Monthly Archives: October 2014

Week 3 of 9 in Winslow: Declension In Faith

This week’s assignment in Octavius Winslow’s book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, is chapter 3, “Declension in Faith”.

I like what Winslow had to say on this matter, but the way he said it reminded me that we aren’t reading a Puritan, on this excursion into the nineteenth century before jumping into the sixteenth century with Calvin’s Institutes next year. If a Puritan had written on this topic, we would have encountered the commonly used terms for the various aspects of faith, a categorization which Winslow eschewed at the outset in favor of an approach that could be construed as something akin to wanting to have “no creed but the Bible” (bold emphasis added to highlight such sentiment):

It may be proper to state, that the authors of systems of divinity have generally classified the subject of faith. They speak of speculative faith, — of historical faith, — practical faith, — saving faith, — realizing faith. But as these distinctions serve only to mystify the subject and perplex the mind, and frequently lead to great errors, we set them aside, preferring and adopting the simple nomenclature of the inspired word, which can never perplex or mislead the humble disciple of Jesus.

Winslow then went on to define faith as follows:

What is faith? Briefly and simply, it is that act of the understanding and the heart by which a repenting sinner – a sinner under the mighty operation of the Eternal Spirit, convincing him of sin, and working in him true contrition – closes in with God’s free proclamation of pardon through a crucified Saviour: he believes, he receives, he welcomes the promise of eternal life through the Lord Jesus Christ, and thus ‘sets his seal that God is true.’

Comparing Winslow’s definition to that of the WCF chapter 14 we see that his definition is consistent with saving faith, as defined therein:

  • The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the word: by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.
  • By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.
  • This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed and weakened, but gets the victory; growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

I like the WCF definition of saving faith, and identifying it as a definition of saving faith serves to clarify the subject rather than mystify it, Winslow’s objections notwithstanding. Winslow’s aversion to systematic theology here is a bit frustrating, and his subsequent handling of this topic without regard to common theological reference points leaves the reader to discern which aspect of faith is being addressed as the author shifts from saving or subjective faith to assurance to encouragements to persevere in the faith (objective and subjective faith). Since this is the first thing I have ever read by Winslow, I can’t draw conclusions in regard to a general aversion to systematic theology or creeds on his part, so I share the following analogy (shared by a friend) in regard to that tendency, wherever it surfaces.

Suppose you went into a restaurant and asked to see a menu. The waiter comes back in a few minutes and hands you a sheet of paper on which you expect to have a list of main courses, desserts, and drinks, but instead you encounter a list of ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, lettuce, etc. You suggest to your server that there must be some mistake. You need a menu, not a list of ingredients. The server tells you, however, that the chef of the establishment can’t be constrained to prepare a list of dishes that may be prepared in the kitchen, because the chef has to be free to make whatever comes to mind at any given moment. Having the chef go to the trouble of making a list of final dishes to be sold is too complex, liable to lead to misunderstanding, and prone to errors when things don’t turn out as planned. By giving a list of ingredients, you see, anything goes because there is no standard by which to evaluate the final result of whatever the chef cooks.  Consequently, any customer of this establishment never can know what to expect.

I have no intention of turning this into a polemic for the need for and appropriateness of confessions, so I will end this thread here simply by pointing out that everyone has a creed. Some are written down, and others are worn “under the hat,” so to speak. Scripture is the authority (sola scriptura), but it is necessary to know what one thinks the Bible teaches about Jesus, God, salvation, etc.  Simply saying “I believe the Bible” doesn’t clarify very much. Many in the cults will say the same thing, but the Jesus they believe in is not the Jesus of the Bible. And if the Jesus or God a person believes in isn’t consistent with the one in the Bible, then he isn’t worshipping the one true God, and that isn’t a realization one wants to make at the end of the road.

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Week 2 of 9 in Winslow: Declension in Love (for God)

This week’s assignment in Octavius Winslow’s book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, is chapter 2, “Declension in Love”.

Winslow puts the reader on notice that this declension and the ones described in subsequent chapters are overt in nature, wherein concealment is impossible to those who are spiritually discerning.  Sadly, however, these conditions may be concealed to the backslider himself, who is blinded, even voluntarily to a degree, by his infatuation with sin.  As Winslow phrased it:

Just as in the physical frame, a slight sinking in the heart’s pulsation, even though the seat of disease is invisible, may be traced in the external symptoms that ensue; so, in the spiritual man, when there is a secret unhealthiness of soul, the effects are so marked in their character as to leave no doubt of its existence. The man may not himself be sensible of his backsliding state; he may wrap himself up in the fearful deception that all is well, close his eyes voluntarily against his real state, disguise from himself the rapidly advancing disease, crying ‘peace, peace,’ and putting far off the evil day; but with a spiritual and advancing believer, one whose eye is keen to detect an unfavourable symptom, and whose touch is skilful to mark a sickly pulse, the case is involved in no mystery. (bold emphasis added)

It is one thing to be sick and to realize it, but quite insidious to have a disease of such a nature that the one who has it doesn’t realize it and consequently sees no need of a cure. Such is the case where love for God has waned, as identified by Winslow in the fourth mark of declension in love:

When there is but little inclination for communion with God, and the throne of grace is sought as a duty rather than a privilege, and, consequently, but little fellowship is experienced, a stronger evidence we need not of a declension of love in the soul.  The more any object is to us a source of sweet delight and contemplation, the more strongly do we desire its presence, and the more restless are we in its absence.  The friend we love we want constantly at our side; the spirit goes out in longings for communion with him, — his presence sweetens, his absence embitters, every other joy.  Precisely true is this of God.  He who knows God, who, with faith’s eye, has discovered some of his glory, and by the power of the Spirit has felt something of his love, will not be at a loss to distinguish between God’s sensible presence and absence in the soul. Some professing people walk so much without communion, without fellowship, without daily filial and close intercourse with God; they are so immersed in the cares, and so lost in the fogs and mists of the world; the fine edge of their spiritual affection is so blunted, and their love so frozen by contact with worldly influences and occupations, — and no less so, with cold, formal professors, — that the Sun of righteousness may cease to shine upon their soul, and they not know it! (bold emphasis added)

Due to recent events, I can’t help thinking of parallels between this oblivion to a person’s spiritual condition and that of someone who contracts the Ebola virus and remains unaware for up to twenty-one days of the incubation period.  A more biblical illustration of the nature of sin is that of leprosy, the epitome of uncleanness. Initial infections with leprosy may take up to twenty years before becoming symptomatic. Physical leprosy involves a loss of feeling, an insensitivity to pain, which can result in mutilation of the body due to repeated injuries.  We find a parallel in spiritual matters as well: The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble. (Prov. 4:19, ESV)

This world’s initial “infection” with this wickedness goes way back to the garden of Eden, when Adam rebelled and became a transgressor (knowing full well his overstepping the line).  Now we are to the point in our society today that despite all the talk about human rights, no one knows what it is to be human (i.e., image bearers of God).  But He alone remains the life giver and source of all that is good, the one in Him we live and move and have our bearing.  Consequently true happiness is found only in communion with Him.  The sooner we know this, and Him, the better. Then we can say from the heart with the Psalmist:  You have said, ‘Seek my face,’  My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek.’  (Psa. 27:8, ESV)

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Week 1 of 9 in Winslow: Incipient Declension

This week we take up our new selection, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul by Octavius Winslow (1808-1878; biographical sketch available at http://octaviuswinslow.org/biography/).

As is often the case, one book will refer you to another, and I was turned on to this work by Winslow via Joel Beeke’s book, Getting Back in the Race: The Cure for Backsliding. At the mention of backsliding today, one usually thinks of egregious lapses into sin, such as David’s sin with Bathsheba.  However, in the opening chapter Winslow makes it apparent that he has a much smaller threshold in mind as he focuses on the ‘backslider in heart’ (Prov. 14:14), visible only to the eye of the Lord.  The aim of Winslow’s work is to enable his reader to see himself in his true condition as the Lord does, in order to avail himself of the only remedy to the situation.

Winslow makes four assertions at the outset of chapter one which will be helpful to keep in mind throughout the book.  First, he notes that the tendency in the heart to secret, perpetual, and alarming departure from God is grounds for the deepest self-abasement before Him.  I would add that this tendency is rooted in indwelling sin found in all believers (as found in Rom. 7:23, for example).  Like the Puritans, Winslow apparently held that Paul was describing the believer’s experience in Romans 7:14f (not a man in transition or under conviction prior to conversion).  While the Puritans were unanimous in this interpretation of Rom. 7:14f (according to Joel Beeke), modern commentators are far from it.  Consult three commentaries today and you may come away with five or six interpretations!  So I saw this opening assertion as a beacon, informing of the author’s stance on a key doctrine very relevant to the topic being addressed, and should be considered the primary cause for such declension.

In his second assertion, Winslow presents the reader with a secondary contributing factor to declension of religion in the soul, namely, a faulty view of the graces of the Spirit.  Here Winslow alluded to the teaching that Jesus is the vine, and believers are the branches, when he observed that graces are not self-sustaining but constant communications of life and nourishment from the Lord. This should remind us all that the means of grace (prayer, preaching of the Word, sacraments) are vital to the spiritual well-being of every believer, and that we must seek daily to abide in him.  Being cognizant of our utter dependence on him in everything will go a long way toward making daily “devotions” a diligent seeking of his face.

Winslow’s third assertion is that true grace is indestructible, and hence can never die, but may decay.  I’m sad to say, however, that by the end of the chapter, Winslow started to use terms which made it seem that he was contradicting himself.  For example, in making this third assertion at the outset, Winslow stated:

“In the lowest stage of spiritual declension, in the feeblest state of grace, there is a life that never dies.  In the midst of all his startings aside, the ebb and the flow, the wandering and the restoring, the believer in Jesus is ‘kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.’  He cannot utterly fall; he cannot finally be lost. The immutability of God keeps him, — the covenant of grace keeps him, — the finished work of Jesus keeps him, — the indwelling of the Spirit keeps him, and keeps him to eternal glory.” 

Then toward the end of the chapter where Winslow provides eight directions for the revival of Divine life I the soul of the believer, the sixth one he presents is what he calls a “fresh baptism of the Holy Ghost”:

“But that which forms the great secret of all personal revival is yet to be disclosed; we allude to a fresh baptism of the Holy Ghost.  This a declining soul needs more than all beside.  Possessing this in a large degree, he possesses every spiritual blessing: it includes, and is the pledge of every other.”

In support of this direction, Winslow cited the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, which really opens a big can of worms, and the author leaves the reader to struggle to make sense of it all by himself.  When I first read this work by Winslow, this passage caused my antennas to go up, wondering if much would be made of this going forward.  If this theme had become prominent, I would not have suggested this selection.  As it is, Winslow doesn’t really elaborate very much, and herein lies the contradiction with pretty much everything else he says in the book, apart from a couple of other references to being ‘re-converted’ in chapter one as well.

So before considering the fourth assertion that Winslow makes at the outset, I want to take a little time here to deal with the can of worms he opened at the end of chapter one, and how it contradicts the teaching found in the immediate and larger context of the book.

Whenever you encounter historical narrative in Scripture, you must be careful not to assume that everything described is normative for today.  In other words, you cannot read Acts the way you read Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians.  Some traditions today (Pentecostals and Catholics) interpret Pentecost to be describing a two-stage entry into the fullness of the Spirit, with the two, separate stages being: 1) regeneration by the Spirit, and 2) baptism with the Spirit.  Others (Reformed included) do not think that the experience at Pentecost is normative for today, but rather is a redemptive-historical event to be interpreted eschatologically and Christologically due to its once-for-all character.  I refer the interested reader to an excellent book by Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit: Contours of Christian Theology, chapter four in particular titled “Pentecost Today?” (http://www.christianbook.com/the-holy-spirit-contours-christian-theology/sinclair-ferguson/9780830815364/pd/0815368?event=ESRCG).

By referring to the “baptism of the Spirit” along with “re-conversion” Winslow presents his reader with an inconsistent and contradictory description of the nature of salvation and the indwelling of the Spirit.  Early on, as cited above, he describes an indwelling Spirit that keeps the believer come what may. But by the end of the chapter, he prescribes a “fresh baptism of the Holy Ghost” as the great secret of all personal revival.  It is always at points such as this when I lament the fact that this is the Dead Theologians Society, because I would love to be able to write the author and ask him exactly what he was thinking, and which is it?  If the Spirit never departs, what’s all this stuff about a fresh baptism, and re-conversion? Are we talking about a situation of being mostly alive, alive-alive, dead-dead, or mostly dead?  In Joel Beeke’s handling of this subject, he said a returning backslider may feel as if he is being converted all over again, but of course he is not reconverted, because conversion only happens once.

As it is, one must suspend judgment until the author’s work is considered in its entirety.  Having read the whole thing on my Kindle (even though that doesn’t really seem to count as having truly read a book), I regard these passages in chapter one to be largely out of keeping with the author’s overall handling of this important subject, and hence are oversights, blind spots, and chinks in his armor.  In light of what is coming, I gladly cut him some slack here.  It is rare that one ever agrees with all that an author has to say, and I am even going to disagree with Calvin on a few points when we get into the Institutes next year, Lord willing!

This brings us to the Winslow’s fourth assertion at the outset of chapter one, which is that no child of God ever recedes into a state of inward declension and outward backsliding but by slow and gradual steps.  To this I would add the corollary truth that the return from backsliding also is by slow and gradual steps, and that Winslow bears this out in chapters two through six!  In our day of instant everything, we want every problem resolved instantaneously, but it rarely works that way in the physical world, and it certainly doesn’t work that way in the spiritual world as it pertains to sanctification.  Did Paul prescribe the baptism of the Holy Spirit as the immediate answer to the issues facing the church at Galatia?  Ephesus?  Rome?  Philippi?  Corinth?  I think not.  Instead we find him commanding the Galatians to “walk by the Spirit” so that they will not gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).  He commanded the Ephesians to walk in unity (4:1-16), holiness (4:17-32), love (5:1-6), light (5:7-14), and wisdom (5:15-6:9), and to put on the full armor of God (6:10-20).  He urged the Romans to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom. 12:1-2).  He told the Philippians to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling because God was at work in them both to will and to do according to his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).  In light of the precious and exceedingly great promises of God, Paul exhorted the Corinthians to bring holiness to completion in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1).  He used metaphors of sowing and reaping to represent the faithful and arduous effort involved in living the Christian life, of fighting the good fight, by the strength which he alone provides as we seek him.

We, however, want the quick fix, and so it has always been.  In Psalm 126:4 we find this very request: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!” Streams in the Negeb mean flash floods that instantly transform barren, scorched land into an oasis.  The next verse reveals God’s usual way of working, however:  “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!”  I’m indebted to Alec Motyer for pointing out this contrast in the New Bible Commentary, and how this metaphor of sowing and reaping aligns with God’s plan of things (Phil. 1:9-11; James 5:7-8; Rev. 14:14-16).  If you don’t have a copy of the New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, I commend it to you.  Motyer’s commentary on the Psalms alone is worth the entire purchase price (available at http://www.wtsbooks.com/new-bible-commentary-gordon-wenham-9780830814428).

Winslow’s subsequent treatment in the rest of the book falls in line, best I can recall, with a sowing and reaping paradigm, and I look forward to what lies ahead.  Take up and read!

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Week 8 of 8 in Bunyan: A Wonderfully Glorious Conclusion

This final assignment (paragraphs 300-339 & Conclusion) in Grace Abounding takes us within sight of the Celestial City, whereby we discover clearer views of ourselves and greater longings to enjoy unbroken communion with our dear Savior.

The last two paragraphs in the Conclusion afford us such inspiring vistas, in the form of seven abominations magnificently ordered by God’s wisdom for the saint’s good far beyond what anyone would ever imagine possible:

  1. I find to this day seven abominations in my heart: (1) Inclinings to unbelief. (2) Suddenly to forget the love and mercy that Christ manifesteth. (3) A leaning to the works of the law. (4) Wanderings and coldness in prayer. (5) To forget to watch for that I pray for. (6) Apt to murmur because I have no more, and yet ready to abuse what I have. (7) I can do none of those things which God commands me, but my corruptions will thrust in themselves, ‘When I would do good, evil is present with me.’  
  2. These things I continually see and feel, and am afflicted and oppressed with; yet the wisdom of God doth order them for my good. (1) They make me abhor myself. (2) They keep me from trusting my heart. (3) They convince me of the insufficiency of all inherent righteousness. (4) They show me the necessity of fleeing to Jesus. (5) They press me to pray unto God. (6) They show me the need I have to watch and be sober. (7) And provoke me to look to God, through Christ, to help me, and carry me through this world. Amen.

It seems that Bunyan is ending with a seven-fold exposition of the illustration he employed in the preface addressed to his children:

I have sent you here enclosed, a drop of that honey, that I have taken out of the carcase of a lion (Judg. 14:5-9). I have eaten thereof myself also, and am much refreshed thereby.  (Temptations, when we meet them at first, are as the lion that roared upon Samson; but if we overcome them, the next time we see them, we shall find a nest of honey within them.)  The Philistines understand me not.

I think it was Thomas Brooks in Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices who cited someone by the name of Hooper as saying:  “Lord, I am hell, but you are heaven.”  The believer who, by grace, comes to perceive the plague of his heart will heartily agree with Hooper’s assessment as well as Bunyan’s, and those lessons well-learned will send the soul regularly to Jesus, emptied of all self-righteousness and resolutions to do better; for apart from Him, we can do nothing.  So it isn’t surprising that the person who knows himself and his desperate, daily need of the Savior becomes keenly aware of the need for prayer.

I remember how John Piper (sorry for the citation of a current author on this dead theologians blog!) compared prayer to air support.  Ground troops on the battlefield call in air support via walkie-talkies.  The “shock and awe” that the air support brings is stunning.  So it is when the humble soul calls upon the Lord for aid against enemies too strong for him.  The strongest believer is no match for either the flesh, the world, or Satan, much less all three combined, wherein is the saint’s constant conflict.  And the “shock and awe” that ensues in response to prayers for aid all flow from Mount Zion, which Bunyan also referred to in paragraph 5 of the Conclusion:

  1. Of all tears, they are the best that are made by the blood of Christ; and of all joy, that is the sweetest that is mixed with mourning over Christ. Oh! it is a goodly thing to be on our knees, with Christ in our arms, before God. I hope I know something of these things.

I hope I know something of these things as well, although far more infrequently than I would like.  It is truly a taste of heaven to be simultaneously so convicted of sin and so assured of the forgiveness and acceptance of God that tears of joy flow profusely down the face and all you can say is GLORY as His presence seems to saturate the heart.  At times like that, one can enthusiastically join John Newton’s retort in the face of every accusing dart hurled by the evil one:

Bowed down beneath a load of sin,
By Satan sorely pressed,
By war without and fears within,
I come to Thee for rest.

Be Thou my Shield and hiding Place,
That, sheltered by Thy side,
I may my fierce accuser face,
And tell him Thou hast died!

Glory be to Him, through whom grace is ever abounding!

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