Contrite Heart


1 PETER 4:7.—“Watch unto prayer.”

IN explaining this injunction of St. Peter, we shall show the importance of a watchful and prayerful spirit, by considering the innate disposition of the human heart. We shall find the argument derived from the fact that man is naturally inclined to sin; or, in the phrase of Scripture, is “born in sin and conceived in iniquity;” is of the strongest kind for obeying the command: “Watch unto prayer.”

The inborn disposition of any creature whatever is a fundamental and most important part of it. It lies at the centre, and is at once the fountain whence the whole external conduct flows, and the cause of its being what it is. The innate disposition of a tiger is the source of his fierce and ravenous actions; that of the lamb, of its gentle, harmless, and timid demeanor. The great difference in the outward behavior of these two creatures is due to the difference in the inward nature, or disposition.

Man also possesses an innate disposition; and it is the fountain whence issue all his outward acts. His every-day life and conduct is as true an exhibition of the human disposition, as the brute’s every-day life is of the brute’s disposition. We can predict with as much certainty what the conduct of a man with a sinful disposition will be, if he is not deterred by fear, or shame, or some other selfish motive, from acting it out, as we can what the conduct of a tiger will be if he is struck. “Out of the heart,” says our Lord, “proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. A good man, out of the good treasure of the heart, bringeth forth good things; and an evil man, out of the evil treasure, bringeth forth evil things.” (Matt. 12:35; 15:19.)

The connection between the outward conduct and the inward disposition is so invariable and certain, that the Scriptures do not hesitate to pass even below the range of animal life, for illustrations. Our Lord compares the relation which a bad life bears to a bad heart, to that which exists between the vegetable principle and its products. “Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit; neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” (Matt. 7:17, 18.) And hence he lays it down as a general principle that the only way in which mankind can be really improved is by a change of the heart, or natural disposition. “Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt.” (Matt. 12:33.) The conduct inevitably follows the character; and therefore there can be no total change of conduct, except by a radical change of character.

But the purpose for which the innate disposition of a man is compared with that of a brute, and even with the unconscious vital principle in a tree, is merely to illustrate the truth that the outward flows from the inward, all the world over. Go where we will; pass through all the ranges of matter and of mind; we shall find it to be a universal fact, that that which is without emanates from that which is within. But the comparison cannot be pressed any further than this. While the inborn and natural disposition of a man is analogous to that of an animal, and even to the noxious principle in a plant or tree, in respect to the single particular of its being the source of external products, the analogy stops here. The sinful nature of man differs from the ravenous nature of a lion, or the deadly virus of the upas tree, in many respects; and especially in regard to the immensely important feature of responsibility to law.

The innate disposition of a fallen man is self-willed and culpable. Man is accountable at the bar of God, for his wicked heart, as well as for his wicked actions. St. Peter said to Simon the sorcerer: “Thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought (ἐπίνοια) of thy heart may be forgiven thee.” (Acts 8:21, 22.) He called him to repentance, not merely for the sin of proposing to purchase the miraculous power of the Holy Ghost with money, but for the avaricious, worldly, and ungodly disposition that lay under it. But the brute is responsible neither for his disposition, nor his actions. The lion’s carnivorous nature is not a guilty one, because the lion had nothing to do with its origin. It is not self-willed but created by God. It is as much a part of the original creation as the gem in the mine, or the poisonous life of the deadly tree.

The evil heart of man, on the contrary, out of which proceed the evil thoughts, the murders, and the adulteries, was no part of the six days’ creative work upon which God looked down, and pronounced it “good.” Man’s sinful disposition, though innate because transmitted from Adam, was not created by Almighty God. It is not man’s first and original disposition as he came from his Maker’s hand, but a second and subsequent disposition originated by man himself. God made man upright, and all the “treasure of the heart”—all the inward disposition—was “good.” The present “evil treasure of the heart”—the existing sinful disposition of the will and affections—began after the Creator’s work was ended. It is the product of the creature. This carnal mind, this sinful heart, this selfish inclination, this wicked disposition, from which all wrong acts issue, is the consequence of human apostasy. It came in with Adam’s fall. It is both self-will and ill-will. It is unforced and spontaneous self-determination in every man, deserving to be punished because “it is enmity towards God, is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.”

St. Paul has it in view, when he affirms that “we are by nature the children of wrath.” (Eph. 2:3.) And the Westminster Creed repeats this inspired declaration, when it asserts that “every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth in its own nature bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.”

It was a position of the English deists, that man is exactly as God made him; and that therefore he is as irresponsible as the brute, for the evil inclination of his heart. They denied the free fall of man in Adam, and contended that he comes by his so-called sinful nature as the animal does by his carnivorous propensity—namely, by the creative act of the Deity—and that consequently he is no more blameworthy for being murderous, or envious, or selfish, in his inclination, than is the tiger for being ravenous. Says Lord Herbert of Cherbury, one of the most moral of this school of thinkers: “Men are not hastily to be condemned who are led to sin by bodily constitution. The indulgence of lust and anger is no more to be blamed than the thirst occasioned by dropsy, or the drowsiness produced by lethargy.”

But this theory is refuted by human consciousness. No man ever felt that it is true; and millions of men have felt that it is false. Millions have confessed the guilt of their hearts, and mourned over it. If this position were the real truth and fact, it must sooner or later have become a matter of conscious experience for some portion of the human family. An actual and stubborn fact cannot be perpetually hid under a bushel. But who of the sons of Adam was ever really and positively conscious of innocency, for his malignant and murderous inclination? for his envious and selfish spirit? for his sensual and cruel disposition? Whoever had the abiding and unassailable conviction, that human character is a wholly irresponsible matter?

Furthermore, what does remorse signify and teach upon this point? A man may assert that he is not accountable to God for either his character, or his conduct; but there are certain moments, when an internal moral anguish makes him conscious that he is. Else why the anguish? Why this moral torture, as the man reads his own heart, and studies his own character? Is the brute, with whom the theorist compares himself, and puts himself on a level, ever distressed because he has a fierce and ravenous disposition? Remorse of conscience which appears at times in every man, and which has made the deathbed of some of these theorists a dreadful scene, is conclusive that man comes by his sinful disposition in a responsible manner—by free will, and not by God’s creative act. For, does the wise and good God torture his creatures wantonly, and for nothing? Does God put man upon the rack of conscience in this life, and punish him in the next life, knowing—as he must know, if it is a fact—that there is no just ground for it in the voluntary agency of man?

There is, indeed, a mystery surrounding the free fall of all men in Adam, and the responsible origin of human depravity—as much mystery as there is in the origin of the soul itself, and no more—but something more than mystery is requisite to establish the position, that man is now exactly as God made him, and that he is not guilty for his selfish disposition and malignant inclination. Here is this remorse, which is a species of vital logic. Arguments against it are like arguments to prove that fire does not burn, when live coals are heaped upon a man’s head, and the fire is eating into the flesh.

With this brief notice of the fundamental importance, and the culpability of man’s sinful inclination, we proceed to notice the call that is made by it upon the Christian, for watchfulness and prayerfulness.

For although the believer has the new heart, or holy inclination, produced by his union with Christ, he still has the remainders of the old evil inclination proceeding from his union and fall with Adam. These relics furnish a great and strong reason for the apostle’s injunction: “Watch unto prayer;” and for the Saviour’s urgency: “Watch and pray lest ye enter into temptation; the spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

I. The first characteristic of man’s sinful disposition, requiring watchfulness upon the part of a Christian, is its spontaneity.

This is that quality in a thing which causes it to move of itself. The living spring, speaking metaphorically, spontaneously leaps up into the sunlight, while standing water must be pumped up. Living matter, in animate existence, moves spontaneously, of its own accord, while the corpse must be moved mechanically—must be lifted and carried out. The feelings of the heart, when it is full of life and hope, burst forth spontaneously, while the manifestation of feeling by a sad and hopeless heart is forced. Spontaneity, then, is the power of self-motion. The spring, in a figure, lifts itself up; living matter moves of itself; and warm buoyant feelings require nothing but their own force to set them in play.

Now, the sinful inclination, or disposition, or heart of man is spontaneous in its action. Sin in all its forms, original or actual, is unforced. Its motion is self-motion. But a thing that can move of itself is able to move at any moment, and is liable to move. Did the movement depend upon something other than self, and on the outside, there would not be so much liability. Were man reluctantly urged up to sin by some other agent than himself, there would be less call for watchfulness. But the perfect ease, and pleasure, and spontaneity with which he does his own sinning, calls for an incessant vigilance not to do it. The imperfectly sanctified Christian needs not to make a special effort, in order to transgress. If he simply remains careless and unwatchful, the self-moving inclination will do its own work without any struggle on his part. Hence, he is liable to sin at any instant. Within him, there are the relics of an evil disposition which by its very nature, and quality, as easily and readily sends up evil thoughts, feelings, and desires, as the fire of a furnace sends up smoke and sparks.

Let us look into our own breasts, and see if there are not remainders of our original depravity which, if not watched, will lead us into disobedience at any and every moment. Are there not propensities which are constantly able, and liable to start into action? How liable we are to be proud, angry, vain, impure. Or, to specify less evanescent feelings, how liable we are to worldliness, to languor and deadness respecting heavenly objects, to carnal-mindedness. And, except as we “watch unto prayer,” have we any security that they will not spontaneously rise into exercise at any instant, and take possession of us altogether?

Our success in overcoming sin depends very much upon our suspiciousness, and apprehensiveness—upon our fearing that sin may get the mastery at any time. If we felt, as St. Paul did when he feared lest he should be a castaway, that underneath, in the depths of the heart, there are spontaneous inclinations constantly liable to come up to the surface and acquire power by having a free exercise, we should watch and pray as unceasingly as he did. For, these sinful propensities, if kept down in the regenerate soul, will finally die out. It is not so with the unregenerate. He who substitutes morality for religion, and attempts to regulate and repress his sinful inclination without crying importunately to God for a clean heart, and a right spirit—he who tries to make the fruit good, without first making the tree good—this man labors in vain. For though he bury his evil propensities for a time, they will live underground. Toiling hard, he may choke down his pride for this hour, but in the very next it comes up in ten-fold strength. By dint of great effort, he may wrestle down his envy and ill-will as he meets this fellow-man, but it rises before he thinks of it, on seeing the next man that he dislikes.

There is nothing within the unrenewed man that can cope with, and subdue the evil inclination—no faith, hope, love, and peace; no new heart and right spirit, with which to wage war with the sinful nature. Hence, it is a fight without armor; a dead lift without any purchase. But the believer has been born of the Spirit. There is within him a positive principle of faith, and love, and holy life, implanted by the Holy Ghost in the depths of the soul, which will ultimately slay all sin, provided only that sin be kept down. If, by watching the remainders of our wrong disposition, we will prevent them from coming forth into thoughts, words, and acts; if we will confine them, and keep them side by side with the “new man,” and compel them to stay down in the depths of the soul, the sword of the Spirit will eventually pierce them and kill them with a total and everlasting death.

If, on the contrary, we are unwatchful and prayerless, and allow indwelling sin to have free play and exercise, we have no reason to expect that it will ever be slain. Can religion in the heart conquer sin in the heart, if we do not bring the two into close contact, and conflict? How can godliness get the victory, if we allow sinfulness to flee away and rush out into life and action, and give it a fair field? No, we must watch these remains of our sinful nature which are so liable to move, and which unless repressed move of themselves. We must compel them to stay down, until God the Spirit by constantly coming into contact with them has killed them stone dead, never to stir again. If we repress the outbursts of sin, we shall discover with joy and courage that the sinful inclination is really becoming weaker and weaker, and the new principle of divine love stronger and stronger. We shall find the dying spasms of sin becoming more and more feeble, until, O wonderful event! sin is completely and forever dead in the soul.

II. A second characteristic of man’s sinful disposition, requiring watchfulness and prayerfulness in the Christian, is the fact that it can be tempted and solicited to move, at any moment.

We have, thus far, spoken of the power which sin possesses of moving of itself, spontaneously; of that quality, by virtue of which it does not need any particular solicitation, in order to its exercise. Our sinful inclination possesses this characteristic; for do we need any particular urging, or tempting, to be worldly minded, and to live away from God? Is it not our natural disposition to do this; and must we be specially provoked to it? But we are now to speak of that additional characteristic of man’s sinful disposition, by virtue of which it is capable of being stimulated and elicited by temptations; and if we should watch unto prayer because sin can move of itself, most certainly should we because it can be solicited to move, and we live in a world full of such solicitations. If gunpowder were liable to self-explosion by virtue of its own inherent properties, we should watch it most carefully even if we were to keep it like truth at the bottom of a well; but if we were compelled to stare it in a forge continually full of sparks, there would be no limit to our vigilance lest it should be ignited by some one of them.

How easily is the remaining sin in us tempted and drawn out into exercise by tempting objects, and how full the world is of such objects. A hard word, an unkind look, a displeasing act on the part of another, will start sin into motion, instanter. Wealth, fame, pleasure, fashion, houses, lands, titles, husbands, wives, children, friends—in brief, all creation—has the power to educe the sinful nature of man. He is continually coming in contact with things that allure him to transgress God’s law. He is surrounded by them. He is buried in them. He is touched at a million points by the temptations of earth.

Look at our own situation, as we find it every day of our lives. See how we are encircled by objects, every one of which is competent to start the old carnality into vigorous action. See what temptations come from our business, and how many they are. See what solicitations come from our families, and how many and strong they are. Consider what inducements to forget God, and to transgress his commandments, come from the worldly or the gay society in which we move. Is not the powder in the midst of the sparks? If unwatchful and prayerless, it is certain and inevitable that we shall yield to these temptations. How can we prevent sin from breaking forth, tempted and allured as it is at all points, if we do not “watch unto prayer?” Why, but because we do not soberly watch like soldiers on guard, are we so much under the power of temptations? Why, but because we do not importunately pray, have the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, such a disastrous influence at this very moment upon our professed piety?

The fact, then, that temptations are liable to elicit the remaining corruption in the Christian’s heart, is a strong reason why he should obey the apostle’s injunction in the text. Says the saintly and “white-robed” Leighton: “The children of God often find to their grief, that corruptions which they thought had become cold dead, stir, and rise up again, and set upon them. A passion or lust that after some great stroke lay a long while as dead, stirred not, and therefore they thought to have heard no more of it, though it shall never recover fully again to be lively as before, yet will revive in such a manner as to molest and possibly to foil them yet again. Therefore it is continually necessary that they live in arms, and put them not off to their dying day.”

III. A third characteristic of man’s innate disposition requiring watchfulness and prayer, is the fact that it acquires the habit of being moved by temptation.

It is more difficult to stop a thing that has the habit of motion, than one that has not, because habit is a second nature and imparts additional force to the first one. This is eminently true of sin, which by being allowed an habitual motion becomes so powerful that few overcome it. The great majority of wrong habits that have been formed in human hearts were never broken up—are everlasting things. The drunkards who have left their cups, the gamblers who have reformed, the thieves who have become honest men, the liars who have ceased lying, the unchaste who have become pure, and the profane who have forsaken their oaths, are very greatly in the minority. Miserable indeed is that soul which allows sin to strengthen and fortify itself by constant exercise. Even if it is eventually overcome by the grace of God, it will only be by resisting unto blood. “Because,” says an old divine, “the nature of habits is like that of crocodiles; they grow as long as they live; and if they come to obstinacy or confirmation, they are in hell already, and can never return back. For as Pannonian bears, when they have clasped a dart in the region of their liver, wheel themselves upon the wound, and with anger and malicious revenge strike the deadly barb deeper, and cannot be quit from that fatal steel, but in flying bear along that which themselves make the instrument of a more hasty death, so is every vicious person struck with a deadly wound, and his own hands force it into the entertainments of the heart, and because it is painful to draw it forth by a sharp and salutary repentance, he still rolls and turns upon his wound, and carries his death in his bowels, where it first entered by choice, and then dwelt by love, and at last shall finish the tragedy by Divine judgments and an unalterable decree.”

Inward sin, in an unwatchful and prayerless person, inevitably acquires the habit of being moved by temptation. He falls gradually into such a state, that whenever an object solicits his remaining corruption he yields uniformly, and with little or no resistance. He who is in such a case is on most dangerous ground. For says the apostle John, “Whosoever sinneth hath not seen God, neither known him”—by which is meant, as the context shows, “Whosoever sinneth habitually hath not seen God, neither known him.” We may be surprised once into sin as Peter was; we may fall once into sin as David did; and upon weeping bitterly as did the first, and crying for mercy out of a crushed heart as did the last, the atoning blood of Christ shall cleanse our conscience again. But we cannot self-indulgently sin on, and on, and commit the very same wicked thing day after day, and feel that we are forgiven, or hope to be forgiven.

The chances, if we may use such a word, are against the conquest of habitual sins, because of the strong power which they acquire over the voluntary faculty. The more usual a sin becomes in a man’s experience, the weaker the will to resist it becomes; and hence in the drunkard, for example, habit, even in this life, has almost annihilated will to good. Just so fast as the habit of intoxication gains upon him, just so fast does he lose his power of self-control. The one force is antagonistic to the other, and one exists in inverse proportion to the other. The inebriate gradually ceases to be his own man, and comes to belong to the appetite for rum. This owns him, and uses him. It starves him with hunger, and pinches him with cold, and strips him of character, and deprives him of the common human feelings, and does with him just as it pleases.

For a thoughtful observer, there is something strictly awful in beholding the paralyzing and destructive power which sin, when habitually indulged, acquires over the human will. The self-gratifying propensity, by being allowed to develop itself unwatched and unhindered, slowly but surely eats out all virtuous moral force as rust eats out a steel spring, until the being in the terrible bitter end becomes all habit and all sin. “Sin when it is finished bringeth forth death.” (James 1:15.) In the final stage of this process, the guilty self-determining agent reaches that dreadful state where resistance to evil ceases altogether, because he has at length entirely killed out the energetic and resolute power of resistance which God gave him, and meant that he should use, and which if he had used would have grown stronger and stronger, through Divine assistance, until it reached the state of confirmed and eternal holiness. The cravings and hankerings of unresisted sin at length become organic, as it were, and drag the man, and “he goeth after them as an ox goeth to the slaughter, or as a fool to the correction of the stocks, till a dart strike through his liver.” For though the will to resist sin may die out of a man, the conscience to condemn it never can. This remains eternally. And when the process is complete, and the responsible creature in the abuse of free agency has perfected his own self-destruction, and his will to good is all gone, there remain these two in his immortal soul: sin and conscience, or, in the Scripture metaphor, “brimstone and fire.”

The “ruin” of an immortal soul is no mere figure of speech. There is no ruin in the whole material universe to be compared with it, for transcendent awfulness. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire was a great catastrophe, and inspires a thoughtful and solemn feeling; but the decline and eternal fall of a moral being, originally made in the image of God, is a stupendous event. When it happens; when the Apocalyptic angel descends, and cries mightily with a strong voice saying, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen;” the kings of the earth, and the merchants of the earth, “stand afar off to see the smoke of her burning, and tremble for the fear of her torment.” This event, thus symbolically shadowed forth, is the final result of sin in a self-determining will—the finished consequence of permitting a sinful inclination to compact and confirm itself by habitual indulgence, until it destroys the power of resistance, and the being is hopelessly ruined and lost.

We have thus mentioned and illustrated three reasons derived from the intrinsic nature of sin, why Christians should “watch unto prayer.” Sin is spontaneous, and therefore is able to move at any instant. Sin can be solicited by temptation, and therefore is liable to move at any instant. Sin can become habitual, and habit is a second nature destroying the power of resistance. Much that has been said applies to sin in its general aspects, as pertaining to man universally; but so far as this point is concerned we must dismiss it with the single remark, that from the very nature of sin and of the soul, except a man get rid of sin, he must perish. Sin is the slow, and sure, and eternal suicide of a human will.

But let us make an application of this subject to ourselves, as imperfectly sanctified believers.

We cannot think of entering heaven with a mixture of sin in our hearts. We must acknowledge that the relics of a very profound and powerful sinful nature are still within us, which interfere with our peace, keep us distant from God, and are hostile to spirituality and a heavenly mind. How do we expect that these remainders of corruption are to be destroyed; and how do we expect to obtain that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord? Do we frequently raise these important questions; and are we properly anxious to become pure and saintly?

Perhaps we are in a careless state, and are indulging in some particular sin with little or no compunction. If so, we do well to remind ourselves that anxiety, and even distressing doubts, would be a more hopeful condition than is this state of lethargic indulgence. For, “seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of him.” And, seest thou a church member habitually committing and enjoying a particular sin, and carelessly deeming himself to be safe? the angels looked down upon him with more hope when he was an inquiring and self-despairing man, than they do now.

But perhaps we do feel our sinfulness, and yet do not make the effort that results in its conquest. Perhaps we indulge in known sin, and experience a certain kind and degree of sorrow regarding it, but do not cut off the right hand, and do not pluck out the right eye. This moral condition, also, is one of great danger. Christ, it is true, does not “break the bruised reed.” “He knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust, he is very pitiful and of tender mercy.” But we must not suppose that the feeling of mere regret, with no active resistance, is all that he demands from us. We must not lay the flattering unction to our souls, that God commiserates our indolence and ineffectual efforts. These efforts are ineffectual, because we are not sufficiently in earnest, and are unfaithful in seeking Divine help. We restrain prayer. We let down our watch. We must not deceive ourselves into the belief that God indulgently pities our unfortunate condition, as we may call it in our hearts. Sin is guilt. All sin is guilt. Christ poured out his blood to atone for it—all of it—and we must resist unto blood in order to overcome it—all of it.

The path of duty and safety is plain. All will be well, if we watch more than we have, lest we fall into temptation; if we pray more than we have, for power over sin. Vigilance and supplication must pervade our whole life as believers. The Christian must stand constantly braced, and expecting to meet a foe at every step. Every nerve should be tense, and every muscle tight drawn. And this, with an eye ever looking “up to the hills from whence cometh his help,” should be his attitude through life. True, it will be a life of sweat, and toil, and sometimes of aching pain; but there will be some lulls in the fight, and some elysiums in the pilgrimage, and the everlasting rest will be all the sweeter for the unceasing effort. That is a blessed moment for the Christian, when after his long watch, and weary conflict, and fatiguing strain, he is suddenly called into that walled city, “at once a fortress, and a temple,” over whose safety God watches; where he can lie down beside the peaceful river of the water of life without any solicitude, and where the grapple and tug of spiritual warfare are over for eternity.
“Watch and pray lest ye enter into temptation. Watch therefore: for ye know neither the day nor the hour, wherein the Son of man cometh. Blessed,” says the Saviour—and this word has a world of meaning coming from his Divine lips—“blessed are those servants whom the Lord when he cometh shall find watching.”

William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 329–345.

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