by John Angell James
Declension means a state of mind and heart, rather than of outward conduct; or, at any rate, of conduct which does not come under the head of immorality; of conduct which does not subject a man to the discipline of the church, or to the reproach of the world; of conduct which neither in his own estimation, nor that of others, blasts his reputation, or casts off his profession—but which yet shows his religion to be gradually diminishing in its source, power, and operation.
What renders it of more consequence that you should read this address with anxious attention, is the deceitfulness of the heart, by the duplicity of which, aided by the machinations of Satan, you may be woefully declining, without hardly suspecting it. Many a tradesman is ignorant of the declining course of his affairs, until some circumstances lead him to examine his stock and his books; when he finds, to his dismay, he is on the verge of ruin. I implore you, then, to read these pages with a devout and inquisitive mind. With a mind really desirous and solicitous to know your true condition. As you go from one mark to another, pause, look inward, compare, inquire.
Your religion, then, is declining—
When you are reluctant to spiritual conversation, and the company of serious heavenly-minded Christians; and enjoy yourself best with men of the world.
When from preference, rather than necessity, you are often absent from weekly religious services, confine yourself to Sabbath meetings, are easily detained from them, and are ready at an excuse or pretext for such neglects.
When there are certain duties which you are afraid to consider closely and seriously, lest your conscience rebuke past neglect, and insist on your fidelity now.
When it is more your object, in going through with a duty, to pacify conscience, than to honor Christ, obtain spiritual profit and growth in grace, or do good to others.
When you have an over-critical spirit respecting preaching; are dissatisfied with the manner of the preacher—as inelegant, or too plain, or too intellectual, or not according to some favorite model; or with the matter of preaching—as too doctrinal, or too preceptive; or when you complain of it as too close and searching.
When you are more afraid of being accounted strict, than of sinning against Christ by negligence in practice, and infidelity to 'your Lord and 'Master.'
When you have little fear of temptation, and can trifle with spiritual danger.
When you have strong thirsting for the acceptance of men of the world, and concern to know what they think or say of you, rather than whether you honor the Savior in their sight; in short, are more occupied with the question, 'What will men think of me?' than 'What does God see me to be?'
When scandals to religion are more the subject of your censorious conversation with men, than of your secret grieving and prayer before God concerning them, and of your faithful endeavors for their removal.
When you are more afraid to encounter the eye and the scorn of an offending man, by rebuking his sin, than of offending God, by neglect to rebuke him.
When you calculate more carefully for the security of worldly prosperity, than for that of your precious soul; are more bent on being rich than holy.
When you cannot receive, patiently and humbly, deserved and kind reproof for faults; are unwilling to confess your faults, and in the habit of always justifying yourself.
When you are impatient and unforbearing towards the frailties, misjudgments, and faults of others.
When your reading of the Bible is formal, hasty, lesson-wise, or merely intellectual; and unattended with self-application, quickening to conscience, and gracious affections, increase of prayerfulness, watchfulness, readiness for every good work; or when you read almost any other book with more interest than the book of God.
When you have more religion abroad and in public, than at home and in secret; are apparently fervent and elevated when 'seen by men,' but languid, cold, careless, when seen only in the family, or by God alone.
When you call spiritual sloth and withdrawment from Christian activity by the names of prudence and peaceableness, while sinners are going to destruction, and the church suffering declension; unmindful that prudence can be united with apostolic fidelity, and peaceableness with most anxious and diligent seeking of the salvation of souls.
When, because there is fanaticism and false zeal abroad in the world, you will neither trust yourself, nor countenance in others, even that 'fervency in spirit, serving the Lord,' which Paul taught and practiced.
When you are, secretly, more gratified at the missteps and falls of some professor of another denomination, or at variance with you, than grieved for the wounds he inflicts upon Christ, and the hazard in which he places his own soul.
When under chastisement of Providence, you think more of your sufferings than your deserts; and look more for relief than purification from sin.
When you confess—but do not forsake, your besetting sins.
When you acknowledge—but still neglect, duty.
When, for slight pretexts, or under slight temptations—any indeed—you step across the strict, straight lines of the Divine law—for example, doing improper things on the Sabbath; not being exactly just in business transactions; swerving from strict veracity; and do such things without much shrinking of conscience.
When your cheerfulness has more of the levity of the unregenerate, than of the holy joy of the sons of God.
When you live so little like a Christian, that you are embarrassed and ashamed in attempting religious duties to, or in the presence of, men of the world.
When you say in yourself, of this or that sin, 'Is it not a little one?' or, 'The Lord pardon your servant in this thing,' and think so lightly of some sins, called small, that you are learning not to be much disturbed respecting some great ones.
When the habit of neglecting some known duty is pleaded as an excuse for the neglect, instead of an aggravation, and a reason for deeper penitence.
When you have so many worldly plans, and please yourself so much with success, that you are unwilling or afraid to think of death, and even of 'departure to be with Christ;' and in your daily manner of living say, 'I would live here always.'
When you think more of being saved by Christ, than of serving Christ—more of security of heaven, and the comfort and quietness of such security, than of deliverance from sin, saving dying men, and thus honoring God.
When you shut your eyes from self-examination, for fear of what you shall find in yourself to alarm you and shake your hope.
When you lean on the opinion of others that you are a Christian, instead of faithfully searching your heart and life, and comparing them with the 'sure word,' so that you may find scriptural evidences of your hope.
When you speak more frequently of declension in the church than in your own heart; or talk of both more than you mourn and pray before God, and labor for a better state of things.
When the worldly spirit, savor and cares of the week follow you farther into the sabbath than the spirit and savor of the sabbath follow you into the week.
When you are easily induced to make your duty as a Christian, bend to your worldly interest.
When you can be in frequent association with men of the world, without solicitude lest they do your soul hurt, or you do theirs no good, or both.
When, in your thoughts, reading, or conversation on religious subjects, your clearness of head, ingenuity, and justness of conclusions, far outgo your spirituality, and heartiness, and love to Christ and his gospel.
When your orthodoxy is the most, or all there is, which is right in you; and when you contend more about its positions, and against the erroneous theories and opinions of men, than you strive for holiness, and fight against sin in yourself and in the world around you.
When your zeal, instead of being 'according to knowledge,' is according to your pride and prejudice; and more occupied in censuring the coldness of others, than in affectionate endeavors to persuade them to do their duty, and quietly and humbly to do your own.
When your activity in religion depends upon the excitement of occasions, and the peculiarity of means and measures; instead of being the fruit of steady, spiritual-minded, unselfish principle; and when you take more delight in the bustle of outward and popular religious movements, than in secret communion with God, and in duties in which you are retired from the notice of men.
When you think more of 'the mote in your brother's eye,' than of the 'beam in your own eye.'
"When you find it difficult to tell wherein you are essentially different, as to your state of heart and habits of life, from what you were before you professed to be a Christian."
What a list! What a test! How searching! Whose heart can abide the scrutiny? Yet which of these marks can be disputed? Is there one of them that implies anything of an opposite nature, which we ought not to be, and to do?
I have called these indications "marks of declension," but in fact some of them may be considered evidences of unconversion, and should lead the reader to ask in deep solicitude, the solemn question, "Am I indeed a Christian, or only a professor? Am I truly regenerated, or only outwardly called? Is my nature changed, or only my name?" Dear brethren, do, do urge this inquiry, and take care to what conclusion you come. Oh if you should be deceived! Remember that self-deception is fearfully common. Many are going in church fellowship— to perdition!
I am desirous to impress your mind with the idea, already suggested, thatthere may be a state of declension without our being sufficiently aware of the fact. There may be, in some cases, incipient disease in the body—the health may be declining without any alarm—there may be a declining affection for an earthly object, without the heart being duly impressed with its growing alienation—but it is far more likely that this should be the case in spiritual things than in temporal ones. This was strikingly exemplified in the case of some of the Asiatic churches; not only in that of Laodicea, which was blinded with the most infatuated self-delusion—but also of Ephesus. Turn to the impressive epistle addressed to that ancient community, and learn how possible it is, amid many and great excellences, in some views of the Christian character, to be defective and declining in others. "I know your works," said the faithful and true witness, "and your labor, and your patience, and how you can not bear those who are evil—and you have tried those who say they are apostles, and are not, and have found them liars; and have borne, and have patience, and for my name's sake have labored, and halt not fainted." What a eulogy! It seems as if scarcely anything were lacking to perfection. Who of us could expect such a testimony as this, or could hope for such commendation?
Yet even here did the searching eye of the omniscient and holy Savior discern defects, and expose declension. Yes, even in this beautiful flower he saw a blemish, in this rich ripe fruit, a worm, and incipient decay. For mark what follows, "Nevertheless I have somewhat against you, because you have left your first love. Remember therefore from whence you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works, or else I will come unto you quickly, and will remove your candlestick out of his place, except you repent," Rev. 2:1-5. Oh, how instructive and impressive! How alarming! What a call to rigid self-examination! Amid what seeming eminence of piety, and distinguished Christian excellence; amid what beauties of holiness may not the fading tint and withering speck be seen by that eye which judges not as man judges. And if this may be the case in the more distinguished examples of professors, alas, alas, for those who have made but small attainments, and are lagging far behind the rest. What a reason, I repeat, for close, frequent, prayerful examination! What a motive to anxious self-scrutiny! What a condemnation of that careless indifference, unwatchfulness, and easy self-confidence in which many indulge.
And then I may observe again, thatmany of these marks may be called rather marks of defective, than of declining religion. You were, perhaps, never otherwise than in the state which these indications set forth. Even though you have been converted, yet how partially are you sanctified. You cannot be said to have gone back from these things, for you have never attained thereunto. Declension from any given point, supposes, of course, we have reached it. But have we ever reached the points herein stated, or rather herein supposed? How defective are some men's notions of true religion! How inadequate their conceptions of Christian obligation! How narrow their range of Christian duty! It is a great thing to be a Christian—a difficult thing—a rare one. How much more rare, to be an eminent one! We are almost ready to say, "If all this be required, who then can be saved?" Do not mistake on this point. Something more is required than a regular attendance on an evangelical ministry, an approbation of orthodox truth, an enjoyment of elegant or exciting sermons, a relish for experimental preaching, a perception of the importance of sound doctrine, and a zeal for the spread of the gospel.
Take up these marks, then, as pointing out what you ought to be, and must endeavor to be. Adopt them as a rule of conduct. Regard them as marks of sad destitution, if not of declension. Say within yourself, and to yourself, "I see that my views of personal religion have been sadly defective. I have taken upon me the Christian name, without considering what it implies; and have assumed a profession of religion, without duly estimating its obligations. I have adopted a too limited rule and too low an aim. I must raise my standard, and enlarge my scope; and by the help of the Spirit of God will do so."
You know, my dear friends, how solicitous I am that you, the professed followers of the Lamb, should follow him fully. That you should have a self-evidencing religion; as evident to yourselves, as it is to others; and to others, as it is to yourselves. You may spend life in a profitless, trembling, comfortless state. If a Christian in reality, yet scarcely knowing it, or enjoying the comfort of knowing it; you may live and die under the cloud of doubt, gloom, and fear, in which you will tempt the world to draw inferences against your Christian character, or the religion you profess, or both. If—which is seriously possible—you are not really a Christian, you run the fearful hazard of living, as I have already supposed, in ruinous self-deception, dying in your sins, and plunging from the visible church, into the lowest hell!
Say not that by such addresses, I am unnecessarily exciting your fears, and depriving you of Christian comfort, and of joy and peace in believing. I know of no legitimate consolation, which can be enjoyed in a state of declension. We must repent and do our first works, before we can be comforted. It is said of the ancient believers, that "they walked in the fear of God, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit," and these two can no more be separated now, than they were then. The very wish to be comforted in a state of declension, is of itself, a sad indication of a declining state. Our peace comes from faith in our atoning and interceding Savior—but it ever comes with holiness. I am not now directing you to your own evidences of grace, as a source of consolation under a sense of sin—it is only the blood of Christ that can heal a wounded conscience, or calm a troubled heart—but as professors of religion, we have no right to rejoice, in the absence of evidence that we have believed.
It is not my design, and will not, I hope, be the effect of my statements in this address, to increase the perplexities of the timid and doubting believer; nor to draw him away from the peace-giving consolation of the Lord his righteousness, to that anxious hunting after imperfections, and that self-tormenting disposition to write bitter things against himself, in which some indulge. By no means. Many doubt most their piety, who have least occasion to doubt; while many, on the other hand, doubt least, who have occasion to doubt most. It is not only Christ-likeness that is the evidence of a renewed heart—but a longing desire after it, a practical pursuit of it, and the endurance of nothing that is contrary to it.
But perhaps you are by this time desirous to know how to recover from a declining state. Be duly, that is, deeply impressed with the sinfulness, misery, and danger of such a condition. Do not excuse it, or consider it as a mere misfortune. Sincerely desire to recover the ground you have lost. Examine into the cause of your declension, and put it away. If it was a neglect of the word of God, resume the devout, spiritual, and constant perusal of the Scriptures. If it was a neglect of prayer, begin afresh this holy exercise. If it was the indulgence of heart-sin, mortify it. Be alarmed lest declension lead to open backsliding, and backsliding to final apostasy. One tends to the other. Confirmed apostasy begins at the heart. After all, I may remark, that the best way to recover from declension, as well as to keep from it, is to look more to a crucified Savior. The cross is the sinner's hope, the believer's comfort, and the backslider's recovery. The first step of declension in religion, follows the first turn of the eye from Jesus; the Author and Finisher of faith. A life of holiness can only spring from a life of faith. The joy of the Lord, and in the Lord, is our strength. The more clear, and comprehensive, and delightful our view of the person, and offices, and work of Christ is—the more vigorously will the work of sanctification go forward.
Yes, my dear friends, I want you to be happy Christians, as well as holy ones; and happy ones in order that you may be holy ones; as well as holy ones in order that you may be happy ones, for these things influence each other. It is my desire that all the consolation in Christ, and all the consolations of the Spirit may be yours. And oh! what springs of comfort are ever pouring forth their crystal streams to refresh you—from the attributes, relations, and providence of God; from the offices of Christ as your Prophet, Priest, and King; from the operations of the Holy Spirit; from the promises of the everlasting covenant; from the hope of glory, and the prospects of eternity. But you cannot enjoy even these consolations in a state of declension. Let the contemplation and belief of these stupendous realities raise you by the power of the Spirit from a low state of religion, and then let the rich enjoyment of them prevent you from again sinking into this deplorable and dangerous condition.
"Therefore be watchful and strengthen the things which remain that are ready to die." "Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." And there is no other way to grow in grace, than by growing in the knowledge of Christ—or at least, all other ways without this will be essentially defective. The mere schooling of the law will not make a good disciple of Christ; there must also be the sweet, persuasive, and melting teaching of the gospel. For the athletic exercises of a vigorous and manly piety, the soul must be nourished by a generous diet of spiritual consolation—and the reason why so many professors are lean and feeble, and their strength is in a declining state, is because if they have not been overworked, they have certainly been underfed. They have been sparingly, far too sparingly, supplied with the bread which comes down from heaven, and the flesh of Christ which is food indeed, and his blood, which is drink indeed. Go afresh, dear brethren, to the cross of your Lord; there is no constraint to holy living, like the love of Christ. May you rise from a low estate, and then continue in a high one, by the power of his resurrection.
Equally necessary is it to be much in prayer for the influence of the Holy Spirit. We are, it is true, to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling; but, at the same time, we are to be dependent upon Him that works in us to will and to do of his own good pleasure. It is the power of the Spirit that can alone keep us from, or help us out of, a state of declension. It is his teaching that must show us the evil and the danger of such a condition, and affect our hearts with a sense of our painful situation. All our reflections, meditations and resolutions, will be cold, heartless and uninfluential, until he gives them warmth, energy and power. It is his voice alone that will awaken our slumbering conscience, and his impulse alone that will move the heart. It is the hand of faith taking hold of God's strength, that can raise us out of our low condition. This, however, so far from excusing the past, shows the sinfulness of your conduct in neglecting the Divine assistance; and so far from warranting neglect for the future, is the greatest encouragement to exertion. Consider, therefore, how you have fallen. Be zealous and repent. Recover lost ground, and make up that which is lacking. Be this your prayer, "Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?"