Spiritual Growth by Arthur W. Pink
11. Its Recovery
We shall attempt little more here than seeking to show the necessity for recovery from a spiritual decline. Nor will that be an easy task: not because of any inherent difficulty in this aspect of our subject, but owing to the variety of cases which need to be considered, and which should be dealt with separately. There are some physical ailments which if handled promptly call for comparatively mild treatment, but there are others that demand more drastic means and remedies. Yet as any doctor will testify, many are careless about what are deemed trifling disorders and delay so long in attending to the same that their condition so deteriorates as to become dangerous and often fatal. In the last chapter we pointed out that every spot was not leprosy: yet it should be remembered that certain spots which resembled that disease aroused suspicion, and required that the patient be examined by the priest, isolated from others, and kept under his observation until the case could be more definitely determined—depending upon whether there was a further deterioration or spreading of the spot (Lev. 13:4-8).
It is much to be doubted if there is any Christian on earth who so retains his spiritual vitality and vigor that he never stands in need of a "reviving’ of his heart (Isa. 58:15); that there is no time when he feels it requisite to cry quicken thou me according to thy word" (Ps. 119:25). Yet it must not be concluded from this statement that every saint experiences a definite relapse in his spiritual life, and still less that a life of ups and downs, decays and recoveries, backslidings and restorations, is the best that can be expected. The experiences of others is not the Rule which God has given us to walk by. Crowded dispensaries and hospitals do indeed supply a warning, but they certainly do not warrant my lapsing into carelessness or fatalistically assuming I too shall ere long be physically afflicted. God has made full provision for His people to live a holy, healthy, and happy life, and if I observe many of them failing to do so, it should stimulate me to greater watchfulness against the neglect of God’s provision.
After what has been discussed in previous chapters it should scarcely be necessary to remind the reader that unless the Christian maintains close and steady communion with God, daily intercourse with and drawing from Christ’s fulness, and regular feeding on the Word, the pulse of his spiritual life will soon beat more feebly and irregularly. Unless he often meditates on the love of God, keeps fresh before his heart the humiliation and sufferings of Christ, and frequents the throne of grace, his affections will soon cool, his relish for spiritual things will decrease, and obedience will neither be so easy nor pleasant. If such a deterioration be ignored or excused, it will not be long ere his heart glides imperceptibly into carnality and worldliness: worldly pleasures will begin to attract, worldly pursuits absorb more of his attention, or worldly cares weight him down. Then, unless there be a return to God and humbling of the heart before Him, it will not he long—unless providence hinder—before he be found in the ways of open transgression.
There are degrees of backsliding. In the case of a real child of God it always commences in the heart’s departure from Him, and where that be protracted, evidences thereof will soon appear in the daily walk. Once a Christian becomes a backslider outwardly he has lost his distinguishing character, for then there is little or nothing to distinguish him from a religious worldling. Backsliding always presupposes a profession of faith and adherence unto Christ, though not necessarily the existence or reality of the thing professed. An unregenerate professor may be sincere though deluded and he may, from various considerations, persevere in his profession to the end. But more frequently, he soon wearies of it, and after the novelty has worn off or the demands made upon him become more intolerable, he abandons his profession, and like the sow returns to his wallowing in the mire. Such is an apostate, and with very rare exceptions—if indeed there be any at all—his apostasy is total and final.
Up to the beginning of this chapter we have confined ourselves to the spiritual life of the regenerate, but we have now reached the stage where faithfulness to souls requires us to enlarge our scope. Under our last division we dwelt upon spiritual decline: its nature, its causes, its insidiousness and its symptoms. It is pertinent therefore to enquire now, What will be the sequel to such a decline? A general answer cannot be returned, for as the decline varies considerably in different cases—some being less and some more, acute and extended than others—the outcome is not always the same. Where the relapse of a Christian be marked—if not to himself, yet to onlookers—he has entered the class of "backsliders" and that will cause the spiritual to stand in doubt of him. It is this consideration which requires us to enlarge the class to which we now address our remarks, otherwise, unregenerate professors who have deteriorated in their religious life would be likely to derive false comfort from that which applies only to those who have been temporarily despoiled by Satan.
Unless spiritual decline be arrested it will not remain stationary, but become worse, and the worse it becomes the less are we justified in regarding it as a "spiritual decline," and the more does Scripture require us to view it as the exposure of a worthless profession. Hence it is that any degree of spiritual deterioration is to be regarded not complacently, but as something serious and if not promptly corrected, as highly dangerous in its tendency. But Satan will attempt to persuade the Christian that though his zeal has abated somewhat and his spiritual affection cooled, there is nothing for him to worry about; that even if his health has begun to decline, yet, seeing he has not fallen into any great sin, his condition is not at all serious. But every decay is dangerous, especially such as the mind is ready to excuse and plead for a continuance therein. The nature and deadly tendency of sin is the same in itself, whether it be in an unregenerate, or a regenerate person, and if it be not resisted and mortified, repented of and forsaken, the outcome will be the same. "When lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin, and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death, Do not err, my beloved brethren" (James 1:15, 16).
Three stages of spiritual decline are solemnly set before us in Revelation 2 and 3. First, to the Ephesian backslider Christ says, "I have against thee, because thou hast left thy first love" (2:4). That is the more striking and searching because there was much here that the Lord commended: "I know thy works and thy labor and thy patience . . . and for my name’s sake hast labored and hast not fainted." Yet He adds, "Nevertheless, I have against thee." In this case, things were still all right in the external life, but there was an inward decay. Observe well that this Divine indictment "I have against thee because thou hast left thy first love" is an unmistakably plain intimation that Christians are held accountable for the state of their love Godwards. There are some who seem to conclude from those words "the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us" (Rom. 5:5) that they have no personal responsibility in connection therewith, and who attribute to the sovereignty of God their coldness of heart, rather than blaming themselves for the waning of their affections. But that is highly reprehensible: being an adding of insult to injury.
It is as much the duty of a saint to maintain a warm and constant affection to Christ as it is to preserve his faith in regular exercise, and he is no more warranted in excusing his failure in the one than in the other. We are expressly bidden, "Keep yourselves in the love of God" (Jude) and "set your affection on things above" (Col. 3:1), and it is a horrible perversion and abuse of a blessed truth if I attribute my not doing so unto God’s sovereign withholding from me the inclination. Those words of Christ’s "I have against thee" is the language of censure because of failure, and He certainly had not used it unless he was to blame. Observe He does not merely say "Thou hast lost thy first love," as it is so frequently misquoted—man ever tones down what is unpalatable! No, "thou hast left thy first love"—something more serious and heinous. One may "lose" a thing involuntarily, but to leave it is deliberate action! Finally, let us duly note that our Lord regarded that departure not as an innocent infirmity, but as a culpable sin, for He says "repent"!
In his faithful sermon on Revelation 2:4 C. H. Spurgeon pointed out that we ought to feel alarmed if we have left our first rove, and ask the question, "Was I ever a child of God at all?" going on to say: "Oh, my God, must I ask myself this question? Yes, I will. Are there not many of whom it is said, they went out from us because they were not of us? Are there not some whose goodness is as the morning cloud and as the early dew—may that not have been my case? I am speaking for you all. Put the question: may I not have been impressed under a certain sermon, and may not that impression have been a mere carnal excitement? May it not have been that I thought I repented, but did not really repent? May it not have been the case that I got a hope where, but had not a right to it? and never had the loving faith that unites me to the Lamb of God? And may it not have been that I only thought I had love to Christ, and never had it; for if I really had love to Christ should I be as I now am? See how far I have come down! may I not keep on going down until my end shall be perdition and the fire unquenchable? Many have gone from heights of a profession to the depths of damnation, and may I not be the same? Let me think, if I go on as I am, it is impossible for me to stop; if I am going downwards, I may go on doing so. And O my God, If I go on backsliding for another year—who knows where I may have backslidden to? Perhaps into some gross sin. Prevent, prevent it by Thy grace! Perhaps I may backslide totally. If I am a child of God I know I cannot do that; but still may it not happen that I only thought I was a child of God?"
Searching as is the complaint of Christ to the Ephesian backslider, His word to the Sardinian is yet more drastic: "I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead" (3:1). That does not signify that He was here addressing an unregenerate person, but rather one whose conduct belied his name. His life did not correspond with his profession. He had a reputation for piety, but there was no longer evidence to justify it, no fruit to warrant it any longer. Not only had there been deterioration within, but also without. The salt had lost its savor, the fine gold had become dim, and hence his profession brought no honor and glory to Christ. He bids him "Be watchful," for that was the very point at which he had failed. "And strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die," which shows the "art dead" of verse 1 does not mean dead in sins. "For I have not found thy works perfect before God"—not "complete" or "full." Good works were not yet totally abandoned, but many of them were lacking. Part of his duty was listlessly performed, the other part neglected, and even the former was ready to die."
Thus it will be seen that the case of the Sardinian backslider is much worse than that of the Ephesian. There is no remaining stationary in Christianity: if we do not advance, we retrograde; if we are not fruit-bearing branches of the Vine, we become cumberers of the ground. Decay of grace is not a thing to be regarded lightly, and treated with indifference. If it is not attended to and corrected, our condition will grow worse. If we do not return to our first love—by heeding the injunctions laid down in Revelation 2:5—then we may expect to become like the Sardinian backslider: one whose witness for Christ is marred. Unless our hearts are kept right, our affection to Christ warm, then the life will soon deteriorate—our works will be deficient both in quality and quantity, and those around us will perceive it. Ere long a "name to live" is all we shall have: the profession itself will be invalid, worthless, "dead."
But worst of all is the Laodicean professor (3:15-20). What makes his case so fearfully solemn is that we are at a loss where to place him, how to classify him—whether he is a real Christian who has fearfully backslidden, or naught but an empty professor. To him Christ says "thou art neither hot nor cold," neither one thing nor the other, but rather an unholy mixture. Such are those who vainly attempt to serve two masters, who are worshippers of God one day, but worshippers of mammon the other six. To him Christ goes on to say "I would thou wert cold or hot": that is either an open and avowed enemy or a faithful and consistent witness for Me. Be one thing or the other: a foe or a friend, an utter worldling or one who is in spirit and in truth a "stranger and pilgrim" in this scene. Corrupt Christianity is more offensive to Christ than is open fidelity. If he who bears his name does not depart from iniquity, His honor is affected. "Because thou art lukewarm . . . I will spue thee out of my mouth": in thy present condition thou art an offense to me, and I can no longer own thee.
It is the figure of an emetic which Christ there uses: the mingling together of what is hot and cold, thus producing a "lukewarm" draught which is nauseating to the stomach. And that is exactly what an "inconsistent Christian" is to the Holy One. He who runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds, who is one man inside the church and a totally different one outside; he who seeks to mix godliness with worldliness "I will spue thee out of my mouth"—instead of confessing his name before the Father and His holy angels. But observe what follows: "thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing." Exactly opposite is this estimation of his from Christ’s. No longer "poor in spirit" (Matthew 5:3), he declares himself to be "rich." No longer coming to the throne of grace as a beggar to obtain help, he deems himself to be "increased with goods." No longer sensible of his ignorance, weakness, emptiness, he feels himself to "have need of nothing." That is what makes his case so dangerous and desperate: he has no sense of personal need.
"And knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." As carnality and worldliness increase, so also does pride and complacency, and where they dominate spiritual discernment becomes non-existent, Phariseeism and self-sufficiency are inseparable. It was to those who prayed, "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers," and who asked Christ, "are we blind also?" to whom He said, "ye say, We see: therefore your sin remaineth" (John 15:41). The Pharisee boasted "I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess": in his own esteem and avowal he was "rich and increased with goods, and had need of nothing," and for that very reason he knew not that He was "wretched and miserable and poor." That too is another form of the nauseating mixture which is so abhorrent to Christ: orthodox in doctrine, but corrupt in practice. One who is loud in claiming to be sound in the faith but who is tyrannical and bitter toward those who differ from him, who holds "high doctrine but cannot live in peace with his brethren, is as offensive to Christ as if he were thoroughly worldly.
Can such a character as the one who has just been before us be a real though a backslidden Christian? Frankly, we know not, for we are unable to say just how far a saint may fall into the mire and foul his garments before God recovers him, by answering him with "terrible things in righteousness" (Ps. 65:5). Before He made good that awful threat and spued out the Laodicean professor, Christ made a final appeal to him. "I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed and the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see." But though we do not feel capable of deciding whether or not "the root of the matter" really is in him, two things are plain to us. First, that if I have "left my first love" it will not be long before my profession will become "dead," and unless it is revived I shall soon be a Laodicean. Second, that while any person is in a Laodicean state he has no Scriptural warrant to regard himself as a Christian, nor should others consider him as such,
There are many professing Christians who have declined in their practice of piety to a considerable extent, yet who comfort themselves with the idea that they will be brought to repentance before they die. But that is not only an unwarrantable comfort, but is presumptuously tempting God. As another has pointed out, "Whosoever plunges into the gulf of backsliding or continues easy in it under the idea of being recovered by repentance, may find himself mistaken. Both Peter and Judas went in, but only one of them came out! There is reason to fear that thousands of professors are now lifting up their eyes in torment, who in this world reckoned themselves good men, who considered their sins as pardonable errors, and laid their accounts of being brought to repentance: but, ere they were aware, the Bridegroom came and they were not ready to meet him." They of whom it is said, they are "sudden back by a perpetual backsliding they hold fast deceit, they ref use to return (Jer. 8:5) are the ones "who draw back unto perdition" (Heb. 10:39). And my reader, if you have left your first love, you have "departed from the living God," and until you humbly and penitently return to Him can have no guarantee that you will not be a "perpetual backslider."
We should carefully distinguish between the sin which indwells us and our falling into sin. The former is our depraved nature, which God holds us accountable to make no provision for, to resist its workings and refuse its solicitations. The latter is, when through lack of watching against indwelling corruptions, sin breaks forth into open acts. It is an injurious thing to fall into sin, whether secretly or openly, and sooner or later the effects will certainly be felt. But to continue therein, is much more evil and dangerous. God has denounced a solemn threatening against those who persist in sin: He "woundeth the head of His enemies, the hairy scalp of such a one as goeth on still in his trespasses" (Ps. 68:21). For those who have known the way of righteousness to pursue a course of sin is highly offensive to God. He has provided a remedy (Prov. 28:13): but if instead of confessing and forsaking our sins, we sink into hardness of heart, neglect prayer, shun the company of the faithful, and seek to efface one sin by the committal of another, we are in imminent danger of being abandoned by God and are "nigh unto cursing, whose end is to be burned" (Heb. 6:8).
Let us return to the point where we almost began and ask again, What will be the sequel to a decline? It should now be still more evident that a general answer cannot be returned. Not only does God exercise His sovereignty here, using His own good pleasure and not acting uniformly, but differences from the human side of things have also to be taken into account. Much will depend upon whether it be the spiritual decline of a real Christian or simply the religious decay of a mere professor. If the former, the sequel will vary according to whether the decline be internal only or accompanied or followed by falling into open sin. So, too, there is a doctrinal departure from God as well as a practical, as was the case with the Galatians. However, whatever be the type of case this is certain, the one who lapses into a state of torpor needs to respond to that call "Now it is high time to awake out of sleep let us therefore cast off the works of darkness . . ." (Rom. 13:11, 12).
We have sought to make clear the urgent necessity for recovery from a spiritual decline: we turn now to consider its desirability. Look at it first from the Godward side. Is it not inexcusable that we should so evilly requite the eternal Lover of our souls? If He who was rich for my sake became so poor that He had not where to lay His head, in order that I (a spiritual pauper) might be made rich, what is due Him from me? If He died the shameful death of the cross that you might live, is not your life to be devoted wholly to Him? If you be Christ’s, you are not your own, but "bought with a price" and therefore called upon to "glorify Him in your body and in your spirit" (1 Cor. 6:20). If He can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, think you that He is moved if we leave our first love and divide our affections with His rivals? Do you suppose that a backslidden Christian affords Him any pleasure? Surely you are aware of the fact that such a case brings no honor to Him. Then let His love constrain you to return and reform your ways, so that you may again show forth His praises and give him delight.
Consider your case in view of other Christians. There is a bond uniting the saints which is closer than any natural tie: "so we, being many are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another" (Rom. 12:5), and therefore "those members should have the same care one for another" (1 Cor. 12:25). So vital and intimate is that mystical union that if "one member suffer, all the members suffer with it" (v. 25). If one member of your physical body is affected, there is a reaction throughout your whole system: so it is in the mystical Body. The health or sickness of your soul exerts a very real influence, either for good or for evil, upon your brethren and sisters. For their sake then, it is most desirable that if in a spiritual decline you should be restored. If you are not, your example will be a stumblingblock to them, and if they have much association with you their zeal will be dampened and their spirits chilled. Surely it is not a matter of little concern whether you are a help or hindrance to your fellow-saints. "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matthew 18:6).
Contemplate your case in connection with your unsaved relatives and friends. Do you not know that one of the main obstacles in the way of many from giving a serious consideration to the gospel, is the inconsistent lives of so many who profess to believe it? Years ago we read of one who was concerned about the soul of his son, and on the eve of his departure for a foreign land, sought to press upon him the claims and excellency of Christ. He received this reply: "Father, I am sorry, but I cannot hear what you say for seeing what you do"! Is that the unuttered sentiment of your child? You may reply, I do not believe that anything in my conduct can have any influence on the eternal destiny of any soul. Then you are woefully ignorant. "Wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the Word, they also may without the Word be won by the conversation [behavior] of the wives" (1 Peter 3:1). In saving sinners God uses a variety of means, as in prejudicing sinners Satan employs many agents; is God or Satan most likely to use you? Most certainly the latter, if you are in a backslidden state.
Coming lower still, let us appeal to your own interests. What have you gained by leaving your first love? Have you found the vanities of this world more pleasing than the feast which the gospel sets before you? Does association with empty professors and the ungodly supply more satisfaction to the heart than fellowship with the Father and His Son? No, the very opposite. Rather have you discovered that in forsaking the Fountain of living waters, you have betaken yourself to broken cisterns which hold none. The joy of salvation you once had is departed: the peace of God which passeth all understanding that formerly ruled your heart and mind through Christ Jesus, does so no longer. Today your case resembles that of "the prodigal"—feeding on husks in the far country, while the rich fare of the Father’s House is no longer partaken of by you. An uneasy conscience, a restless spirit, a joyless heart is now your portion. Have you not reason to cry "O that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me: when his lamp shined on my head . . . as I was in the days of my youth, when the secret of God was upon my tabernacle" (Job 29:2-4)? Then whose fault is it that you do not again have that blessed experience?
Yes, from every viewpoint, it is most desirable that a Christian he recovered from his spiritual decline. Yet it is also important that he should not conclude he has been recovered when such is not the ease. Since a backslidden state is far from being agreeable, it is natural for one in it to want to be delivered from it. For that very reason it is much to be feared that many have prematurely grasped at the promise of forgiveness and said to their souls, Peace, peace, when there was no peace. As there are many ways by which a convicted sinner seeks peace for his soul, without finding it, so it is with a backslider. If he leans unto his own understanding, follows the devices of his own heart, or avails himself of the remedies advertised by religious quacks, he will rather be worsened than improved. Unless he complies with the injunctions laid down in the Word of Truth for such cases and meets the requirements therein specified, there can be no real recovery for him. Alas that this is so little realized today, and that so many who went astray and think they are returned to the Bishop of their souls are laboring tinder a delusion.
If there is to be a real recovery it is requisite that the right means be used, and not that which is destructive of what is desired. When trees grow old or begin to decay it is useful to dig about them and manure them, for often that will cause them to flourish again and abound in fruit. But if instead of so doing we removed them out of their soil and planted them in another, so far from that advantaging them they would wither and die. Yet there are many professing saints who suppose that the decay of grace does not arise from themselves and the evil of their hearts, but rather attribute the same to uncongenial surroundings, unfavorable circumstances, their present occasion or station in life, and persuade themselves that as soon as they be freed from those, they will return to their first love and again delight themselves in spiritual things. But that is a false notion and spiritual delusion. Let men’s circumstances and stations of life be what they will, the truth is that all their departures from God proceed from an evil heart of unbelief, as is clear from Hebrews 3:13. Do not deceive and flatter yourself then with the idea that what is needed for a recovery from your spiritual decline is but a removal into more favorable and congenial circumstances.
As it is from want of watchfulness and because of the allowance of sin that all decays proceed, so a return unto unsparing mortification of our lusts, with all the duties that lead thereunto, must be the way of recovery. Yet at this point, too, we need to be much on our guard lest we substitute for the denyings of self which God has enjoined, those pharisaical or papistical inventions which are of no value. Under the name and pretence of the means and duties of mortification men have devised and enjoined a number of works, ways, and duties, which God never appointed or approved, nor will He accept; but will rather ask "who hath required this at your hand?" (Isa. 1:12). Self-imposed abstinences and austerities may "have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body" (Col. 2:23), but they will not profit the soul one iota. Unless those who are weighted down with a sense of guilt conduct themselves by the light of the Gospel they will think to placate the displeasure of God by betaking themselves to an unusual course of severities which He has nowhere commanded. No abstinence from lawful things will deliver us from the consequences of having indulged in unlawful ones.
Again, the one who is exercised over and distressed by his spiritual decline is very liable to be wrongly counseled if he turns to his fellow-Christians for advice and help. It is to be feared that in this day there are few even among the people of God who are qualified to be of real assistance to others. In most instances their own spirituality is at such a low ebb that if they are turned to for relief, they will only be found to be "physicians of no value" (Job 13:4). And if they consulted the average preacher or pastor, the result is not likely to prove much better. Of old Jehovah complained of the unfaithful priests of Israel "they have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace, when there is no peace" (Jer. 6:14). There are not a few such today. If one who was mourning over having left his first love asked them the way of return thereto, instead of probing the conscience to ascertain the root of the "hurt," they would endeavor to quiet his fears amid soothe him; instead of faithfully warning him of the seriousness of his case, they would say there was nothing to he unduly exercised over, that perfection is not attainable in this life; and instead of naming the means God has appointed, would tell him to continue attending the services regularly and contributing liberally to the cause, and all would be well. Many a wound has been skinned over without being cured.
"When Ephraim saw his sickness and Judah saw his wound, then went Ephraim to the Assyrian and sent to king Jareb: yet could he not heal you nor cure you of your wound" (Hos. 5:13). The historical reference is to Israel and Judah when, in great danger from the pressure of enemies, instead of humbling themselves before God and seeking His help, they betook themselves unto a neighboring nation and looked to it for protection; yet to no avail. But it has a spiritual application to those who are conscious of their spiritual decline, but who turn to the wrong quarter for deliverance. Backsliders are often aware of their wretched plight, but perceive not that sin is the cause of it and God alone can heal their backsliding (Hos. 14:4). When His chastening rod falls upon them, so far from recognizing that it is His mighty hand correcting them, that it is His righteous hand dealing with them, they imagine it is only "circumstances" which are against them, and turn to the creature to extricate them; but to no good effect. Since there has been a departure from God there must be a return to Him, and in that way He has appointed, or there can be no recovery from the evil consequences of that departure.
We turn now to consider the possibility of recovery. It may appear strange to some of our readers that we should deem it necessary to mention such a thing, still more so that we should discuss it in some detail. If so, surely they forget that since Satan succeeds in persuading many a convicted sinner that his case is hopeless, that he has carried his rebellion against God to such lengths as to be beyond the reach of mercy, driving him into a state of abject despair; it should not be thought strange that he will employ the same tactics with a backslidden saint—assuring him that he has sinned against such favors, privileges, and light, that his case is now hopeless? Those who have read the history of John Bunyan—and his case is far from being unique—and learned of his lying so long in the slough of despond, when the Devil made him believe he had committed the unpardonable sin, should not be surprised to learn that he is still plying the same trade and persuading one and another that he has so far departed from the Lord that his recovery is impossible.
But we do not have to go outside the Scriptures to find saints not only in a state of despondency and dejection before God, but in actual despair of again enjoying His favor. Take the case of Job. True, there were times when he could say "I know that My Redeemer liveth," and "when he hath tried me I shall come forth as gold." But his assurance was not always thus: there were also seasons when he exclaimed "mine hope hath he removed like a tree, he hath also kindled his wrath against me" (19:10, 11). True, he erred in his judgment, nevertheless such was how he felt in the dark hour of trial. Take the case of Asaph: "My sore ran in the night and ceased not: my soul refused to he comforted. I remembered God, and was troubled." Is not that an apt description of many a backslider as he calls to mind the omniscience, the holiness, the justice of God? But did he not find relief by reminding himself of God’s grace and loving-kindness? No, for he went on to ask "will the Lord cast off forever? and will He be favorable no more? Is His mercy clean gone forever? Doth His promise fail for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath He in anger shut up His tender mercies?" (Ps. 77:7-10). That he should speak thus was indeed his infirmity, yet it shows into what despondency a saint may fall.
Consider the case of Jeremiah. Said he "I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. . . . Surely against me is he turned. He hath set me in dark places. . . . He hath hedged me about, that I cannot get out: he hath made my chain heavy. Also when I cry and shout, he shutteth out my prayer. . . . He hath filled me with bitterness, he hath made me drunken with wormwood. . . . Thou hast removed my soul far off from peace. And I said, My strength and my hope is perished from the Lord" (Lam. 3:1-18). Is not that the language of despair! It was not only that his hope was weak and wavering, but He felt it had "perished," and that "from before the Lord" Lower than that one cannot get. He had no expectation of deliverance; he saw no possibility of being recovered from his wretched condition. And think you my reader there are no Christians in such a sad plight today? If so, ask yourself, Why has God placed on permanent record such groanings of His people when they occupied the dungeons of despair? The time may come when such language will exactly suit your case, and if so, you will be very glad to hear that there is a possibility of deliverance, a door of hope opened in the valley of Achor.
There can be little room for doubt that the chief reason why so many professors today see no need for pointing out that it is possible for a backslidden Christian to be restored, is because of the defective teaching they sit under. They hold such light views of the sinfulness of sin, they perceive so faintly the spirituality and strictness of God’s law, they have such a dim conception of His ineffable holiness, that their consciences are comatosed, and hence blind to their own state, and unaware of what would be involved in delivering them out of it. They have had "Once saved, always saved," "My sheep shall never perish," dinned into their ears so often, they take it for granted every backslider will be restored as a matter of course—i.e., without any deep exercises of heart on their part or compliance with the requirements which God has laid down. Yea, there are extensive circles in Christendom today where it is taught "having forgiven you all trespasses" (Col. 2:13) means "every trespass: past, present, and future," and that so far from the Christian asking God for daily forgiveness, he should rather thank Him for having already forgiven him. Of course those who swallow such deadly poison need not be informed that recovery from a relapse is possible.
But different far is it with one who lives in the fear of the Lord, whose conscience is tender, who views sin in the light of Divine holiness. When he is overtaken by a fault, he is cut to the quick, and should he so far decline as to leave his first love, he will find a way of recovery by no means easy; and should he continue departing from God until his case become such that he has a name to live but is dead, he may abandon hope entirely. When he seeks a return to the Lord, it will be a case of "out of the depths have I cried unto thee" (Ps. 130:1)—out of the depths of his heart, out of the depths of conviction, out of the depths of anguished contrition, out of the depths of despondency and despair. In his remarkable book on Psalm 130 J. Owen after pointing out that "gracious souls after much communion with God may be brought into inextricable depths and entanglements on the count of sin," went on to define those "depths" as "1. Loss of the wanted sense of the love of God which the soul did formerly enjoy. 2. Perplexed thoughtfulness about their great and wretched unkindness towards God. 3. A revived sense of justly deserved wrath. 4. Oppressing apprehension of temporal judgments."
But the eminent Puritan did not stop there. He went on to say, "There may be added hereunto, prevailing fears for a season of being utterly rejected by God, of being found a reprobate at the last day. Jonah seems to have concluded so: ‘Then said I, I am cast out of thy sight’ (3:4)—I am lost forever: God will own me no more. And Heman, ‘I am counted with them that go down into the pit, free among the dead, like the slain that He in the grave, when thou rememberest me no more: and they are cut off from thy hand’ (Ps. 88:4, 5). This may reach the soul, until the sorrows of hell encompass and lay hold upon it: until it be despaired of comfort, peace, rest; until it be a terror to itself, and be ready to choose strangling rather than life. This may befall a gracious soul on the account of sin. But yet because this fights directly against the life of faith God does not, unless it be in extraordinary cases, suffer it to lie long in this horrible pit, wherein there is no water—no refreshment. But this often falls out, that even the saints themselves are left for a season to a fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation, as to the prevailing apprehension of their mind."
We can bear testimony that in our extensive reading we have come across not merely a few isolated and exceptional cases of backslidden saints who had sunk into such depths of soul trouble, distress, and horror, but many such; and that in the course of our travels we have personally met more than one or two who were in such darkness and anguish of heart that they had no hope, and no efforts of ours could dispel their gloom. Let that serve as a solemn warning unto those who at present are enjoying the light of God’s countenance: "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12)—fall into a state of unwatchfulness and then into wickedness. Sin is that "abominable thing" which God hates (Jer. 44:4), whether it be found in the unregenerate or the regenerate. If we trifle with temptation then we shall be made to taste what an exceeding bitter thing it is to depart from the living God. If we enter the paths of unrighteousness we shall obtain personal proof that "the way of transgressors is hard." And the higher have been our privileges and attainments, the more painful will be the effects from a fall.
But thank God the recovery of a backslider is possible, no matter how heinous or long protracted it was. The cases of David, of Jonah, of Peter demonstrate that! "No man that is fallen under spiritual decays has any reason to say, there is no hope, provided he take the right way of 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 those who are always progressive in grace; if God should mark all that is done amiss, as the Psalmist spake, ‘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" (J. Owen).
What are those right means and the very real difficulties which attend the use of then by those who have openly departed from God?
Its difficulty. Though reviving and restoration is needful, desirable, and possible, yet it is by no means easy. We do not mean that any problem is presented to God in connection with the recovery of one who has suffered a spiritual relapse, but that it is far from being a simple matter for a backslider to comply with His requirements in order thereto. That difficulty is at least threefold: there is a difficulty in realizing the sadness of his case, a difficulty in putting forth a real desire for recovery, and a difficulty in meeting God’s stipulations. Sin has a blinding effect, and the more one falls under its power the less discernment will he possess. It is only in God’s light that we can see light, and the further we depart from Him the more we engulf ourselves in darkness. It is only as the bitter effects of sin began to be tasted that the erring one becomes conscious of his sorry condition. Others may perceive it, and in loving faithfulness tell him about it, but in most instances he is quite unaware of his decline and such warnings have no weight with him. Of course, the degree of the decay of his grace will determine the measure in which the "and knowest not" of Revelation 3:17 applies to him.
But even where there be some realization that all is not well with himself it by no means follows that there is also a real anxiety to return to his first love. To some extent the conscience of such an one is comatosed and, therefore, there is little sensibility of his condition and still less horror of it. Here, too, the natural adumbrates the spiritual. Have we not met with or read of those suffering from certain forms of sickness who lacked a desire to be healed? Certainly there are not a few such in the religious world. If the reader dissents from such a statement we ask him, why then did the great Physician of souls address Himself as He did to the one by the pool of Bethesda? We are told that that man had suffered from an infirmity no less than thirty-eight years, yet the Saviour asked him "Wilt thou be made whole?" (John 5:6)—are you really desirous to be? That question was neither meaningless nor strange. The wretched are not always willing to be relieved. Some prefer to He on a couch and be ministered to by friends than bestir themselves and perform their duties. Others become lethargic and indifferent and are, as Scripture designates them, "at ease in Zion"!
It is all too little realized among Christians that backsliding is a departing from God and a returning to the conditions they were in before conversion, and the further that departure is, the closer will become their approximation to the old manner of life. Observe the particular language used by David in his confession to God. First he said, "Before I was afflicted, I went astray" (119:67); but later, as spiritual discernment increased following upon his recovery, and as he then more clearly perceived what had been involved in his sad lapse, he declared "I have gone astray like a lost sheep" (v. 176)—the state of God’s elect in the days of their unregeneracy (Isa. 53:6). True, the case of David was a more extreme form of backsliding than many, nevertheless it is a solemn warning to all of us of what may befall if we have left our first love, and return not promptly to it. And how clearly his experiences serve to illustrate the point we are here seeking to set before the reader. Ponder carefully what follows the account of David’s grievous fall in 2 Samuel 11 and behold the spirit of blindness and insensibility which deliberate sinning casts upon a backslidden saint.
In view of 2 Samuel 12:15 it is clear that almost a whole year, possibly more, had elapsed between the time of David’s fall and the Lord’s sending of Nathan unto him. There is not a hint that David was broken-hearted before God during those months. The prophet addressed him in the form of a parable—intimation of his moral distance from God (Matthew 13:10-13) yet, if David’s conscience had been active before God, he would have easily understood the purport of that parable. But sin had darkened his judgment, and he recognized not the application of it unto himself. In such a state of spiritual deadness was David then in, that Nathan had to interpret his parable and say "Thou art the man." Verily, he had "gone astray like a lost sheep," and at that time the state of his heart differed little from the unconverted. Later, when his eyes were again opened and he was deeply convicted of his sins, He perceived that he had lapsed into a condition perilously close to and scarcely distinguishable from that of the unregenerate, for He cried "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (Ps. 51:10).
Does the reader now grasp more easily our meaning when we speak of the difficulty of being recovered from a spiritual relapse: the difficulty of one in that case becoming sensible of his woeful plight and the realization that he needs delivering from it? Sin darkens the understanding and renders the heart hard or insensible. As it is with the unregenerate sinner, so it is become—to a greater or less extent, and in extreme cases almost entirely—with the backslider. What is it that is the distinguishing mark of all who have never been born again? Not falling into gross and flagrant outward sin, for many of them are never guilty of that, but "having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness [margin, "hardness" or "insensibility"] of their heart." That is the Divine diagnosis of all who are "dead in trespasses and sins," and we have but to change "alienated from the life of God" to "severed from communion with God" and that solemn description accurately depicts the inward state of the backslider, though until God begins to recover him he will no more recognize his picture than David did when Nathan drew his.
It is much to be thankful for when a child of God becomes aware that he is in a spiritual decline, especially if he mourns over it. Such is rarely the case with an unregenerate professor, and never so on account of inward decay. A person who has always been weak and sickly knows not what it is to lack health and strength, for he never had experience of it; still less does one in the cemetery realize that he is totally devoid of life. But let one of robust constitution be laid upon a bed of sickness, and he is very definitely aware of the great change that has come over him. The reason why so many professing Christians are not troubled over any spiritual decline is because they never had any spiritual health, and therefore it would be a waste of time to treat with such about a recovery. If you should speak of their departure from God and loss of communion with Him, you would seem to them as Lot did to his sons-in-law when he expostulated with them—as one that "mocked" or made sport with them (Gen. 19:14), and would be laughed at for your pains. Never having experienced any love for Christ, it would be useless to urge them to return to the same.
It is much to be feared that is why these chapters on spiritual decline and recovery—so much needed today by many of the saints—will be almost meaningless, and certainly wearisome, to some of our readers. The real Christian will not dismiss them lightly, but rather will seek to faithfully measure himself by them, searching himself before God and being at some pains to ascertain the condition of his soul. But those who are content with a mere outward profession, will see little in them either of importance or interest. Such as perceive neither evil nor danger in their present condition, supposing that all is well with them because it is as good as it ever was, are the ones who most need to examine themselves as to whether the "root of the matter" was ever in them. And even those who have experienced something of "the power of godliness" but through carelessness are no longer making conscience of seeking to please the Lord in all things as they once did, are asleep in carnal security (which is hardly distinguishable from being dead in sin) if they be not exercised over their decline and anxious to be recovered from it.
The vast majority in Christendom today will acknowledge nothing as a decay in themselves. Rather are they like Ephraim: "Strangers have devoured his strength, and he knoweth it not," and hence it is added "they do not return unto the Lord their God, nor seek him for all this" (Hos. 7:9, 10). How is it with you, dear friend? Have you been able to maintain spiritual peace and joy in your soul?—for those are the inseparable fruits of a life of faith and an humble and daily walking with God. We mean not the fancies and imaginations of them, but the substance and reality: that peace which passeth all understanding and which "keeps" or "garrisons" the heart and mind; that joy which delights itself in the Lord and is "full of glory" (1 Peter 1:8). Does that peace stay your mind on God under trials and tribulations, or is it found wanting in the hour of testing? Is "the joy of the Lord your strength" (Neh. 8:10), so that it moves you to perform the duties of obedience with alacrity and pleasure, or is it merely a fickle emotion which exerts no steady power for good on your life? If you once enjoyed such peace and joy, but do so no longer, then you have suffered a spiritual decline.
Spirituality of mind and the exercise of a tender conscience in the performance of spiritual duties is another mark of health, for it is in those things grace is most requisite and operative. They are the very life of the new man and the animating principle of all spiritual actions, and without which all our performances are but "dead works." Our worship of God is but an empty show a horrible mockery, if we draw nigh to Him with our lips while our hearts are far from Him. But to keep the mind in a spiritual frame in our approaches to the Lord, to bless Him with "all that is within us," to keep our grace in vigorous exercise in all holy duties, is only possible while the health of the soul be maintained. Slothfulness, formality, weariness of the flesh, the business and cares of this life, the seductions and opposition of Satan, all contend against the Christian to frustrate him at that point; yet the grace of God is sufficient if it be duly sought. If you constantly "stir up yourself to take hold of God" (Isa. 64:7), if you habitually "set your face unto the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplication" (Dan. 9:3), that is evidence of spiritual health, but if the contrary be now your experience, then you have suffered a spiritual decline.
If you realize that things are not as flourishing with you now, either inwardly or outwardly, as they were formerly, that is a hopeful sign; yet it must not be rested in. Suffer not your heart one moment to be content with your present frame, for if you do there will follow a more marked deterioration. Satan will tell you there is nothing yet for you to be worried about, that there will be time enough for that when you fall into some outward sin. But he lies, Scripture says, "to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin" (James 4:17). You know it is good that you should return unto God and confess to Him your failures—even though those failures be more of omission than commission—but if you refuse to, that in itself is "sin." To be conscious of decline is the first step toward recovery, yet not sufficient in itself. There must also be a laying of it to heart, a sensibility of the evil of it, a mourning over it, for "godly sorrow worketh repentance" (2 Cor. 7:10). Yet neither is that sufficient: godly sorrow is not repentance itself, but only a means thereto. Moaning and groaning over our complaints, spiritual or natural, may relieve our feelings, but they will effect no cure.
Sensible of our decays, exercised at heart over them, we must now comply with God’s requirements for recovery if healing is to be obtained. And here too we shall experience difficulty. There are those who persuade themselves that it would be no hard matter to recover themselves from a state of backsliding, that they could easily do so if occasion required. But that is an entirely false notion.
There are many who think getting saved is one of the simplest things imaginable, but they are woefully mistaken. If nothing more were required from the sinner than an intellectual assent to the gospel no miracle of grace would be required in order to induce that. But before a stout-hearted rebel against God will throw down the weapons of his warfare, before one who is in love with sin can hate it, before one who lived only to please self will deny self, the exceeding greatness of God’s power must work upon him (Eph. 1:19). And so it is in restoration. If nothing more were required from the backslider than a lip acknowledgement of his offenses and a return to external duties, no great difficulty would be experienced; but to meet the requirements of God for recovery is a very different matter.
Rightly did John Owen affirm "Recovery from backsliding is the hardest task in the Christian religion: one which few make either comfortable or honorable work of." Yea, it is a task entirely beyond capabilities of any Christian. We cannot recover ourselves, and none but the great Physician can heal our backslidings. It is the operations of the Spirit of Christ which is the effectual cause of the revival under decays of grace. It is not by might nor by power, but by the Spirit of God that any wanderer is brought back. It is God who makes sensible of our deadness, and who causes us to make application to Him "wilt thou not revive us again, that thy people may rejoice in thee" (Ps. 85:6). And when that request has been granted, each of them will own with David "He restoreth my soul" (Ps. 23:3). Nevertheless, in this, too, our responsibility has to be discharged, for at no point does God treat with us as though we were mere automatons. There are certain duties He sets before us in this connection, specific requirements which He makes upon us, and until we definitely and earnestly set ourselves to the performance of the same, we have no warrant to look for deliverance.
Though the Holy Spirit alone can effect the much-to-be-desired change in the withered and barren believer, yet God has appointed certain means which are subservient to that end, and if we neglect those means then no wonder we have reason to complain and cry out "My leanness, my leanness, woe unto me! the treacherous dealers have dealt treacherously; yea, the treacherous dealers have dealt very treacherously" (Isa. 24:16), and therefore an alteration for the better cannot reasonably be expected. If we entertain hope of an improvement in our condition while we neglect the appointed means, our expectations will certainly issue in a sorrowful disappointment. Unless we be thoroughly persuaded of that, we shall remain inert. While we cherish the idea that we can do nothing, and must fatalistically wait a sovereign reviving from God, we shall go on waiting. But if we realize what God requires of us, it will serve to deepen our desires after a reviving and stimulate us unto a compliance with those things which we must do if He is to grant us showers of refreshment and a strengthening of those things in us which are ready to die. There has to be an asking, a seeking, a knocking, if the door of deliverance is to be opened to us.
It was not an Arminian, but a high Calvinist (John Brine, whose works received a most favorable review in the Gospel Standard of Oct. 1852) who wrote to God’s people two centuries ago: "Much labour and diligence are required unto this. It is not complaining of the sickly condition of our souls which will effect this cure: confession of our follies, that have brought diseases upon us, though repeated ever so often, will avail nothing towards the removal of them. If we intend the recovery of our former health and vigour, we must act as well as complain and groan. We must keep at a distance from those persons and those snares which have drawn us into instances of folly, which have occasioned that disorder which is the matter of our complaint. Without this we may multiply acknowledgements and expressions of concern for our past miscarriages to no purpose at all. It is very great folly to think of regaining our former strength so long as we embrace and daily with those objects through whose evil influence we are fallen into a spiritual decline. It is not our bewailing the pernicious effects of sin that will prevent its baneful influence upon us for time to come, except we are determined to forsake that to which is owing our melancholy disorder."
It is not nearly so simple to act on that counsel as many may imagine. Habits are not easily broken, nor objects relinquished which have obtained a powerful hold upon our affections. The natural man is wholly regulated and dominated by "the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life," and the only way in which their prevalence over a Christian is broken is by an unsparing mortification of those lusts. Just so soon as we become slack in denying self or in governing our affections and passions, alluring objects draw us to a dalliance with them, to the blighting of our spirituality, and recovery is impossible until we abandon such evil charmers. But just so far as they have obtained a hold upon us will be the difficulty of breaking from them. Difficult because it will be contrary to all our natural inclinations and pre-regenerate lives. "If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish and not thy whole body should be cast into hell" (Matthew 5:29). Christ did not teach that the mortifying of a favorite lust was a simple and painless matter.
As though His followers would be slow to take to heart that unpalatable injunction, the Lord Jesus went on to say, "And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish and not thy whole body should he east into hell." As the "eye" is our most precious member, so (especially to a laboring man) the "right hand" is the most useful and valuable one. By that figurative language Christ taught us that dearest idol must be renounced, our bosom lust mortified. No matter how pleasing be the object which would beguile us, it must be denied. Such a task would prove as hard and painful as the cutting off of an hand—they had no anesthetics in those days! But if men are willing to have a gangrened limb amputated to save their lives, why should we shrink from painful sacrifices unto the saving of our souls. Heaven and hell are involved by whether grace or our senses rule our souls: "You must not expect to enjoy the pleasures of earth and heaven too, and think to pass from Delilah’s lap into Abraham’s bosom" (T. Manton). That which is demanded of the Christian is far from being child’s play.
Again, "we must do the first works if we design a revival of our graces. This calls for humility and diligence, to both which our proud and slothful hearts are too much disinclined. We must be content to begin afresh, both to learn and practice, since through carelessness and sloth we are gone backward in knowledge and practice too. It sometimes is with the saints as with school boys, who by their negligence are so far from improvement, that they have almost forgotten the rudiments of a language or an art they have begun to learn; in which case it is necessary that they must make a new beginning: this suits not with pride, but unto it they must submit. So the Christian sometimes has need of being taught again what are the first principles of the oracles of God, when for the time he has been in the school of Christ his improvement ought to be such as would fit him for giving instruction to others in these plain and easy principles. But through negligence he has let them slip, and he must content to pass through the very same lessons of conviction, sorrow, humiliation and repentance he learned long since of the Holy Spirit: whatever we think of the matter, a revival cannot be without it" (Brine). It is that humbling of our pride which makes recovery so difficult to a backslider.
Now we shall consider its conditionality, or those things on which it is suspended (a term which will hardly please some of our readers, yet it is the correct one to use in this connection; but since various writers have used the term in different ways, it is requisite that we explain the sense in which we have employed it). When we say there are certain conditions which an erring saint must fulfill before he can be restored to fellowship with God, we do not use the term in a legalistic sense or mean that there is anything meritorious in his performances. It is not that God strikes a bargain, offering to bestow certain blessings in return for things done by us, but rather that He has appointed a certain order, a connection between one thing and another, and that, for the maintaining of His honor, the holiness of His government, and the enforcing of our responsibility. In all His dealings with us God acts in grace, but His grace ever reigns "through righteousness," and never at the expense of it.
"He that covereth his sins shall not prosper, but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy" (Prov. 28:13). Now there is nothing meritorious in confessing and forsaking sins, nothing which gives title to mercy, but God requires them from us, and we have no warrant to expect mercy without them. That verse expresses the order of things which God has established, a holy order, so that Divine mercy is exercised without any connivance at sin, exercised in a way wherein we take sides with Him in the hatred of our sins. As health of body is conditioned or suspended upon the eating of suitable food or the healing of it upon partaking of certain remedies, so it is with the soul: there is a definite connection between the two things—food and strength: the one must be received in order to the other. In like manner forgiveness of sins is promised only to those who repent and believe. Whether you term repenting and believing "conditions," "means," "instruments," or "the way of" amounts to the same thing, for they simply signify they are what God requires from us before He bestows forgiveness—requires not as a price at our hands, but by way of congruity.
Some may ask, But has not God promised, "I will heal their backslidings" (Hos. 14:4)? To which we reply, Yes, yet that promise is not an absolute or unconditional one as the context plainly shows. In the verses preceding God calls upon them to "return" unto Him because they had fallen by their iniquity. He bids them "Take with you words, and turn to the Lord; say unto him, Take away all iniquity." Moreover, they pledge themselves to reformation of conduct: "neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods" (vv. 1-3). Thus it is unto penitent and confessing souls, who abandon their idols, that promise is made. God does indeed "heal our backslidings" yet not without our concurrence, not without the humbling of ourselves before Him, not without our complying with his holy requirements. God does indispensably demand certain things of us in order to the enjoyment of certain blessings. "If we confess our Sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). That "if" expresses the condition, or reveals the connection which God has appointed between our defilement and His removal of it.
We are therefore going to point out what are the "conditions" of recovery from a spiritual decline, or what are the "means" of restoration for a backslider, or what is the "way of" deliverance for one who is departed from God. Before turning to specific cases recorded in Scripture, let us again call attention to Proverbs 28:13. First, "he that covereth his sins shall not prosper." To "cover" our sins is a refusing to bring them out into the light by an honest confessing of them unto God; or to hide them from our fellows or refuse to acknowledge offenses to those we have wronged. While such be the case, there can be no prosperity of soul, no communion with God or his people. Second, "but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy." To confess means to freely, frankly, and penitently own them unto God, and to our fellows if our sins have been against them. To "forsake" our sins is a voluntary and deliberate act: it signifies to loathe and abandon them in our affections, to repudiate them by our wills, to refuse to dwell upon them in our minds and imaginations with any pleasure or satisfaction.
But suppose the believer does not promptly thus confess and forsake his sins? In such case not only will he "not prosper," not only can there now be no further spiritual growth, but peace of conscience and joy of heart will depart from him. The Holy Spirit is "grieved" and He will withhold His comforts. And suppose that does not bring him to his senses, then what? Let the ease of David furnish answer: "When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer" (Ps. 32:3, 4). The "bones" are the strength and upholders of the bodily frame, and when used figuratively the "waxing of them old" signifies that vigor and support of the soul is gone, so that it sinks into anguish and despair. Sin is a pestilential thing which saps our vitality. Though David was silent as to confession, he was not so as to sorrow. God’s hand smote his conscience and afflicted his spirit so that he was made to groan under His rod. He had no rest by day or night: sin haunted him in his dreams and he awoke unrefreshed. Like one in a drought he was barren and fruitless. Not until he turned to the Lord in contrite confession was there any relief for him.
Let us turn now to an experience suffered by Abraham that illustrates our present subject, though few perhaps have considered it as a case of spiritual relapse. Following upon his full response to the Lord’s call to enter the land of Canaan, we are told that "the Lord appeared unto Abram" (Gen. 12:7). So it is now: "He that hath my commandments and keepeth them, he that it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him" (John 14:21). It is not to the self-willed and self-pleasing, but to the obedient one that the Lord draws near in the intimacies of His love and makes Himself a reality and satisfying portion. The "manifestation" of Christ to the soul should be a daily experience, and if it is not, then our hearts ought to be deeply exercised before him. If there is not the regular "appearing of the Lord," it must be because we have wandered from the path of obedience,
Next we are told of the patriarch’s response to the Lord’s "appearing and the precious promise He then made him: "and there He built an altar unto the Lord." The altar speaks of worship—the heart’s pouring of itself forth in adoration and praise. That order is unchanging: occupation of the soul with Christ, beholding (with the eyes of faith) the King in his beauty, is what alone will bow us before Him in true worship. Next, "and he removed from thence unto a mountain" (Gen. 12:8). Spiritually speaking the "mountain" is a figure of elevation of spirit, soaring above the level in which the world lies, the affections being set upon things above. It tells of a heart detached from this scene attracted to and absorbed by Him who has passed within the veil. Is it not written "they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength: they shall mount up with wings as eagles" (Isa. 40:31)? And how may this "mountain" experience be maintained? Is such a thing possible? We believe it is, and at it we should constantly aim, not being content with anything that falls short of it. The answer is revealed in what immediately follows.
"And pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west and Hai on the east. The "tent" is the symbol of the stranger, of one who has no home or abiding-place in the scene which cast out of it the Lord of glory. We never read that Abram built him any "house" in Canaan (as Lot occupied one in Sodom!); no, he was but a "sojourner" and his tent was the sign and demonstration of this character. "And there he builded all altar unto the Lord": from this point onwards two things characterized him, his "tent" and his "altar"—12:8; 13:3, 4; 13:18. In each of those passages the "tent" is mentioned first, for we cannot truly and acceptably worship God on high unless we maintain our character as sojourners here below. That is why the exhortation is made, "Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul" (1 Peter 2:11) and so quench the spirit of worship. Are we conducting ourselves as those who are "partakers of the heavenly calling" (Heb. 3:1)—do our manners, our dress, our speech evidence the same to others?
Ah, dear reader, do we not find right there the explanation of why it is that a "mountain" experience is so little enjoyed and still less maintained by us! Is it not because we descended to the plains, came down to the level of empty professors and white-washed worldlings, set our affection upon things below, and in consequence became "conformed to this world"? If we really be Christ’s, He has "delivered us [judicially] from this present evil world" (Gal. 1:4) and therefore our hearts and lives should be separated from it in a practical way. Our Home is on high and that fact ought to mold every detail of our lives. Of Abram and his fellow saints it is recorded they "confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (Heb. 11:13)—"confessed’ it by their lives as well as lips, and it is added "wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God" (v. 16). But alas, too many now are afraid to be considered "peculiar," and to escape criticism and ostracism compromise, hide their light under a bushel, come down to the level of the world.
The young Christian might well suppose that one who was in the path of obedience, who was going on whole-heartedly with God, who was a man of the "tent" and the "altar" would be quite immune from any fall. So he will be while he maintains that relationship and attitude: but it is, alas, very easy for him to relax a little and gradually depart from it. Not that such a departure is to be expected, or excused on the ground that since the flesh remains in the believer it is only to be looked for that it will not be long ere it unmistakably manifests itself. Not so: "He that saith he abideth in him, ought himself also so to walk even as He walked" (1 John 2:6). Full provision has been made by God for him to do so. "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof" (Rom. 6:12). But Abram did suffer a relapse, a serious one, and as it is profitable for us to observe and take to heart the various steps which preceded Peter’s open denial of Christ, so is it to ponder and turn into earnest supplication that which befell the patriarch before he "went down into Egypt."
First, we are told "and Abram journeyed" (v. 9), nor is it said that he had received any order from God to move his tent from the place where he was in, communion with Him. That by itself would not be conclusive, but in the light of what follows it seems to indicate plainly that a spirit of restlessness had now seized him, and restlessness, my reader, indicates we are no longer content with our lot. The solemn thing to observe is that the starting point in the path of Abram’s decline was that he left Bethel, and Bethel means "the house of God"—the place of fellowship with Him. All that follows is recorded as a warning of what we may expect if we leave "Bethel." Abram’s leaving Bethel was the root of his failures, and in the sequel we are shown the bitter fruit which sprang from it. That was the place which Peter left, for he followed Christ "afar off." That was the place which the Ephesian backslider forsook: "thou hast left thy first love." The day we become lax in maintaining communion with God, the door is opened for many evils to enter the soul.
"And Abram journeyed." The Hebrew is more expressive and emphatic. Literally it reads "And Abram journeyed, in going and journeying." A restless spirit possessed him, which was a sure sign that communion with God was broken. I am bidden to "rest in the Lord" (Ps. 37:6), but I can only do so as long as I "delight myself also in the Lord" (v. 4). But, second, it is recorded of Abram: "going on still toward the south" (Gen. 12:9), and southward was Egyptward! Most suggestive and solemnly accurate is that line in the picture. Turning Egyptward is ever the logical outcome of leaving Bethel and becoming possessed of a restless spirit, for in the Old Testament Egypt is the outstanding symbol of the world. If the believer’s heart be right with his Redeemer he can say "Thou O Christ art all I want, more than all in thee I find." But if Christ no longer fully absorbs him, then some other object will be sought. No Christian gets right back into the world at a single step. Nor did Abram: he "journeyed toward the south" before he entered Egypt!
Third, "and there was a famine in the land" (v. 10). Highly significant was that! A trial of his faith, says someone, Not at all: rather a showing of the red light—God’s danger-signal of what lay ahead. It was a searching call for the patriarch to pause and "consider his ways." Faith needs no trials when it is in normal and healthy exercise: it is when it has become encrusted with dross that the fire is necessary to purge it. There was no famine at Bethel. Of course not: there is always fulness of provision there. The analogy of Scripture is quite against a "famine" being sent for the testing of faith: see Genesis 26:1; Ruth 11; 2 Samuel 22:1, etc.—in each case the famine was a Divine judgment. Christ is the Bread of Life, and to wander from Him necessarily brings famine to the soul. It was when the restless son went into the "far country" that he "began to be in want" (Luke 15). This famine, then, was a message of providence that God was displeased with Abram. So we should regard unfavorable providences: they are a call from God to examine ourselves and try our ways.
"And Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there" (v. 10), and thus it is with many of his children. Instead of being "exercised" by God’s chastenings (Heb. 12:11), as they should be, they treat them as a matter of course, as part of the inevitable troubles which man is born unto; and thus "despise" them (Heb. 12:5) and derive no good from them. Alas, the average Christian instead of being "exercised" (in conscience and mind) under God’s rod, rather does he ask, How may I most easily and quickly get from under it? If illness comes upon me, instead of turning to the Lord and asking "Show me wherefore thou contendest with me" (Job 10:4), they send for the doctor, which is seeking relief from Egypt. Abram had left Bethel and one who is out of communion with God cannot trust Him with his temporal affairs, but turns instead to all arm of flesh. Observe well the "Woe" which God has denounced upon those who go down into Egypt—turn to the world—for help (Isa. 30:1, 2).
We cannot now dwell upon what is recorded in Genesis 12:11-13, though it is unspeakably tragic. As soon as Abram drew near to Egypt, he began to be afraid. The dark shadows of that land fell across his soul before he actually entered it. He was sadly occupied with self. Said he to his wife, "They will kill me . . . say, I pray thee, that thou art my sister, that it may be well with me. How true it is that "the backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways" (Prov. 14:14)! Fearful of his own safety, Abram asked his wife to repudiate her marriage to him. Abram was afraid to avow his true relationship. This is always what follows when a saint goes down into Egypt: he at once begins to equivocate. When he fellowships with the world he dare not fly his true colors, but compromises. So far from Abram being made a blessing to the Egyptians, he became a "great plague" to them (v. 17); and in the end they "sent him away." What a humiliation!
"And Abram went up out of Egypt: he, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the south." Did he remain in that dangerous district? No, for "he went on in his journeys from the south." Observe that he received no directions so to act. They were not necessary: his conscience told him what to do! "He went on in his journeys from the south, even to Bethel, unto the place where his tent had been at the beginning . . . unto the place of the altar, which he had made there at the first; and there Abram called on the name of the Lord" (13:1-4). He again turned his back upon the world: he retraced his steps; he returned to his pilgrim character and his altar. And note well, dear reader, it was "there Abram called on the name of the Lord." It had been a waste of time, a horrible mockery for him to have done so while he was "down in Egypt." The Holy One will not hearken to us while we are sullying His name by our carnal walk. It is "holy hands" (1 Tim. 2:8), or at least penitent ones, which must be "lifted up if we are to receive spiritual things from Him.
The case of Abram then sets before us in clear and simple language the way of recovery for a backslider. Those words "unto the place where his tent had been at the beginning" inculcate the same requirement as "teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God" (Heb. 5:12), and "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works" (Rev. 2:5). Our sinful failure must be judged by us: we must condemn ourselves unsparingly for the same: we must contritely confess it to God: we must "forsake" it, resolving to have nothing further to do with those persons or things which occasioned our lapse. Yet something more than that is included in the "do the first works": there must be renewed actings of faith on Christ—typified by Abram’s return to "the altar." We must come to the Saviour as we first came to Him—as sinners, as believing sinners, trusting in the merits of His sacrifice and the cleansing efficacy of His blood, We must doubt not His willingness to receive and pardon us.
It is one of the devices of Satan that, after he has succeeded in drawing a soul away from God and entangled him in the net of his corruptions, to persuade him that the prayer of faith, in his circumstances, would be highly presumptuous, and that it is much more modest for him to stand aloof from God and His people. Now if by "faith" were meant—as some would seem to understand—a persuading of ourselves that having trusted in the finished work of Christ all is well with us forever, that would indeed be presumptuous. But sorrow for sin and betaking ourselves unto that Fountain which has been opened for sin and for uncleanness (Zech. 13:1) is never out of season: coming to Christ in our wretchedness and acting faith upon Him to heal our loathsome diseases, both becomes us and honors Him. The greater our sin has been, the greater reason is there that we should confess it to God and seek forgiveness in the name of the Mediator. If our case be such that we feel we cannot do so as saints, we certainly ought to do so as sinners, as David did in Psalm 51—a Psalm which has been recorded to furnish believers with instruction when they get into such a plight.
This is the only way in which it is possible to find rest unto our souls. As there is none other Name given under heaven among men by which we can be saved, so neither is there any other by which a backsliding saint can be restored. Whatever be the nature or the extent of our departure from God, there is ho other way of return to Him but by the Mediator. Whatever be the wounds sin has inflicted upon our souls, there is no other remedy for them but the precious blood of the Lamb. If we have no heart to repent and return to God by Jesus Christ, then we are yet in our sins, and may expect to reap the fruits of them. Scripture has no counsel short of that. We have many encouragements to do so. God is of exceeding great and tender mercy, and willing to forgive all who return to Him in the name of His Son: though our sins he as scarlet, the atoning blood of Christ is able to cleanse them. There is "plenteous redemption" with Him. As Abram, David, Jonah, and Peter were restored, so may I, so may you be restored.