Thoughts on Religious Experience

Archibald Alexander, 1844

Imperfect sanctification—the spiritual warfare

It may be difficult to account for the fact, that when the power of God was as sufficient to make the sinner perfect in the new creation—as to implant a principle of spiritual life—he should have left the work imperfect; and that this imperfection, according to the facts of both Scripture and experience, should continue through the whole period of human life, to whatever extent it may be protracted. Some, indeed, seem to suppose that the remainders of sin in believers are seated in the body, and therefore, as long as this sinful body continues, this inbred corruption will manifest itself more or less. This opinion seems to have been imbibed at a very early period of the history of the church, and was probably derived from the Platonic philosophy, which considers matter to be the origin of evil. From this view of the seat of indwelling sin, men in all ages who entertained it have been led to lay great stress on fasting and other bodily austerities—by which the body was enfeebled and emaciated. But the principle assumed being false, all that is built upon it must be false likewise.

The body, though infected with the pollution of sin, through its connection with the soul, is not and cannot be the source of iniquity. Mere matter, however curiously organized and animated, is, apart from the soul, no moral agent, and therefore not susceptible of moral qualities. Sin must have its origin and seat in the free rational soul. The appetites and passions which have their seat in the body, partake of the nature of sin by their excess and irregularity; and by their cravings often influence the will to choose that which is not good, or is not the best. Still, however, the body is a great clog to the soul, and the appetites and passions which are seated in the body, being very urgent in their cravings for gratification, greatly disturb the exercises of piety, and sometimes prevail against the higher principles which by grace have been implanted. As the body is also subject to various diseases, these, on account of the close connection between the soul and body, mightily affect the mind, and often create a great hindrance to devotion and the exercises of piety.

Where two opposite principles exist in the same soul, there must be a perpetual conflict between them, until "the weaker dies". But as the "old man", though crucified, never becomes extinct in this life, this warfare between the flesh and the spirit never ceases until death. As these opposite moral principles operate through the same natural faculties and affections, it is a matter of course, that as the one gains strength the other must be proportionately weakened; and experience teaches that the most effectual way to subdue the power of sin is to nourish and exercise the principle of holiness. But if love to God grows cold or declines in vigor, then the motions of sin become more lively, and the stirring of inbred corruption is sensibly experienced. Just then, in the same proportion, will the principle of evil be diminished as the principle of grace is strengthened. Every victory over any particular lust weakens its power; and by a steady growth in grace, such advantage is obtained over inbred sin, that the advanced Christian maintains the mastery over it, and is not subject to those violent struggles which were undergone when this warfare commenced. Young Christians, however, are often greatly deceived by the appearance of the death of sin, when it only sleeps or deceitfully hides itself, waiting for a more favorable opportunity to exert itself anew. When such a one experiences, in some favored moment, the love of God shed abroad in his heart, sin appears to be dead, and those lusts which warred against the soul, to be extinguished; but when these lively feelings have passed away, and carnal objects begin again to entice, the latent principle of iniquity shows itself; and often that Christian who had fondly hoped that the enemy was slain and the victory won, and in consequence, ceased to watch and pray, is suddenly assailed and overcome by the deceitfulness of sin! Christians are more injured in this warfare by the insidious and secret influence of their enemies lulling them into the sleep of carnal security, than by all their open and violent assaults. No duty is more necessary, in maintaining this conflict, than watchfulness. Unceasing vigilance is indispensable. "Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation!" (Matt 26:41) "And what I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch!" (Mark 13:37)

Lawful pursuits are more frequently a snare than those which are manifestly sinful. It is a duty "to provide things honest in the sight of all men", (Rom 12:17) but while this object is industriously pursued, the love of the world gradually gains ground. The possession of wealth is then viewed as important. Eternal things fade out of view, or viewed as at a great distance, and the impression from them is faint. Worldly entanglements are experienced; the spiritual life is weakened. A sickly state commences, and a sad declension ensues. Alas! What a forlorn state he is now in! Where is the burning zeal with which he commenced his course? Where now are the comforts of piety, with which he was so entirely satisfied that the world was viewed as an empty bauble? Where now is his spirit of prayer, which made this duty his delight? Where now is his love of the Bible, which drew him aside often from worldly business to peruse its sacred instructions? O! what a change! Reader, it is perhaps your own case. "You are the man!" (2 Sam 12:7) who has thus fallen, and left your first love. "Repent, therefore, and do the first works!", (Rev 2:5) lest some heavy judgment fall upon you.

God holds a rod for His own children, and when the warnings and exhortations of the Word, and the secret whispers of the Spirit are neglected, some painful providence is sent—some calamity, which has so much natural connection with the sin, as to indicate that it is intended as a chastisement for it. These strokes are often very cutting and severe—but they must be so to render them effectual. "God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." Hebrews 12:10-11 (NIV)

The followers of Dr. Robert Hawker, in England, who are ultra-Calvinists, entertain the opinion that "the law in our members" (Rom 7:23) is not in the least affected or weakened by our regeneration or sanctification—but that through life it remains the very same, in no way weakened in its strength by any progress in the divine life which the Christian may make. But this is contrary to the Word of God, which speaks of "dying daily unto sin" (Heb 3:13)—of "mortifying the deeds of the body" (Rom 8:13)—"crucifying the flesh", (Gal 5:24) etc. The same opinion, or one near akin to it, was held by Mr. William Walker of Dublin, which he brings to view in his able "Address to the Wesleyan Methodists". His opinion, however, I think, was that there is no such thing as a progressive work of sanctification, which word properly means a consecration to God.

In a former chapter I mentioned the different views of different denominations of Christians respecting the nature of the soul's exercises in conversion—but this difference is far more considerable as it relates to the spiritual conflict and sanctification. It is far from the wish of the writer to give offence to any body of Christians, much less to provoke controversy. This is no proper field for controversy. In the midst of this militant state, there ought to be one peaceful ground, where all true followers of Jesus might sit down together and compare their experiences of the loving kindness and faithful dealings of their Lord and Master. But surely it ought not to be offensive to any body of Christians simply to state what their views are in regard to experimental religion, and how far they agree or differ from those of other Christians. If there be mistakes or erroneous views on any side, they should be considered and corrected.

There has long been a difference of opinion respecting the true interpretation of the Rom 7, in regard to Paul's description of the spiritual conflict, whether he describes the exercises of a converted sinner, whom he personates; or whether he does not rather express honestly the feelings of his own heart, and describe the painful conflict between the powers of sin and holiness which was going on in his own bosom. The latter, undoubtedly, is the obvious meaning, for the apostle speaks in the first person, and gives no notice of introducing a person of another character; and some of the expressions here employed are as strongly descriptive of a regenerate heart as any in the Bible. Who but a regenerate man can say, "I delight in the law of God after the inward man"? (Rom 7:22) And the closing words show clearly enough that the apostle was detailing the exercises of his own soul, for he gives thanks to God for giving him the victory in this severe conflict—but still intimates that the two irreconcilable principles continued, according to their respective natures, to operate within him. "I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God—but with the flesh the law of sin." (Rom 7:25)

Arminius began his career of departure from the commonly received opinions of the Reformed churches by writing a book in exposition of Rom 7; and it is a remarkable coincidence that Faustus Socinus in Poland was engaged at the same time in writing a book on the same subject, and to support the same views. This subject is excellently treated in one of President Dickinson's Letters; and more largely by Fraser on Sanctification. The same subject is also treated accurately and judiciously by Charles Hodge in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.

It is understood that the followers of John Wesley hold, in conformity with his recorded opinion, that sanctification is not a gradual and progressive work, which remains imperfect in the best in this life—but that, like regeneration, it is instantaneous, and that the result is a complete deliverance from indwelling sin; so that from that moment believers are perfectly holy, and sin no more—unless they fall from this high state of grace—in thought, word, or deed. Here then there can be no similarity between the religious experience of an Arminian, who has attained sanctification; and a Calvinist, who is seeking to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one is conscious of no sin, inward or outward, of nature or of act, and must have perpetual joy—a heaven on earth; while the other is groaning under a deep sense of inherent depravity which works powerfully against his will, and continually interrupts and retards his progress. His frequent language is, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death!" (Rom 7:24)

Here indeed we have a wide difference in the religious experience of professing Christians; and it must be acknowledged that if the experience of the Arminian is in accordance with the Word of God, he has greatly the advantage over the contrite, brokenhearted penitent, whose complaints are so great that they often cause him to wet his couch with tears. How to reconcile these widely different views of our condition as sanctified sinners, I know not. There must be a grand mistake somewhere; and I sincerely pray to God, that if my views on this subject are erroneous, they may be corrected!

The Christian is a soldier and must expect to encounter enemies, and to engage in many a severe conflict. The young convert may well be likened to a raw recruit just enlisted. He feels joyous and strong, full of hope and full of courage. When the veteran Christian warns him of coming dangers and formidable enemies, and endeavors to impress on his mind a sense of his weakness and helplessness without divine aid, the young convert does not understand what he says. He apprehends no dangers or enemies which he is not ready to face, and is ready to think that the aged disciples with whom he converses have been deficient in courage and skill, or have met with obstacles which are removed out of his way. He views the contests of which they speak as the young soldier does the field of battle at a distance, while he is enjoying his wages, and marches about with a conscious exultation on account of his military insignia, and animated with martial music.

The young Christian is commonly treated by his Lord with peculiar tenderness. He is like the babe dandled on the knee, and exposed to no hardships. His frames are lively and often joyous, and he lives too much upon them. His love to the Savior and to the saints is fresh and fervent—and his religious zeal, though not well regulated by knowledge—is ardent. He often puts older disciples to the blush by the warmth of his affections, and his alacrity in the service of his Redeemer. He often indulges a censorious spirit—in judging those who have been long exercised in the spiritual life. This is indeed the season of his "first love" which began to flow in the day of his espousals; and though occasionally dark clouds intercept his views, these are soon forgotten when the clear sunshine breaks forth to cheer him on his way. During this period he delights in social exercises, especially in communion with those of his own age; and in prayer and in praise and spiritual conversation, his heart is lifted up to heaven, and he longs for the time when he may join the songs of the upper temple.

But before long the scene changes. Gradually the glow of fervent affections subsides. Worldly pursuits, even the most lawful and necessary, steal away the heart; and various perplexing entanglements beset the inexperienced traveler. He begins to see that there were many things faulty in his early course. He blames his own weakness or enthusiasm; and in avoiding one extreme he easily falls into the opposite, to which human nature has a strong bias. He enters into more company with the world and, of course, imbibes insensibly some portion of its spirit. This has a deadening effect on his pious feelings; and his devotions become less fervent and less punctual; and far more interrupted with vain, wandering thoughts, than before. He is apt to fall into a hasty or formal attendance on the daily duties of the closet, and a little matter will sometimes lead him to neglect these precious seasons of grace. A strange forgetfulness of the presence of God, and of his accountableness for every thought, word, and action, seizes upon him. Close self-examination becomes painful and, when attempted, is unsuccessful. New evils begin to appear springing up in the heart. Before he is aware, the imagination is filled with sensual imagery, which affording carnal pleasure, the train of his thoughts is with difficulty changed. A lack of prompt resolution is often the occasion of much guilt and much unhappiness. Pride is sure to lift its head—when God is out of view; and it is astonishing how this and kindred evils will get possession and grow, so as to be visible to others, while the person himself is not aware of the disease. Anger, impatience, fretfulness, envy, undue indulgence of the appetites, love of riches, fondness for dress and show, the love of ease, aversion to spiritual duties, with numerous similar and nameless evils are now bred in the heart, and come forth to annoy and retard the Christian in his course. His pride makes him unwilling to open his ear to friendly and fraternal reproof; such words fall heavily on him and wound his morbid sensibility, so that a conflict takes place between a sense of duty and unmortified pride. He inwardly feels that the rebuke of a brother is just, and should be improved to the amendment of the evil pointed out; but pride cannot brook the thought of being exposed and humbled; and he tries to find something in the manner of the rebuke which can be censured; or suspicion will ascribe it to a bad motive.

If, in this spiritual conflict, pride should gain the victory, alas! how much sin follows in its train—resentment towards a kind brother, hypocrisy in concealing the real dictates of conscience, and approbation of the inner man; and a neglect of all efforts at improvement. The person thus circumstanced is instinctively led to endeavor to persuade himself that he has done right. Still, however, the language of his better part is that of self-condemnation. But he hushes it up, and assumes an air of innocence and boldness, and thus the Spirit is grieved. Who can describe the train of evils which ensue on one defeat of this kind? The mind becomes dark and desolate; communion with God is interrupted, and a course of backsliding commences, which sometimes goes on for years, and then the wanderer is not arrested and brought back without chastisement. In such cases the judgments of God against his own straying children are fearful. And if any who have thus declined does not experience them—it is because they are not God's children; "for what son is he whom the father chastens not?" (Heb 12:7)

Worldly prosperity has ever been found to be an unfavorable soil for the growth of piety. It blinds the mind to spiritual and eternal things, dries up the spirit of prayer, fosters pride and ambition, furnishes the appropriate food to covetousness, and leads to a sinful conformity to the spirit, maxims, and fashions of the world. Very few have been enabled to pass this ordeal without serious injury, and have come forth like the three children from Nebuchadnezzar's furnace, without the smell of fire on their garments; but this could not have been unless the Son of Man had been with them. Such people use all their health, influence, and wealth in promoting the kingdom of Christ; but generally, God in mercy refuses to give worldly prosperity to His children. He has "chosen the poor of this world, to be rich in faith"; (James 2:5) that is, He has commonly chosen poverty as the safest condition for His children. His are "an afflicted and poor people, and those who trust in the name of the Lord". (Zeph 3:12)

But the poor have their conflicts and temptations, as well as the rich. They are continually tempted to discontent; to envy at the prosperity of the rich; and sometimes to use unlawful means to satisfy their needs. On account of the dangers of both these conditions, Agur prayed, "Give me neither poverty nor wealth; feed me with the food I need. Otherwise, I might have too much and deny You, saying—Who is the Lord? or I might have nothing and steal, profaning the name of my God." (Prov 30:8-9) We should be content in whatever state Providence has placed us. Those who crave to be rich, are not governed by the wisdom which comes from above. No wonder that they pierce themselves through with many sorrows, and are often in danger of eternal perdition. If we sought wealth from no other motive but to use it for God's glory—it would do us no harm, for this principle would regulate the pursuit, so that it would not be detrimental to the kingdom of God within us.

The enemies of the Christian have been commonly divided into three classes—the world, the flesh, and the devil. But though these may be conceived of, and spoken of separately, they resist the Christian soldier by their combined powers. The devil is the agent; the world furnishes the bait or the object of temptation; and the flesh, or our own corrupt nature, is the subject on which the temptation operates. Sometimes, indeed, Satan injects his fiery darts, enkindled in hell, to frighten the timid soul and drive it to despair; but in this he often overshoots his mark, and drives the poor trembling soul nearer to his Captain, whose broad shield affords ample protection.

We are not to suppose that we are not often led astray by the enticements of sin within us, without the aid of Satan. We need not be afraid of charging too much evil upon this arch adversary. He is ever on the alert, and is exceedingly deceptive in his approaches. Long experience has doubtless greatly increased his power and subtlety, unless he should be more restrained than formerly. Some people make a mock of Satan's temptations, as though they were the dreams of superstitious souls. Not so Paul, and Peter, and John—not so Luther, and Calvin, and Zwingli. Not so any who understand the nature of the spiritual warfare. It is to the great injury of many professors, that they are not constantly on the watch against the wiles of the devil. If you wish to know where he will be likely to meet you, I would say, in your own room, in the church, on your bed, and in your daily company with others. A single thought which suddenly starts up in your mind will show that the enemy is near, and is suggesting such thoughts as without his agency never can be accounted for. "Watch, therefore!" (Matt 24:42; Matt 25:13) "Resist the devil—and he will flee from you!" (James 4:7)