Meditations and Discourses
The Glory of Christ
SAINTS UNDER SPIRITUAL DECAYS
SPIRITUAL DECAYS, AND OF OBTAINING
FRESH SPRINGS OF GRACE
THE APPLICATION of the same truth, in the second I place, belongs to believers, especially such as have made any long profession of walking in the ways of God and the gospel. And that which I design herein is to manifest that a steady spiritual view of the glory of Christ by faith will give them a gracious revival from inward decays and fresh springs of grace, even in their latter days. This truth is, as we shall see, confirmed by Scripture, with the joyful experience of multitudes of believers, and is of great importance to all that are so.
There are two things which those who, after a long profession of the gospel, are entering into the Confines of eternity long for and desire. The one is that all their breaches may be repaired, their decays recovered, their backslidings healed; for to these things they have been more or less obnoxious in the course of their walking before God. The other is that they may have fresh springs of spiritual life and vigorous actings of all divine graces in spiritual-mindedness, holiness, and fruitfulness, to the praise of God, the honor of the gospel, and the increase of their own peace and joy. These things they value more than all the world, and all that is in it; about these things are their thoughts and contrivances exercised night and day.
Those with whom it is otherwise, whatever they pretend, are in the dark as to themselves and their own condition; for it is in the nature of this grace to grow and increase to the end. As rivers, the nearer they come to the ocean whither they tend, the more they increase their waters and speed their streams; so will grace flow more freely and fully in its near approaches to the ocean of glory. That is not saving which does not.
An experience hereof—I mean of the thriving of grace toward the end of our course—is that alone which can support us under the troubles and temptations of life, with which we have to contend. So the apostle tells us that this is our great relief in all our distresses and afflictions, "for which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day" (II Cor. 4:16). If it be so that in the daily decays of the outward man, in all the approaches of its dissolution, we have inward spiritual revivals and renovations, we shall not faint in what we undergo. And without such continual renovations, we shall faint in our distresses, whatever other things we may have or whatever we pretend to the contrary.
And ordinarily it is so, in the holy, wise providence of God, that afflictions and troubles increase with age. It is so, in a special manner, with ministers of the gospel; they have many of them a share in the lot of Peter, which our Lord Jesus Christ declared unto him (John 21:18), "When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not." Besides those natural distempers and infirmities which accompany the decays of life, troubles of life, and in their affairs, usually grow upon them, when they look for nothing less, but were ready to say with Job, "We shall die in our nest" (Job 29:18).
So was it with Jacob, after all his hard labor and travail to provide for his family, such things fell out in it in his old age as had almost broken his heart. And ofttimes both persecutions and public dangers do befall them at the same season. While the outward man is thus perishing, we need great supportment that we faint not. And this is only to be had in an experience of daily spiritual renovations in the inner man. The excellency of this mercy the Psalmist expresses in a heavenly manner (Ps. 92:12—15): "The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing; to show that the Lord is upright: he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him."
The promise in the twelfth verse respects the times of the Messiah, or of the New Testament; for so it is prophesied of Him, "In his days the righteous shall flourish" (Ps. 72:7),—namely, through the abundance of grace that should be administered from His fullness (John 1:16; Col. 1:19). And herein consists the glory of the gospel, and not in outward prosperity or external ornaments of divine worship. The flourishing of the righteous, I say, in grace and holiness is the glory of the office of Christ and of the gospel. Where this is not, there is no glory in the profession of our religion. The glory of kings is in the wealth and peace of their subjects; and the glory of Christ is in the grace and holiness of His subjects.
This flourishing is compared to the palm tree, and the growth of the cedar. The palm tree is of the greatest verdure, beauty, and fruitfulness, and the cedar of the greatest and longest growth of any trees. So are the righteous compared to the palm tree for the beauty of profession and fruitfulness in obedience; and to the cedar for a continual, constant growth and increase in grace. Thus it is with all that are righteous, unless it be from their own sinful neglect, as it is with many in this day. In this they are rather like the shrubs and heaths in the wilderness, which see not when good comes, than like the palm tree or the cedars of Lebanon. And hereby men do what lies in them to obscure the glory of Christ and His kingdom, as well as disquiet their own souls.
The words that follow (Ps. 92:13), "Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God," are not distinctive of some from others, as though some only of the flourishing righteous were so planted; but they are descriptive of them all, with an addition of the way and means whereby they are caused so to grow and flourish. And this is their implantation in the house of the Lord; that is, in the Church, which is the seat of all the means of spiritual life, both as to growth and flourishing, which God is pleased to grant to believers. To be planted in the house of the Lord is to be fixed and rooted in the grace communicated by the ordinances of divine worship.
Unless we are planted in the house of the Lord, we cannot flourish in His courts. (See Ps. 1:3.) Unless we are partakers of the grace administered in the ordinances, we cannot flourish in a fruitful profession. The outward participation of them is common to hypocrites, who bear some leaves but neither grow like the cedar nor bear fruit like the palm tree. So the apostle prays for believers that Christ may dwell in their hearts by faith, that they may be "rooted and grounded in love" (Eph. 3:17), "rooted and built up in him, and established" (Col. 2:7).
The want of this is the cause that we have so many fruitless professors; they have entered the courts of God by profession, but were never planted in His house by faith and love. Let us not deceive ourselves herein; we may be entered into the Church, and made partakers of the outward privileges of it and not be so planted in it as to flourish in grace and fruitfulness.
That which on this occasion I principally intend is the grace and privilege expressed (Ps. 92:14), "They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing." There are three things which constitute a spiritual state, or belong to the life of God: 1) That believers be fat; that is, by the heavenly juice, sap, or fatness of the true olive, of Christ Himself (Rom. 11:17). This is the principle of spiritual life and grace derived from Him. When this abounds in them so as to give them strength and vigor in the exercise of grace, to keep them from decays and withering, they are said to be fat; which, in the Scripture phrase, is strong and healthy. 2) That they flourish in the greenness (as the word is) and verdure of profession; for vigorous grace will produce a flourishing profession. 3) That they still bring forth fruit in all duties of holy obedience. All these are promised to them even in old age.
Even trees, when they grow old (the palm and the cedar), are apt to lose of their juice and verdure: and men in old age are subject to all sorts of decays, both outward and inward. It is a rare thing to see a man in old age naturally vigorous, healthy, and strong; and would it were not more rare to see any spiritually so at the same season! But this is here promised to believers as a special grace and privilege, beyond what can be represented in the growth or fruitbearing of plants and trees.
The grace intended is that when believers are under all sorts of bodily and natural decays, and, it may be, have been overtaken with spiritual decays also, there is provision made in the covenant to render them fat, flourishing, and fruitful— vigorous in the power of internal grace, and flourishing in the expression of it in all duties of obedience; which is what we now inquire after.
Blessed be God for this good word of His grace that He has given us such encouragement against all the decays and temptations of old age which we have to contend with!
And the Psalmist, in the next words, declares the greatness of this privilege: "To show that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him." Consider the oppositions that lie against the flourishing of believers in old age, the difficulties of it, the temptations that must be conquered, the actings of the mind above its natural abilities which are decayed, the weariness that is apt to befall us in a long spiritual conflict, the cries of the flesh to be spared, and we shall see it to be an evidence of the faithfulness, power, and righteousness of God in covenant; nothing else could produce this mighty effect.
So the prophet, treating of the same promise (Hos. 14:4—8) closes his discourse with that blessed remark (v.9), "Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? prudent, and he shall know them? for the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them." Spiritual wisdom will make us see that the faithfulness and power of God are exerted in this work of preserving believers flourishing and fruitful to the end.
Having laid the foundation of this illustrious testimony, I shall further declare and confirm my intention so to make way for the application of the truth under consideration to this case, manifesting that the way whereby we may be made partakers of this grace is by a steady view of the glory of Christ, as proposed to us in the gospel.
There is a latter spring in the year, a spring in autumn; it is, indeed, for the most part, but faint and weak, yet is it such as the husbandman cannot spare. And it is an evident sign of barren ground when it does not put forth afresh towards the end of the year. God, the good husbandman, looks for the same from us, especially if we had a summer’s drought in spiritual decays; as the Psalmist complains (Ps. 32:4). Had we not had a latter spring the last year, the land had greatly suffered under the drought of the summer. And if we have had such a drought in the course of our profession by spiritual decays, as God, the good husbandman, looks for a latter spring in us, even in old age, in the vigorous acting of grace and fruitful obedience; so without it we can neither have peace nor joy in our own souls.
If a man, therefore, has made a great appearance of religion in his former or younger days, and when he is growing into age becomes dead, cold, worldly, selfish, if he have no fresh springs of spiritual life in him, it is an evidence that he has a barren heart that was never really fruitful to God. I know that many stand in need of being excited by such warning to a diligent consideration of their state and condition.
It is true that the latter spring does not bring forth the same fruit as the former. There is no more required in it but that the ground evidence itself to be in good heart and put forth that which is proper in the season. It may be, such graces as were active and vigorous in men at their first conversion to God, as were carried in a stream of warm, natural affections, may not so eminently abound in the latter spring of old age; but those which are proper for the season—as namely, spirituality, heavenly mindedness, weanedness from the world, readiness for the cross and death—are necessary, even in old age, to evidence that we have a living principle of grace, and to show thereby that God is upright; He is our rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.
What is further to be insisted on shall be reduced to these four heads:
1. That the constitution of spiritual life is such as is meet to thrive, grow, and increase to the end. And it will do so, unless it be from the default of them in whom it is.
2. That notwithstanding this nature and constitution of spiritual life, yet believers are subject to many decays. This is partly gradual, and partly by surprisals in temptation, whereby the growth of it is obstructed, to the dishonor of the gospel and the loss of their own peace with joy.
3. Many professors are visibly fallen under spiritual decays. They do not evidence any interest in the blessed promise insisted on.
4. Our inquiry will be how such persons may be delivered from such decays, and how they may obtain the promised grace of spiritual flourishing in old age. This will result in the strengthening of the inward principle of life and abounding in fruits of obedience, which are to the praise of God by Jesus Christ. Then we shall make application to this case of that truth which is the subject of the preceding discourse.
1. The constitution of spiritual life is such as is meet to grow and increase to the end. Hereby it distinguishes itself from that faith which is temporary; for there is a temporary faith, which will both flourish for a season and bring forth some fruit; but it is not in its nature and constitution to abide, to grow and increase, but rather to decay and wither. It is described by our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 13:20,21). Either some great temptation extinguishes it, or it decays insensibly, until the mind wherein it was manifests itself to be utterly barren.
And, therefore, whoever is sensible of any spiritual decays is called to a severe trial and examination of himself, as to the nature of the principle of his profession and obedience; for such decays rather argue a principle of temporary faith only, to which they are proper and natural, than that whose nature it is to thrive and grow to the end, whereon those that have it shall, as it is in the promise, still bring forth fruit, and, without their own great guilt, be always freed from such decays.
That this spiritual life is in its nature and constitution such as will abide, thrive, and grow to the end, is three ways testified to in the Scripture.
a) In that it is compared to things of the most infallible increase and progress; for besides that its growth is frequently likened to that of plants and trees well watered, and in a fruitful soil, which fail not to spring, unless it be from some external violence; it is likewise compared to such things as whose progress is absolutely infallible (Prov. 4:18), "The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day."
The path of the just is his covenant-walk before God, as it is frequently called in the Scripture (Ps. 119:35,105; Isa. 26:7; Ps. 23:3; Matt. 3:3; Heb. 12:13); and it comprises the principle, profession, and fruits of it. This, says the wise man, is as the shining light; that is, the morning light. And in what way is this so? Why, as that goes on by degrees, and shines more and more unto the high noon (though it may be interrupted sometimes by clouds and storms); so is this path of the just—it goes on and increases to the high noon, the perfect day of glory. It is in its nature so to do, though it may sometimes meet with obstructions, as we shall see afterward; and so also does the morning light.
There is no visible difference, as to light, between the light of the morning and the light of the evening; yea, this latter sometimes, from gleams of the setting sun, seems to be more glorious than the other. But herein they differ: the first goes on gradually to more light, until it comes to perfection; the other gradually gives place to darkness, until it comes to be midnight.
So it is as to the light of the just and of the hypocrite, and so is it as to their paths. At first setting out they may seem alike and equal; yea, convictions and spiritual gifts acted with corrupt ends in some hypocrites, may for a time give a greater luster of profession than the grace of others sincerely converted to God may attain unto. But they reveal their different natures in that the one increases and goes on constantly, though it may be sometimes but faintly; the other decays, grows dim, gives place to darkness and crooked walking.
This, then, is the nature of the path of the just; and where it is otherwise with us in our walk before God, we can have no evidence that we are in that path, or that we have a living, growing principle of spiritual life in us. And it is fit that professors of all sorts should be minded 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 them-selves 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 his own soul; wherever there is a saving principle of grace, it will be thriving and growing to the end. And if it fall under obstructions, and thereby into decays for a season, it will give no rest or quietness to 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.
And, by the way, this comparing of the path of the just to the morning light reminds me of what I have seen more than once. That light has sometimes cheerfully appeared to the world, when, after a little season, by reason of clouds, tempests, and storms, it has given place again to darkness, like that of the night; but it has not so been lost and buried like the evening light. After a while it has recovered itself unto a greater luster than before, manifesting that it increased in itself while it was eclipsed as to us.
So has it been with not a few at their first conversion to God: great darkness and trouble have, by the efficacy of temptation and injections of Satan, possessed their minds; but the grace which they have received, being as the morning light, has after a while disentangled itself, and given evidence that it was so far from being extinguished that it grew and thrived under all those clouds and darkness; for the light of the just does in the issue always increase by temptations, as that of the hypocrite is constantly impaired by them.
Again, as it is as the morning light, than which nothing has a more assured progress; so it is called by our Saviour "living water" (John 4:10), yea, "a well of water springing up into everlasting life" (v. 14). It is an indeficient spring, not a pool or pond, though never so large, which may be dried up. Many such pools of light, gifts, and profession, have we seen utterly dried up when they have come into age, or been ensnared by the temptations of the world. And we may see others every day under dangerous decays; their countenances are changed, and they have lost that oil which makes the face of a believer shine,—namely, the oil of love, meekness, self-denial, and spirituality of converse; and instead thereof, there is spread upon them the fulsome ointment of pride, self-love, earthly mindedness, which increases on them more and more. But where this principle of spiritual life is, it is as the morning light, as an indeficient spring that never fails, nor can do so, until it issues in eternal life. And sundry other ways there are whereby the same truth is asserted in the Scripture.
b) There are sundry divine promises given to believers that so it shall be, or to secure them of such supplies of grace as shall cause their spiritual life to grow, increase, and flourish to the end; such as that in the Psalm which we have considered. For these promises are the means whereby this spiritual life is originally communicated to us and whereby it is preserved in us; by them are we made partakers of this divine nature (II Pet. 1:4); and through them is it continued in us. Now (as to) promises of this nature,—namely, that by the dispensation of the Spirit of Christ, and supplies of His grace, our spiritual life shall flourish and be made fruitful to the end—I shall briefly call over only one of them at present (Isa. 44:3,4): "I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground:1 will pour my Spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring: and they shall spring up as among the grass, as willows by the watercourses."
Although this promise may have respect to the gracious dealing of God with the people of the Jews after their return from the captivity, yet has it so only as it was typical of the redemption of the Church by Jesus Christ; but it belongs properly to the times of the gospel, when the righteous were to flourish, and it is a promise of the new covenant, as is manifest in that it is not only given to believers, but is also extended to their seed and offspring; which is an assured signature of new covenant promises.
And here is, 1) a supposition of what we are in ourselves, both before and after our conversion to God,—namely, as thirsty, dry, and barren ground. We have nothing in ourselves, no radical moisture to make us flourishing and fruitful. And as it is before, so it is after conversion: "We are not sufficient of ourselves; our sufficiency is of God" (II Cor. 3:5). Being left to ourselves, we should utterly wither and perish.
But, 2) here is the blessed relief which God in this case has provided; He will pour the sanctifying water of His Spirit and the blessing of His grace upon us. And this He will so do as to cause us to spring up as among the grass, as willows by the watercourses. There is nothing of a more eminent and almost visible growth than of willows by the watercourses. Such shall be the spiritual growth of believers under the influences of these promises; that is, they shall be fat and flourishing, and still bring forth fruit. And other promises of the same nature there are many; but we must observe three things concerning them, that we may be satisfied in their accomplishment.
(1) The promises of the new covenant, as to the first communication of grace to the elect, are absolute and unconditional; they are the executive conveyances of God’s immutable purposes and decrees. And what should be the condition of the communication of the first grace to us? Nothing that is not grace can be so. If it be said that this also is of God in us, which is the condition of the communication of the first saving grace to us, then I would know whether that be bestowed upon us without any condition. If it be, then that is the first grace, as being absolutely free; if it be not, then what is the condition whereon it is bestowed? concerning which the same inquiry must be made,—and so forever. But this is the glory of covenant promises, that, as to the communication of the grace of conversion and sanctification to the elect, they are absolutely free and unconditional. But
(2) The promises which respect the growth, degrees, and measures of this grace in believers are not so. There are many duties required of us that these promises may be accomplished towards us and in us; yea, watchful diligence in universal gospel obedience is expected from us to this end. (See II Pet. 1:4—10.) This is the ordinary method of the communication of all supplies of grace to make us spiritually flourish and be fruitful, namely, that we be found in the diligent exercise of what we have received. God sometimes deals otherwise, in a way of sovereignty, and surprises men with healing grace in the midst of their decays and backslidings (as Isa. 57 :17,18). So has many a poor soul been delivered from going down into the pit. The Good Shepherd will go out of His way to save a wandering sheep; but this is the ordinary method.
(3) Notwithstanding these blessed promises of growth, flourishing, and fruitfulness, if we are negligent in the due improvement of the grace which we have received, and the discharge of the duties required of us, we may fall into decays and be kept in a low, unthrifty state all our days. And this is the principal ground of the discrepancy between the glory and beauty of the Church, as represented in the promises of the gospel, and as exemplified in the lives of professors—they do not live up to the condition of their accomplishment in them; howbeit, in God’s way and time they shall all be fulfilled.
We have, therefore, innumerable blessed promises concerning the thriving, growing, and flourishing of the principle of spiritual life in us, even in old age and until death; but the grace promised to this end will not befall us while we are asleep in spiritual sloth and security. Fervent prayer, the exercise of all grace received, with watchfulness unto all holy duties, are required.
c) God has secured the growth of this spiritual life, by the provision of food for it, whereby it may be strengthened and increased; for life must be preserved by food. And this in our case is the Word of God, with all other ordinances of divine worship which depend thereon (I Pet. 2:2,3). Whatever the state of this life be, whether in its beginning, its progress, its decays, there is suitable nourishment provided for it in the good Word of God’s grace. If men will neglect their daily food that is provided for them, it is no wonder if they be weak and thriftless. And if believers are not earnest in their desires after this food, if they are not diligent in providing it, attending to it, much more if, through corruptions and temptations, they count it, in the preaching of it, light and common food, which they do not value, it is no wonder if they fall into spiritual decays; but God has herein provided for our growth even to old age.
And this is the first thing which was proposed to confirmation,—namely, that the constitution and nature of spiritual life is such as to be indeficient, so as to thrive and grow even in old age and unto the end.
2. Believers, especially in a long course of profession, are subject to decays that may cast them into great perplexities and endanger their eternal ruin.
And these spiritual decays are of two sorts: 1) Such as are gradual and universal, in the loss of the vigor and life of grace, both in its principle and in its exercise; 2) Such as are occasioned by surprisal into sin through the power of temptation; I mean such sins as do waste the spiritual powers of the soul, and deprive it of all solid peace.
As for temporary believers, give them but time enough in this world, especially if it be accompanied with outward prosperity or persecution; and, for the most part, their decays of one sort or another will make a discovery of their hypocrisy. Though they retain a form of godliness, they deny the power of it (Prov. 1:31; II Tim. 3:5). And if they do not openly relinquish all duties of religion, yet they will grow so lifeless and savorless in them as shall evidence their condition; for so it is with them who are lukewarm, who are neither hot nor cold, who have a name to live, but are dead.
And herein lies a signal difference in this matter between sincere believers and those who believe only for a time; for those of the latter sort either do not perceive their sickness and decays—their minds being taken up and possessed with other things—or if they do find that it is not with them as it has been formerly, they are not much concerned, and on any occasional new conviction they cry, "Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep" (Prov. 6:10); but when the others find anything of this nature, it makes them restless for a recovery. And although, through the many snares, temptations, and deceits of sin, or through their ignorance of the right way for their healing, they do not many of them obtain a speedy recovery, yet none of them approve themselves in such a condition, or turn unto any undue reliefs.
Now, that believers are subject to decays in both the ways mentioned, we have full testimony in Scripture; for as to that general, gradual decay, in the loss of our first faith, love, and works, in the weakening of the internal principle of spiritual life, with the loss of delight, joy, and consolation, and the abatement of the fruits of obedience, our Lord Jesus Christ expressly charges it to five of the seven churches of Asia (Rev. 2,3). And in some of them, as Sardis and Laodicea, those decays had proceeded unto such a degree that they were in danger of utter rejection. And hereunto answers the experience of all churches and all believers in the world. Those who are otherwise minded are dead in sin, and have pretenses to countenance themselves in their miserable condition. So is it with the Church of Rome; and I wish others did not in some measure follow them therein.
And as to those of the second sort, whereinto men are cast by surprisals and temptations, producing great spiritual distress and anguish of soul under a sense of God’s displeasure, we have an instance in David, as he gives us an account of himself (Ps. 38:1—10), "O Lord, . . . thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore. There is no soundness in my flesh because of thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin. For mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness."
It is certain that here is a description of a very woeful state and condition; and the Psalmist, knowing that he was called of God to be a teacher and instructor of the Church in all ages, records his own experience to that end. Hence the title of it is, ‘A Psalm to Bring to Remembrance." Some judge that David had respect unto some great and sore disease that he was then visited with. But if it were so, it was only an occasion of his complaint; the cause of it was sin alone. And he represents four things:1) That he had departed from God and fallen into provoking sins, which had produced great distresses in his mind (vv. 3,4). 2) That he had foolishly continued in that state, not making timely application to grace and mercy for healing, whereby it was grown deplorable (v. 5). And this folly is that alone which makes such a condition dangerous,—namely, when men, on their surprisals in sin do not speedily apply themselves to healing remedies.
3) That he had herein a continual sense of the displeasure of God by reason of sin (vv. 2—4). 4) That he was altogether restless in this state, mourning, groaning, laboring continually for deliverance.
This is a clearer delineation of the condition of believers, when, either by the greatness of any sin, or by a long continuance in an evil and a careless frame, they are cast under a sense of divine displeasure. This opens their minds and their hearts, declaring how all things are within, which they cannot deny. It is not so with many, in the same measures and degrees, as it was with David, whose falls were very great; but the substance of it is found in them all.
And herein the heart knows its own bitterness; a stranger intermeddles not with it: none knows the groaning and laboring of a soul convinced of such spiritual decays but he alone in whom they are. Hereon is it cast down to the earth, going mourning all the day long, though others know nothing of its sorrows; but it is of a far more sad consideration to see men manifesting their inward decays by their outward fruits, and yet are little or not at all concerned therein. The former are in ways of recovery; these in the paths that go down to the chambers of death.
I suppose, therefore, I may take it for granted, that there are few professors of religion who have had any long continuance in the ways of it, having been exposed to the temptations of life, and much exercised with the occasions of it, but that they have been asleep in their days, as the Spouse complains of herself (Song of Sol. 5:2); that is, they have been overtaken with decays of one sort or another, either with respect to spiritual or moral duties, in their relation to churches or families, in their judgments or their affections, in their inward frames or outward actions, they have been overtaken with the effects of sloth, negligence, or the want of a continual watch in the life of faith. I wish it were otherwise.
I principally herein intend those gradual declensions in the life and power of grace which men in a long course of profession are subject to. And these for the most part proceed from formality in holy duties, under the constant outward performance of them; vehement engagements in the affairs of life, an overvaluation of sinful enjoyments, growth in carnal wisdom, neglect of daily mortification of such sins as men are naturally disposed to, with a secret influence from the prevalent temptation of the days wherein we live; which things I will not speak of now.
3. Many professors of religion are fallen under those spiritual decays and do not enjoy the effects of the promises concerning flourishing and fruitfulness. To fasten a conviction on them, or some of them at least, that it is indeed so with them is my present design; and this ought to be done with diligence. The glory of Christ, the honor of the gospel, and the danger of the souls of men call for it. This is the secret root of all our evil, which will not be removed unless it be digged up. Who sees not, who complains not of the loss of, or decays in, the power of religion in the days wherein we live? But few there are who either know or apply themselves, or direct others, to the proper remedy of this evil.
Besides, it is almost as difficult to convince men of their spiritual decays as it is to recover them from them; but without this, healing is impossible. If men know not their sickness, they will not seek for a cure. Some, when they see their sickness and their wound, will apply themselves unto wrong, useless remedies, like those in the Book of Hosea (5:13). None will make use of any cure who see no disease at all. Wherefore, to fasten a conviction hereof on the minds of some, we may make use of the ensuing inquiries and observations.
a) Have you, in the way of your profession, had any experience of these spiritual decays? I doubt not but that there are some who have been preserved green and flourishing from their first conversion to God, who never fell under the power of sloth, neglect, or temptation, at least not for any remarkable season; but they are but few. It was not so with scarcely any of those believers under the Old Testament whose lives and walkings are recorded for our instruction; and they must be such as lived in an exact and diligent course of mortification. And some there are who have obtained relief and deliverance from under their decays, whose backslidings have been healed, and their diseases cured. So it was with David, as he divinely expressed it (Ps. 103:1,3—5), "Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases; who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with loving-kindness and tender mercies; who satisfieth thy mouth with good things, so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s." So he celebrates his deliverance from that state whereof he complains (Ps. 38), which we mentioned before.
And there is no grace or mercy that more affects the hearts of believers, that gives them a greater transport of joy and thankfulness, than this of deliverance from backslidings. It is a bringing of the soul out of prison, which enlarges it unto praise (Ps. 142:7). Of this sort I doubt not but that there are many; for God has given great warnings of the danger of a spiritually decaying state; and He has made great promises of recovery from it; and multitudes in the Church are daily exercised herein. But I speak in general to all. Have you any experience of such spiritual decays, either in the frame of your spirits or in the manner of your walking before God; or, at least, that you are prone to them, if not mightily preserved by the power of grace in your own utmost diligence? If you have not so, then I fear it is from one of these two causes:
(1) That, indeed, you have never had any flourishing spiritual state in your souls. He that has always been weak and sickly does not know what it is to want a state of health and strength, because he never had experience of it; much less does he that is dead know what it is to want life. But he that from an exquisite temper of health falls into languishing distempers knows distinctly both how it was and how it is with him. And the frame of the minds of many professors of religion, with the manner of their walking, is such, as that, if they are not sensible of spiritual decays, it is evident that they never had any good spiritual health; and it is to no purpose to treat with such persons about a recovery.
There are, among those who make an outward profession of true religion, many that live in all sorts of sins. If you should deal with them about backslidings, decays, and a recovery, you will seem unto them as Lot did to his sons-in-law, when he told them of the destruction of Sodom, as one that mocked, or made sport with them (Gen. 19:14); or you will be mocked by them for your pains. They have been always such as they are; it was never otherwise with them; and it is a ridiculous thing to speak to them of a recovery. We must be able in this case to say to men, "Remember whence you are fallen, and repent, and do the first works" (Rev. 2:5). They must have had an experience of a better state, or they will not endeavor a recovery from that wherein they are.
Such, therefore, as see neither evil nor danger in their present condition, but suppose all is well enough with them because it is as good as ever it was, will not easily be brought under this conviction; but they have that which is of no less importance for them to inquire into, namely, whether they have had anything of the truth of grace or no. Or,
(2) If you have not this experience, it is to be feared that you are asleep in security, which is hardly distinguishable from death in sin. The church of Laodicea was sensibly decayed and gone off from its primitive faith and obedience; yet she was so secure in her condition, knew so little of it, that she judged herself, on the contrary, to be in a thriving, flourishing state. She thought herself increased in all church riches and goods—that is, gifts and grace—while ‘‘she was wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked" (Rev. 3:17); in such a state as this it is questionable whether she had anything of the life and power of grace to be found in her or no. And so is it with many churches at this day, especially that which boasts itself to be without error or blame. And it is strange that a church should suppose that it flourishes in grace and gifts when it has nothing but a noise of words in their stead.
So God testified concerning Ephraim, that "grey hairs were sprinkled on him, yet he knew it not" (Hos. 7:9). He was in a declining, dying condition, but did not understand it. Hence it is added, "They do not return to the Lord their God, nor seek him for all this" (v. 10). If men will not learn and own their spiritual decays, there is no hope of prevailing with them to return to the Lord. "The whole have no need of a physician, but the sick"; Christ "came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Such persons are under the power of a stupid security from whence it will be very hard to rouse them up.
Hence it is that we have so little success for the most part in calling persons to look after a revival and recovery of their decays; they acknowledge no such thing in themselves—such calls may belong to others; yea, if any word seem to come near them to their disquieting, they are apt to think it was spoken out of spite and ill will towards them: they approve of themselves in their present condition. Hence is the complaint of Christ in the ministry of the Word, "I have called, and ye have refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded. Ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof" (Prov. 1:24,25). Hence, let this truth be pressed a thousand times, it is not one of a thousand who will think himself so concerned as to apply himself to a relief. A spirit of slumber seems to be poured on many.
b) To improve this conviction, I would ask of some whether they have been able to maintain spiritual peace and joy in their souls. I take it for granted that ordinarily they are inseparable adjuncts of the life of faith, in an humble, fruitful walk before God. The Scripture testifies that they are so; and no experience lies against it in ordinary cases. And I suppose that those to whom I speak do in some measure know what they are, and do not delude themselves with fancies and imaginations: they have substance in them, however by some derided, and to some unknown. Have this peace and joy been maintained and born sway in your minds? Have they under all trials and surprisals been quickly composed by them? or are you not rather on all occasions uneasy and perplexed? It is certain that a decaying spiritual state and solid spiritual peace are inconsistent; and if ever you had such peace, you may by the loss of it know into what state you are come.
c) Not to inquire further into things internal and hidden, wherein men may justify themselves if they please, there are too many open, visible evidences of these decays among professors of religion; they have not kept them from the eyes of the Church, nor yet from the world. Do not pride, selfishness, worldliness, levity of attire, and vanity of life, with corrupt, unsavory communication, abound among many? The world was never in a worse posture for conformity than it is at this day wherein all flesh has corrupted its way; and yet, as to things of outward appearance, how little distinction is left between it and those who would be esteemed more strict professors of religion!
Was this the way and manner of the saints of old, of those that went before us in the same profession? Was it so with ourselves in the time of our first espousals when we went after God in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown (Jer. 2:2)? Some understand what I say: if we have not, some of us, had better days, we never had good days in our lives; if we have had them, why do we not stir up ourselves to look after a recovery?
d) May not God say of many of us what He said of His people of old, "Thou hast been weary of me, O Israel" (Isa. 43:22)? Have we not been weary of God until we have abundant cause to be weary of ourselves? The most, I presume, will be ready with them in Malachi to say, "How or wherein have we been weary of God?" Do we not abide, yea, abound, in the duties of His service? What more can be required of us? Wherein are we to blame? This were something indeed, but that it is often so, that men are weary of God when they even weary God with their duties and services (Isa. 1:13,14). God says in His Word, He is weary: they say in their hearts, they are weary (Mal. 1:13). But I answer,
(1) Many cannot with any modesty make use of this pretense. Their sloth, indifference, and negligence in the observance of the duties of divine worship, both in private and public, is notorious. In particular, is not the duty of family prayer neglected by many, at least as to its constancy and fervency? And although it be grounded in the light of nature, confirmed by the general rules of the Scripture, requisite to the dedication of a family to God, strengthened by the constant example of all the saints of old, and necessary in the experience of all that walk with God; yet do not many begin to seek out pleas and arguings to justify their omission of this? Are not all things filled with the fruits of the negligence of such professors in the instruction of their children and servants? And has not God given severe rebukes to many of us in their fearful miscarriages? And as to the public worship of God, I wish that sloth and indifference did not appear upon too many, under various pretenses. But,
(2) This is not that which I do intend. Men may be weary of God while they abide in the observance of a multitude of outward duties.
(a) They may be so with respect to that spirituality and intention of mind to the exercise of all grace, which are required unto such duties. These are the life, the soul, the animating principle of them, without which their outward performance is but a dead carcass. Men may draw nigh to God with their lips when their hearts are far from Him. This is that which becomes God in His worship and is useful to our own souls; for "God is a Spirit" and He will be worshiped "in spirit and in truth"; which He is not, but in the exercise of the graces of His Spirit in the worshipers; ‘‘for bodily exercise profiteth little, but godliness is profitable unto all things" (I Tim. 4:8).
To keep the mind in this frame, to stir up all grace to a constant vigorous exercise in all holy duties, is a matter whereunto great spiritual diligence and watchfulness is required. Watch unto prayer. A thousand pretenses rise against it; all the arts of sloth, formality, weariness of the flesh, and the business of life contend to frustrate the design of it. And the suitableness of resting in the work done, to the principles of a natural conscience, gives efficacy to them all; and when men come to satisfy themselves herein, it may be it were better that for a time such duties were wholly omitted; for in that case conscience itself will urgently call on men, not hardened in sin, to a consideration of their condition: wherefore much spiritual labor and diligence is required in this matter.
The outward performance of religious duties, be they never so many or however strictly enjoined, as the daily and nightly canonical hours among the popish devotionists, is an easy task—much inferior to the constant labor which some men use in their trades and callings. And in them, in the performance of them, either public or in their families, men may be weary of God: and according as they are remiss in the constant keeping up of spirituality, and the exercise of grace in sacred duties, so is the degree of their weariness.
And there is almost nothing whereby men may take a safer measure of their decays or growth than by the usual frame of their minds in these duties. If they constantly in them stir up themselves to take hold of God (Isa. 64:7), it is an evidence of a good temper of spiritual health in the soul. But this will not be done without the utmost watchfulness and care against impressions from the flesh and other temptations. But sloth and formality herein is a sign of a thriftless state in the inner man: and all inventions of such formality are harmful to the interest of grace.
(b) So is it with them also, who, attending to the outward duties of religion, yet indulge themselves in any known sin; for there is nothing of God in those duties which tends not to the mortification of all sin. Men may keep up a form of godliness to countenance themselves in the neglect of its power. And in particular, where any known sin is indulged in, where the mortification of it is not duly endeavored, where our religious duties are not used, applied, and directed to that end, there is a weariness of whatever is of God in them; nor has the soul any real intercourse or communion with God by them.
e) If we should make a particular inquiry into the state of our souls with respect to those graces which are most useful and tend most to the glory of God, it is to be feared that the decays of many would be made very evident; such graces as zeal, humility, contriteness of heart, spiritual-mindedness, vigor of soul, and delight in the ways of God, love, charity, self-denial, and the like. Are we fat and flourishing in these things, even in old age? Are they in us and do they abound, as the apostle speaks (II Pet. 1:8)? Do we bring forth the fruit of them so as to show the faithfulness of God in His supply of grace? I shall not make a particular inquiry into them, but only give two general rules whereby we may try ourselves with respect to them all.
(1) The loss of a spiritual appetite for the food of our souls is an evidence of a decay in all these graces. Spiritual appetite consists in earnest desires and a savory relish; so it is described by the apostle (I Pet. 2:2,3), "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word, that ye may grow thereby; if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.
There is required to this spiritual appetite an earnest desire of the Word, grounded on an experience of the grace of God in it, to the end that we may grow and thrive spiritually thereby. And this appetite will give us as just a measure of the state of grace in us as a natural appetite to wholesome food, with due digestion thereon, gives of a good state of health in the body.
This, therefore, we are to inquire into. Does it abide in us as formerly? We hear the Word preached as much as ever; but do we do it with the same desire and spiritual relish as before? Some hear to satisfy their convictions, some to please their fancies, and some to judge of the persons by whom it is dispensed. It is but in few that the necessary preparation for the due receiving of it is found.
When men grow in age, they lose much of their natural appetite for food. They must still eat for the maintenance of life; but they do not do it with that desire after it as in the days of youth and health. Hence they are apt to think that the meat which they had formerly was more savory than what is now provided for them; though what they now enjoy is much to be preferred to what they had then. The change is in themselves.
So we may find not a few professors who are ready to think and say that the preaching which they had in former days, and the religious exercises which they were engaged in, were far to be preferred above what they now enjoy. But the change is in themselves; they have lost their spiritual appetite, or their hunger and thirst after the food of their souls.
"The full soul loatheth an honeycomb; but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet" (Prov. 27:7). Men being grown full of themselves, and of a good conceit of their own abilities, have lost their spiritual appetite for the Word of God; and this makes the Word lose its power and efficacy toward them. That Word which the Psalmist says is "sweeter than honey, or the honeycomb" (Ps. 19:10), has little or no taste or relish in it for them. If they were hungry, they would find a sweetness in the bitterest of its reproofs, beyond what they can now find in the sweetest of its promises. They come to hear the Word with sick desires and low expectations, as if they were invited to eat after a feast, being self-full before. But this loss of a spiritual appetite is an evidence of the decay of all other graces.
(2) A neglect of making religion our principal business is another evidence of the decay of all sorts of grace in us. For where grace is in its proper exercise, it will subordinate all things to religion and the ends of it, as David declares twenty times in the One Hundred Nineteenth Psalm. All things, all occasions of life, shall be postponed thereunto. The love and valuation of it will bear sway in our minds, our thoughts, and affections; and the practice of it shall give rule to all other concerns.
But is it so with many among us? It is well if religion be one thing—it is far enough from being the one thing; every other thing is preferred before it, and it can hardly crowd in to possess any place in their minds. To see men continually plodding in the affairs of the world, regulating all their actings by their concern in them, diverting only at some seasons, as it were out of their way, to duties of religion—it is vain to say that they make religion their business. But there is scarce a more certain evidence of a frame of mind spiritually decaying in all sorts of graces, if ever any of them were in it in sincerity and power, than this one, that men do not make religion their chief business. And a little self-examination will help men to judge what they make their chief concern.
(3) Lastly, I might also instance the uselessness of men in their profession; in want of love to all saints, barrenness in good works, unreadiness and unwillingness to comply, in any extraordinary manner, with the calls of God to repentance and reformation; in love of the world and pride of life, with passions suited to such principles predominant in them: for they are all undeniable evidences that those with whom they are found had never any true grace at all, or that they are fallen under woeful decays. But what has been spoken may be sufficient to our present purpose.
This is the third thing that was proposed, namely, an endeavor to leave convictions on the minds of some concerning their spiritual decays and the necessity of seeking after a revival by the means that shall be insisted on. And I intend it principally for those of us who, under a long profession, are now come to age and shall not have much time for duty continued to us. And the truth is, I meet with none who are Christians of any considerable experience and are spiritually minded, who fail to be sensible of the danger of such decays in this hour of temptation, and how difficult it is, in the use of all means, to keep up a vigorous, active frame of mind, in faith, love, holiness, and fruitfulness. And for those who are not concerned herein, I confess I know not what to make of them or their religion.
4. I proceed to the way and means whereby believers may be delivered from these decays and flourish in the inward principle and outward fruits of spiritual life. This will bring us back to consideration of that truth which we may seem to have diverted from. And to this end, the things ensuing are proposed for consideration:
a) The state of spiritual decays is recoverable. No man that is fallen under it has any reason to say, There is no hope, provided he takes the right way for his recovery. If every step that is lost in the way to heaven should be irrecoverable, woe would be unto us—we should all assuredly perish. If there were no reparation of our breaches, no healing of our decays, no salvation but for them who are always progressive in grace; if God should mark all that is done amiss, as the Psalmist speaks, "O Lord, who should stand?" Nay, if we had not recoveries every day, we should go off with a perpetual backsliding.
But then, as was said, it is required that the right means of it be used, and not that which is destructive of what is designed; whereof I shall give an instance. When trees grow old, or are decaying, it is useful to dig about them, and manure them; which may cause them to flourish again and abound in fruit. But instead, if you remove them out of their soil to plant them in another, which may promise much advantage, they will assuredly wither and die. So it is with professors and has been with many. Finding themselves under manifold decays and little or nothing of the life and power of religion left in them, they have grown weary of their station and have changed their soil; or turning from one way in religion to another, as some have turned Papists, some Quakers, and the like, apprehending that fault to be in the religion which they professed, which was indeed only in themselves. You cannot give an instance of anyone who did not visibly wither and die therein; but, had they used the proper means for their healing and recovery, they might have lived and brought forth fruit.
b) A strict attendance to the seventies of mortification, with all the duties that lead thereunto, is required to this end; so also is the utmost diligence in all duties of obedience. These things naturally offer themselves as the first relief in this case and they ought not to be omitted. But if I should insist upon them, they would branch themselves into such a multitude of particular directions as it is inconsistent with my design here to handle. Besides, the way which I intend to propose is of another nature, though consistent with all the duties included in this proposal; yea, such as without which not one of them can be performed in a due manner. Wherefore, as to these things, I shall only assert their necessity, with a double limitation.
(1) That no duties of mortification be prescribed to this end, as a means of recovery from spiritual decays, but what for matter and manner are of divine institution and command. All others are laid under a severe interdict, under whatever pretense they may be used. "Who hath required these things at your hands?" Want of this is that whereby a pretended design to advance religion in the Papacy has ruined it. They have, under the name and pretense of the means of mortification, or the duties of it, invented and enjoined, like the Pharisees, a number of works, ways, duties, so-called, which God never appointed, nor approved, nor will accept; nor shall they ever do good to the souls of men. Such are their confessions, disciplines, pilgrimages, fastings, abstinence, framed prayers, to be repeated in stated canonical hours, in such a length and number. In the bodily labor of these things they exercise themselves to no spiritual advantage.
But it is natural to all men to turn aside to such reliefs in this case. Those who are thoroughly convinced of spiritual decays are pressed with a sense of the guilt of sin; for it is sin which has brought them into that condition. Hereon, in the first place, they set their contrivance at work, how they may atone divine displeasure and obtain acceptance with God; and if they are not under the actual conduct of evangelical light, two things immediately offer themselves to them. First, some extraordinary course in duties, which God has not commanded. This is the way which they betake themselves to in the Papacy, and which guilt, in the darkness of corrupted nature, vehemently calls for. Second, an extraordinary multiplication of such duties as, for the substance of them, are required of us.
We have an instance in both kinds (Micah 6:6,7), "Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves of a year old? will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" And by this means they hope for a restitution to their former condition.
To them who are of the second sort is this direction given, in an endeavor for a recovery from backsliding and a thriving in grace, by a redoubled attendance to the duties of mortification and new obedience: Let care be taken that, as to the matter of them, they be of divine appointment; and as to the manner of their performance, that it be regulated by the rules of the Scripture. Such are constant reading and hearing of the Word, prayer with fervency therein, a diligent watch against all temptations and occasions of sin; especially an endeavor, by a holy earnestness and vehement rebukes of the entrance of any other frame, to keep the mind spiritual and heavenly in its thoughts and affections.
(2) Let them take heed that they attempt not these things in their own strength. When men have strong convictions that such and such things are their own duty, they are apt to act as if they were to be done in their own strength. They must do them, they will do them—that is, as to the outward work—and, therefore, they think they can do them; that is, in a due manner. The Holy Ghost has forever rejected this confidence—none shall prosper in it (II Cor. 3:5; 9:8).
But hereby many deceive themselves, laboring in the fire, while all they do immediately perishes; they have been negligent and careless, whereby things are come to an ill posture with them, and that peace which they had is impaired; but now they will pray, and read, and fast, and be liberal to the poor, and now strive after an abstinence from sin. All these things they suppose they can do of themselves, because they can and ought to perform the outward works, wherein the duties intended consist. Hereby Christ is left out of the whole design, who, when all is done, is the Lord that heals us (Exod. 15:26).
And there is another evil herein; for whatever men do in their own natural abilities, there is a secret reserve of some kind of merit in it. Those who plead for these things aver there can be no merit in anything but what proceeds from our own free-will; and what is so done has some kind of merit inseparably accompanying it; and this is enough to render all endeavors of this kind not only useless and fruitless, but utterly rejected. Faith must engage the assistance of Christ and His grace in and to these duties; or, however they may be multiplied, they will not be effectual to our healing and recovery. These things are to be used, according as we receive supplies of grace from above, in subordination to that work of faith that shall be declared. Wherefore,
c) The work of recovering backsliders or believers from under their spiritual decays is an act of sovereign grace, wrought in us by virtue of divine promises. Out of this eater comes meat. Because believers are liable to such declensions, backslidings, and decays, God has provided and given to us great and precious promises of a recovery, if we duly apply ourselves to the means of it.
I shall here recall and explain only one of the places wherein they are recorded (Hos. 14:1—8), "O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. Take with you words, and turn unto the Lord: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips . . . I will heal their backsliding, 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. They that 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. Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols? I have heard him, and observed him: I am like a green fir tree. From me is thy fruit found."
The whole matter treated of in general, both as to the disease and remedy, is fully stated in this passage of Scripture; and that in the experience of the Church, and God’s dealing with them; we may therefore receive many plain directions from it, and a safe guidance in our progress; which we shall endeavor to take in the ensuing observations:
(1) This application of God to Israel, "O Israel, return," was made when the generality of the people were wicked and devoted to utter destruction. So it is declared in the last words of the foregoing chapter; and their desolation fell out not long after accordingly. Wherefore no season nor circumstances of things shall obstruct sovereign grace, when God will exercise it toward His Church: it shall work in the midst of desolating judgments.
(2) In such a time the true Israel of God, the elect themselves, are apt to be overtaken with the sins of the whole, and so to backslide from God and so to fall into spiritual decays. So Israel had now done, though she had not absolutely broken covenant with God. He was yet to her "the Lord thy God"; yet she had fallen by her iniquity. Times of public apostasy are often accompanied with partial defects in the best: "Because iniquity aboundeth, the love of many shall wax cold" (Matt. 24:12).
(3) When God designs to heal the backsliding of His people by sovereign grace, He gives them effectual calls to repentance and the use of means for their healing: so He does here by His prophet, "O Israel, return; take with you words." And if I could see that God did stir up His faithful ministers to apply themselves in a peculiar manner to this work of pressing vehemently all their congregations with their duty herein, and let them know that there is no other way to prevent their ruin but by returning to the Lord, according to the ways of it here prescribed, I should not doubt but that the time of healing were at hand.
d) The means prescribed to this end, that our backslidings may be healed in a way suited to the glory of God, is renewed repentance: and this acts itself—
(1) In fervent prayer. "Take with you words, and say." Consider the greatness and importance of the work before you and weigh well what you do in your dealing with God. The matter of this prayer is twofold: 1) The pardon of all iniquity; that is, the taking away of it; and no sin is omitted, all being now become equally burdensome: "Take away all iniquity." When the souls of sinners are in good earnest in their return to God, they will not leave out the consideration of one sin. Nor are we meet for healing, nor shall we apply ourselves to it in a due manner, without some previous sense of the love of God in the pardon of our sin. 2) Gracious acceptance: "Receive us graciously." The words in the original are only "And receive good"; but both the words being used variously, the sense eminently included in them is well expressed by, "Receive us graciously." After we have cast ourselves under tokens of Thy displeasure, now let us know that we are freely accepted with Thee. And this also lies in the desires of them who design to obtain a healing of their backslidings; for under them they are sensible that they are liable to God’s displeasure.
(2) Affectionate confessions of the sin wherein their backslidings consisted, or which were the occasions of them. "Asshur shall not save us"; "We will say no more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods." Fleshly confidence and false worship were the two great sins that had now ruined the body of the people. These believers themselves had an accession to them more or less, as now they have to the prevailing sins of the days wherein we live, by conformity to the world. Of these sins God expects a full and free confession, in order to our healing.
(3) A renewed covenant engagement to renounce all other hopes and expectation and to betake themselves with their whole trust and confidence to Him; whereof they express, first, the cause, which was His mere grace and mercy, "For in thee the fatherless findeth mercy"; and, secondly, the effect of it, which is praise and thanksgiving, "So will we render the calves of our lips." And some things we may hence further observe as to the case under consideration. As,
(a) Although God will repair our spiritual decays and heal our backslidings freely, yet He will do it so, or in such a way, as wherein He may communicate grace to us, to the praise of His own glory. Therefore are these duties prescribed to us in order thereunto; for although they are not the procuring cause of the love and grace from whence alone we are healed, yet are they required, in the method of the dispensation of grace, to precede the effect of them. Nor have we anywhere a more illustrious instance and testimony of the consistency and harmony which is between sovereign grace and the diligent discharge of our duty than we have in this place; for as God promises that He would heal their backslidings out of His free love (Hos. 14:4), and would do it by the communication of effectual grace (v. 5), so He enjoins them all these duties in order thereto.
(b) That unless we find these things wrought in us in a way of preparation for the receiving of the mercy desired, we have no firm ground of expectation that we shall be made partakers of it; for this is the method of Gods dealing with the Church. Then and then only we may expect a gracious reviving from all our decays when serious repentance, working in the ways declared, is found in us. This grace will not surprise us in our sloth, negligence, and security, but will make way for itself by stirring us up to sincere endeavors after it in the perseverance of these duties. And until we see better evidences of this repentance among us than as yet appears, we can have but small hope of a general recovery from our present decays.
c) The work itself is declared a) by its nature, b) in its causes, and c) from its effects.
(1) In the nature of it, it is the healing of backslidings: "I will heal their backslidings," the sin whereby they are fallen off from God, to whom they are now exhorted to return. These bring the souls of men into a diseased state and danger of death: the cure of which is the work of God alone. Hence He gives Himself that title, "I am the Lord that healeth thee" (Exod. 15:26). And because of the poisonous nature of sin and the danger it brings of eternal death to the souls of men, the removal of it, or a recovery from it, is often called by the name of healing (Ps. 6:2; Isa. 57:18,19; Hos. 6:1). Here it includes two things: first, the pardon of sin past; and then, a supply of grace to make us fruitful in obedience: "I will be as the dew to Israel"; as we shall see. This is God’s healing of backslidings.
(2) In the causes of it, which are 1) the principal moving cause; and that is, free, undeserved love: "I will love them freely." From hence alone is our recovery to be expected. 2) The efficient cause; which, as to sins past, is pardoning mercy: "Mine anger is turned away from him"; and as to renewed obedience, in which too our recovery consists, it is in a plentiful supply of effectual grace: "I will be as the dew unto Israel." Fresh supplies of the Spirit of grace from above are so expressed; this is necessary to our healing and recovery.
(3) It is described by its effect, which is a much more abundant fruitfulness in holiness and obedience, in peace and love, than ever they had before attained. This the prophet sets out in multiplied similitudes and metaphors, to denote the greatness and efficacy of grace so communicated.
1. The case which I would consider is in all the parts of it stated distinctly, and represented clearly to us. Nothing remains except the special way whereby, in the exercise of faith, this grace may be obtained; which is what I shall speak of in the last place, as that which is principally intended in this discourse.
2. That I might show how great a thing it is to have our spiritual decays made up, our backslidings healed, and to attain the vigorous actings of grace and spiritual life, with a flourishing profession and fruitful obedience, in old age. It is so set forth here by the Holy Ghost that everyone must needs have a sense of the beauty and glory of the work: it is that which divine love, mercy, and grace are eminently effectual in to the glory of God—that which so many duties are required to prepare us for. Let no man think that it is a light or common work; everything in it is peculiar: it is, to them who are made partakers of it, a life from the dead.
3. That none may utterly despond under their decays. When persons are awakened by new convictions, and begin to feel the weight of them, and how they are entangled with them, they are ready to faint, and even to despair of deliverance. But we see that here is a promise of deliverance from them by pardoning mercy, and also of such fresh springs of grace as shall cause us to abound in holiness and fruitfulness. Who is it that is entangled with corruptions and temptations, that groans under a sense of a cold, lifeless, barren frame of heart? He may take in spiritual refreshment, if by faith he can make application of this promise to himself.
4. That which remains is to declare the particular way in which we may, by faith, obtain the fruit of this and all similar promises and be flourishing and fruitful even in old age. Now, supposing a due attendance to the duties mentioned, I shall give some directions with respect to that which gives life, power, and efficacy to them all, and which will infallibly bring us to the full enjoyment of this signal mercy; and they are these that follow:
First, all our supplies of grace are from Jesus Christ. Grace is declared in the promises of the Old Testament; but the way of its communication, and our receiving of it, is revealed to us in the New. This belongs to the mystery of it, that all grace is from Christ and shall be in vain expected any other way. He has assured us that "without him we can do nothing"; we can no more bring forth fruit than a branch can that is separated from the vine (John 15:3—5). He is our Head, and all our spiritual influences—that is, divine communication of grace—are from Him alone. He is our life efficiently, and lives in us effectively, so that our ability for vital acts is from Him (Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:1—4).
Are we, then, any of us under convictions of spiritual decays? or do we long for such renovations of spiritual strength as may make us flourish in faith, love, and holiness? We must know assuredly that nothing of all this can be attained but it must come from Jesus Christ alone. We see what promises are made, what duties are prescribed to us; but however we should endeavor to apply ourselves unto the one or the other, they would yield us no relief unless we know how to receive it from Christ Himself.
Second, the only way of receiving supplies of spiritual strength and grace from Jesus Christ, on our part, is by faith. Hereby we come to Him, are implanted in Him, abide with Him, so as to bring forth fruit. He dwells in our hearts by faith, and He acts in us by faith, and we live by faith in or on the Son of God. This, I suppose, will be granted, that if we receive anything from Christ, it must be by faith, it must be in the exercise of it, or in a way of believing; nor is there any one word in the Scripture that gives the least encouragement to expect either grace or mercy from Him in any other way, or by any other means.
Third, this faith respects the person of Christ, His grace, His whole mediation, with all the effects of it, and His glory in them all. This is that which has been so much insisted on in the foregoing discourses that it ought not to be again insisted upon. This, therefore, is the issue of the whole: a steady view of the glory of Christ, in His person, grace, and office, through faith—or a constant, lively exercise of faith on Him, according as He is revealed to us in the Scripture—is the only effectual way to obtain a revival from under our spiritual decays, and such supplies of grace as shall make us flourishing and fruitful even in old age. He that thus lives by faith in Him shall, by his spiritual thriving and growth, "show that the Lord is upright, that he is our rock, and that there is no unrighteousness in him."
1. This direction is given us (Ps. 34:5), "They looked unto him, and were lightened.’ and their faces were not ashamed." That it is Christ, or the glory of God in Him, who is thus looked to, I need not prove—it will not be denied. And it is their faith which is expressed by their looking to Him; which is nothing but that beholding of His glory which we have described: for it is an act of trust arising from an apprehension of who and what He is. The issue or effect is that they were lightened; that is, received fresh communication of spiritual, saving, refreshing light from Him, and, consequently, of all other graces, whence their faces were not ashamed; nor shall we fail in our expectation of new spiritual communication in the exercise of the same faith.
This is that which we are called unto (Isa. 45:22), "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth." On this look to Christ, on this view of His glory, depends our whole salvation; and therefore all things that are needful thereunto do so also: this is the way whereby we receive grace and glory. This is the direction given us by the Holy Ghost for the attaining of them.
So is the same duty described (Micah 7:7), "Therefore I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me." The Church knew not any other way of relief, whatever her distresses were.
A look to Christ as crucified (and how glorious He was therein has been declared) is made the cause and fountain of that godly sorrow which is a spring unto all other graces, especially in those who have fallen under decays (Zech. 12:10); and it is so also of desiring strength from Him to enable us to endure all our trials, troubles, and afflictions with patience to the end (Heb. 12:1,2).
2. The only inquiry remaining is how a constant view of the glory of Christ will produce this blessed effect in us; and it will do so several ways.
a) It will be effected by that transforming power and efficacy with which this exercise of faith is always accompanied. This is that which changes us every day more and more into the likeness of Christ, as has been at large before declared. Herein all revivals and all flourishings are contained. To have a good measure of conformity to Christ is all whereof in this life, we are capable; the perfection of it is eternal blessedness. According as are our attainments therein, so is the thriving and flourishing of the life of grace in us; which is that which is aimed at. Other ways and means, it may be, have failed us; let us put this to the trial. Let us live in the constant contemplation of the glory of Christ, and virtue will proceed from Him to repair all our decays, to renew a right spirit within us, and to cause us to abound in all duties of obedience. This way of producing these effects flesh and blood will not reveal—it looks like washing in Jordan to cure a leprosy; but the life of faith is a mystery known only to them in whom it is.
b) It will fix the soul to that object which is suited to give it delight, complacency, and satisfaction. This in perfection is blessedness, for it is caused by the eternal vision of the glory of God in Christ; and the nearer approaches we make to this state, the better, the more spiritual, the more heavenly, is the state of our souls. And this is to be obtained only by a constant contemplation of the glory of Christ, as has been declared. And it is several ways effectual to the end now proposed. For,
1. Most of our spiritual decays and barrenness arise from an inordinate admission of other things into our minds. These weaken grace in all its operations. But when the mind is filled with thoughts of Christ and His glory, when the soul cleaves to Him with intense affections, they will cast out, or not give admittance to, those causes of spiritual weakness and indisposition. (See Col. 3:1—5; Eph. 5:8).
2. Where we are engaged in this duty, it will stir up every grace to its due exercise. This is that wherein the spiritual revival inquired after consists. This is all we desire, all we long for, this will make us fat and flourishing—that every grace of the Spirit have its due exercise in us. (See Rom. 5:3—5; II Pet. 1:5—8.) Whereas, therefore, Christ Himself is the first proper, adequate object of all grace, and all its exercise (for it first respects Him, and then other things for Him), when the mind is fixed on Him and His glory, every grace will be in a readiness for its due exercise. And without this we shall never attain it by any resolutions or endeavors of our own, let us make the trial when we please.
3. This will assuredly put us to a vigilant watch and constant conflict against all the deceitful workings of sin, all entrances of temptation, all surprisals into foolish frames by vain imaginations, which are the causes of our decays. Our recovery or revival will not be effected, or a fresh spring of grace be obtained, in a careless, slothful course of profession. Constant watching, fighting, contending against sin, with out utmost endeavor for an absolute conquest over it, are required. And nothing will so much excite and encourage our souls in this as a constant view of Christ and His glory; everything in Him has a constraining power hereunto, as is known to all who have any acquaintance with these things.