Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul
by Octavius Winslow (1841)
Chapter 1: Incipient Declension
"The backslider in heart." (Proverbs 14:14)
If there is one consideration more humbling than another to a spiritually-minded believer, it is, that, after all God has done for him, - after all the rich displays of his grace, the patience and tenderness of his instructions, the repeated discipline of his covenant, the tokens of love received, and the lessons of experience learned, there should still exist in the heart a principle, the tendency of which is to secret, perpetual, and alarming departure from God. Truly, there is in this solemn fact, that which might well lead to the deepest self-abasement before Him.
If, in the present early stage of our inquiry into this subject, we might be permitted to assign a cause for the growing power which this latent, subtle principle is allowed to exert in the soul, we would refer to the believer's constant forgetfulness of the truth, that there is no essential element in divine grace that can secure it from the deepest declension; that, if left to its self-sustaining energy, such are the hostile influences by which it is surrounded, such the severe assaults to which it is exposed, and such the feeble resistance it is capable of exerting, there is not a moment - splendid though its former victories may have been - in which the incipient and secret progress of declension may not have commenced and be going forward in the soul! There is a proneness in us to deify the graces of the Spirit. We often think of faith and love, and their kindred graces, as though they were essentially omnipotent; forgetting that though they undoubtedly are divine in their origin, spiritual in their nature, and sanctifying in their effects, they yet are sustained by no self-supporting power, but by constant communications of life and nourishment from Jesus; that, the moment of their being left to their inherent strength, is the moment of their certain declension and decay.
We must here, however, guard a precious and important truth; that is, the indestructible nature of true grace. Divine grace in the soul can never really die; true faith can never utterly and finally fail. We are speaking now but of their decay. A flower may droop, and yet live: a plant may be sickly, and yet not die. In the lowest stage of spiritual declension, in the feeblest state of grace, there is a life that never dies. In the midst of all his startings aside, the ebb and the flow, the wandering and the restoring, the believer in Jesus is "kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation." He cannot utterly fall; he cannot finally be lost. The immutability of God keeps him, - the covenant of grace keeps him, - the finished work of Jesus keeps him, - the indwelling of the Spirit keeps him, and keeps him to eternal glory. We say, then, true grace is indestructible grace; it can never die. But it may decay; and to the consideration of this solemn and important subject, the reader's serious attention is now invited. We propose to exhibit the subject of Personal Declension of Religion in the Soul in some of its varied and prominent forms and phases, and to direct to those means which God has ordained and blessed to its restoration and revival.
Believing, as we do, that no child of God ever recedes into a state of inward declension and outward backsliding, but by slow and gradual steps; and believing, too, that a process of spiritual decay may be going forward within the secret recesses of the soul, and not a suspicion or a fear be awakened in the mind of the believer; we feel it of the deepest moment that this state should first be brought to view in its incipient and concealed form. May the Lord the Spirit fill the writer's and the reader's mind with light, the heart with lowliness, and raise and fix the eye of faith simply and solely upon Jesus, as we proceed in the unfolding of a theme so purely spiritual and so deeply heart-searching!
We commence with a brief exposition of a doctrine which must be regarded as forming the groundwork of our subject; that is, THE LIFE OF GOD IN THE SOUL OF MAN. The believer in Jesus is a partaker of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). He is "born of the Spirit;" Christ dwells in him by faith; and this constitutes his new and spiritual life. A single but emphatic expression of the apostle's, unfolds the doctrine and confirms the fact, "Christ in you (Col 1:27)." It is not so much that the believer lives, as that Christ lives in him. Thus the apostle expresses it: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me." Do we look at the history of Paul as illustrative of the doctrine? Behold the grand secret of his extraordinary life. He lived unreservedly for Christ; and the spring of it was, Christ lived spiritually in him. This it was that rendered him so profound in wisdom, rich in knowledge, bold in preaching, undaunted in zeal, unwearied in toil, patient in suffering, and successful in labor; - Christ lived in him. And this forms the high and holy life of every child of God; - "Christ who is our life." To him, as the covenant head and mediator of his people, it was given to have life in himself, that he might give eternal life to as many as the Father had given him. Christ possesses this life (John 5:26); Christ communicates it (John 5:25); Christ sustains it (John 6:57); and Christ crowns it with eternal glory (John 17:24).
A peculiar characteristic of the life of God in the soul, is, that it is concealed. "Your life is hid with Christ in God." It is a hidden life. Its nature, its source, its actings, its supports are veiled from the observation of men. "The world knows us not." It knew not Jesus when he dwelt in the flesh, else it would not have crucified the Lord of life and glory. Is it any wonder that it knows him not, dwelling, still deeper veiled, in the hearts of his members? It crucified Christ in his own person, it has crucified him in the persons of his saints, and, if power were given, would so crucify him yet again. And yet there is that in the divine life of the believer, which awakens the wonderment of a Christ-rejecting world. That the believer should be unknown, and yet well known; should die, and yet live; should be chastened, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing all things, is indeed an enigma - a paradox to a carnal mind. Yes, there are moments when the believer is a mystery to himself. How the divine life in his soul is sustained in the midst of so much that enfeebles, kept alive surrounded by so much that deadens, the glimmering spark not extinguished, though obscured, amid the billows! To drop all figure, - how his soul advances when most opposed, soars when most burdened, rejoices when most afflicted, and sings the sweetest and the loudest, when the cross presses the heaviest, and the thorn pierces the deepest, may well cause him to exclaim, "I am a wonder to others, but a greater wonder to myself!" But, if the nature and the supports of the divine life in the soul are hid, not so are its effects, and these prove its existence and reality. The world has its keen, detecting eye upon the believer. It marks well his every step, it ponders narrowly his every going, it investigates and analyses closely his secret motives. No flaw, no deviation, no compromise, escapes its notice or its censure: it expects, and it has a right to expect, perfect harmony of principle and practice; it rebukes, and it has a right to rebuke, any marked discrepancy between the two. We say, then, that the effects of the life of God in the soul of the believer are observed by an ungodly world. There is that in the honest upright walk of a child of God, which arrests the attention and awakens the surprise of men, who, while they hate and despise, cannot but admire and marvel at it.
Yet another characteristic of the divine life in the soul, is its security. "Your life is hid with Christ in God." There, nothing can touch it: no power can destroy it. It is "hid with Christ," the beloved Son of the Father, the delight, the glory, the richest and most precious treasure of Jehovah: still more, it is "hid with Christ in God," in the hand, in the heart, in the all-sufficiency, yes, in the eternity of God. Oh the perfect security of the spiritual life of the believer! No power on earth or in hell can move it. It may be stormed by Satan, assaulted by corruption, scorned by men, and even in the moment of unbelief and in the hour of deep trial its existence doubted by the believer himself; yet there it is, deep lodged in the eternity of God, bound up in the heart and with the existence of Jehovah, and no foe can destroy it. "As soon," says Charnock, "might Satan pull God out of heaven, undermine the security of Christ, and tear him from the bosom of the Father, as deprive the believer of his spiritual life, or destroy that principle of grace which God has implanted in him." But a greater than Charnock has declared, "I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand (Jn 10:28)." Let the sheep and the lambs of the "little flock" rejoice that the Shepherd lives, and that because he lives they shall live also. But we now pass to the consideration of the DECLENSION of this life in the soul.
By a state of incipient declension, we mean that decay of spiritual life and grace in the believer which marks its earliest and more concealed stage. It is latent and hidden, and therefore the least suspected and the more dangerous. The painful process of spiritual disease may be advanced in the soul so secretly, so silently, and so unobservedly, that the subject of it may have lost much ground, may have parted with many graces and much vigor, and may have been beguiled into an alarming state of spiritual barrenness and decay, before even a suspicion of his real condition has been awakened in his bosom. Like Samson, he may awaken out of his sleep, and say, "I will go out as at other times before, and shake myself. And he wished not that the Lord was departed from him (Judges 16.20)." Or he may resemble Ephraim, of whom it is recorded, "Strangers have devoured his strength, and he knows it not; yes, grey hairs are here and there upon him, yet he knows it not (Hos 7:9)." This is the state of the soul we are now to examine, - a state that has to do, not with the outward observation of men, but more especially and immediately with a holy and heart-searching God. In looking into the state of a backslider in heart, we may, in the first place, show what an incipient state of declension does not necessarily involve.
And first; it does not involve any alteration in the essential character of divine grace, but is a secret decay of the health, vigor, and exercise of that grace in the soul. As in the animal frame, the heart loses nothing of its natural function, when, through disease, it sends but a faint and languid pulsation through the system; so in the spiritual constitution of the believer, divine grace may be sickly, feeble, and inoperative, and yet retain its character and its properties. The pulse may beat faintly, but still it beats; the seen may not be fruitful, but it "lives and abides forever;" the divine nature may be languid, but it can never assimilate or coalesce with any other, and must always retain its divinity untainted and unchanged. And yet, without changing its nature, divine grace may decline to an alarming extent in its power and exercise. It may be sickly, drooping, and ready to die; it may become so enfeebled through its decay, as to present an ineffectual resistance to the inroads of strong corruption; so low, that the enemy may ride rough-shod over it at his will; so inoperative and yielding, that sloth, worldliness, pride, carnality, and their kindred vices, may obtain an easy and unresisted conquest.
This decay of grace may be advancing, too, without any marked decline in the spiritual perception of the judgment, as to the beauty and fitness of spiritual truth. The loss of spiritual enjoyment, not of a spiritual perception of the loveliness and harmony of the truth, shall be the symptom that betrays the true condition of the soul. The judgment shall lose none of its light, but the heart much of its fervor; the truths of revelation, especially the doctrines of grace, shall occupy the same prominent position as to their value and beauty, and yet the influence of these truths may be scarcely felt. The Word of God shall be assented to; but as the instrument of sanctification, of abasement, of nourishment, the believer may be an almost utter stranger to it; yes, he must necessarily be so, while this process of secret declension is going forward in his soul.
This incipient state of declension may not involve any lowering of the standard of holiness; and yet there shall be no ascending of the heart, no reaching forth of the mind towards a practical conformity to that standard. The judgment shall acknowledge the divine law, as embodied in the life of Christ, to be the rule of the believer's walk; and yet to so low and feeble a state may vital godliness have declined in the soul, there shall be no panting after conformity to Christ, no breathing after holiness, no "resistance unto blood, striving against sin." Oh, it is an alarming condition for a Christian man, when the heart contradicts the judgment, and the life belies the profession! - when there is more knowledge of the truth than experience of its power, - more light in the understanding than grace in the affections, - more pretension in the profession than holiness and spirituality in the walk! And yet to this sad and melancholy state it is possible for a Christian professor to be reduced. How should it lead the man of empty notions, of mere creeds, of lofty pretension, of cold and lifeless orthodoxy, to pause, search his heart, examine his conscience, and ascertain the true state of his soul before God!
Once more: This state of secret departure from God may exist in connection with an outward and rigid observation of the means of grace; and yet there shall be no spiritual use of, or enjoyment in, the means. And this, it may be, is the great lullaby of his soul. Rocked to sleep by a merely formal religion, the believer is beguiled into the delusion that his heart is right, and his soul prosperous in the sight of God. Even more than this, - a declining believer may have sunk so deeply into a state of formality, as to substitute the outward and the public means of grace for a close and secret walk with God. He may have taken up his abode in the outer courts of the temple; he may dwell in the mere porch of the sanctuary. Frequent or even occasional retirement consecrated to meditation, self-examination, the reading of God's Word, and secret prayer, may yield to an outward, bustling form of godliness. Public and committee meetings - religious societies - business and professional engagements - wearing a religious aspect, and even important in their subordinate places, may thrust out God from the soul, and exclude Christ from the heart. And that a believer should be satisfied to "live at this poor dying rate," content to dwell amid the din and the bustle of the outworks, is one of the most palpable and alarming symptoms of the decline of the life of God in his soul. But let us group some of the more positive marks of an incipient and hidden state of spiritual declension.
When a professing man can proceed with his accustomed religious duties, strictly, regularly, formally, and yet experience no enjoyment of God in them, no filial nearness, no brokenness and tenderness, and no consciousness of sweet return, he may suspect that his soul is in a state of secret and incipient backsliding from God. Satisfying and feeding his soul - if feeding it may be called - with a lifeless form; what stronger symptom needs he of his real state? A healthy, growing state of religion in the soul demands more for its nourishment and support than this. A believer panting for God, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, grace thriving, the heart deeply engaged in spiritual duties, lively, prayerful, humble, and tender, ascending in its frame and desires, - a state marked by these features cannot be tied down to a lifeless, spiritless form of religious duties. These were but husks to a healthy state of the life of God in the soul. It wants more. It will hunger and thirst, and this spiritual longing must be met. And nothing can satisfy and satiate it but living upon Christ, the bread and the water of life. "I am the bread of life." "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink." "My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed." The professing man that goes all his days without this nourishment, thus starving his soul, may well exclaim, "My leanness, my leanness!" Oh, how solemn to such are the words of our Lord, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53)."
Again: When a professing man can read his Bible with no spiritual taste, or when he searches it, not with a sincere desire to know the mind of the Spirit in order to a holy and obedient walk, but with a merely curious, or literary taste and aim, it is a sure evidence that his soul is making but a retrograde movement in real spirituality. Nothing perhaps more strongly indicates the tone of a believer's spirituality, than the light in which the Scriptures are regarded by him. They may be read, and yet read as any other book, without the deep and solemn conviction that "all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim 3:16,17)." They may be read without a spiritual relish, without being turned into prayer, without treasuring up in the heart and reducing to daily practice its holy precepts, its precious promises, its sweet consolations, its faithful warnings, its affectionate admonitions, its tender rebukes. And thus read, how can a believer expect to derive that "profit" from the Scriptures which they were intended, and are so calculated to convey?
When a professing Christian can pray, and yet acknowledge that he has no nearness to the throne, no touching of the scepter, no fellowship with God, - calls him "Father," without the sense of adoption, - confesses sin in a general way, without any looking up to God through the cross, - has no consciousness of possessing the ear and the heart of God, the evidence is undoubted of a declining state of religion in the soul. And when too, he can find no sweetness in a spiritual ministry, - when he is restless and dissatisfied under a searching and practical unfolding of truth, - when the doctrines are preferred to the precepts, the promises to the commands, the consolations to the admonitions of the gospel, incipient declension is marked.
When the believer has but few dealings with Christ - his blood but seldom traveled to, - his fullness but little lived upon, - his love and glory scarcely mentioned, the symptoms of declension in the soul are palpable. Perhaps nothing forms a more certain criterion of the state of the soul than this. We would be willing to test a man's religion, both as to its nature and its growth, by his reply to the question, "What think you of Christ?" Does his blood daily moisten the root of your profession? Is his righteousness that which exalts you out of and above yourself, and daily gives you free and near access to God? Is the sweetness of his love much in your heart, and the fragrance of his name much on your lips? Are your corruptions daily carried to his grace, your guilt to his blood, your trials to his heart? In a word, is Jesus the substance of your life, the source of your sanctification, the one glorious object on which your eye is ever resting, the mark towards which you are ever pressing? Be not offended, reader, if we remark, that a professing man may talk well of Christ, and may do homage to his name, and build up his cause, and promote his kingdom, and yet rest short of having Christ in his heart, the hope of glory. It is not the talking about religion, or ministers, or churches, nor an outward zeal for their prosperity, that either constitutes or indicates a truly spiritual man. And yet how much of this in our day passes current for the life of God in the soul? Oh that among God's dear saints there were less talking of ministers, and more of Jesus; less of sermons, and more of the power of the truth in their souls; less of "I am of Paul," and "I of Apollos," and more of "I am of Christ."
An uncharitable walk towards other Christians, marks a low state of grace in the soul. The more entirely the heart is occupied with the love of Christ, the less room there will be for uncharitableness towards his saints. It is because there is so little love to Jesus, that there is so little towards his followers. In proportion as the mind becomes spiritual, it rises above party distinctions and names, - it resigns its narrow and exclusive views, casts away its prejudices against other sections of the one church, and embraces in the yearnings of its Christian sympathy all who "love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity." In advocating a wider platform of Christian love, we would by no means "sell the truth," or compromise principles, or immolate conscience upon the altar of an infidel liberalism. But that for which we plead, is, more of that Christian love, tender-heartedness, kindness, charity which allows the right of private judgment, respects a conscientious maintenance of truth, and concedes to others the same privilege it claims for itself. Differing as many of the saints of God necessarily do in judgment, does the same necessity exist wherefore they shall be alienated in affection? We think, far from it. There is common ground on which all Christians who hold the Head can stand. There are truths which can assimilate all our minds, and blend all our hearts. Why then should we stand aloof from the one body and exclaim, "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are we?" Why should we refuse to recognize the Father's image in the children's face, and treat them as aliens in person, in spirit, and in language, because they see not eye to eye with us, in all our interpretations of God's word? Why should not "all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away, with all malice?" and why should we not be "kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake has forgiven us," seeing that the church is but one, the family but one, that true believers are all "one in Christ Jesus?" This will be so where there is a deepening spirituality. And its absence marks a decay of grace, a waning of the life of God in the soul.
We have thus endeavored to bring to view some of the prominent characteristics of a state of incipient declension of the life of God in the believer. It will be seen that we have referred to those only which mark the hidden departure of the heart from God; - that state that is so concealed, so veiled from the eye, and wearing so fair an exterior, that all suspicion of its existence is lulled to rest, and the soul is soothed with the delusion that all is well with it. Dear reader, is this your state? Has this book thus far detected in you any secret declension, and concealed departure, any heart backsliding? Has it proved to you - the Spirit of God speaking by it - that your soul is in an unhealthy state, the Divine life within you is drooping? Turn not from the discovery, painful though it be. Look at it fully, honestly. It is no step towards the recovery of a sickly state, to disguise the worst symptoms of that state from the eye. The mark of true wisdom and skill is, to ascertain the worst of the disease, to probe the depth of the wound. And although such a course may be painful to the patient, it is essential to his thorough recovery. Beloved reader, it is important that you should know the exact state of your soul before God. And if you are sincere in that petition which has often breathed from your lip, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me;" you will thank him for any gentle and faithful admonition that sets you upon the great work of self-examination. "It is fit," says Dr. Owen, "that professors of all sorts should be reminded of these things; for we may see not a few of them under visible decays, without any sincere endeavors after a recovery, who yet please themselves that the root of the matter is in them. It is so, if love of the world, conformity unto it, negligence in holy duties, and coldness in spiritual love, be an evidence of such decays. But let none deceive their own souls; wherever there is a saving principle of grace, it will be thriving and growing unto the end. And if it fall under obstructions, and thereby into decays for a season, it will give no rest or quietness unto the soul wherein it is, but will labor continually for a recovery. Peace in a spiritually-decaying condition, is a soul-ruining security; better be under terror on the account of surprisal into some sin, than be in peace under evident decays of spiritual life."
Some of the marked characteristics of the state of heart declension which we have been considering, are so strikingly set forth in the case of the church, as described by the Holy Spirit in the fifth chapter of the Song of Solomon, that we would direct the serious attention of the reader to it in connection with this part of our work.
In the 2nd verse, the church acknowledges her drowsy, yet not entirely insensible condition: "I sleep, but my heart wakes." Here was the existence of the Divine life in the soul, and yet that life was on the decline. She knew that she had fallen into a careless and slumbering state, that the work of grace in her soul was decaying, that the spirit of slumber had come over her; but the awful feature was, she was content to be so. She heard her Beloved knock; but so enamored was she with her state of drowsiness, she gave no heed to it - she opened not to him. "I sleep, but my heart wakes: it is the voice of my Beloved that knocks, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, mu undefiled; for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night." Thus addressed, her duty would have been instantly to have aroused herself from her sleep, and admitted her Lord. A believer may fall into a drowsy state of soul, not so profound as to be entirely lost to the voice of his Beloved speaking by conscience, by the word, and by providences: and yet so far may his grace have decayed, so cold may his love have grown, and so hardening may have been his declension, he shall be content that this should be his state. O, alarming symptom of soul declension, when the indulgence of sloth and self is preferred to a visit from Jesus!
Then observe that, when she did arise, Christ had withdrawn himself. "I opened to my Beloved, but my Beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spoke; I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer (verse 6)." Weary with waiting so long, grieved at the discovery he made of her deep declension, and wounded by her cold repulse, he withdrew his sensible, loving presence, and left her to the consequences of her sad departure. The Lord never withdraws himself from his people willingly: he is never actuated by an arbitrary impulse of his will. Such is his delight in his people, such his love towards them, and such the joy he derives from their fellowship, that he would walk with them all the day long, and sun them with the unclouded light of his countenance. But when he hides himself for a little moment, he is driven from their embrace by their lukewarmness of heart, and unkind resistance of his love. Possessing a tender heart himself, the slightest indifference discoverable in his child wounds it: an ocean of love himself, the least lukewarmness in the love of his people causes him to withdraw. And yet this momentary withdrawment is not a judicial, but a fatherly, loving correction, to bring them to a knowledge and confession of their state: "I will go and return to my place, until they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face; in their affliction they will seek me early (Hos 5:15)."
It is worthy of remark, that she receded into this state of declension immediately after a peculiar manifestation of Christ's love to her soul. We find her thus inviting her Beloved: "Awake, O north wind, and come, you south; blow upon my garden, that the spices may flow out. Let my Beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits." He graciously accepts the invitation: "I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse. I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk. Eat, O friends; drink, yes, drink abundantly, O beloved." Thus was her declension preceded by near and peculiar communion with her Lord. And how many of the Lord's people can testify to the same solemn truth, that some of their saddest departures have immediately followed seasons of the most endeared and holy fellowship with their God and Father! It is after such periods that the believer is most exposed to a spirit of self-complacency. Without a great vigilance over the heart, self takes the glory and the praise of the gracious visit of love Jesus has made to the soul, and looks within for some secret cause of the mercy. When the Lord imparts a blessing, we need especial grace to keep us from falling through that very blessing. The case of the disciples affords a memorable illustration of this thought. The occasion on which the circumstance transpired to which we are about to refer, was a most solemn and affecting one; it was the scene that immediately preceded the crucifixion of Jesus. Luke thus records it: "And he took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you (Luke 22:19,20)." What moment could have been more holy than this? what occasion more solemn and sacred? Here were the disciples holding fellowship with their adorable Immanuel in the awful mystery of his sufferings! But immediately after the close of this hallowed service, what do we read? - "There was also a strife among them, which should be accounted the greatest (verse 24)." Here were the worst exhibitions of fallen nature, - passion, hatred, envy, rankling in the heart, at a moment when the elements of their Savior's dying love were yet upon their lips! Oh, what does this instructive lesson teach us! - trust not in frames and feelings, pray without ceasing, and particularly "watch unto prayer" immediately after seasons of peculiar nearness to God, or especial mercies received at his hands. "Special spiritual enjoyments," wisely remarks Traill, "are dangerous, and render a man very needy of the helping grace of God. They expose to special temptations, are apt to give rise to special corruptions, such as spiritual pride, contentedness with a present good condition, dullness of desire after a better state. If the Lord grant singular communications of himself, know that it is a season of special need of grace to guide them well. They would return more frequently, and would spring higher and last longer if they were better improved. The greater the blessing be, the greater is the difficulty of guiding it well' and the more difficult the work, the greater our need of the grace of God; and the more frequent and fervent should our applications be to the throne of grace for that needful, helpful grace."
Yet once more: Mark the hardening tendency of repeated declension in her case. In chap. iii. I, she manifests some desire for Christ, though her posture indicated a slothful spirit: "By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loves." Immediately after, Christ knocks, but she had sunk so deep in slumber that she arose not to admit him. Trace the steps, and mark the deadening nature of soul declension. She first places herself in the posture of sloth, and soon is heard to say, "I sleep." Why is it that so many who appear to be seeking Christ, rest short of him? It is not difficult in most cases to ascertain the true cause. It is this - they seek him in a slumbering posture - on their beds. Their desires are so languid, their frame of spirit so dead, their hearts so cold, that their very manner of seeking him seems to give an air of insincerity to their desires, and would seem to plead for a denial of their requests. Ponder again her confession: - Oh, is it not the confession of many? - "By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loves: I sought him, but I found him not." And the reason why she found him not, was her slothful posture, and her drowsy spirit in seeking him! Guard against a slothful seeking of Jesus. With such a frame, disappointment will inevitably ensue. But seek him with all your heart, with all your desire, with the whole bent of your soul. Seek him as your chief, your only good. Seek him as that which can supply the absence of all other good, without whom nothing is good. Seek him as that blessing that can turn every bitter cup into sweetness, every dark cloud into brightness, every cross into a mercy; that can bring bread out of the eater, and honey out of the rock. Oh what a portion has that soul that has Jesus for its portion! "The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore will I hope in him." But he must be sought with all the vigor of the soul, with all the intensity of desire, and with all perseverance of purpose, if he would be found. And well is he worth this labor of search. He is that pearl that will repay a diligent seeking. He will plentifully reward every sincere, humble comer. Not a want but he will supply, not a wound but he will heal, not a sorrow but he will soothe, not a sin but he will pardon, not a corruption but he will subdue. But seek him with full purpose of soul, and he shall be found. "When you said, Seek you my face, my heart said unto you, Your face, Lord, will I seek (Ps 27:8)." "The soul of the slugged desires, and has nothing; but the soul of the diligent shall be made fat (Prov 13:4)."
There is yet one more remarkable feature in the state of the church we have been considering, too instructive to pass by unnoticed; - we allude to the persuasion she felt, that though the Divine life in her soul was at a low ebb, still, Christ was hers, and she was Christ's. "I sleep, but my heart wakes; it is the voice of my Beloved that knocks." In the worst frame that can affect a true child of God, there is always some indication that the Divine life in the soul is not quite extinguished. In its greatest decay, there is yet some symptom of life. In the darkest hour, there is that in the nature of true grace, which emits some scintillation of its essential glory; in its greatest defeat, that which asserts its divinity. Just as a king, though deposed from his throne and driven into exile, can never entirely divest himself of the dignity of his regal character; so real grace, though often severely tried, sharply assailed, and sometimes momentarily defeated, can never sink its character, nor relinquish its sovereignty. Mark the proof of this in the case of the apostle Paul: "Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me (Rom 7:17,19,20)." And so the church expresses it, "I sleep, but my heart wakes." In her most drowsy, slothful state, she could not forget that she was still her Beloved's, and that her Beloved was hers. Glorious nature, and blessed triumph of the life of God in the soul of man!
We now come to the consideration of the REVIVAL of this Divine life in the soul of the believer. From what has been already advanced it will be perceived that we are far from considering this a hopeless state. For a declining believer to settle down under the conviction that such a state is irrecoverable; that because he has taken the first step in departure from God, he must necessarily take the second, is to afford the most alarming evidence of a state of soul declension. But so far from this, we state it distinctly and emphatically, that whatever be the departure of a backsliding child of God, it is recoverable: not a step has he lost but may be retraced; not a grace has decayed but may be restored; not a joy has fled but may be won back. Alas! for us, when the day comes that shall close up every avenue to the return of a backsliding soul! that tells us that the Father no longer welcomes home the prodigal; that the blood of Jesus no longer heals a wounded spirit; that the Holy Spirit no longer restores the lost joys of God's salvation! But we desire now to show, that for every poor, self-condemned, heart-broken, returning soul, there is a lingering affection in the heart of the Father, a welcome in the blood of Jesus, and therefore every encouragement to arise and come to God.
The first direction which we would give in the way of recovery is, acquaint yourself thoroughly with the real state of your soul as before God. As the first step in conversion was to know yourself to be a lost, helpless, condemned sinner; so now, in your re-conversion to God, you must know the exact state of your soul. Be honest with yourself; let there be a thorough, faithful examination of your spiritual condition; let all disguise be removed, the eye withdrawn from the opinion of men, and the soul shut in with God in a close scrutiny of its worst state. Your minister, your church, your friend, may know nothing of the secret state of your soul; they may not even suspect any hidden decline of grace, any incipient backsliding of heart from God. To their partial eye, the surface may be fair to look upon; to them your spiritual state may present the aspect of prosperity and fruitfulness; but the solemn question is between God that judges not as man judges - by the outward appearance only - but who judges the heart. "I, the Lord, search the heart." The "backslider in heart" may deceive himself, he may deceive others, but God he cannot deceive. Seek then to know the real condition of your soul. Search and see what graces of the Spirit have declined, what fruits of the Spirit have decayed. My reader, this is a solemn and a great work we have set you upon, but it is necessary to your recovery. We would bring you into the court of your own bosom, to examine fairly and strictly the spiritual state of your soul. It is a solemn process! The witnesses summoned to testify are many; - conscience is a witness - how often it has been silenced; the word is a witness - how sadly it has been neglected; the throne of grace is a witness - how frequently it has been slighted; Christ is a witness - how much he has been undervalued; the Holy Spirit is a witness - how deeply he has been grieved; God is a witness - how greatly he has been robbed. All these testify against the soul of a backslider in heart, and yet all plead for its return!
The second step is, to discover and bring to light the cause of the soul's declension. "Is there not a cause?" Search and see what has fallen as a blight upon your soul, what is feeding at the root of your Christianity. The apostle Paul, skillful to detect, and faithful to reprove, any declension in the faith or laxity in the practice of the early churches, discovered in that of Galatia a departure from the purity of the truth, and a consequent carelessness in their walk. Grieved at the discovery, he addressed to them an affectionate and faithful epistle, expressive of his astonishment and pain, and proposing a solemn and searching inquiry. "I marvel," he writes, "that you are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ. How, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements? I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain. Where is the blessedness you spoke of? I stand in doubt of you. You did run well; who did hinder you? This persuasion comes not of him that calls you." To the reader, conscious, as he hangs over this page, of secret declension in his soul, we propose the same searching and tender inquiry. You did run well; who did hinder you? - what stumbling-block has fallen in your way? - what has impeded your onward course? - what has enfeebled your faith, chilled your love, drawn your heart from Jesus, and lured you back to the weak and beggarly elements of a poor world? You set out fair; for a time you ran well; your zeal, and love, and humility, gave promise of a useful life, of a glorious race, and of a successful competition for the prize; but something has hindered. What is it? Is it the world, creature love, covetousness, ambition, presumptuous sin, unmortified corruption, the old leaven unpurged? Search it out. Rest not until it be discovered. Your declension is secret, perhaps the cause is secret, some spiritual duty secretly neglected, or some known sin secretly indulged. Search it out, and bring it to light. It must be a cause adequate to the production of effects so serious. You are not as you once were. Your soul has lost ground; the Divine life has declined; the fruit of the Spirit has withered; the heart has lost its softness, the conscience its tenderness, the mind its seclusion, the throne of grace its sweetness, the cross of Jesus its attraction. Oh, how sad and melancholy the change that has passed over you! And have you not the consciousness of it in your soul? Where is the blessedness you spoke of? where is the sunlight countenance of a reconciled Father? where are the rich moments spent before the cross? the hallowed scenes of communion in the closet, shut in with God? Where is the voice of the turtledove, the singing of birds, the green pastures where you did feed, the still waters on whose banks you did repose? Is it all gone? Is it winter with your soul? Ah! yes; your soul is made to feel that it is an evil and a bitter thing to depart from the living God. But yet there is hope.
The next step in the work of personal revival, is, to take the cause of the soul's declension immediately to the throne of grace, and lay it before the Lord. There must be no parleying with it, no compromise, no concealment: there must be a full and unreserved disclosure before God, without anything of palliation or disguise. Let your sin be confessed in all its guilt, aggravation, and consequences. This is just what God loves - an open, ingenuous confession of sin. Searching and knowing, though he does, all hearts, he yet delights in the honest and minute acknowledgment of sin from his backsliding child. Language cannot be too humiliating, the detail cannot be too minute. Mark the stress he has laid upon this duty, and the blessing he has annexed to it. Thus he spoke to the children of Israel, that wandering, backsliding, rebellious people: "If they confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that they have walked contrary unto me; and that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity; then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land (Lev 26:40-42)." Truly may we exclaim, "Who is a God like unto you, that pardons iniquity, and passes by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage! he retains not his anger forever, because he delights in mercy." This, too, was the blessed experience of David, God's dear yet often backsliding child: "I acknowledged my sin unto you, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord: and you forgave the iniquity of my sin (Ps 32:5)." And how did the heart of God melt with pity and compassion when he heard the audible relentings of his Ephraim! "I have heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus: You has chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn you me, and I shall be turned; for you are the Lord my God." And what was the answer of God! "Is Ephraim my dear son? is he a pleasant child? for since I spoke against him, I do earnestly remember him still; therefore my affections are troubled for him: I will surely have mercy upon him, says the Lord (Jer 31:18,20)." Nor is the promise of pardon annexed to confession of sin, unfolded with less clearness and consolatoriness in the New Testament writings. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9)." How full, then, the blessing, how rich the consolation connected with an honest, heart-broken confession of sin? How easy and how simple, too, this method of return to God! "Only acknowledge your iniquity (Jer 3:13)." It is but a confession of sin over the head of Jesus, the great sacrifice for sin. O, what is this that God says? "Only acknowledge your iniquity!" Is this all he requires of his poor wandering child? This is all! "Then," May the poor soul exclaim, "Lord, I come to you. I am a backslider, a wanderer, a prodigal. I have strayed from you like a lost sheep. My love has waxed cold, my steps have slackened in the path of holy obedience; my mind has yielded to the corrupting, deadening influence of the world, and my affections have wandered in quest of other and earthly objects of delight. But, behold, I come unto you. Do you invite me? Do you stretch out your hand? Do you bid me approach you? Do you say, 'Only acknowledge your iniquity?' Then, Lord, I come; in the name of your dear Son, I come; 'restore unto me the joy of your salvation.'" Thus confessing sin over the head of Jesus, until the heart has nothing more to confess but the sin of its confession - for, beloved reader, our very confession of sin needs to be confessed over, our very tears to be prayed over, so defaced with sin is all that we do - the soul, thus emptied and unburdened, is prepared to receive anew the seal of a Father's forgiving love.
The true posture of a returning soul is beautifully presented to view in the prophecy of Hosea 14:1,2: "O Israel, return unto the Lord your God; for you have fallen by your iniquity. Take with you words, and turn to the Lord: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render you the sacrifices of our lips." Here are conviction, godly sorrow, humiliation, and confession, the essential elements of a true return to God. Conviction of the true state of the declining soul; godly sorrow resulting from the discovery; humiliation, deep and sincere, on account of it; and a full and unreserved confession of it before God. O blessed evidences! O lovely posture of a restored soul!
Essentially connected with the discovery and the confession, there must be the entire mortification and abandonment of the cause of the soul's secret declension. Apart from this, there can be no true revival of the work of Divine grace in the heart. The true spiritual mortification of indwelling sin, and the entire forsaking of the known cause, whatever it is found to be, of the heart's declension, constitute the true elements of a believer's restoration to the joys of God's salvation. And when we speak of the mortification of sin, let not the nature of this sacred work be misunderstood. It has been in the case of many, why may it not in yours? There may exist all the surface-marks of mortification, and still the heart remain a stranger to the work. An awakening sermon, an alarming providence, or a startling truth, may for a moment arrest and agitate the backsliding soul. There may be an opening of the eyelid, a convulsive movement of the spiritual frame, which, to a superficial observer, may wear the appearance of a real return to consciousness, of a true waking up to new life and vigor of the slumbering soul, and yet these may be but the transient and fitful impulses of a sickly and a drowsy spirit. The means of grace, too, may be returned to - the secret declension felt, deplored and acknowledged, but the hidden cause remaining unmortified and unremoved, all appearance of recovery quickly and painfully subsides. It was but a transient, momentary shock, and all was still; the heavy eyelid but feebly opened, and closed again; the "goodness" that promised so fair, was but as the morning cloud and the early dew. And the reason is found in the fact, that there was no true mortification of sin. And so I may repair to a plant withering and drooping in my garden; I may employ every external means for its revival; I may loosen the earth about it, water, and place it in the warm sunbeam; but if the while I had not discovered and removed the hidden cause of its decay - if I had not know that a worm was secretly feeding at the root, and, in ignorance of this, had proceeded with my surface-work of restoration, what marvel, though the morning sunbeam, and the evening dew, and the loosened earth, had produced a momentary freshness and life, that yet my plant had ceased to exist, had withered and died? Thus may it be with a declining believer. The external means of revival may be sedulously employed, means of grace diligently used and even multiplied, but all to no real and permanent effect, while a worm secretly feeds at the root; and until the hidden cause of decay be mortified, removed, and utterly extirpated, the surface revival does but end in a profounder sleep, and a more fearful deception of the soul. Again, and yet again would we repeat it - there cannot possibly be any true, spiritual, and abiding revival of grace in a believer, while secret sin remains undiscovered and unmortified in the heart. True and spiritual mortification of sin is not a surface-work: it consists not merely in pruning the dead tendrils that hang here and there upon the branch; it is not the lopping off of outward sins, and an external observance of spiritual duties; it includes essentially far more than this: it is a laying the axe at the root of sin in the believer; it aims at nothing less than the complete subjection of the principle of sin; and until this is effectually done, there can be no true return of the heart to God. Christian reader, what is the cause of your soul's secret declension? What is it that at this moment feeds upon the precious plant of grace, destroying its vigor, its beauty, and its fruitfulness? Is it an inordinate attachment to the creature? mortify it; - the love of self? mortify it; the love of the world? mortify it; - some sinful habit secretly indulged? mortify it. It must be mortified, root as well as branch, if you would experience a thorough return to God. Dear though it be, as a right hand, or as a right eye, it yet it comes between your soul and God, if it crucifies Christ in you, if it weakens faith, enfeebles grace, destroys the spirituality of the soul, rendering it barren and unfruitful, rest not short of its utter mortification.
Nor must this great work be undertaken in your own strength. It is pre-eminently the result of God the Holy Spirit working in, and blessing the self-efforts of the believer: "If you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live (Rom 8:13)." Here is a recognition of the believer's own exertions, in connection with the power of the Holy Spirit: "If you" (believers, you saints of God) "through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body," etc. It is the work of the believer himself, but the power is of the Spirit of God. Take, then, your discovered sin to the Spirit: that Spirit, bringing the cross of Jesus, with a killing, crucifying power, into your soul, giving you such a view of a Savior suffering for sin, as it may be you never had before, will in a moment lay your enemy slain at your feet. O yield not to despair, distressed soul! Are you longing for a gracious revival of God's work within you? - are you mourning in secret over your heart-declension? - have you searched and discovered the hidden cause of your decay? - and is your real desire for its mortification? Then look up, and hear the consolatory words of your Lord: "I am the Lord that heals you (Ex 15:26)." The Lord is your healer; his love can restore you; his blood can heal you; his grace can subdue your sin. "Take with you words, and turn to the Lord; say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously:" and the Lord will answer, "I will heal their backslidings, I will love them freely; for mine anger is turned away from him."
Endeavor to enrich and enlarge your mind with more spiritual apprehensions of the personal glory, love, and fullness of Christ. All soul-declension arises from the admission of things into the mind contrary to the nature of indwelling grace. The world, - its pleasures, its vanities, its cares, its varied temptations, - these enter the mind, disguised in the shape often of lawful undertakings and duties, and draw off the mind from God, and the affections from Christ. These, too, weaken and deaden faith and love, and every grace of the indwelling Spirit: they are the "foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes (Song 2:15)." The world is a most hurtful snare to the child of God. It is impossible that he can maintain a close and holy walk with God, live as a pilgrim and a sojourner, wage a constant and successful warfare against his many spiritual foes, and at the same time open his heart to admit the greatest foe to grace - the love of the world. But when the mind is pre-occupied by Christ, filled with contemplations of his glory and grace and love, no room is left for the entrance of external allurements: the world is shut out, and the creature is hut out, and the fascinations of sin are shut out; and the soul holds a constant and undisturbed fellowship with God, while it is enabled to maintain a more vigorous resistance to every external attack of the enemy. And O, how blessed is the soul's communion, thus shut in with Jesus! "Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." "I would come in," says the dear Lamb of God, "and dwell in you, and take up my abode with you, and sup with you, and you with me." This is true fellowship! And O, sweet response of his own Spirit in the heart, when the believing soul exclaims, - "When you said, Seek you my face; my heart said unto you, Your face, Lord, will I seek!" "Enter, you precious Jesus; I want none but You; I desire no company, and would hear no voice but your; I will have fellowship with none but you, - let me sup with you: yes, give me your own flesh to eat, and your own blood to drink." Ah! dear Christian reader, it is because we have so little to do with Jesus - we admit him so seldom and so reluctantly to our hearts - we have so few dealings with him - travel so seldom to his blood and righteousness, and live so little upon his fullness, that we are compelled so often to exclaim, - "My leanness, my leanness!" But, if we be "risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God;" let us seek to know Christ more, to have more spiritual and enlarged comprehensions of his glory, to drink deeper into his love, to imbibe more of his Spirit, and conform more closely to his example.
But that which forms the great secret of all personal revival is yet to be disclosed; we allude to a fresh baptism of the Holy Spirit. This a declining soul needs more than all beside. Possessing this in a large degree, he possesses every spiritual blessing: it includes, and is the pledge of every other. Our dear Lord sought to impress this, his last consoling doctrine, upon the drooping minds of his disciples: his bodily presence in their midst, he taught them, was not to be compared with the spiritual and permanent dwelling of the Spirit among them. The descent of the Holy Spirit was to bring all things that he had taught them to their remembrance; it was to perfect them in their knowledge of the supreme glory of his person, the infinite perfection of his work, the nature and spirituality of his kingdom, and its ultimate and certain triumphs in the earth. The descent of the Spirit, too, was to mature them in personal holiness, and more eminently fit them for their arduous and successful labor in his cause, by deepening their spirituality, enriching them with more grace, and enlarging them with more love. And fully did the baptism of the Holy Spirit, on the day of Pentecost, accomplish all this: the apostles emerged from his influence, like men who had passed through a state of re-conversion.
And this is the state, dear reader, you must pass through, would you experience a revival of God's work in your soul: you must be reconverted, and that through a fresh baptism of the Holy Spirit. Nothing short of this will quicken your dying graces, and melt your frozen love; nothing save this will arrest your secret declension, and restore your backsliding heart. You must be baptized afresh with the Spirit; that Spirit whom you have so often and so deeply wounded, grieved, slighted and quenched, must enter you anew, and seal, and sanctify, and reconvert you. O arise, and pray, and agonize for the outpouring of the Spirit upon your soul; give up your lifeless religion, your form without the power, your prayer without communion, your confessions without brokenness, your zeal without love. And O, what numerous and precious promises cluster in God's word, all inviting you to seek this blessing! "He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass; as showers that water the earth (Ps 72:6)." "I will heal their backslidings, I will love them freely; for mine anger is turned away from him. I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon. His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive-tree, and his smell as Lebanon. Those who dwell under his shadow shall return; they shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine: the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon (Hos 14:4-7)." "Come, let us return unto the Lord; for he has torn, and he will heal us; he has smitten, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us, in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight. Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth (Hos 6:1-3)." Seek, then, above and beyond all other blessings, the renewed baptism of the Holy Spirit. "Be filled with the Spirit;" seek it earnestly, - seek it under the deep conviction of your absolute need of it, - seek it perseveringly, - seek it believingly. God has promised, "I will pour out my Spirit upon you;" and, asking it in the name of Jesus, you shall receive.
One word more: Be not surprised if the Lord should place you in circumstances of deep trial, in order to recover you from your soul-declension: the Lord often adapts the peculiarity of the discipline to that of the case. Is it secret declension? He may send some secret rebuke, some secret cross, some hidden chastisement; no one has discovered your concealed declension, and no one discovers your concealed correction. The declension was between God and your soul, so also it may be is the rebuke; the backsliding was of the heart, so also is the chastisement. But if the sanctified trial works the recovery of your soul, the restoration to Christ of your wavering heart, the revival of his entire work within you, you shall adore him for the discipline; and with David, extolling the dealings of a covenant God and Father, shall exclaim, - "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now have I kept your word. It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn your statutes!"
Lastly: Set out afresh for God and heaven, as though you had never started in the way before. Commence at the beginning; go as a sinner to Jesus; seek the quickening, healing, sanctifying influence of the Spirit; and let this be your prayer, presented, and urged until answered, at the footstool of mercy: "O Lord, revive your work! Quicken me, O Lord! Restore unto me the joy of your salvation!" In answer to your petition, "He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass, as showers that water the earth;" and your song shall be that of the church, "My Beloved spoke, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. The fig-tree puts forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away."