A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
by William Law
Of evening prayer. Of the nature and necessity of examination. How we are to be particular in the confession of all our sins. How we are to fill our minds with a just horror and dread of all sin.
I AM now come to six o'clock in the evening, which, according to the Scripture account, is called the twelfth, or last hour of the day. This is a time so proper for devotion, that I suppose nothing need be said to recommend it as a season of prayer to all people that profess any regard to piety.
As the labour and action of every state of life is generally over at this hour, so this is the proper time for every one to call himself to account and review all his behaviour from the first action of the day. The necessity of this examination is founded upon the necessity of repentance. For if it be necessary to repent of all our sins, if the guilt of unrepented sins still continue upon us, then it is necessary, not only that all our sins, but the particular circumstances and aggravations of them, be known, and recollected, and brought to repentance.
The Scripture saith, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." [John i. 9] Which is as much as to say, that then only our sins are forgiven, and we cleansed from the guilt and unrighteousness of them, when they are thus confessed and repented of.
There seems therefore to be the greatest necessity, that all our daily actions be constantly observed and brought to account, lest by a negligence we load ourselves with the guilt of unrepented sins.
This examination therefore of ourselves every evening is not only to be considered as a commendable rule, and fit for a wise man to observe, but as something that is as necessary as a daily confession and repentance of our sins; because this daily repentance is very little significancy, and loses all its chief benefit, unless it be a particular confession and repentance of the sins of that day. This examination is necessary to repentance, in the same manner as time is necessary; you cannot repent or express your sorrow, unless you allow some time for it; nor can you repent, but so far as you know what it is that you are repenting of. So that when it is said, that it is necessary to examine and call your actions to account; it is only saying, that it is necessary to know what, and how many things you are to repent of.
You perhaps have hitherto only used yourself to confess yourself a sinner in general, and ask forgiveness in the gross, without any particular remembrance, or contrition for the particular sins of that day. And by this practice you are brought to believe, that the same short general form of confession of sin in general, is a sufficient repentance for every day.
Suppose another person should hold, that a confession of our sins in general once at the end of every week was sufficient; and that it was as well to confess the sins of seven days altogether, as to have a particular repentance at the end of every day: I know you sufficiently see the unreasonableness and impiety of this opinion, and that you think it is easy enough to show the danger and folly of it.
Yet you cannot bring one argument against such an opinion, but what will be as good an argument against such a daily repentance as does not call the particular sins of that day to a strict account.
For as you can bring no express text of Scripture against such an opinion, but must take all your arguments from the nature of repentance, and the necessity of a particular repentance for particular sins, so every argument of that kind must as fully prove the necessity of being very particular in our repentance of the sins of every day; since nothing can be justly said against leaving the sins of the whole week to be repented for in the gross, but what may as justly be said against a daily repentance which considers the sins of that day only in the gross.
Would you tell such a man, that a daily confession was necessary to keep up an abhorrence of sin, that the mind would grow hardened and senseless of the guilt of sin without it? And is not this as good a reason for requiring that your daily repentance be very express and particular for your daily sins? For if confession is to raise an abhorrence of sin, surely that confession which considers and lays open your particular sins, that brings them to light with all their circumstances and aggravations, that requires a particular sorrowful acknowledgment of every sin, must, in a much greater degree, fill the mind with an abhorrence of sin, than that which only, in one and the same form of words, confesses you only to be a sinner in general. For as this is nothing but what the greatest saint may justly say of himself, so the daily repeating of only such a confession has nothing in it to make you truly ashamed of your own way of life.
Again: must you not tell such a man, that by leaving himself to such a weekly general confession, he would be in great danger of forgetting a great many of his sins? But is there any sense or force in this argument, unless you suppose that our sins are all to be remembered, and brought to a particular repentance? And is it not necessary that our particular sins be not forgotten, but particularly remembered in our daily repentances, as in a repentance at any other time?
So that every argument for a daily confession and repentance, is the same argument for the confession and repentance of the particular sins of every day.
Because daily confession has no other reason nor necessity but our daily sins; and therefore is nothing of what it should be, but so far as it is a repentance and sorrowful acknowledgment of the sins of the day.
You would, I suppose, think yourself chargeable with great impiety, if you were to go to bed without confessing yourself to be a sinner and asking pardon of God; you would not think it sufficient that you did so yesterday. And yet if, without any regard to the present day, you only repeat the same form on words that you used yesterday, the sins of the present day may justly be looked upon to have had no repentance. For if the sins of the present day require a new confession, it must be such a new confession as is proper to itself. For it is the state and condition of every day that is to determine the state and manner of your repentance in the evening; otherwise the same general form of words is rather an empty formality that has the appearance of a duty, than such a true performance of it as is necessary to make it truly useful to you.
Let it be supposed, that on a certain day you have been guilty of these sins; that you have told a vain lie upon yourself, ascribing something falsely to yourself, through pride; that you have been guilty of detraction, and indulged yourself in some degree of intemperance. Let it be supposed, that on the next day you have lived in a contrary manner; that you have neglected no duty of devotion, and been the rest of the day innocently employed in your proper business. Let it be supposed, that on the evening of both these days you only use the same confession in general, considering it rather as a duty that is to be performed every night, than as a repentance that is to be suited to the particular state of the day.
Can it with any reason be said, that each day has had its proper repentance? Is it not as good sense to say, there is no difference in the guilt of these days, as to say that there need be no different repentance at the end of them? Or how can each of them have its proper repentance, but by its having a repentance as large, and extensive, and particular as the guilt of each day?
Again: let it be supposed, that in that day, when you had been guilty of the three notorious sins above mentioned, that45 in your evening repentance, you had only called one of them to mind. Is it not plain, that the other two are unrepented of, and that, therefore, their guilt still abides upon you? So that you are then in the state of him who commits himself to the night without the repentance for such a day as had betrayed him into two such great sins.
Now these are not needless particulars, or such scrupulous niceties, as a man need not trouble himself about; but are such plain truths, as essentially concern the very life of piety. For if repentance is necessary, it is full as necessary that it be rightly performed, and in due manner.
And I have entered into all these particulars, only to show you, in the plainest manner, that examination and a careful review of all the actions of the day, is not only to be looked upon as a good rule, but as something as necessary as repentance itself.
If a man is to account for his expenses at night, can it be thought a needless exactness in him, to take notice of every particular expense in the day?
And if a man is to repent of his sins at night, can it be thought too great a piece of scrupulosity in him, to know and call to mind what sins he is to repent of.
Farther; though it should be granted that a confession in general may be a sufficient repentance for the end of such days as have only the unavoidable frailties of our nature to lament; yet even this folly proves the absolute necessity of this self-examination: for without this examination, who can know that he has gone through any day in this manner?
Again: an evening repentance, which thus brings all the actions of the day to account, is not only necessary to wipe off the guilt of sin, but is also the most certain way to amend and perfect our lives.
For it is only such a repentance as this that touches the heart, awakens the conscience, and leaves an horror and detestation of sin upon the mind.
For instance: if it should happen, that upon any particular evening, all that you could charge yourself with should be this, namely, a hasty, negligent performance of your devotions, or too much time spent in an impertinent conversation; if the unreasonableness of these things were fully reflected upon and acknowledged; if you were then to condemn yourself before God for them, and implore His pardon and assisting grace; what could be so likely a means to prevent your falling into the same faults the next day?
Or if you should fall into them again the next day, yet if they were again brought to the same examination and condemnation in the presence of God, their happening again would be such a proof to you of your own folly and weakness, would cause such a pain and remorse in your mind, and fill you with such shame and confusion at yourself, as would, in all probability, make you exceedingly desirous of greater perfection.
Now in the case of repeated sins, this would be the certain benefit that we should receive from this examination and confession; the mind would thereby be made humble, full of sorrow and deep compunction, and, by degrees, forced into amendment.
Whereas a formal, general confession, that is only considered as an evening duty, that overlooks the particular mistakes of the day, and is the same, whether the day be spent ill or well, has little or no effect upon the mind; a man may use such a daily confession, and yet go on sinning and confessing all his life, without any remorse of mind, or true desire of amendment.
For if your own particular sins are left out of your confession, your confessing of sin in general has no more effect upon your mind than if you had only confessed that all men in general are sinners. And there is nothing in any confession to show that it is yours, but so far as it is a self-accusation, not of sin in general, or such as is common to all others, but of such particular sins as are your own proper shame and reproach.
No other confession but such as thus discovers and accuses your own particular guilt can be an act of true sorrow, or real concern at your own condition. And a confession that is without this sorrow and compunction of heart, has nothing in it, either to atone for past sins, or to produce in us any true reformation and amendment of life.
To proceed: In order to make this examination still farther beneficial, every man should oblige himself to a certain method in it. As every man has something particular in his nature, stronger inclinations to some vices than others, some infirmities that stick closer to him, and are harder to be conquered than others; and as it is as easy for every man to know this of himself, as to know whom he likes or dislikes; so it is highly necessary, that these particularities of our natures and tempers should never escape a severe trial at our evening repentance. I say, a severe trial, because nothing but a rigorous severity against these natural tempers is sufficient to conquer them.
They are the right eyes that are not to be spared; but to be plucked out and cast from us. For as they are the infirmities of nature, so they have the strength of nature, and must be treated with great opposition, or they will soon be too strong for us.
He, therefore, who knows himself most of all subject to anger and passion, must be very exact and constant in his examination of this temper every evening. He must find out every slip that he has made of that kind, whether in thought, or word, or action; he must shame, and reproach, and accuse himself before God, for everything that he has said or done in obedience to his passion. He must no more allow himself to forget the examination of this temper than to forget his whole prayers.
Again: If you find that vanity is your prevailing temper, that is always putting you upon the adornment of your person, and catching after everything that compliments or flatters your abilities, never spare nor forget this temper in your evening examination; but confess to God every vanity of thought, or word, or action, that you have been guilty of, and put yourself to all the shame and confusion for it that you can.
In this manner should all people act with regard to their chief frailty, to which their nature most inclines them. And though it should not immediately do all that they would wish, yet, by a constant practice, it would certainly in a short time produce its desired effect.
Farther: As all states and employments of life have their particular dangers and temptations, and expose people more to some sins than others, so every man that wishes his own improvement, should make it a necessary part of his evening examination, to consider how he has avoided, or fallen into such sins, as are most common to his state of life.
For as our business and condition of life has great power over us, so nothing but such watchfulness as this can secure us from those temptations to which it daily exposes us.
The poor man, from his condition of life, is always in danger of repining and uneasiness; the rich man is most exposed to sensuality and indulgence; the tradesman to lying and unreasonable gains; the scholar to pride and vanity: so that in every state of life, a man should always, in his examination of himself, have a strict eye upon those faults to which his state of life most of all exposes him.
Again: As it is reasonable to suppose that every good man has entered into, or at least proposed to himself, some method of holy living, and set himself some such rules to observe, as are not common to other people, and only known to himself: so it should be a constant part of his night recollection, to examine how, and in what degree, he has observed them, and to reproach himself before God for every neglect of them.
By rules, I here mean such rules as relate to the well ordering of our time, and the business of our common life; such rules as prescribe a certain order to all that we are to do, our business, devotion, mortifications, readings, retirements, conversation, meals, refreshments, sleep, and the like.
Now, as good rules relating to all these things are certain means of great improvement, and such as all serious Christians must needs propose to themselves, so they will hardly ever be observed to any purpose, unless they are made the constant subject of our evening examination.
Lastly, You are not to content yourself with a hasty general review of the day, but you must enter upon it with deliberation; begin with the first action of the day, and proceed, step by step, through every particular matter that you have been concerned in, and so let no time, place, or action be overlooked.
An examination thus managed, will in a little time make you as different from yourself, as a wise man is different from an idiot. It will give you such a newness of mind, such a spirit of wisdom, and desire of perfection, as you were an entire stranger to before.
Thus much concerning the evening examination.
I proceed now to lay before you such considerations as may fill your mind with a just dread and horror of all sin, and help you to confess your own, in the most passionate contrition and sorrow of heart.
Consider first, how odious all sin is to God, what a mighty baseness it is, and how abominable it renders sinners in the sight of God. That it is sin alone that makes the great difference betwixt an Angel and the devil; and that every sinner is, so far as he sins, a friend of the devil's, and carrying on his work against God. That sin is a greater blemish and defilement of the soul, than any filth or disease is a defilement of the body. And to be content to live in sin is a much greater baseness, than to desire to wallow in the mire, or love any bodily impurity.
Consider how you must abhor a creature that delighted in nothing but filth and nastiness, that hated everything that was decent and clean: and let this teach you to apprehend, how odious that soul that delights in nothing but the impurity of sin, must appear unto God.
For all sins, whether of sensuality, pride, or falseness, or any other irregular passion, are nothing else but the filth and impure diseases of the rational soul. And all righteousness is nothing else but the purity, the decency, the beauty, and perfection of that spirit which is made in the image of God.
Again: Learn what horror you ought to have for the guilt of sin, from the greatness of that Atonement which has been made for it.
God made the world by the breath of His mouth, by a word speaking, but the redemption of the world has been a work of longer labour.
How easily God can create beings, we learn from the first chapter of Genesis; but how difficult it is for infinite mercy to forgive sins, we learn from that costly Atonement, those bloody sacrifices, those pains and penances, those sicknesses and deaths, which all must be undergone, before the guilty sinner is fit to appear in the presence of God.
Ponder these great truths: that the Son of God was forced to become man, to be partaker of all our infirmities, to undergo a poor, painful, miserable, and contemptible life, to be persecuted, hated, and at last nailed to a cross, that, by such sufferings, He might render God propitious to that nature in which He suffered.
That all the bloody sacrifices and atonements of the Jewish law were to represent the necessity of this great Sacrifice, and the great displeasure God bore to sinners.
That the world is still under the curse of sin, and certain marks of God's displeasure at it; such as famines, plagues, tempests, sickness, diseases, and death.
Consider that all the sons of Adam are to go through a painful, sickly life, denying and mortifying their natural appetites, and crucifying the lusts of the flesh, in order to have a share in the Atonement of our Saviour's death.
That all their penances and self-denials, all their tears and repentance, are only made available by that great intercession which is still making for them at the right hand of God.
Consider these great truths; that this mysterious redemption, all these sacrifices and sufferings, both of God and man, are only to remove the guilt of sin; and then let this teach you, with what tears and contrition you ought to purge yourself from it.
After this general consideration of the guilt of sin, which has done so much mischief to your nature, and exposed it to so great punishment, and made it so odious to God, that nothing less than so great an Atonement of the Son of God, and so great repentance of our own, can restore us to the Divine favour:
Consider next your own particular share in the guilt of sin. And if you would know with what zeal you ought to repent yourself, consider how you would exhort another sinner to repentance: and what repentance and amendment you would expect from him whom you judged to be the greatest sinner in the world.
Now this case every man may justly reckon to be his own. And you may fairly look upon yourself to be the greatest sinner that you know in the world.
For though you may know abundance of people to be guilty of some gross sins, with which you cannot charge yourself, yet you may justly condemn yourself as the greatest sinner that you know. And that for these following reasons:
First, Because you know more of the folly of your own heart, than you do of other people's; and can charge yourself with various sins, that you only know of yourself, and cannot be sure that other sinners are guilty of them. So that as you know more of the folly, the baseness, the pride, the deceitfulness and negligence of your own heart, than you do of any one's else, so you have just reason to consider yourself as the greatest sinner that you know: because you know more of the greatness of your own sins, than you do of other people's.
Secondly, The greatness of our guilt arises chiefly from the greatness of God's goodness towards us, from the particular graces and blessings, the favours, the lights and instructions that we have received from Him.
Now as these graces and blessings, and the multitude of God's favours towards us, are the great aggravations of our sins against God, so they are only known to ourselves. And therefore every sinner knows more of the aggravations of his own guilt, than he does of other people's; and consequently may justly look upon himself to be the greatest sinner that he knows.
How good God has been to other sinners, what light and instruction He has vouchsafed to them; what blessings and graces they have received from Him; how often He has touched their hearts with holy inspirations, you cannot tell. But all this you know of yourself: therefore you know greater aggravations of your own guilt, and are able to charge yourself with greater ingratitude, than you can charge upon other people.
And this is the reason, why the greatest saints have in all ages condemned themselves as the greatest sinners, because they knew some aggravations of their own sins, which they could not know of other people's.
The right way, therefore, to fill your heart with true contrition, and a deep sense of your own sins, is this: You are not to consider, or compare the outward form, or course of your life, with that of other people's, and then think yourself to be less sinful than they, because the outward course of your life is less sinful than theirs.
But in order to know your own guilt, you must consider your own particular circumstances, your health, your sickness, your youth or age, your particular calling, the happiness of your education, the degrees of light and instruction that you have received, the good men that you have conversed with, the admonitions that you have had, the good books that you have read, the numberless multitude of Divine blessings, graces, and favours that you have received, the good motions of grace that you have resisted, the resolutions of amendment that you have often broken, and the checks of conscience that you have disregarded.
For it is from these circumstances that every one is to state the measure and greatness of his own guilt. And as you know only these circumstances of your own sins, so you must necessarily know how to charge yourself with higher degrees of guilt, than you can charge upon other people.
God Almighty knows greater sinners, it may be, than you are; because He sees and knows the circumstances of all men's sins, but your own heart, if it is faithful to you, can discover no guilt so great as your own: because it can only see in you those circumstances, on which great part of the guilt of sin is founded.
You may see sins in other people that you cannot charge upon yourself; but then you know a number of circumstances of your own guilt that you cannot lay to their charge.
And perhaps that person that appears at such a distance from your virtue, and so odious in your eyes, would have been much better than you are, had he been altogether in your circumstances, and received all the same favours and graces from God that you have.
This is a very humbling reflection, and very proper for those people to make, who measure their virtue, by comparing the outward course of their lives with that of other people's.
For to look at whom you will, however different from you in his way of life, yet you can never know that he has resisted so much Divine grace as you have, or that in all your circumstances, he would not have been much truer to his duty than you are.
Now this is the reason why I desired you to consider how you would exhort that man to confess and bewail his sins whom you looked upon to be one of the greatest sinners.
Because if you will deal justly, you must fix the charge at home, and look no farther than yourself. For God has given no one any power of knowing the true greatness of any sins but his own; and therefore the greatest sinner that every one knows is himself.
You may easily see, how such a one in the outward course of his life breaks the laws of God; but then you can never say, that had you been exactly in all his circumstances, that you should not have broken them more than he has done.
A serious and frequent reflection upon these things will mightily tend to humble us in our own eyes, make us very apprehensive of the greatness of our own guilt, and very tender in censuring and condemning other people.
For who would dare to be severe against other people, when, for aught he can tell, the severity of God may be more due to him, than to them? Who would exclaim against the guilt of others, when he considers that he knows more of the greatness of his own guilt, than he does of theirs?
How often you have resisted God's Holy Spirit; how many motives to goodness you have disregarded: how many particular blessings you have sinned against; how many good resolutions you have broken; how many checks and admonitions of conscience you have stifled, you very well know; but how often this has been the case of other sinners, you know not. And therefore the greatest sinner that you know, must be yourself.
Whenever, therefore, you are angry at sin or sinners, whenever you read or think of God's indignation and wrath at wicked men, let this teach you to be the most severe in your censure, and most humble and contrite in the acknowledgment and confession of your own sins, because you know of no sinner equal to yourself.
Lastly, to conclude this chapter: Having thus examined and confessed your sins at this hour of the evening, you must afterwards look upon yourself as still obliged to betake yourself to prayer again, just before you go to bed.
The subject that is most proper for your prayers at that time is death. Let your prayers, therefore, then be wholly upon it, reckoning upon all the dangers, uncertainties, and terrors of death; let them contain everything that can affect and awaken your mind into just apprehensions of it. Let your petitions be all for right sentiments of the approach and importance of death; and beg of God, that your mind may be possessed with such a sense of its nearness, that you may have it always in your thoughts, do everything as in sight of it, and make every day a day of preparation for it.
Represent to your imagination, that your bed is your grave; that all things are ready for your interment; that you are to have no more to do with this world; and that it will be owing to God's great mercy, if you ever see the light of the sun again, or have another day to add to your works of piety.
And then commit yourself to sleep, as into the hands of God; as one that is to have no more opportunities of doing good; but is to awake amongst spirits that are separate from the body, and waiting for the judgment of the last great day.
Such a solemn resignation of yourself into the hands of God every evening, and parting with all the world, as if you were never to see it any more, and all this in the silence and darkness of the night, is a practice that will soon have excellent effects upon your spirit.
For this time of the night is exceeding proper for such prayers and meditations; and the likeness which sleep and darkness have to death, will contribute very much to make your thoughts about it the more deep and affecting. So that I hope, you will not let a time so proper for such prayers, be ever passed over without them.
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