What are the most obvious Causes, Symptom?, and Effects of a Decline in the Spiritual Life?
BELIEVERS are, by nature, dead in trespasses and sins, even as others; but, by faith in the Son of God, they are made partakers of a new and endless Ufe/ They derive it from him ; and he has said " be
«' cause I live ye shall live also." But the life of this life, if I may so speak, its manifestation and exercise, is su'<ject to great changes. A sick man is still alive, but he has lost the cheerfulness, activity, and vigour which he possessed while he was in health. There are many persons, who, if they be, as we would hope, really alive to God, are at least sick, languid, and in a declining state. May the great Physician restore them ! It is sometimes said, that the knowledge of a disease amounts to half a remedy ; which will hold thus far in the present case, that iftiless we are sensible of our disorder and our danger, we shall not be heartily solicitous for a recovery.
The causes and symptoms or effects of such a decline are very numerous, nor is it always easy to distinguish them, for they have reciprocal influence to strengthen each other. What may be assigned as the cause, in many cases, is likewise a proof that the plague is already begun ; and the effects may be considered as so many causes, which render the malady more confirmed, and more dangerous.
Among the many general causes, we may assign a principal place to error.' I do not include every mistake or erroneous sentiment, which may be adopted or retained; but there are some errors which, for the suddenness and violence of their operation, may be compared to poison. Thus the Galatians, by listening to fake teachers, were seduced from the simplicity of the Gospel; the consequence was, that they quickly lost the blessedness they had once spoken of. Poison is seldom taken in the gross : but, if mingled with food, the mischief is not suspected until it is discovered by the effect. Thus they who are unhappily employed in poisoning souls, generally make use of some important and salutary truth, as a vehicle by which -. they convey their malignant drug into the minds of the
unwary. Perhaps they speak well of the person and atonement of Christ, or they exalt the riches and freedom of divine grace, while under the veil of these fair pretences, they insinuate prejudices against the nature or necessity of that holiness, without which no man -shall see the Lord. Others speak strongly in general terms in favour of personal holiness, but their aim is to withdraw the heart from a dependence upon the Saviour's blood, and the influences of his holy Spirit, without which the most studied exactness of conduct, differs no less from the holiness of the Gospel, than a picture or a statue, or a dead carcass, differs from a living man. Whoever is thus prevailed upon, in the great and essential points of Scriptural doctrine, to separate, in his judgment and experience, those things which God has joined together, is already infected with a disease in its own nature mortal, and his religion, jjnless the Lord mercifully interposes, will degenerate into either licentiousness or formality. We live in a day when too many are tossed to and fro, like ships without helm or pilot, by various winds of doctrine; and therefore they who wish well to their own souls, cannot be too much upon their guard against that spirit of curiosity and adventure, which the apostle describes by the metaphor of having itching ears, a desire of hearing every novel and singular teacher, lest they imbibe errors before they are aware, and become a prey to the slight and craftiness of those who lie in wait to deceive.
Spiritual pride and self-complacence will likewise infallibly cause a declension in the divine life, though the mind may be preserved from the infection of doctrinal errors, and though the power of Gospel truth may for a time have been really experienced. If our attainments in knowledge and gifts, and even in grace, seduce us into a good opinion of ourselves,- as if we were wise and good, we are already ensnared, in danger of falling every step we take, of mistaking the right path, and proceeding from bad to worse, without a power of correcting or even of discovering our deviations,' unless and until the Lord mercifully interposes, by restoring us to a spirit of humility and dependence. For God, who giveth more grace to the humble, resisteth the proud; he beholds them with abhorrence, in proportion to the degree in which they admire themselves. It is the invariable law of his kingdom, that every one who exalteth himself shall be abased. True Christians, through the remaining evil of their hearts, and the subtle temptations of their enemy, are liable, not only to the workings of that pride which is common to our fallen nature, but to a certain kind of pride, which, though the most absurd and intolerable of any, can only be found among those who make profession of the Gospel. We have nothing but what we have received, and therefore to be proud of titles, wealth, or any temporal advantages, by which the providence of God has distinguished us, is sinful; but for those who confess themselves to be sinners, arid therefore deserving of nothing but misery and wrath, to be proud of those peculiar blessings which are derived from the Gospel of his grace, is a wickedness of which even the fallen angels are not capable. The apostle Paul was so aware of his danger of being exalted above measure, through the abundant revelations and.peculiar favours which the Lord had afforded him, that he says, " There ■was given me a messenger of Satan to buffet me." He speaks of this sharp dispensation as an additional mercy, because he saw it was necessary, and designed to keep him humble and attentive to his own weakness. Ministers who are honoured with singular abilities and success, have great need of watchfulness and prayer on this account. The Lord seethnot as man seeth. Simpk-hearted hearers are apt to admire their favourite preacher, and almost to consider him as something more than man in the pulpit, taking it for granted that he is deeply affected himself with the truths which, with so much apparent liberty and power, he proposes to them; while, perhaps, the poor worm is secretly indulging self-applause, and pleasing himself with the numbers and attention of those who hang upon his words. Perhaps such thoughts will occasionally rise in the minds of the best ministers; but if they are allowed, if they become habitual, and enter strongly into the idea he forms of his own character; and if, while he professes to preach Christ Jesus the Lord, he \s preaching himself, and seeking his own glory, he is guilty of high treason against the majesty of him in whose name he speaks. And sooner or later, the effects of his presumption will be visible and noticed. Errors in judgment, gross misconduct, an abatement of zeal, of gifts, of influence, are evils always to be dreaded, when spiritual pride has gained an ascendency, whether in public or in private life.
An inordinate desire and attachment to the things of the present world, may be assigned as a third prevailing cause of a religions declension. Unless this evil principle be mortified in its root, by the doctrine of the cross, it will in time prevail over the most splendid profession. That love of the world, which is. inconsistent with the true love of God, manifests jtself in two different ways, as men by temper and habit are differently disposed- The first is, covetousness or greediness of gain. This was the ruin of Judas and probably the cause of the defection of Demas. By the honourable mention made of him in some of St. Paul's epistles, he seems to have had much of his con. fidence and esteem for a season. Yet at length his ruling passion prevailed, and the fast account we have
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of him from the apostle, is, " Demas hath forsaken us, " having loved this present world." Again, there are persons not chargeable with the love of money for its own sake, for they rather squander than hoard it, who are equally under the power of a worldly spirit, and equally discover it, by an expensive taste in the articles of dress, furniture, and feasting, often unsuitable to their circumstances and always to their profession. It is not easy exactly to mark out the line of conduct in these respects, which becomes the different situations in which the providence of God has placed us: nor is it necessary, to those who are upright in heart. A simple desire of pleasing God, and adorning the Gospel, will preclude many cases of minute casuistry, -which occupy little and trifling minds. Inclination will always direct and regulate our voluntary expenses. They who love the Lord, and whose spirits are lively in his service, will avoid both parsimony and profusion ; but they will rather lean to the frugal side in what concerns themselves, that they may be better able to promote his cause, and to relieve the necessitous for his sake. Others, who Can be content with a name to live, with the form of religion, will lay up all they can save to gratify their avarice, or lay out all they can spare to gratify their vanity or their appetites. The miser laments that, in this declining day, many professors of the Gospel can hardly be distinguished, either at home or abroad, from the people of the World. The luxurious professor is concerned to see some persons, who would be deemed Christians, so penurious that, though known to be rich, they live below their rank, and can scarcely allow themselves the decent conveniencies of life. And so far they are both right; but it would be better for both if each could be sensible of his own mistake. It is not easy to determine which of these evils is the greatest. Perhaps of the. two, the miser is least accessible to conviction, and consequently the most difficult to be reclaimed ; but a turn for parade and indulgence, if persisted in, will gradually lead to such compliances with the spirit and maxims of the world, as will certainly weaken, if not wholly suppress, the exercise of vital religion. In whatever degree the love of the world prevails, the health of the soul will proportionably decline.
Many other causes might be enumerated, but most of them may be reduced to the heads I have already mentioned. The practice of a single sin, or the omission of a single duty, if allowed against the light of conscience, and if habitual, will be sufficient to keep the soul weak, unfruitful, and uncomfortable, and lay it open to the impression of every surrounding temptation. Sometimes unfaithfulness to light already received, perverts the judgment, and then errors which seem to afford some countenance or plea for a sin which the heart will not give up, are readily embraced, to evade the remonstrances of conscience. At other times, errors, incautiously admitted, imperceptibly weaken the sense of duty, and by degrees spread their influences over the whole conduct. Faith and a good conscience are frequently mentioned together by the apostle, for they are inseparable ; to part with one is to part with both. They who hold the mystery of faith in a pure conscience, shall be preserved in a thriving frame of spirit, they shall grow in grace, go on from strength to strength, shall walk honourably and comfortably. But so far as the doctrines or the rules of the Gospel are neglected, a wasting sickness will prey upon the vitals of religion, a sickness, in its nature mortal, and from which none recover, but those on whom God mercifully bestows the grace of repentance unto life.
The symptoms of such a sickness are very numerous and diversified, as tempers and situations vary. A few of those which are more generally apparent, and sure indications of a decline in religion are the following.
Bodily sickness is usually attended with loss of appetite, inactivity, and restlessness ; so the sickness of the soul deprives it of rest and peace, causes a dulness and indolence in the service of God, and an indisposition to the means of grace, to-secret waiting upon God, and to the public ordinances. These appointments, so necessary to preserve spiritual health, are either gradually neglected and given up, or the attendance upon them dwindles into a mere formal round, without relish and without benefit. To the healthy man, plain food is-savoury, but the palate, when vitiated by sickness, becomes nice and fastidious, and hankers after varieties and delicacies ; when the sincere milk of the Gospel, plain truth delivered in plain words, is no longer pleasing, but a person requires curious speculations, or the frothy eloquence of man's wisdom, to engage his attention, it is a bad sign. For these are suited to nourish, not the constitution, but the disease.
From slighting or trifling with those means which God has provided to satisfy the soul, the next step usually is, to seek relief from a compliance with the spirit, customs, and amusements of the world. And these compliances, when once allowed, will soon be defended ; and they who cannot approve or imitate such conformity, will be represented as under the influence of a narrow, legal, or pharisai cal spirit. The sick professor is in a delirium, which prevents him from feeling Iris disease, and he rather supposes the alteration in his conduct is owing to an increase of wisdom, light, and liberly. He considers the time when he was more strict and circumspect
as a time of ignorance, will smile at the recollection of what he now deems his childish scruples, anil congratulates hi mseU" that he has happily outgrown them, and now finds that the services of God and the world are not so incompatible as he once thought them to be.
Yet while he thus relaxes the rule of his own conduct, he is a critically severe observer of the behaviour of others. He sharply censures the miscarriages and even the mistakes of ministers and professors, if an occasion offers, and speaks of these things, not weeping as the apostle did, but with pleasure, and labours to persuade himself, that the strictness so much talked of, is either a cloak of hypocrisy, or the fruit of superstition, and that because some do deviate from this acknowledged rule o£ duty, therefore at the bottom, and if they could be detected, they would be found to be nearly all alike. True Christians seldom meet with more uncandid misconstruction, or undeserved reproach, than from those who having once been their companions, afterwards desert them.
When the disorder is at this height, it is truly dangerous, and indeed, as to any human help, desperate. But power belongeth to God. May it please him to remember in mercy those who are near unto death, to restore them to their right minds, and to recover them to himself. Otherwise, " it had been better for them not to have known ° the way of righteousness, than after they have " known it, to turn from the holy commandment, ** delivered unto them."