"The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man." In other words, they teach us the law and the gospel. God gives us the law, that we may know what our duty is, and he gives us the gospel, that we may perform it in a right spirit. Neither the law nor the gospel can stand alone ; and both are alike necessary. Holiness is the end of the gospel, as well as of the law. God pardons our sins in order that we might run in the way of his precepts with unshackled feet; and he renews our souls, that with newborn energy we may pursue our course to heaven.
Let us, first, consider the way of teaching the law, or the morality of Christianity; and, secondly, the way of teaching the gospel.
I. The Law.—The laws of God are so remarkably distinct, and their design so evident, that it would seem almost impossible to err in teaching them. The commandments, "Thou shalt not steal," "Thou shalt not kill," "Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good," are obviously intended to be taught as practical rules of life. A mistaken system, however, has been adopted by some, which teaches morality as if it were merely a creed to be believed. A person may be heard laying greater stress on the ten commandments being called the "moral law"—on this law being originally written on "tables of stone"—on its being divided into "two parts," consisting of "our duty to God, and our duty to man"—and on the commandments being "ten" in number—than on obedience to the commandments themselves. A boy was once asked,
"What is the eighth commandment?" Not being able to answer, he was told that it is, "Thou shalt not steal." To which he replied, very coolly, "I thought that had been the fifth." He seemed to think the question was merely intended to ascertain his acquaintance with the number of the commandments. Some of our present teaching has a tendency to foster such misconceptions. The following principles may be kept in view while teaching the law :—•
1. The laws of the Bible should be constantly taught as the laws of God. The children should not be allowed to depart from school with the impression that their teachers only, say such and such things are right or wrong. "Thus saith the Lord," should be the voice of every commandment. Our instructions would have far more authority, if we were more anxious to stand aside, that our children might see the glory of God.
2. The laws of God must be commended to the reason and affections of the scholars. It is a great error to represent the precepts of the Bible as an imperious system of arbitrary restrictions—"Touch not, taste not, handle not," by which the children are hemmed in on every side, and which seem intended only to fetter them. We should shew that the statutes of the Lord are "not grievous," but that they are right, rejoicing the heartand that the words "Thou shalt not," in the commandments, are for the same purpose as a wall built beside a precipice, or a label on a phial «of poison.
3. The commandments must be taught very plainly. The duties of loving God, and believing in Christ, of prayer, reading the Bible, and forgiving our enemies, and the evils of lying, malice, swearing, and unbelief, should be taught in the most unambiguous language. It is of little moment, comparatively, though a child should mistake our meaning when we tell a story or narrate a passage of history ; but it is of the most melancholy consequence for a child, through our fault, not to know precisely what the Lord his God requires of him. The most unvarnished simplicity is, therefore, a first requisite in teaching the law.
4. "To be plain," as Dr Chalmers says, "let us be particular." The commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," is as simply expressed as it can be; but a child may learn its meaning without understanding the extent of its application. He will shrink with abhorrence from murder, but not from its beginnings in petty anger and revenge.
Many striking examples could be given of the extent to which an uninstructed conscience may become warped, and the freaks of which it is capable. The Greek pirates in the Mediterranean, to whom rapine and murder are a business, are known to observe with rigour the fast-days of the Greek Church. A little girl in Glasgow being imprisoned for theft, was found in her cell one day crying bitterly. On being asked the reason, she replied, "Oh, my mother is very poor-, and now that I am in prison, there is nobody to steal for herI" How much good feeling and searedness of conscience are here blended together!
There are several reasons why, in teaching the different commandments to children, minute exemplification is necessary.
First, They are slow to perceive the spirituality of God's law. They can appreciate the evil of outward acts, and yet remain ignorant that the thought of evil is sin. They are apt to estimate the amount of the crime by the extent of the injury inflicted, more than by the motive of the criminal. It is difficult to teach a child that to steal a halfpenny, and to steal a pound, are the same crimes.
Secondly, It is only with little things that children have to do. They cannot perjure themselves, or commit murder, or make a false profession of religion at the ^Lord's table ; but they can very easily lie and swear, and indulge in many abominable practices. We therefore reverse the order in which duties should be taught when we teach a child what he is to do when he becomes a man, and neglect his present conduct. The proper performance of present duty is the best preparation for the discharge of future duty. It is of more importance that a child be taught to obey his mother at present, from regard to God than to know that when a man, if it were necessary, he must be willing to die as a martyr. That duty is always of most consequence to us at the time which we have first to do. It may be a very small thing in itself, but being duty, it is imperative. It is my next step in a journey that I most need to know. If we wished to train up a child to become a good citizen, we should not begin with teaching him the distant duties he may have to perform as a man, though these might not be altogether lost sight of; but if we can make him a good child, a good scholar, a good brother, and a good companion, there is little fear of his finally becoming also a good citizen. So, let a child be on the way to heaven just now—a way that always consists in keeping the commandments of God—and he is in the direct road for being in the same way all the rest of his life.
5. We must teach the sanctions of the law. It is a misplaced tenderness which would hide from a child the consequences of sin, and never name hell to him and its awful woes. God would never have revealed these doctrines to us unless we had needed them. It is in love that he has made them known, for mercy speaks to man in many different keys. Love is as conspicuous in warning from a precipice as in inviting to a banquet. We need the night as well as the day; the cloud, and the shower, and the tempest, as well as the sunshine and the summer sky. We require not only tender invitations to come to the Saviour, but solemn warnings to flee from the wrath to come. The teacher, therefore, neglects an important duty, who does not call sin, sin; and hell, hell. But let us see that we treat this solemn doctrine with the utmost tenderness, as if we trembled at the very mention of its miseries.
6. Obedience to the law must be enforced by the doctrines of the gospel. The gospel is mighty through God to the pulling down of the strongholds of Satan and we must teach our children, looking despairingly at the weary road of self-mortification they have to travel, and sinking in almost hopeless despondency in the struggle with their rebellious passions, that there is One "who is able to keep them from falling, and to present them faultless before the throne of his glory, with exceeding joy."
We have now to speak of the manner of teaching the gospel.
II. The Gospel.—1. The cross of Christ ought to be the main subject of our instructions. We should say with the apostle, "I am determined to know nothing among you, but Jesus Christ and him crucified." As we see the light of the sun, even when not looking directly to the sun himself; so the cross should illuminate our path, though our feet are not wandering near Calvary. The Old Testament must he read by the light of the New. "We might as well," says Bridges, "speak of a village that has no road to the metropolis, as of a point of Christian doctrine, privilege, or practice, that has no reference to Christ crucified." That lesson, or system of lessons, is radically defective, of which the cross is not the life. "The true teaching of the solar system is to begin with the sun."
2. The doctrines of the Bible must be taught as motives to holiness. Before the introduction of Christianity, many of the more common moral maxims were recognised among men; but they remained nearly neglected from the want of sufficiently powerful motives to obedience. These motives are supplied by the gospel. It is to its motives, even more than to its morals, that Christianity owes its superiority. Its divine morality might have been exhibited in all its matchless beauty, but of what avail would it have been without the motives supplied by the love of God and the death of Jesus? What does its morality, in fact, avail with those who reject the atonement of Christ? It is less ignorance than wilfulness that makes men sin. The eye sees farther than the feet are willing to follow. Never does a soul truly hate sin, and love God, until constrained bv the love of Christ.
When the doctrines of Christianity are contemplated in this light, it is obvious, that being motives, they do not terminate in themselves; like all other motive forces, they must be applied to be of any worth. They must be intimately connected with the duties of life before their true nature or value can be understood ; it is here that the law and the gospel meet. To teach morality without the gospel, is to prescribe duties which, owing to the perverse nature of man, will never be performed. To teach the gospel without the law, is to furnish the soul with powerful motives, and give them little to do. It is acting like a person who should make a beautiful engine, finish every wheel and joint in the most perfect style, bring it out to shew its capabilities, how swiftly it can fly, and what a weight of carriages it could draw; but when a message arrives for an express, in a matter of life and death, he calls the engine back to its shed to rust in idleness. It is indeed a most fatal but a very common omission of the very end and essence of the doctrines of the Bible, to dissociate them from their consequences, and teach them as mere dogmas to be understood and believed. How many have no idea of religion beyond its rites and ceremonies, its creeds and confessions! How many regard it as a something to be read about, to be talked about, to be prayed about, and, it may be, to be fought about; but how few understand it to be a holy influence under which they are always to live! How have the eagle-wings of Christianity, on which the soul might have soared almost to the throne of the Eternal, been caged and clipped by a word-loving, work-hating profession ! and how many Sabbath-day Christians are there whose lives give the lie to their whole creed 1
3. A proper understanding of the true nature of Christianity as a religion of motives, will shew us the error of those who are now trying to elevate training above teaching.
It is maintained by some, that teaching, even the teaching of the gospel, is of no value unless we place children in situations where they may cultivate the virtues inculcated in the school. "Honesty, for example," it is said, "cannot be taught by rule, but the playground is to be filled with objects on which self-denial must be exercised, and thus the latent moral powers will be strengthened by exercise." The great advantage of judicious training must be acknowledged by all who have seen the contaminating influence of bad example. Could we preserve our children from the noxious atmosphere which too many of them breathe at home, our instructions would yield a far more abundant produce. But it is never to be forgotten that children are depraved by nature, and that they are wicked, independent of example; that, being guilty, the first and most important truth they require to know, is the way of being saved : that the only principle which can quicken their dead souls is to be found in the Bible; and that, of all motives or influences which were ever calculated to deter from sin or animate to holiness, none, not even example, or the best moral training, are so powerful as the love of Christ.
4. The doctrines of the gospel can and ought to be expressed in ordinary language. Every doctrine has a popular side as well as an abstract one; and it is the popular side that should be turned to children. If you speak to a child of "the work of the Spirit," it will appear very mysterious; but shew him that the Holy Spirit, if he prays for his help, is ready to instruct him when he is ignorant, to strengthen him when he is tempted, and to cheer him when he is sad ; and you tell him truths so much adapted to his wants, that all mystery disappears. It is for want of looking at the practical side of doctrines, that we hear so much of the mysteries of Christianity. There are no mysteries, properly speaking, in Christianity; everything revealed is distinct; it is what Christianity touches on, and what lies beyond it—that which is unrevealed, and with which we have little to do—that is mysterious.
5. Care must be taken to teach all the doctrines of the gospel. There are certain doctrines which have obtained an almost exclusive place in our systems of teaching. Many children could give us no satisfactory information upon such topics as these :—the benefits of affliction, the duty of contentment, the working of Christian charity, or the sources of religious happiness. These we consider equally important with many of the subjects more commonly taught in schools. Religion is not complete without them. It is as necessary to know that "the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord," as that Adam was our federal head. Yet how many are ignorant of the first that know the last! It is as important that a child shall be familiar with the beautiful description of love, in the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians, as it is for him to know that "Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others;" and to know that "He that, doeth good is of God,"—as to be acquainted with the decrees of God. There has been almost a kind of caprice in the selection of the doctrines denominated religious, and though doubtless the most important have not been omitted, a great many only second in importance have been neglected.
Now, this is to teach a one-sided religion. There is not a doctrine in the Bible which is not addressed to some want of our nature. If you leave out one, you mar the effect of the whole, as the light of the sun would be marred by the destruction of one of the colours which, blended together, make his beams so glorious.
Our instructions should correspond with the comprehensive nature of religion, and should be addressed to every part of a child's nature. There should be pictures for the imagination, reason for the understanding, and love for the heart. We should teach him no provincial dialect of religion, but give him the whole Word of God for his heritage. We should not teach him that faith is everything, or works everything, but he must be taught to rejoice in every beaming star that twinkles in the Christian's sky. While we teach him to believe in Christ, as the first step to salvation, he must also have all the way of holiness tracked out to him, up which he is to wend his toilsome but happy way. Let us teach, in short, that the life which beats in a good man's heart, sends the warm, fresh life-blood through the whole spiritual frame, and that we must become Christians thoroughly, when we become Christians at all.
There is a similar want of fulness and variety in the way of teaching particular doctrines; there are a few favourite aspects in which they are always made to appear, as if they had no other. Let us take prayer for an example. The whole information of many children on prayer is confined to one or two commonplaces, such as these :—that it is a duty to pray; that we should pray every morning and every night; that we should pray to God only; that we should ask for things agreeable to His will; and that we should pray in the name of Christ. Now, there are many other things about prayer equally important, and equally easy of being taught with those we have named. . Shall nothing be said of the privilege of prayer, of the majesty of the Being whom we address, of sincerity in prayer, intelligence, and humility? They should be taught, that if they regard iniquity in their heart, God will not hear them; that they may pray at any moment, and that the Holy Spirit will teach them how to pray. "We are aware that many teachers enter fully into all these particulars, but others confine themselves to a narrow and beaten round, from which they rarely diverge.
We may charge upon this meagre style of teaching the decline of many young Christians in piety. Their piety is ardent whilst the thoughts of pardon through Christ, escape from hell, and the happiness of heaven are fresh; but after a time, these subjects recurring in unvarying sameness, cease to stimulate the heart, and it waxes cold; whereas a deeper acquaintance with religious knowledge would have afforded them an inexhaustible store of fuel by which to feed the flame of devotion.