MAN ON PROBATION.
Gal. vi. 7, 8,—" Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit, shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting."
The literal truth of what is here affirmed no one can doubt. He that sows wheat shall reap the same: he that sows rye, or * barley, or cockle, or tares, shall reap the same. Wheat that is sown will not produce tares; nor will tares produce wheat. So in morals. He that sows to the flesh, or cultivates the depraved and corrupt appetites of his nature, will reap only what those depraved and corrupt appetites can produce—wretchedness, corruption, and woe. He that cultivates the affections produced by the Spirit of God, shall inherit life everlasting. God is not mocked. He is no more imposed upon by any art of man, so that happiness is the result of sin, than he is in respect to grain that is sown. Eternal life can no more be made the fruit of fleshly appetites than a harvest of wheat can, be made to grow in a field sown only with tares.
The doctrine then is, that man is on trial or probation with reference to his future state; and that the destiny in the eternal world will depend on the character formed in this life. This truth I propose to explain and to defend.
In trffe explanation of the doctrine, I would observe, that I do not use the word probation as implying that man is not fallen, or that he is on trial in the same sense in which Adam was when created. Considerable exception has been taken to the use of that word, as if it implied that in all respects the condition of man now is the same as before the fall. But this idea is not necessarily conveyed by the use of the word. Nor is it meant that man does not come into the world with a strong and uersal tendency to sin—a tendency uniform in its nature and effects, except when arrested by the grace of God.
The essential idea in the term is, that future happiness and reward are dependent on present conduct and character. Adam was in the strictest sense of the word on probation. He was created, indeed, holy. But it was important, for purposes which ■ need not now be referred to, that his holiness should be tested. A single act would do that as well as many acts—just as a man's character now may be fully tried if placed in some extraordinary circumstances of temptation. God, therefore, forbade a specific act on pain of death; with, it is commonly supposed, an implied promise that if he obeyed, he should be confirmed in obedience, and be rewarded with eternal life. He acted; fell; involved his posterity in ruin; and died. The probation was complete ; the trial was passed. His virtue was not proof to the temptation. As the head and father of the race, he sinned and fell; as his children, we inherit the consequences of the unsuccessful probation.
Man is not now on probation in the same sense in which Adam was; nor will he ever be again. He is not in the same circumstances ; he has not the same character; he does not begin life as he did. No man can now secure immortal temporal life, as Adam might have done, as the fruit of obedience; none can stretch out his hand and take hold of the crown of glory, as he might have done, as the reward of personal obedience. The affairs of the race are placed on a different footing; and this idea is never to be lost sight of when we speak of the probation of fallen men.
The following remarks will explain what is meant when we make use of this word:—
(1.) The essential thing in all probation or trial is, that the happiness or misery of the future is determined by the conduct of the present. Man acts with reference to that which is to come; and his conduct draws on a train of consequences in that future period. His actions do not terminate in the immediate pleasure or pain in committing them, but they constitute that by which his happiness is to be determined hereafter.
(2.) The great thing contemplated always by probation is still set before the human family. The same heaven is to be secured, and the same hell avoided, as when man was made in the image of God. If man succeeds in reaching the rewards of heaven, they will be the same rewards which would have been obtained had Adam not sinned; if he sinks to hell, it will be the same hell to which he sunk for his sin, unless he repented and was pardoned.
3. The same character is demanded of man as that which would be required if man had never sinned. Heaven will be made up of holy beings—possessing holiness of the same kind whether it be by those who never fell, or those who are recovered by redemption. There will not be two kinds of holiness in heaven; and it is as necessary now that man should be holy in order to enter it, as it was that Adam should be, or any one of the angels. , (4.) While the main thing before man now is the same, and the holiness required is of the same nature, the mode by which heaven is to be reached now is different, and the question now before man, and on which he is to be tried, is changed. Man is not now to obtain eternal life, as Adam might have done, by personal obedience and by unsullied holiuess. That is now out of the question in a world where all are born prone to sin, and are certain to sin. The question now is, not whether you will obey perfectly a pure and holy law—for no man could be saved if that were the question—but whether you will repent of your sins, embrace the offer of pardon through a Redeemer, and submit to a process of sanctiflcation under the Spirit of God, designed to fit you for heaven. In regard to this, I would observe further, that it is as simple a question as can be submitted to man, or ever was. The question solemnly proposed to each successive mortal as he comes on to the stage of being, whether he will repent and believe in the name of the Saviour, is as intelligible, and as plain, as was the question proposed to Adam whether he would abstain from the forbidden fruit. It is a question adapted in all respects to his powers, and one the answer to which may as reasonably affect and determine his destiny hereafter. Bear in remembrance, therefore, that the question on which man is tried, and is to be tried; the question which is to be determined by your living on earth, and the only very material question is, whether you will embrace the Lord Jesus and depend on his atonement for salvation. It is not whether you are beautiful—for heaven cannot be made to depend on that; it is not whether you are rich, or learned, or accomplished—for it would obviously be absurd to make the bliss of a holy heaven depend on that; it is not whether you deserve to be praised, flattered, or caressed, or whether you can clothe yourself in fine linen and fare sumptuously every day; it is not whether you are externally moral, and a man of truth and honesty; it is, whether you comply with God's commands in embracing the gospel of his Son, and are willing to be pardoned and saved through him. " For he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned." If you sow to the flesh, you show that you are not willing to be saved in that manner; if you sow to the Spirit, you show that you are disposed to embrace him, and shall reap everlasting life.
(5.) The theatre of probation is this narrow world where we are placed. The time of probation is the present life—that narrow, pent-up, short and shortening period in which we are to dwell on earth;—that life which the Bible calls a vapour;— those days which the Scriptures say are like a handbreadth, and a weaver's shuttle. It is all confined to that unknown portion of existence which constitutes our life; or rather to that uncertain period lying between the present moment and death. We can fix the outer limits—and then draw them gradually nearer to us. We can say it is not a thousand years; it is not five hundred years; it is not one hundred years; with many it is certainly not fifty, with some not half that;—with some here it is morally certain it is not one year; with any one of you, it may not be a week! Yet there lies the question of probation. There the character is to be determined. How much like sowing seed on the margin of an ocean—all along whose borders a thick mist lies which no eye can penetrate ; and where, for aught you know, the next wave may break over you and sweep all away!
(6.) One other remark respecting probation. It is, that God holds in his hand the prerogative of closing it when he pleases. Of the particular period when it is to cease he has given no indication in the book of nature or of grace. The question of probation, like that proposed to Adam, does not require much time to settle it. It may be done in an instant, as well as in a hundred years. It may as certainly be determined of a young man at fifteen or twenty, whether he is willing to embrace the gospel and to sow to the Spirit, as at eighty or a hundred years. It may be determined by the simple offer of the gospel to-day, as well as by repeated offers for many years. No man can control God in this, or prescribe to him how long the probation is to continue; no man can determine by any act when it shall close; no man can tell in what circumstances it will end. No one can ascertain, in reference to himself, whether it would be agreeable to God that he should plead for pardon on a death-bed, when he has a thousand times rejected it in health; no one can ascertain whether God will not visit him with delirium or stupor on a bed of death; no one whether he will not cut him down so instantaneously that he may not utter the short cry, " Lord, have mercy on me," when he comes to die.—The end of life to all is hidden. The death of each one comes up in its proper place— unknown to him till his turn arrives. The wheels of nature roll on; and as God advances his vast plans, the individual whose turn is next, dies. Not a moment is given him if he is unprepared. To us it seems to he irregular—but an invisible finger touches the springs of life: like the skilful finger that runs apparently so irregularly over the piano, yet the proper key is touched—and to God all is harmony. Probationers die when according to his views they ought to die; and when that time comes, no created being can for a moment put back the gentle touch which reaches the heart,strings. You cannot know, if you would, where is the outer limit of your life; you need not be deceived by supposing that it is far off. If your eyes were open, you might see the hideous gulph yawn even now at your feet.
With these explanations, I proceed to show that the present is a state of probation. I desire to show you that your eternal destiny is to be determined by your character in this life, and particularly by the question whether you will or will not embrace the Lord Jesus Christ.
(1.) I begin, in the first place, with that which is most obvious, and which settles the general principle. It is, that our conduct at one period of our lives determine the destiny of the future. With this truth all are familiar; and it is not necessary to dwell on it. As a general law, industry, sobriety, and honesty in youth are the pledge of health, competence, and esteem in old age. On the other hand, vice in youth conducts, as a general law, to poverty, shame, the penitentiary, and the gallows. On this principle the world acts, and must act. Every young man is on trial with reference to the future. Every apprentice, or student, is thus a probationer. No one presumes that a young man is worthy of unlimited confidence until he gives proof of it; no one is disposed to withhold it when he has furnished that proof. Thus it is everywhere. The man that sows, reaps. The man that labours has a competence ; the idle and dissipated have not. The young man that has moral principle enough to pass a gaming-room when it allures—or to pass a tavern when it tempts him—or to refuse to go near either when invited,—which is the probation that fixes the doom, temporal and eternal, of many a young man,—may have a tried virtue which will ultimately secure the confidence of the world. The professional man that is attentive to his business is appropriately rewarded. He that toils not, that wastes his youth in idleness or dissipation, or that is a mere hanger-on in his profession, will ultimately drop into deserved insignificance and contempt.
So well settled is this law, that were a man certain that he would live through a period of eighty years, and be favoured with ordinary health, he could almost draw out a chart of his course, and determine the measure of his wealth and honour in that distant period. And were my object at this time to convince those whom I now address that their future lives here would be determined by their present character and conduct, I might now close, for my work would be done. Indeed, I should do no more than state to you the principle on which you yourselves act every day, and repeat the lesson which you have heard from the very cradle. We can easily convince any young man that his prospect of eminence in his profession, or of wealth in future years, depends on his character and conduct now. Nay, I should not despair of being able to convince a young man in danger of falling into habits of dissipation, that he is dependent on his good conduct now for esteem, and health, and property, and even life, in future years. Were this the only object of my preaching, I should in every discourse carry my readers with me, and satisfy every mind.
Yet when I attempt to carry the mind across that very narrow but most cold and turbid stream which divides the present from the unseen world—death; when I attempt to carry the argument though but the smallest distance into eternity, and to survey the landmarks set up along our future being there, and to show that men are cn probation for that state as well as for old age, I part with, alas! the most of my hearers. They seem to suppose that at death their interest in all things stops; that there is a final pause of being; and they feel no concern in inquiring whether the probation for future years on earth may not run ou into the higher probation for an eternity beyond. There they stand near the brink, interested in all that is this side the Jordan ; wholly uninterested in all that is beyond. My hearer! I ask you for once to forget that you are to die—a thing which I need not commonly ask you to do. It is not commonly remembered too much—but I ask you to Forget IT for a moment, and to look just at one point—THE COnTInUAnCE OF Existence —as if there were no death ; no grave. I ask you to remember that death suspends not your existence; changes not your nature ; affects not your character ;—that your souls will live on In death, and will live on Beyond for ever.
You are now a probationer for future health, reputation, property, office. This you know; this you will not deny. Your character and conduct now is to affect all your course ever onward in this world. Young man, you are on trial every day ■with reference to future years, and you expect that your destiny in this life will be determined by the character you form now. I have now to ask you, why should this state of things stop at death ? Why should the course of events be arrested then ? Why should affairs beyond be carried on on a new and independent principle ? Tell me, what is death ? Is it annihilation ? Is it the destruction of any mental power ? Is it the loss of consciousness ? Is it a change in the nature of the soul ? Oh no. Not so much as one night's sleep. For in sleep our senses are locked up; we become unconscious, and sink into forgetfulness; and the intercourse with the living world is suspended ; and to us it is as if it were not. Yet, when we wake, we find the actions of yesterday determine our destiny to-day. We walk amidst the results of the plans and deeds of the past; and we have brought over with us the character which we formed then—nor can we separate it from us. The man who toiled yesterday sees his fields to-day ripening and waving in the sun ; the professional man of industry and skill yesterday finds to-day his way thronged by those attracted by the character he has formed; the man of temperance rises strong as in the dew of youth from healthful repose ; and each one meets the rewards of the probation of yesterday. So the man of idleness, and intemperance, and vice, and crime, meets to-day the consequences which have travelled with him through the disturbed slumbers of the night; and he reaps the recompense of the conduct of the preceding day. Why should not the same thing go through the sleep of death—that sleep which we speak of as long, and quiet, and undisturbed—but which may not be, and which it not probably a momentf Why not rather ? Death is not even sleep. It suspends nothing; arrests nothing. The unslumbering soul, in the fulness of its immortal energies, breaks from its clay tenement, and wings its way to God. Not one of its powers is annihilated ; not one of its faculties sleeps. It goes a complete moral agent, with the character formed here, up to the bar of God ; and while the living convey the body to the grave, and speak of the sleep of death, that immortal spirit has soared to higher regions, and is fully awake to sleep no more.
(2.) A second consideration showing that this is a state of probation is derived from the fact, that rewards and punishments here are not equally distributed. This fact is well known, and needs scarcely more than a passing remark. The force of the argument, I admit, proceeds on the supposition that God is a just Being—a fact which must here be taken for granted. If he is, nothing can he clearer than that there must be a future state, where virtue will be rewarded, and vice punished. The fact in regard to the point now before us is this:—The affairs of men are arrested in the midst of their way. The righteous are not always rewarded with health and happiness; nor are the wicked always punished. It may be true, that if men were to live long enough on earth, things would come near to adjusting themselves to what is right; but they are arrested. Had Paul, for example, lived to the present time, his name would have been clothed with all the honour which he could desire. Had the early martyrs lived, or had they been raised from their ashes to life again, all the honour which has clustered around their names—and it is all that any man could wish—might have gathered around them. But as it was, they died amidst contempt and scorn. So the world over. Virtue is often despised, persecuted, and neglected ; vice triumphs, and riots, and revels, unrebuked and unpunished. Profaneness occupies a splendid dwelling; profligacy is elevated to office; perfidy and meanness and sensuality lie on a bed of down. Now all this looks to something future, and must be adjusted in some future world. No man can believe that under the government of a just God this state of things is to continue always; nor that those various characters either are to be, or should be, treated alike in the future world. The state of things on earth is just such as to keep before us as impressively as possible the truth that this is a world of probation, and it must be such, or the government of God is incapable of vindication.
(3.) The whole arrangement in the Bible, and in the plan of salvation, regards man as in a state of probation. It is but varying the mode while the same great object is kept steadily in view. Our first father, indeed, by a most rash and wicked deed, for ever prevented the possibility of reaching heaven by works. On that plan, we have reason to suppose, the angels stood, and were confirmed in bliss. But that single deed for ever prevented our race from obtaining heaven in that way. Still, the object was too great to be abandoned ; and another mode is proposed in the gospel. The same object is in view— heaven ; the same holiness is demanded ; the same conformity to the will of God is required. The plan is varied—not abandoned. God plucked no jewel from the crown of glory; he abridged none of the joys of heaven ; he dried up none of the fountains of life. He did not offer to man a tarnished crown, or diminished and faded joys. It is the same heaven still, in the fulness of its glory ; the same crown ; the same light; the same river of life ; the same freedom from pain and woe. The way of reaching it only is changed. Ho proposes a new question—adapted to the new circumstances of man; but still as simple, and as easy of compliance as possible. It is, whether men will repent and accept of heaven now as a gift; whether they will believe the record which God has given of his Son, and embrace life without money and without price.
This is the question which is now before men. And this is the question which God is constantly pressing on their attention. By the preaching of the gospel; by his Spirit; by his providence ; by all the means that can be devised, he is bringing this question home to the minds of men, and demanding a reply.
But is this state of things to continue always ? Is this probation to bo lengthened out and varied in some future world, or is it finally to close when the sinner leaves this state of being ? An essential idea in the notion of probation is, that it is not to continue always; that it is to give place to retribution, and that present conduct is to determine the future destiny. Now, is the arrangement of the plan of redemption made on this supposition, or is it on the supposition that the state of things in which we now are, or a state of things similar to that, is to continue for ever ? Is God again to send his Son to the lost and ruined, after the lapse of many ages, to be crucified again, and to make another atonement for sin ? Is he to fill up eternity by ineffectual appeals and remonstrances, and by repeating invitations to be for ever rejected ? Is he to send down his Spirit to strive always with men in this world and the next, and to be grieved and resisted for ever ? No. This strange state of things must cease. There is to be no other sacrifice for sin. There is to be no other world where the Spirit of God will strive with men. There is not to be an eternal preaching of the Gospel—an eternal succession of appeals and remonstrances on the part of God. The period must, in the nature of things, come when this will cease, and the affairs of the world will be wound up. There is but one Great Sacrifice for sin; and when that has been fairly and fully presented to the mind according to the Divine purpose and arrangement, and has been rejected, the probation must then end. Air the arrangements of the plan of redemption contemplate such a close; and the affairs of earth are moving on to such a consummation.
(4.) The doom of man may, with evident propriety, be fixed at the close of this life. What better world of probation could there be than this ? What stronger inducements to holiness could be presented than are here set before man ? What more simple and easy tests could be furnished than are furnished in the gospel ? And though life is short, yet that " life is long which answers life's great end;" and the great end is to prepare for heaven. Though it is short, yet it is long enough to repent of sin, to embrace the gospel, and to secure an interest in the world of glory. Not the age of Methuselah is needful for that; for the child may embrace it, and the man of years might have embraced it a thousand times. His life has been long enough to reject the plan; and a life which is long enough to reject it, is long enough to embrace it. In regard to the reception or the rejection of the gospel, and in regard to the whole character of man, the question is fully tested by this life. What further trial is necessary for a man who has lived for eighty, or sixty, or fifty, or forty years ; who has a thousand times been offered salvation ; and who has as often rejected it ? Why should it be necessary for him to live another eighty years to know what he is ? What would be gained, either in justice or propriety, if that period were doubled or quadrupled ? What would be gained if the same thing were to be rejected till time itself shall end ? Is there any doubt about his character?
Here bear in mind one truth which all men are prone to forget. It does not require many years, or many deeds, to test the character, and show what man is. The prisoner in the cold dungeon condemned to die, that would treat the offer of pardon with scorn, if you can suppose such a case, does he not by that single act show what he is ? Is it needful to go again and again, to submit to repeated neglect or insult in order to ascertain what he is ? So of man. If pardon and heaven are fairly offered and are rejected, it is enough. It settles the question, and determines what the man is. And when the character is thus settled, why should not man die, and his eternal doom he fixed according to the deeds done in the body ?
(5.) Lastly, I observe, that God regards men as on probation, and treats them accordingly. He offers them salvation; he treats them as moral agents ; he sets life and death before them ; he places them in circumstances where they must develope their character, and then he removes them to another world. What the nature of that world is, he has told us. As the tree falls, so it lies. He that is holy shall be holy still, and he that is filthy shall be filthy still. The one part shall go away into everlasting punishment, the other into life eternal. In all the volume of revelation, there is not the slightest hint on which ingenuity has ever fastened that intimates that there will be any other world of probation ; not a hint that the Redeemer will again bleed, or that pardon will be offered there in virtue of his atonement made on earth; not an intimation that the sacred Spirit will ever be again sent to purify a polluted heart. As man dies, he is to continue for ever; and as his character is formed in this life, so must be his final doom.
My point I regard as established. It remains only, before I conclude, to entreat those whom I now address not to be deceived. God .is not mocked, and he cannot be under any delusion in regard to what you are. He will judge you according to your true character; a character which is to be ascertained by the manner in which you treat his offer of mercy through Jesus Christ. No man need deceive himself on this point; no man need be lost. Nothing is plainer than the gospel of Christ; nothing more clear than what God requires you to do. It is, to repent and believe the gospel; to embrace the terms of mercy, and lead a holy life. To do that is to sow to the Spirit; not to do that is to sow to the flesh. And if instead of doing that, my fellow-sinner, you choose to pursue the ways of licentious and sensual pleasure; to give the reins to corrupt and corrupting passions; to make provision only for this life, I forewarn you that God will not be mocked in this thing ; nor will he suppose that such a course can entitle you to reap everlasting life. You will reap corruption. You will gather the appropriate harvest of such a course. You are here for a little time—yet time long enough with reference to a future world; and you are every day, and hour, and moment, forming a character for that future world. Soon you will be there. Soon you will give up your account for all the deeds done in the body. To apprize you of that fact I now address you, with one more message announcing to you that you must soon give up your account, and assuring you once more that the great question which your Creator designs shall be settled, is not whether you are accomplished, or learned, or beautiful, or rich, or honoured; but whether you have embraced the offer of mercy through a Redeemer, and have truly repented of your sins. On the grave's brink you stand, and soon this question will be settled for ever; and I conjure you to act for eternity. For soon the harvest will be passed, and the summer ended—whether you are or are not saved.