Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may you also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.
I. THE NATURE OF OUR HABITS GENERALLY. As we become accustomed to the performance of any action, we have a proneness to repeat it on like occasions, the ideas connected with it being always at hand to lead us on and direct us; so that it requires a particular effort to forbear it, but to do it demands often no conscious act of the will at all. Habits of body are produced by repeated external acts, as agility, gracefulness, dexterity in the mechanical arts. Habits of mind are formed by the repeated exertion of the intellectual faculties, or the inward practical principles. To the class of mental habits belong the moral virtues, as obedience, charity, patience, industry, submission to law, self-government, the love of truth. The inward practical principles of these qualities, being repeatedly called into exertion, and acted upon, become habits of virtue: just as, on the other hand, envy, malice, pride, revenge, the love of money, the love of the world, when carried into act, gradually form habits of vice. Habit is in its own nature therefore indifferent to vice or virtue. If man had continued in his original righteousness, it would have been, what the merciful Creator designed it to be, a source of unspeakable moral strength and improvement. Every step in virtue would have secured further advances. To what point man might at length have reached by the effect of use and experience thus acting on faculties made for enlargement, it is impossible to say, and it is vain to inquire. For we are lost creatures. We are prone to commit sin, and every act of it only disposes us to renewed transgressions. The force of these evil habits lies much in the gradual and almost imperceptible manner in which they are acquired. No man becomes reprobate at once. The sinner at first has difficulties. Shame, conscience, education, motives of religion, example, the unreasonableness of vice, the immediate evil consequences of it in various ways, God's judgments on sinners, alarming events in His providence, the admonitions of friends and the warnings of ministers, are all barriers to the inundation. But habits, insensibly formed, sap the embankment. The powerful current works its way, and all opposing hindrances are carried before it. It is, indeed, true, that habit, in many cases, diminishes the enjoyment derived from sin. The sense of vicious pleasure is palled by indulgence. But, unhappily, the same indulgence which lessens the pleasure increases the vicious propensity. A course of debauchery, for example, deadens the sense of pleasure, but increases the desire of gratification. The passive principle is in some degree worn away, but the active principle is invigorated. Drunkenness, again, destroys the sensibility of the palate, but strengthens the habit of intemperance. A continued course of impiety and profaneness lessens the lamentable pleasure which the scoffer originally felt in insulting religion, but confirms him in the practical rebellion against its laws. A continued course of worldliness and irreligion takes off from the zest and relish of worldly pursuits, but augments the difficulty of renouncing them. They are become joyless; but are still followed from a sort of sad necessity.
II. THE CONSEQUENCES ARISING FROM CORRUPT HABITS, IN OUR FALLEN STATE. Any one transgression, if habitual, excludes from the kingdom of heaven, and every transgression is in the way of speedily becoming so: here lies the danger. Look at yonder criminal, whose hands have violated the property, and perhaps been imbrued in the life, of his fellow creature. His conscience is seared as with a hot iron. Is he ashamed when he commits abomination? Nay, he is not at all ashamed, neither can he blush. What has brought him hither? What has transformed the meek and decent and reputable youth into the fierce and vindictive ruffian? Evil habits. He began with breaking the Sabbath; this led to wicked company; drunkenness followed, and brought every other sin in its train — lust, passion, malice, desperation, cruelty, bloodshed. The road, dreadful as it seems to us, was easy to him. One bad habit prepared for the following. But my design is, not to dwell on a picture too shocking for a calm consideration; but to point out the danger of the same principle in cases by far more common and less suspected; and where the fatal effects of sinful customs in hardening the heart against the calls of grace and duty are less conspicuous perhaps at first sight, but not less fatal to the conversion and salvation of the soul. For what can account for that sober and measured system of sensual indulgence in which the great mass of mankind live, but habit working on the fallen state of mind? How is it that an immortal creature, gifted with reason and destined for heaven, can go on. secure, in gratifying, all those earthly passions, which he once well knew to be inconsistent with a state of grace; but which he now pursues, forgetful of God and religion? What has made him morally insensible to the obligations of holiness, purity, and the love of God? The habit to which he has resigned himself. The effect has not been brought about at once. The desire for indolent and sensual gratification has increased with indulgence. Every day his resolutions for serving God have become weaker, and his practical subjugation to an earthly life has been confirmed. He has lost almost all notions of spiritual religion and self-government. He moves mechanically. He has little actual relish even for his most favourite pleasures; but they are necessary to him. He is the slave of the animal part of his frame. He vegetates rather than lives. Habit has become a second nature. If we turn from this description of persons, and view the force of habit in multitudes of those who are engaged in the affairs of trade and commerce, or in the prosecution of respectable professions, we need only ask what can account for the practical object of their lives? Why are nefarious or doubtful practices so frequently countenanced? Why are precarious speculations so eagerly embraced? Why are the aggrandisement of a family, the amassing of riches, the gratification of ambition, so openly pursued? And how does it arrive that this sort of spirit pervades so many thousands around us? It is their habit. It is the force of custom and the influence of the circle in which they move. They came by degrees within the magic charm, and are now fixed and bound to earth and its concerns. Again, notice for a moment the intellectual habits of many of the scholars and philosophers of our age. The world by wisdom knows not God. The pride of our corrupted hearts readily forms the properly intellectual or reasoning part of our nature to habits, as ensnaring and as fatal, as any which have their seat more directly in the bodily appetites. If once the inquisitive student resigns himself to a daring curiosity, applies to the simple and majestic truth of revelation the sort of argumentation which may safely be employed in natural inquiries, he is in imminent peril of scepticism and unbelief. The mind comes within a dangerous influence. A young and superficial reader once fixed in a habit of this sort, comes at last either tacitly to explain away the fundamental doctrines of the Holy Trinity, of the Fall, of human corruption, of redemption, and the work of the Holy Ghost, or openly to sacrifice them to the madness of infidelity, or to the scarcely less pernicious errors of the Socinian heresy. And whence is all this? Habit, working on a corrupt nature, has produced it, confirmed it, riveted it. Habit is as fruitful and as fatal a cause of intellectual disorder as of merely animal or sensual depravation. What, again, seduces the mere external worshipper of God to withhold from his Maker him heart, whilst he insults Him with a lifeless service of the lips? What, but the surprising and unsuspected influence of evil habit? He knows that the Almighty sees everything. He cannot but acknowledge that outward ceremonies, if destitute of fervent and humble devotion, are nothing less than a mockery of God, and abominable in His sight. And yet he proceeds in a heartless round of religious duties, — a mere lifeless shadow of piety. This he has so long allowed himself to offer to the Almighty, that at last his mind is unconscious of the impiety of which he is guilty. A habit of formality and ceremonial observance, with a practical, and perhaps at length an avowed, opposition to the grace of true religion as converting and sanctifying the whole soul, has darkened even his judgment. Nor can I forbear to add that the general indifference to practical religion, which prevails in our age, may be traced back in a great measure to the same cause. Men are so accustomed to put off the concerns of their salvation, and to disregard really spiritual religion, that they at length learn to draw a regular and well-defined line between merely decent and reputable persons, and those who lead a seriously religious life; and to proscribe the latter as extravagant and hypocritical.
III. THE EXTENT AND MAGNITUDE OF THAT CONVERSION TO GOD WHICH IS THEREFORE NECESSARY. A state of sin and a state of holiness are not like two ways running parallel by each other, and just parted by a line, so that a man may step out of the one into the other; but like two diverging roads to totally opposite places, which recede from each other as they go on, and lead the respective travellers farther and farther apart every step. What, then, is to bring man back to God? What to break the force of custom? What is to stop him in his rushing down the precipice? What to awaken him in his profound lethargy? What to be the starting post of a new race? What the principle of a new life? What the motive, the master motive, of a thorough and radical moral alteration? There never was, there never can be, any other effectual method proposed for these high purposes but that which the Scriptures reveal, an entire conversion of the whole soul to God by the mighty operation of the Holy Spirit. God alone that created the heart can renew it after His image. When the soul receives this new and holy bias, then the evil habits in which men formerly lived will resolutely be relinquished, and other and better habits will succeed. They will then repent of sin and separate from it. They will watch and pray against temptation. They will believe in the inestimable promises of life in Jesus Christ, trusting alone in His merits, and renouncing their imagined righteousness which was of the law. They will depend exclusively on the graces and influences of the Holy Spirit for every good thought and every holy action. Thus they will stop at once in the course of their former habits, and begin to form new ones. They will now enter on a life of humility and fear, of conscientiousness and circumspection, of mortification and purity, of meekness and temperance, of justice and charity; all springing from faith in the atonement of Christ, and from a genuine love to His name.
(D. Wilson, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.