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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