords with a mind, anxious, fearful, and apprehensive, and made so by a sense of sin. But a sense of sin exists not, as it ought to do, in that
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breast which is in the habit of meditating chiefly upon its virtues. I can very well believe that two persons of the same character in truth may, nevertheless, view themselves in very different lights, according as one is accustomed to look chiefly at his good qualities, the other chiefly at his transgressions and imperfections ; and I say, that this latter is the disposition for working out our salvation agreeably to Saint Paul's rule and method, that is, “ with fear and
“ trembling;” the other is not.
But farther; there is upon this subject a great deal to be learned from the examples which the New Testament’sets before us. Precepts are short, necessarily must be so, take up but little room, and for that reason do not always strike with the force,' or leave the impression which they ought to do; but examples of character, when the question is concerning character, and what is the proper character, have more weight and body in the consideration, and take up more room in our minds than precepts. Now, from one end of the · New Testament' to the other, you will find the evangelical character to be contrition. You hear little of virtue or righteousness; but you hear perpetually of the forgiveness of sins. With the first Christian teachers, Repent, repent,” was the burden of their exhortations; the almost constant sound of their voice. Does not this strain of preaching show that the preachers wished all who heard them to think much more of offences than of merits? Nay, farther, with respect to themselves, whenever this contemplation of righteousness came in their way, it came in their way only to be renounced, as natural, perhaps, and also grateful to human feelings, but as inconsistent and irreconcilable with the Christian condition. It might do for a heathen, but it was the reverse of everything that is Christian.
The turn of thought which I am recommending, or, rather, which I find it necessary to insist upon, as an essential part of the Christian character, is strongly seen in one particular passage of Saint Paul's writings; namely, in the third chapter to the Philippians. “ If any other man thinketh whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more ; circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee ; concerning zeal, persecuting the church ; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” These were points which, at that time of day, were thought to be grounds of confidence and exultation. But this train of thought no sooner rises in his mind than the apostle checks it, and turns from it to an anxious view of his own deficiencies. “ If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead." These are the words of an anxious man. “ Not,” then he proceeds, “not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect : but I follow after, if that I
may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended; but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark, for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” In this passage, you see, that, withdrawing his mind from all notions of perfection, attainment, accomplishment, security, he fixes it upon his deficiencies. Then he tells you, that forgetting, that is, expressly putting out of his mind and his thought, the progress and advance which he had already made, he casts his eyes and attention upon those qualities in which he was short and deficient, upon what remained for him yet to do; and this I take to be the true Christian way of proceeding. “ Forget those