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A Classic Study by George Whitefield (1714–1770)
[Here we begin a study by the preacher George Whitefield, on the importance of turning to God during youth.]—Ed.
The Benefits of an Early Piety, pt. 1
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth. (Eccl. 12:1, AV).
The amiableness of religion in itself, and the innumerable advantages that flow from it to society in general, as well as to each sincere professor in particular, cannot but recommend it to the choice of every considerate person, and make even wicked men, as they approach death, to envy the life of the righteous. And, indeed, we must do the world so much justice, as to confess, that the question about religion does not usually arise from a dispute whether it be necessary or not (for most men see the necessity of doing something for the salvation of their souls), but when is the best time to set about it. Persons are convinced by universal experience that the first essays or endeavors towards the attainment of religion are attended with some difficulty and trouble, and therefore they would willingly defer the beginning of such a seemingly unsatisfying work, as long as they can. The wanton prodigal, who is spending his substance in riotous living, cries: “A little more pleasure, a little more sensuality, and then I will be sober in earnest.” The covetous worldling that employs all his care and pains in “heaping up riches, though he cannot tell who shall gather them” (Ps. 39:6), does not flatter himself that this will do always; but hopes with the rich fool in the gospel, to lay up goods for a few more years on earth, and then he will begin to lay up treasures in heaven. And, in short, thus it is that most people are convinced of the necessity of being religious some time or another; but then, like Felix, they put off the acting suitably to their convictions, until, what they imagine, a more convenient season. However, would we be so humble as to be guided by the experience and counsel of the wisest men, we should learn that youth is the fittest season for religion; “Remember now thy creator,” (says Solomon) “in the days of thy youth.” By the word remember, we are not to understand a bare speculative remembrance, or calling to mind, (for that, like a dead faith, will profit us nothing), but such a remembrance as will constrain us to obedience, and oblige us out of gratitude, to perform all that the Lord our God shall require of us. For as the forgetting God, in scripture language, implies a total neglect of our duty, in like manner, remembering Him signifies a perfect performance of it. So that, when Solomon says, “Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth,” it is the same as if he had said, keep God’s commandments; or, in other words, be religious in the days of thy youth, thereby implying, that youth is the most proper season for it.
I shall in the following discourse,
FIRST, Endeavor to make good the wise man’s proposition, implied in the words of the text, and to show that youth is the fittest season for religion.
SECONDLY, By way of motive, I shall consider the many unspeakable advantages that will arise from, “Remembering our Creator in the days of our youth.” And,
THIRDLY, I shall conclude with a word or two of exhortation to the younger part of this audience.
FIRST, I am to make good the wise man’s proposition, implied in the words of the text, and to show that youth is the fittest season for religion: “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.” But to proceed more clearly in this argument, it may not be improper, first, to explain what I mean by the word religion. By this term, then, I would not be understood to mean a bare outward profession or naming the name of Christ; for we are told, that many who have even prophesied in His name, and in His name cast out devils, shall notwithstanding be rejected by Him at the last day. Nor would I understand by it, barely being admitted into Christ’s church by baptism; for then Simon Magus, Arius, and the “heresy-archs” of old, might pass for religious persons (for these were baptized); nor yet the receiving the other seal of the covenant, for then Judas himself might be canonized for a saint; nor indeed do I mean any or all of these together. But I mean a thorough, real, inward change of nature, wrought in us by the powerful operations of the Holy Ghost, conveyed to and nourished in our hearts, by a constant use of all the means of grace, evidenced by a good life, and bringing forth the fruits of the spirit.
The attaining this real, inward religion, is a work of so great difficulty, that Nicodemus, a learned doctor and teacher in Israel, thought it altogether impossible, and therefore ignorantly asked our blessed Lord, “How this thing could be?” (John 3:9). And, truly, to rectify a disordered nature, to mortify our corrupt passions, to turn darkness to light, to put off the old man and put on the new, and thereby to have the image of God reinstamped upon the soul, or in one phrase, “to be born again” (John 3:7), however light some may make of it, must, after all our endeavors, be owned by man to be impossible. It is true, indeed, Christ’s yoke is said to be an easy or a gracious yoke, and His burden light; but then it is to those only to whom grace has been given to bear and draw in it. For, as the wise son of Sirach observes, “At first, wisdom walks with her children in crooked ways, and brings them into fear, and torments them with her discipline, and does not turn to comfort and rejoice them, until she has tried them and proved their judgment.” No, we must not flatter ourselves that we shall walk in wisdom’s pleasant ways, unless we first submit to a great many difficulties. The spiritual birth is attended with its pangs, as well as the natural: for they that have experienced it (and they only are the proper judges), can acquaint you that in all things that are dear to corrupt nature, we must deny ourselves, lest, after all, when we come to the birth, we should want strength to bring forth. But if these things are so; if there are difficulties and pangs attending our being born again; if we must deny ourselves, what season more proper than that of youth? When, if ever, are our bodies robust and vigorous, and our minds active and courageous; and, consequently, we are then best qualified to endure hardness, as good soldiers of Jesus Christ? We find, in secular matters, people commonly observe this method, and send their children abroad among the toils and fatigues of business, in their younger years, as well knowing they are then fittest to undergo them. And why do they not act with the same consistency in the grand affair of religion? Because, as our Savior has told us, “The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light” (Luke 16:8).
But, also, if pure and undefiled religion consists in the renewal of our corrupted natures, then it is not only a work of difficulty, but, the perfection of it, of time. And if this be the case, then it highly concerns every one to set about it betimes, and to “work their work while it is day, before the night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9:4).
Could we, indeed, live to the age of Methuselah, and have but little business to employ ourselves in, we might then be more excusable. But since our lives are so very short, and we are called to work our salvation with fear and trembling, we have no room left for trifling, lest we should be snatched away while our lamps are untrimmed, and we are entirely unprepared to meet the Bridegroom. Did we know a friend or neighbor, who had a long journey of the utmost importance to make, and yet should stand all the day idle, neglecting to set out till the sun was about to go down, we could not but pity and condemn his egregious folly. And yet it is to be feared most men are just such fools; they have a long journey to take, nay, a journey to eternity, a journey of infinite importance, and which they are obliged to dispatch before the sun of their natural life be gone down; and yet they loiter away the time allotted them to perform their journey in, till sickness or death surprises them; and then they cry out, “What shall we do to inherit eternal life?”