The persons whom our Lord addrest in these words made a high profession of religion, valued themselves upon their peculiar opportunities of knowing the true God and His will, and proclaimed themselves as the Israel and the temple of the Lord, while they despised the surrounding pagans as those who were strangers to the divine law. Yet the self-complacent Pharisees of our Savior’s age were as far from the love of God, he assures them in the text, as any of those who had never heard of His name. In this respect, many of “the first were last, and the last first.” The rejection of the gospel evinces a hardness of heart which is decisive against the character; and, in the case of the Pharisees, it gave ample evidence that they possest no love of God. Had they really known God, as our Lord argues, they would have known Himself to be sent by God: whereas, in proving the bitter enemies of Christ, they proved that they were in a state of enmity against God. By parity of reason, we, my brethren, who know God and His Word in the way of Christian profession, ought not to take it for granted that we possess the love of God, and are in the way of eternal life: the same self-delusion may overtake us also; and similar admonitions may be no less necessary to many present, than to the Pharisees of old. Suffer then, my brethren, the word of exhortation, while I invite each individual seriously to consider this subject, with a view to the discovery of his real character.
In proceeding to lay down certain marks of grace, let it be premised, that either these marks partake of the nature of true religion, or they do not. If they do, they must be identified with it, and here the mark is the thing: if they do not partake of its nature, some of them may exist as indications where genuine religion is not. It is necessary, then, that we combine a variety of particular signs of grace: any one taken by itself, may, or may not, exist, without true religion; but where many are combined, no just doubt can remain.
Whether you have the love of God in your soul presents a most critical subject of inquiry; since the love of God will be acknowledged by all to be the great, the essential, principle of true religion. The simple question, then, to which I would call your attention, is this: “Am I, or am I not, a sincere lover of the Author of my being?”
In endeavoring to assist you in the decision of this momentous question, as it respects yourselves. I shall entreat your attention while I suggest a variety of marks which indicate love to God; and supposing the conviction produced by the statement to be, that you have not the love of God, I shall point out the proper improvement of such a conviction.
In suggesting various marks by which you may ascertain whether you love God or not, I would mention the general bent and turn of your thoughts, when not under the immediate control of circumstances; for these, you are aware, give a new and peculiar bias to our thoughts, and stamp them with an impress of their own. There is an infinite variety of thoughts continually passing through the mind of every individual: of these, some are thrown up by occasions; but others, and often the greater part, follow the habitual train of our associations. It is not to thoughts of the former kind that I refer; it is to those of the latter class–those involuntary thoughts which spring up of themselves in the mind of every person: it is these, not the former, that afford clear indication of the general temper and disposition. The question I would propose to you is, What is the bent of your thoughts when, disengaged from the influence of any particular occurrence, you are left to yourselves, in the intervals of retirement and tranquillity, in the silence of the midnight watches, and, in short, whenever your mind is left free to its own spontaneous musings? Are the thoughts most familiar to your mind, at such times, thoughts of God and the things of God–or are they thoughts that turn upon the present world and its transient concerns? Are they confined, for the most part, within the narrow circle of time and sense; or do they make frequent and large excursions into the spiritual and eternal world? The answer to this question will go far to decide whether you have, or have not, the love of God. It is impossible that such an object as the divine Being should be absent long from your thoughts; impossible that His remembrance should long remain merged in the stream of other imaginations; unless you are supposed chargeable with a decided indifference to divine things! Unless you are destitute of love to God you can never be so utterly uncongenial in sentiment and feeling with the psalmist, when he says, “My mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips, while I meditate upon thee in the night watches.” “How precious are thy thoughts unto me, O God!” When that man of God gazed upon the starry heavens, his mind was not merely wrought into astonishment at the physical energy there displayed; he was still more deeply lost in grateful admiration of the mercy of Providence as manifested to man–a sinful child of dust, and yet visited by God in the midst of so magnificent a universe! But when day passes after day, and night after night, without any serious thoughts of God, it is plain that He is not the home of your mind, not your portion, center, and resting-place: and if this is the case, it is equally plain that you are not in a state of acceptance with Him; since nothing can be more certain than that, as our thoughts are, such must be our character. I do not ask what are your thoughts at particular times, or under the influence of some particular event: there may be little difference, on some occasions, between those who remember, and those who neglect, God habitually. The charge against the ungodly is, that “God is not in all their thoughts.” If there are any here who feel this charge as bearing against themselves, let them take that solemn warning given by God himself at the close of the fiftieth psalm, “Oh, consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver you!”
Let me request you to consider seriously how you stand disposed to the exercises of religion. If God is the object of your love, you will gladly avail yourselves of the most favorable opportunities of cultivating a closer friendship with the Father of your spirits: on the contrary, he who feels no regard for these opportunities, proves that he has no love to God, and will never be able to establish the conviction that God is his friend. Wherever there exists a sincere friendship, opportunities of cultivating it are gladly embraced, and the opposite privations are regretted. Where a habitual neglect of sacred exercises prevails it must be interpreted as if it said, like those whom the prophet describes, “Cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from amongst us. Depart from us, for we desire not the knowledge of thy way!” If your closets seldom witness your private devotions, if your moments in retirement are languid and uninteresting–your religion can have no hold on your heart; and the reason why your religion has no hold on your heart is because you have no love of God. There are some whose religion sits easy and delightful upon them; its acts and functions are free and lively: there are others who seem to bear their religion as a burden, to drag their duties as a chain–as no vital part of themselves, but rather a cumbrous appendage: this is a decisive and melancholy symptom of a heart alienated from God. There is no genuine religion, no real contact of the heart with the best of beings, unless it makes us continually resort to Him as our chief joy. The psalmist is always expressing his fervent desires after God: after the light of the divine countenance, and the sense of the divine favor: but do you suppose such desires peculiar to the state of believers under the Old Testament? No, my brethren; there exist more abundant reasons than ever, since the gospel of Christ has been displayed in all the glorious fulness of its blessings, why our souls should be inflamed with such feelings as those which inspired the psalmist, when he exclaimed, “As the hart panteth for the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God!”
If you would ascertain whether you love God, consider how you stand affected toward the Word of God. We can entertain no just thoughts of God, but such as we derive from His own Word: we can acquire no true knowledge of God, nor cherish any suitable affections toward Him, unless they are such as His own revelation authorizes. Otherwise we must suppose that revelation insufficient for its specific purposes, and set the means against the end. All, therefore, who sincerely love God, are students of His Word; they here, also accord in soul with the psalmist, and like him, can say, “O how I love thy word! in it is my meditation all the day:” they eat it as food for their souls, and find it sweeter than honey. They go to it as to an inexhaustible fountain, and drink from it streams of sacred light and joy. A neglected Bible is too unambiguous a sign of an unsanctified heart; since that blest book can not fail to attract every one that loves its divine Author. How is it possible to delight in God, and yet neglect that Word which alone reveals Him in His true and glorious character–alone discovers the way by which He comes into unison with us, and condescends to pardon us, to love us, and to guide us through all this mysterious state of being? It is observable that the only persons who are inattentive to their own sacred books are to be found among Christians. Mohammedans commit large portions of the Koran to memory; the Jews regard the Old Testament with reverence; the Hindu Brahmans are enthusiastically attached to their Shastra; while Christians alone neglect their Bible. And the reason is, that the Scriptures are so much more spiritual than the religious books received by others; they afford so little scope for mere amusement or self-complacency; they place the reader alone with God; they withdraw him from the things that are seen and temporal, and fix him among the things that are unseen and eternal; they disclose to his view at once the secret evils of his own condition, and the awful purity of that Being with whom he has to do. No wonder the ungodly man hates their light, neither comes to their light, but retires from it farther and farther into the shades of guilty ignorance. How melancholy the infatuation of such a character!
Estimate your character in respect to your love of God, by reflecting, with what sentiments you regard the people of God. God has a people peculiarly His own: they are not of that world to which they outwardly belong–not conformed to it in the spirit of their mind; they stand apart, many of them at least, in conspicuous conformity to Jesus Christ, and in earnest expectation of the glory which He had promised. How, then, do you regard these decided followers of God? Do you shun their society with aversion and secret shame; or do you enjoy their communion as one of the most delightful among your Christian privileges? Are you content merely to be the companion of those who “have a name to live, but are dead”: or can you say with the psalmist, “My delight is in the excellent of the earth”? or, with the beloved disciple, “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren”? for, as he adds, “He that loveth him that begot, loveth him that is begotten”; if you do not love the image which you have seen, how can you love the unseen original? If the features of holiness and grace in the creature are not attractive to your view, how can your affections rise to the perfect essence? How can you ascend to the very sun itself, when you can not enjoy even the faint reflection of its glory? He who knew the heart, could alone say to those around Him, “I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you”: but tho none can address you now in the same tone of divine authority, yet we may hear it uttered by a voice–the voice of your own conscience: you may know, without any perturbations of hope or fear, by the spiritual insensibility and inaction of your soul–by this you may know, with equal certainty as by a voice from heaven, that you have not the love of God in you.
Consider the disposition you entertain toward the person and office of the Son of God. “If ye had loved the Father, ye would have loved me also,” was the constant argument of Jesus Christ to those Pharisees whom He addresses in the text For Jesus Christ is the express image of God: the effulgence of the divine character is attempered in Him, to suit the views of sinful humanity. In the life of Jesus Christ we see how the divine Being conducts Himself in human form and in our own circumstances: we behold how He bears all the sorrows, and passes through all the temptations, of flesh and blood. Such, indeed, is the identity, so perfect the oneness of character, between the man Christ Jesus and the divine Being–that our Savior expressly assures us, “He that hath seen me, hath seen the Father; I and my Father are one.” The purpose for which God was manifested in the flesh was not to reveal high speculations concerning the nature of the Deity: it was to bear our sorrows, and to die for our sins. But can you contemplate Him, thus stooping to your condition, thus mingling with every interest of your own, and not be moved by such a spectacle?–not be attracted, fixt, filled with grateful astonishment and devotion–crucified, as it were, on the cross of Christ, to the flesh, and to the world? What mark, then, of our possessing no love of God can equal this, that we are without love to Jesus Christ?–that neither the visibility of His divine excellence, nor His participation of all our human sufferings, can reach our hearts and command our affections?
In examining whether you love God, examine how you are affected by His benefits. These are so numerous and so distinguished that they ought to excite our most ardent gratitude: night and day they are experienced by us; they pervade every moment of our being. We know that favors from an enemy derive a taint from the hands through which they are received, and excite alienation rather than attachment: but the kindness of a friend, by constantly reminding us of himself, endears that friend more and more to our hearts; and thus, he that has no love to God receives all His favors without the least attraction toward their Author, whom he regards rather as an enemy than as a friend. But the Christian feels his love of God excited by every fresh goodness. The mercies of God have accompanied you through every stage of your journey; and they are exhibited to you in His word as stretching through a vast eternity. Are these the only benefits you can receive without gratitude, and suffer to pass unregarded How, then, can any love of God dwell in your bosom?
Consider, in the next place, in what manner you are imprest by the sense of your sins. The question is not whether you have any sins,–none can admit a doubt on this point; the only inquiry is, how you are affected by those sins? Are they remembered by you with a sentiment of tender regret, of deep confusion and humiliation, that you should ever have so requited such infinite goodness? And is this sentiment combined with a sacred resolution to go and sin no more,–to devote yourself to the service of your divine Benefactor? If you can live without an habitual sense of penitential tenderness and reverential fear, be assured you can not love God; you have no experience of those Scripture declarations: “They shall fear the Lord and his goodness in the latter days;” “There is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayst be feared;” you know not that “the goodness of God leadeth to repentence.” If the mind is softened by the love of God, all His favors serve to inflame its gratitude, and confirm its devotion to His will: but he who has no love of God in his soul, thinks of nothing but how he may escape from God’s hand, and selfishly devours all His favors, without an emotion of gratitude to the Giver.
Finally, let me remind you to consider how you are affected to the present world. If you could only be exempt from its afflictions, would you wish it to be your lasting home? If you could surround yourself with all its advantages and enjoyments, would you be content to dwell in it forever? Yet you know that it is a place of separation and exile from the divine majesty; that it is a scene of darkness, in comparison with heaven, very faintly illuminated with the beams of His distant glory; that its inhabitant is constrained to say, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but mine eye hath not yet seen thee”;–while heaven is the proper dwelling-place of God and His people! Could you then consent to remain here always, without ever seeing as you are seen–seeing light in His light–without ever beholding His glory; without ever drinking at the fountain, and basking in that presence which is fulness of joy, and life forevermore? always to remain immersed in the shadows of time–entombed in its corruptible possessions? never to ascend up on high to God and Christ and the glories of the eternal world? If such is the state of your spirit, you want the essential principle of a Christian–you want the love of God. The genuine Christian, the lover of God, is certain to feel himself a “stranger on the earth.” No splendor, no emolument of this world,–not all the fascinations of sensual pleasure,–can detain his heart below the skies, or keep him from sympathizing with the sentiment of the psalmist: “As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I wake in thy likeness.” I do not ask whether you have, at present, “a desire to depart”: perhaps you may not be as yet sufficiently prepared and established to entertain so exalted a desire; but still, if you have received a new heart, you will deprecate nothing so much as having your portion in this life,–as having your eternal abode on earth. It is the character of faith to dwell much in eternity: the apostle says, in the name of all real believers, “We look not at the things that are seen, but the things that are not seen; for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal.”
And now, my brethren, supposing the preceding remarks to have produced in any of you the conviction that you have not the love of God in you, permit me very briefly to point out the proper improvement of such a conviction.
First, it should be accompanied with deep humiliation. If you labored under the privation of some bodily organ, requisite to the discharge of an animal function, you would feel it as in some degree a humiliating circumstance; but what would be any defect of this kind, however serious, in comparison with that great want under which you labor–the want of piety, the calamity of a soul estranged from the love of God! What are the other subjects of humiliation compared with this–a moral fall, a spiritual death in sin: and this, unless it be removed, the sure precursor of the second death–eternal ruin! “This is a lamentation indeed, and it shall be for a lamentation.”
Suppose the children of a family, reared and provided for by the most affectionate of parents, to rise up in rebellion against their father, and cast off all the feelings of filial tenderness and respect; would any qualities those children might possess, any appearance of virtue they might exhibit in other respects, compensate for such an unnatural, such an awful deformity of character? Transfer this representation to your conduct in relation to God: “If I,” says He, “am a father, where is my fear? if I am a master, where is my honor?” “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth! I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me: the ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.”
And let your humiliation be accompanied with concern and alarm. To be alienated from the great Origin of being; to be severed, or to sever yourself from the essential Author and element of all felicity, must be a calmity which none can understand, an infinite wo which none can measure or conceive. If the stream is cut off from the fountain, it soon ceases to flow, and its waters are dissipated in the air: and if the soul is cut off from God, it dies! Its vital contact with God,–its spiritual union with the Father of spirits through the blest Mediator, is the only life and beauty of the immortal soul. All, without this, are dead–“dead in trespasses and sins”! A living death–a state of restless wanderings, and unsatisfied desires! What a condition theirs! And, oh! what a prospect for such, when they look beyond this world! who will give them a welcome when they enter an eternal state? What reception will they meet with, and where? What consolation amid their losses and their sufferings, but that of the fellow-sufferers plunged in the same abyss of ruin? Impenitent sinners are allied to evil spirits, they have an affinity with the kingdom of darkness; and when they die, they are emphatically said to “go to their own place”!
This is an awful state for any to be in at present; but, blest be God, it is not yet a hopeless situation. Let no person say, “I find by what I have heard, that I do not love God, and therefore I can entertain no hope.” There is a way of return and recovery open to all. Jesus Christ, my dear brethren, proclaims to you all, “I am the way. No man can come to the Father but by me”:–but every one that will may come by this new and living way; and, if you lose life eternal, you lose it because–according to his words just before the text–because “you will not come to Christ that you may have life.” If you feel the misery, deformity, and danger of your state, then listen to His invitation, and embrace His promise. See the whole weight of your guilt transferred to His cross! See how God can be at once the just and the justifier! Take of the blood of sprinkling, and be at peace! His blood cleanseth from all sin: He will send that Spirit into your heart which will manifest Him to you; and where that Spirit is, there is liberty and holy love. He is the mystical ladder, let down from heaven to earth, on which angels are continually ascending and descending, in token of an alliance established between God and man. United by faith to Jesus Christ, you shall become a habitation of God through the Spirit; the Father will make you a partaker of His love, the Son of His grace, angels of their friendship; and you shall be preserved, and progressively sanctified, until, by the last change, all remains of the great epidemic source of evils shall be forever removed from your soul; and the love of God shall constitute your eternal felicity.
Robert Hall, Baptist divine, was born at Arnesby, near Leicester, England, in 1764. Destined for the ministry, he was educated at the Baptist Academy at Bristol, and preached for the first time in 1779. In 1783 he began his ministry in Bristol and drew crowded congregations of all classes. The tradition of Hall’s pupit oratory has secured his lasting fame. Many minds of a high order were fascinated by his eloquence, and his conversation was brilliant. His treatment of religious topics had the rare merit of commending evangelical doctrine to people of taste. Dugald Stewart declares that his writings and public utterances exhibited the English language in its perfection. He died in 1831.