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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