Rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you:--I Thess. 5:16, 17, 18.
Now, that is a religion worth having. It is the sum and substance of all true religion. It is the religion of the Bible, the religion of Heaven. I again repeat, such a religion as my text describes is a religion worth having; and if a man has it, he will know it. Do you think it is possible for a man to rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks, and not know it? The religion of the New Testament is the simplest thing in the world. It is as open as the day. It seems to say to me, "Read me, criticize me, embrace me, and I will make you happy." And if it makes you happy, will you not know it? You cannot, then, have religion, and not know it. Our text contains two ways, two glorious ways, by which the soul ascends to God,--prayer and gratitude. It contains three links of Christian experience: joy, prayer, and thanksgiving. They all depend one upon the other; you cannot destroy one without destroying the whole. If you stop praying, you will soon stop thanking; and if you stop thanking, you will soon stop rejoicing. Cease to rejoice and the voice of thanksgiving will be hushed, and the spirit of prayer will droop and die. Then we say, "Rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing," &c. We will:
I. Show that it is the privilege of the Christian to rejoice evermore.
II. State the reason why so many professors do not attain to this happy state. First, the privilege. Were we called upon to embody and delineate the spirit of the Gospel, we would not dip our pencil in the black die of melancholy to paint a dark and dismal figure with cloudy countenance and dismal brow, clothed in sable, and heaving sighs, with a downcast look and a mournful step, as if the world were one wide burial-ground and her pathway was continually among graves; and the only light that gleamed upon that path was the ghastly light that glimmered in a charnel-house; and the only sound that met her ear was the shriek of the death struggle, and the chant of the funeral dirge. No; I would dip my pencil in the loveliest hues of heaven, to paint a bright and beautiful spirit from the skies with the love of God sparkling on her countenance and the glory of God beaming on her brow; clothed with garments of light and crowned with a wreath of amaranth; [amaranth n. 1. Any plant of the genus Amaranthus, usually having small green, red, or purple tinted flowers. 2 An imaginary flower that never fades. -Oxford Dict.] with a smile of such sweet serenity as would tell that all within was peace, the peace of God; and an aspect of holy gladness caught from every sight of beauty and every sound of melody; with a buoyant step becoming a traveler to the skies, and an upward look raised rejoicingly to Him who is her hope and happiness, and to that heaven from which she came, and to which she is returning; walking amidst earth's snares with white robes unspotted by its defilements; or descending from her high and holy communings with God, to minister to man's welfare as heaven's ministering spirit of mercy; entering the abodes of misery; and making the broken heart to sing for joy; visiting the dwellings of rejoicing, and hallowing all their happiness with the smile of God. Religion is from heaven; she walks amidst the murky gloom of earth; she is the true philosopher's stone, converting everything to gold; she is described in our text as imparting perpetual joy, "Rejoice evermore."
If you want this perpetual joy, you must cultivate it, you must keep breathing towards heaven after it. You, I say, must cultivate it; and, like everything else, it will improve by practice. There are within your reach thousands of considerations calculated to increase your joy, considerations from within, without, the past, the present, the future, hell, earth, heaven, and one spot above all others--Calvary. Very few seem to understand this happy philosophy, very few learn this blessed art; and, consequently, they are up one day and down another. Life with them is a checkered scene, full of lights and shadows; sadness, gloom, and despair, mingled with a few gleams of joy. Sorrow, however, extends its dark shadow over the greater part of life, and the sunny spots are few and far between. For a long time this was my own experience; sometimes I was happy, but the momentary joy I felt was followed by days of darkness and distress. God has led me into a higher and happier state. My soul is very happy. O, how constantly happy am I! I have proved it by sea and by land, in perils and in sunshine, I have been brought into circumstances where all human helps failed. And when death has threatened, my soul has been happy. I have been wandering for some time a stranger in a strange land, but the joy of the Lord has been my strength; my strength in traveling, in laboring, in suffering; my strength in praying, in preaching; and, when the last mortal struggle shall come, when death shall chill the current of life, when my heart and flesh shall fail, I doubt not but even then the joy of the Lord shall be my strength. The joy of the Lord is a spring of happiness; rainbow-like, it shines brightest amidst the darkest gloom, and death itself will only make it celestial and immortal.
You never glorify God by fretting away your little hour, and by murmuring at your lot. If a gentleman turns out his servants thin, lean, meager, shabbily dressed, and ill-favored, the people say, "Ah, they have a poor shop of it! We don't envy them their lot! Their looks tell what sort of a master they have." But, if he turns them out well-clothed, with fine ruddy countenances, robust, strong, and healthy in appearance, "Ah!" say the people, "they have rare times; they do their master credit; it's worthwhile being a servant to such a master as that!" It is the happy Christian that honors his religion and his God. The world sees that he has happiness to which they are strangers. "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice." Phil. 4:4. "O come, and let us sing unto the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation." Ps. 95:1. "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands; serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with singing" Ps. 98:4. "Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, ye righteous, and shout for joy all ye that are upright in heart." Ps. 33:1. "Let the saints be joyful in glory, let them sing aloud upon their beds." Ps. 149:5. "Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord." Phil. 3:1. "Let the priests be clothed with righteousness, and shout aloud for joy." "Rejoice evermore."
"Do you think," inquires one, "that all Christians have this joy?" I answer no; I never thought so. If you could follow many of them into the domestic circle, into the scenes of business, could you draw aside the veil and look at them there, would you hear expressions of joy breaking forth from their lips? No; you would hear grumbling, grumbling, grumbling at everything. If this gloomy, repining state of mind, in which multitudes of professing Christians indulge, were put into words, if what the heart says--for the heart often says to God what the lips would not for worlds utter; and, remember, God is always listening to the silent but most expressive language of the heart,--now, a believer's heart when repining, says to God (oh, may yours never speak it to him!) "God of all my blessings, God of my salvation! I believe that the disposal of all the events of my life is in thy hands, and that thou hast promised to make them all work together for my good; but still I am so dissatisfied with the manner in which thou art arranging those events. There is so much undeserved harshness, unnecessary severity, in thy dealings with me that I wish either that thou wouldst alter thy mode of treatment or that the guardianship were taken out of thy hands."
Is not this the appalling language of a repining heart? Ought he ever to read it in your heart, believer, who for your everlasting happiness has drained his own life-blood? Think, then, how it must wound him to look into your heart and see, that after all he has done, all he has suffered for you, he has failed to win for himself your acquiescence, your confidence, your supreme affection! Well, whatever be the course you pursue, here is God's will about you, "Rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." Here is the will, signed, sealed, and delivered over to you; "Rejoice evermore."
This is the will of God concerning you, but when? When you come up to heaven? No; I answer, now! It is God's will this moment concerning you, and he now holds down to you a bunch of grapes, a bunch with three of the finest grapes that ever grew in any part of the sunny world. He bids you gather them and eat. He places them near, within your reach. He offers them freely. He bids you gather, and eat, and live forever! -- continued joy, unceasing prayer, perpetual thanksgiving. Get this joy; it will be to you what the wings are to the bird. The bird does not feel his wings; they carry themselves and him too. The ship does not feel the weight of the sails; the sails carry themselves, and waft on the vessel too. The joy of the Lord, as a heavenly breeze, will waft you onward. God says to you, "Come, and I will show you the length and the breadth of Immanuel's land." The church of Christ is rising to a better understanding of her privileges. I have been, within the last few years, traveling many thousands of miles, and I have been astonished to see what multitudes of people, in different places around this planet, are gathering to the Great Messiah. The Lord hasten the time when all shall know him!
II. State the reason why so many professors do not attain to this happy state of experience.
First. Many professors in the Christian church have never been born again. This is a fact as true as it is painful. Conscience lifts up its warning voice; the Spirit flashes conviction across their minds; or, under some alarming providence or Holy Ghost sermon, they become alarmed, -convinced of sin, -- and, under the influence of these feelings, they connect themselves with the people of God, and suppose that all is right. They are deceived, and they deceive others. 'Tis true there is a great change in them, a change pervading their whole conduct. 'Tis true there is stillness, but it is the stillness of death; there is peace, but it is the peace of the tomb. The circle of ceremonies is filled up, but you never hear them say, "O, how I loved the closet! All hail, sacred hour of devotion!" Were you to listen ever so attentively, you would never hear them exclaiming, "O, precious Sabbath! how calm, how sacred, how holy, thy hands! how my soul revels in thy hallowed exercises! When wilt thou arrive?" No; their religion is a religion of fear, and all the hopes they have of heaven are based on their fancied freedom from evil, on reformation, on profession. They are proof against every argument and every appeal. Their profession acts like a lightning conductor. See! see! that old thatched house there in the distance. Look closely at it and you will see a little black rod running up along the side of it, from the bottom to the very top, and extending itself above the chimney. It is a lightning conductor. It attracts and leads off the burning element. Ah! your profession has many a time acted like the lightning conductor. When God's servants, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, have made the lightnings of divine truth flash upon you that would have demolished your refuge of lies, discovered to you your guilty state, and have led you to the blood of Christ, up went your lightning conductor, and every impression was evaded. You know nothing of deep, solid, spiritual joy. You cannot rejoice evermore. And one reason is, you have never been born again. And, until this is the case, you may as well try to unite fire and water, heaven and hell, as try to rejoice evermore. Bring together wind and water, and you will have a storm; bring into contact fire and water, and you will have a commotion; bring the holy principles of Christianity and an unholy heart, and you will have a commotion, a storm, a tempest; they cannot agree, they cannot harmonize; either you must change the religion or change the heart -they cannot unite. I tell you, you may as well try to make the poles meet, stop the winds in their course, roll back the tide, and pluck the sun from the heavens, as perpetually to rejoice without the new birth: "Marvel not that I say unto you, ye must be born again."
2. Another reason why so many professors do not rejoice evermore is, they have a STANDING DOUBT of their acceptance with God -- a doubt as to whether they are born again; and therefore they cannot rejoice evermore. Now, that is a bit of real mental philosophy. "What do you mean," says one, "by a standing doubt?" I mean that the doubt has something to stand upon; that is, you cannot tell the time and place of conversion. "Yes," says one, "I can tell the very time and place where God pardoned my sins, but I cannot rejoice evermore." Ah! I know what you are; you are a backslider! The devil could tell you that he was once in heaven -- once a son of the morning -- once an archangel in glory; that he once sang sweetly amidst the bowers of Eden; that he once raised the high hallelujahs of heaven; but what of that? He is a devil now. And what is it that you can tell the time, place, and circumstances of your conversion; -- you are a backslider now! A STANDING DOUBT! When did you get converted? In what year of our Lord was it? In what month? On what day was it? In what place? In what town did it happen? You know the place of your natural birth. You could point out the place town, room, hour, and perhaps the very minute; and probably you keep an anniversary of your birthday. O! I love to see families do that; I love to hear the voice of joy and melody in their tabernacles, while they commemorate the birthday of one of the happy group. You do this, but then you have no spiritual birthday anniversary.
"But, sir," says one, "is that essential to religion?" I answer, "Why, no, no, not essential like repentance and faith; but very desirable. I have carefully examined this point. I have had an opportunity of conversing with some thousands on the state of their experience and I am prepared to affirm that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred where they could not tell the time and place of their spiritual birth, I have found them in a very uncertain and doubtful state of experience. While I was dining the other day at a friend's house, the wife and children were all looking cheerful and happy, the husband very depressed and melancholy; presently he looked at me and said, "O, sir! I don't know what to make of this preaching! You have completely shut me up in a corner, and you only just left me one little loophole to creep out at." Whatever may be the depressions produced in minds by this kind of preaching, such is the fact,-- just about one out of a hundred! I hold that the work of conversion is so momentous, that no man can pass through it, and not know it. The Bible speaks of it as a passing from darkness to light; from the devil to Christ; from bondage to liberty; from death to life! You cannot drink the wormwood and the gall, you cannot cry for mercy, you cannot experience the new creation, -- you cannot pass through all these asleep. Is there a sailor here? I believe there is. Do you remember when your vessel dashed upon a rock, and became a wreck? Plunged in the boiling deep, you struggled through the foaming waves, and reached that rock. There you sat down, drenched, chilled, exhausted; you expected to perish. A vessel hove in sight; you waved your handkerchief; one of the crew saw you; the boat was lowered; the rope was thrown out to you; you tied it round your waist, and sprang into the sea; you were drawn out and saved. Can you forget that deliverance? No, never! never! While memory holds its seat, it will be engraven there. And, I ask the professor, can you forget when you were pardoned? when you were saved from hell? when you obtained a title to heaven? when you underwent the change that determines your destiny? But, ah! you cannot recollect the time and place of that great event. There is still that standing doubt; like Aaron's rod, it swallows up everything. Like Pharaoh's seven lean kine, it devours all; it follows you like your shadow. You retire to your closet to hold communion with God; you confess your failing; you look at the great blessings of salvation; your soul kindles with strong desire; you ask God to bestow these blessings upon you; but up comes the standing doubt. You come to the house of God; you hear the messenger of heaven opening up the great privileges of the saints; you see how infinitely superior they are to aught that earth can bestow; and you would rejoice, but there is that standing doubt. Then you think of heaven -- of that better land-of the society of the blessed -- of the employment of the redeemed -- of the visions of God -- of the eternity of glory -of the fadeless crowns: you would bless God for the prospect, and "break out into a song," but up comes the standing doubt, -- perhaps I am not a Christian; if not, the heaven is not mine. You think of hell, the fire, the gnawing worm, the burning wrath of God, the society of devils, the cry of despair, the shrieks of the lost, the howlings of the damned, the eternity of death, the universal wail, the groans of boundless woe awakening, echoing, rolling around the world of death. "But, ah!" say you," I am a professor; I am a Christian; I shall be saved from that hell." But up comes the standing doubt. "Perhaps I am; I think I am; I trust I am; but I don't know." Well, then, 'tis only "Perhaps I shall escape it; I think I shall escape it; I trust I shall escape it; but I don't know." Ah! there's the standing doubt! You cannot rejoice evermore.
Get this matter settled; get it settled at once. End this controversy with Heaven. Fly, fly to the blood -- the blood -the blood of the Lamb. I tell you, if you take not care, this standing doubt will get you into hell, after all. Now, you are pardoned, or you are not pardoned; you are condemned, or you are justified. If there was a world where there was neither a God nor a Devil, neither sin nor holiness, if there was some middle state, some border land, where you would be asked no questions about your conduct, where there would be no open books, no judgment day, -then you might have gone on with this standing doubt. But there is no border land. There is, however, a judgment day. There are books to be opened. There is a Judge, an omniscient Judge. And it's all near at hand. O! will you get this standing doubt removed? Will you get this great question set at rest?