Category Archives: Octavius Winslow – Personal Declension & Revival In the Soul

Week 9 of 9 in Winslow: The Lord, the Keeper of His People

Sadly we come to our last assignment in Octavius Winslow’s book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, in chapter 9, “The Lord, the Keeper of His People”.

Puritan writers tell us that one test of sound theology is whether it leads to the worship and praise and glory of God. Our author certainly passes that test here, increasingly so towards the end of the book. I’m saddened, as usual, at this point when we have to part company, so to speak, with this dear elder brother and put his book back on the shelf (temporarily at least, it’s a keeper). In his parting admonition Winslow wisely points us to the great Shepherd of the sheep by closing with Jude 24-25, reminding us of the one who is able to keep us from stumbling, and who never forsakes us.  So we have great consolation.

I love the progression Winslow used in making his case as to why the believer needs the Lord as his keeper. He listed some solemn and affecting examples which prove the utter inability of every creature to keep itself: the fallen angels, the first Adam, and some illustrious saints in Scripture. Last but not least he cited the sad experience of every believer:

“But why speak of others? Let the reader, if he is a professing child of God, pause and survey the past of his own life. What marks of perfect weakness may he discover; what evidences of his own fickleness, folly, immature judgment, may he trace; what outbreakings of deep iniquity; what disclosures of hidden corruption; what startling symptoms of the most awful departure and apostasy from God, does the review present! And this, too, let it be remembered, is the history of a believer in Jesus, a renewed child of God, a partaker of the Divine nature, an expectant of eternal glory! Holy and blessed are they who, as they read and lay aside this book, shall relinquish all their fond conceit of self-power, and of self-keeping, and shall pray, and cease not to pray, ‘Lord, hold thou me up, and I shall be safe!’ ‘Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.’

Winslow went on to catalog some of the ways the Lord brings believers to know “their perfect weakness and insufficiency to keep themselves,” and the last one he referred to as “the great school”, citing Romans 7:18-20, 24:

“But the great school in which we learn this painful, yet needed and wholesome lesson, is in the body of sin which we daily bear about with us. It was here Paul learned his lesson, as the seventh chapter of his letter to the church at Rome shows, and for which epistle the saints of God will ever have reason to praise and adore the blessed and Eternal Spirit: ‘I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: . . . ‘”

Winslow interpreted Romans 7:14-25 as describing the experience of every believer, as did all of the Puritans. Sadly today, many modern commentators are not so unanimous. Some think Paul was describing a man in transition, coming to faith in Christ. I can go along with a view of a man in transition, if we are thinking in terms of sanctification as a whole, but all the while we are still talking about the experience of a believer. I say that because as long as a believer remains on earth in this body, he has indwelling sin while at the same time he has Christ dwelling within. As such, he has a renewed nature, albeit an imperfectly renewed nature. Hence he has a struggle and constant battle all the way home.

As a result of this imperfectly renewed nature, the believer experiences cognitive dissonance the rest of his life. He finds himself believing and doubting, wise and foolish, spiritually discerning and spiritually myopic, over and over again (Paul’s experience in Romans 7:14f). On the one hand there is a tendency towards license, because of salvation by grace, and on the other hand there is a pull towards legalism, as he hankers for his former master, the law (follow this link to see the larger context of the excerpt below from William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armour):

“Indeed, all those complaints of our wants and weaknesses, so far as they withdraw our hearts from relying cheerfully on Christ, they are but the language of pride hankering after the covenant of works. O it is hard to forget our mother-tongue, which is so natural to us; labour therefore to be sensible of it, [of] how grievous it is to the Spirit of Christ. What would a husband say, if his wife, instead of expressing her love to him, and delight in him, should day and night do nothing but weep and cry to think of her former husband that is dead? The law, as a covenant, and Christ, are com­pared to two husbands: ‘Ye are become dead to the law by the body of Christ, that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead,’ Rom. 7:4. Now thy sorrow for the defect of thy own righteousness, when it hinders thy rejoicing in Christ, is but a whining after thy other husband, and this Christ cannot take but unkindly—that thou art not well pleased to lie in the bosom of Christ, and have thy happiness from him as with your old husband the law.”

And so let us take to heart the lesson Winslow left us, summed up in the poem by Augustus Toplady which he cited in part, A Debtor to Mercy Alone, informing us that we are only less happy but not less secure than glorified saints in heaven:

Of covenant mercy I sing; nor fear, with Your righteousness on, my person and offering to bring. The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do; my Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

 The work which His goodness began, the arm of His strength will complete; His promise is yea and amen, and never was forfeited yet. Things future, nor things that are now nor all things below or above, can make him his purpose forgo, or sever my soul from his love.

 My name from the palms of His hands Eternity will not erase; impressed on His heart it remains, in marks of indelible grace. Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is given; more happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in heaven.

Glory be to Him!

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Week 8 of 9 in Winslow: The Lord, the Restorer of His People

This week’s assignment in Octavius Winslow’s book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, is chapter 8, “The Lord, the Restorer of His People”.

I appreciate the way Winslow opened this chapter by giving two reasons why it is necessary for the Lord to restore his people continually, namely: enmity within (indwelling sin) and without (Satan and the world). After thus identifying the root causes for the perpetual proneness to declension on the part of every believer, Winslow then highlighted the underlying principle of all departures from God:

We look at a believer’s lax practice, we mourn and weep over it, and we do well; we trace our own, and still deeper shame and confusion of face cover us: but we forget that the cause of our bitterest sorrow and humiliation should be, the concealed principle of evil from whence springs this unholy practice. How few among the called of God, are found confessing and mourning over the sin of their nature – the impure fountain from whence flows the stream, the unmortified root from whence originates the branch, and from which both are fed and nourished! This is what God looks at, — the sin of our fallen, unsanctified nature, — and this is what we should look at, and mourn over. Indeed, true mortification of sin consists in a knowledge of our sinful nature, and its subjection to the power of Divine grace. The reason why so few believers ‘through the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body,’ is, a forgetfulness that the work has to do first and mainly with the root of sin in the soul: ‘Make the tree good, and the fruit will also be good’; purify the fountain, and the stream will be pure. Oh, were there a deeper acquaintance with the hidden iniquity of our fallen nature, — a more thorough learning out of the truth, — that ‘in our flesh there dwelleth no good thing,’ – a more heartfelt humiliation on account of it, and more frequent confession of it before God, — how much higher than they now are would be the attainments of holiness of many believers.

I’m indebted to Winslow for prompting this question when reflecting on that passage: How well do I know my own mortal enemy of indwelling sin, my own Moriarty? That metaphor didn’t originate with me. It is found toward the end of chapter 5 in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis:

When an adolescent or an adult is engaged in resisting a conscious desire, he is not dealing with a repression nor is he in the least danger of creating a repression. On the contrary, those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else. They come to know their desires as Wellington knew Napoleon, or as Sherlock Holmes knew Moriarty; as a rat-catcher knows rats or a plumber knows about leaky pipes. Virtue – even attempted virtue – brings light; indulgence brings fog. [C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 102]

Proverbs 4:19 describes the “fog” that ensues from sinful indulgence as being even thicker:

“The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.” (ESV)

So the struggle is a good thing. It is always part of keeping up the good fight of the faith (1 Tim. 6:12). Even better is the slow but steady progress that comes in mortifying the deeds of the flesh by the Spirit:

“But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” (Prov. 4:18, ESV)

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Week 7 of 9 in Winslow: The Fruitless and the Fruitful Professor

This week’s assignment in Octavius Winslow’s book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, is chapter 7, “The Fruitless and the Fruitful Believer”.

In this chapter, Winslow describes the fruitless professor and the pruning of the fruitful branch before concluding with points of caution and encouragement. Taking John 15:2 as his text, Winslow focuses on the utter necessity of being united to Christ, the true Vine, and thus defines the fruitless professor as one who is connected to Christ in an external manner only. Our author lamented the proliferation of such fruitless professors in his own day thusly:

“If to put on the Lord Jesus by an outward avowal of his religion, — if to profess and call themselves Christians, — if to bow the knee at the mention of his name, — if to partake of the outward symbols of his body and his blood, — if to speak well of Jesus, — assent and consent to his doctrine, approve of his Gospel, follow his ministers, crowd his temple, contribute liberally to his cause, — if these constitute the sole and essential elements of real spiritual union to Christ, then may we not exclaim, — ‘The millennium has broken upon us in noontide splendor!”

[Hence we learn that Winslow was a chiliast of some form or another, but I’m not going to chase that rabbit!]

In view of Winslow’s assessment back then, surely the situation is far more pronounced in our day, when we consider that in the first half of the 19th century, ministers knew what it was to preach experientially. One aspect of experiential preaching involved standing in the conscience and applying the truth in order to confront the hearer with the condition of his soul. Winslow described this as well in the opening paragraph, with regard to how discriminating our Lord was in his teaching and preaching ministry:

“If there were any one feature in our Lord’s ministrations more peculiarly impressive than another, it was the discriminating character that marked them. No one, on hearing him, could retire without the deep conviction that he was the man whose moral image Jesus had been drawing, and in such true and vivid resemblance, as to compel him to acknowledge the faithfulness of the portrait. There was no personality, no harshness, no unnecessary keenness in his reproof, no exaggeration of colouring, nothing overdrawn; but such a simple, faithful, scriptural dealing with human conscience, as either compelled his hearers to submit to his authority, and rank themselves among his followers, or to retire, silenced, self-accused, and self-condemned. Thus it is recorded at the conclusion of one of his discourses, — ‘And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them.’ Matt. xxi. 45; and on another occasion we read, as the result of one of his peculiar and emphatic modes of teaching, — ‘And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last.’ John viii. 9.

“How important, may we not pause to remark, that the ministers of the Gospel – those who stand between the living and the dead – should model their ministry, as closely as they can, after their blessed Lord’s; that they should be careful how they preach – that their preaching should be discriminating without being harsh, pointed without being personal, searching without being caustic; that no hearer should go away from beneath their ministrations, without a faithful delineation of his own character, the voice sounding in his conscience, and following him amid all his windings and his wanderings, ‘Thou art the man.’

A survey of ministers today will largely reveal an utter ignorance as to the definition of experiential preaching, so it is little wonder if there are far more fruitless professors now versus Winslow’s day. For more information on experiential preaching, I recommend the four-part series Dr. Joel Beeke did earlier this year at Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation. Follow this link and search for “experiential preaching”.

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Week 6 of 9 in Winslow: On Grieving the Spirit – Recommended Article

Reformation21, an online magazine published by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, has issued its third installment in a series titled, The Seven Deadly Sins in a Digital Age, by W. Bradford Littlejohn, who holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at http://bradlittlejohn.com/.

The latest article is on the sin of gluttony, and you might not think gluttony has much to do with anything digital, but you’d be wrong. Littlejohn’s article shows how rampant gluttony is in our day, and you don’t have to be obese to be consumed by it (consumerism is a hint about the essence of the sin as he unpacks it). This article ties in nicely with Winslow’s handling of worldliness in chapter 6 of this week’s reading assignment. We’re far more worldly than we realize!

Follow this link:

http://www.reformation21.org/featured/the-seven-deadly-sins-in-a-digital-age-2-gluttony.php

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Week 6 of 9 in Winslow: On Grieving the Spirit

This week’s assignment in Octavius Winslow’s book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, is chapter 6, “On Grieving the Spirit”.

I want to raise my hand after reading this chapter and confess: “Guilty as charged!” I shudder to think of the number of times I have grieved the Spirit in the ways Winslow identified: cherishing an imperfect consciousness of the indwelling of the Spirit, unheeding the constraints of the Spirit, an inconsistent walk, and taking the means of grace slightly.

Before enumerating the particular ways in which the Holy Spirit may be grieved, however, Winslow sought to impress upon his reader how awful it is to grieve the Spirit, by employing Scriptural illustrations masterfully, and I especially appreciate that of the temple:

What can grieve the Spirit more than this [the declension of the work of grace in the soul of a child of God]? It is an awful slight cast upon the most glorious and stupendous production of his power: nowhere has he erected a temple so glorious, and nowhere has he put forth energy so mighty, and in nothing has he imprinted so deeply the outline of his own holy character, as in the work of grace which he has commenced, and carries on in the heart of man. Now to witness any decay, declension, or languor in this work; to mark the loss of vigor, healthfulness, or fruitfulness, in any single grace; to see those whose souls he had quickened, whose minds he had illumined, whose affections he had detached from earthly things and centered in God, who did seem to ‘run well’ and promised much fruit, and ‘an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom,’ now slacken their pace, grow weary of the way, fold their arms again in slumber, grow earthly, sensual, and groveling; the temple neglected, its gates unwatched, and other guests admitted; holy motives losing their power, love ceasing to constrain, spiritual things no longer attracting, delighting, and satisfying the soul, — oh! can we imagine the loving, faithful, tender heart of the Spirit more sensibly touched with grief by anything than this? Well might he exclaim, ‘What could I have done more for my vineyard than I have done? Why, then, when I looked for grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes?’ ‘O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away.’

A lesson exists here for the “mature” believer who claims the ability to be able to watch a certain show or movie with questionable content, and asserts, “It doesn’t have any effect on me. I know it portrays sin as appealing, but I’m discerning, and I can handle it.” Well, as Winslow points out, it grieves the Holy Spirit when such “other guests” are admitted into so glorious a temple.

If Winslow were writing today, he most certainly would have included such easy targets as television, movies, and internet media in addition to the worldly impediments of his day:

Shall the believer, the professed temple of the Holy Ghost, be found mingling with the world, taking pleasure in its amusements, courting its society, working upon its principles, and adopting its policy? Ought this to be the line of conduct pursued by a professing Christian? Is this the way to illustrate the holy power of the truth, to recommend the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to rebuke the sin, and folly, and rebellion of the world, and to win it over to the obedience of the faith? Assuredly not!

And how can the Divine life in the soul be fed and sustained from such a source? What nourishment does it derive from the light and frothy readings of the day, — from the pages of a sickly romance, a frivolous novel, a tale of fiction? What food can the unhallowed, unsanctified imagination of men, prepare for the strengthening, supporting, and expanding of this Divine principle in the soul? Surely none.

And what a meetness for prayer, for communion with God, for the reading of his sacred word, can a believer find in the giddy dance, in carnal song, in the immoral novel? What preparation of mind do these pursuits afford for approaching to God, for the proper discharge of Christian duties, for sober reflection, for the hour of death, and for the day of judgment? Oh! the awful inconsistencies that mark the profession of some, who can find a near and an easy path from the sanctuary, the communion table, and the closet, to the evening party, the ball-room, the mazy dance, the empty novel, the very heart of a gay and giddy world. Is this true Christianity? is this like Christ? is it after his command, his precept, and his example? Judge ye.

It seems that the degree to which a believer grieves the Spirit is directly proportional to his declension in the grace of love. Winslow didn’t make this observation directly, but the observant reader may make this connection by virtue of the prominence the author gave to the malady of worldliness, which was cited as a primary cause of declension in both chapters 2 and 6. From chapter 2:

The declension of love may be traced to many causes: we can enumerate but a few; let the following be seriously pondered. Worldly encroachment is a fruitful cause; no two affections can be more opposite and antagonistic than love to God and love to the world: it is impossible that they can both exist with equal force in the same breast; the one or the other must be supreme, — they cannot occupy the same throne. If a Divine affection is regent, then the world is excluded; but if an earthly affection, a groveling and increasing love to the world governs – God is shut out: the one must give place to the other. Love to God will expel love to the world; love to the world will deaden the soul’s love to God. . . . Here is a most fertile cause of declension in Divine love; guard against it as you would fortify yourself against your greatest foe. It is a vortex that has engulfed millions of souls; multitudes of professing Christians have been drawn down into its eddy, and have gone down into its gulf. This enemy of your soul will steal upon you by silent and insidious encroachment. It has its disguises many. It will present itself masked in a proper regard for business, in a diligence in lawful callings, a prudent yielding to domestic claims, and will even quote scriptural precept and example, and assume the form of an angel of light; but suspect it, guard against it.

So given the anesthetizing nature of sin, we need to be careful about imbibing much of the world, lest we grieve the Spirit without even knowing it, and sin, as it were, with cart ropes (Isa. 5:18), totally oblivious to all that God is doing all around us today.

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Week 5 of 9 in Winslow: Declension in Connection with Doctrinal Error

Last month the Huffington Post published an article on how Bart Campolo broke the news to his parents last Thanksgiving that he was now a humanist agnostic (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/06/bart-campolo-humanist_n_5941232.html). Bart’s father is Tony Campolo, an evangelist who was once a spiritual advisor to former President Bill Clinton.

Bart said he “passed just about every stage of heresy” on his way to apostasy, and that it wasn’t until he “exhausted every option for staying a Christian” that he gave it up.

His “pilgrimage” to apostasy consisted of a progressive jettisoning of biblical truth, and Bart admitted that his initial attraction to Christianity was for its sense of community and commitment to love people. He had no interest, however, in the doctrinal teaching of the church: “All the dogma and the death and resurrection of Jesus stuff was not the attraction,” Bart said.

To his credit, Bart had the intellectual honesty to recognize that the Bible views homosexuality as a sin, and so he jettisoned the authority of the Bible rather than trying to twist the scriptures as so many do, to try to make them say otherwise. His final rejection of biblical teaching came when he adopted a belief in universalism because he couldn’t accept the idea that God would send anyone to hell.

I heard about Bart’s departure from the truth this week while re-reading our current assignment in Octavius Winslow’s book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, chapter 5, “Declension in Connection with Doctrinal Error”, which cites John 17:17 as a primary text: “Sanctify them through thy truth.”

At the outset of his treatment Winslow asserts the need for both truth and the Spirit of God in order for the truth to be effectual in promoting holiness:

“The mere presentation of truth to the unrenewed mind, either in the form of threatening, or promise, or motive, can never produce any saving or sanctifying effect. The soul of man in its unrenewed state, is represented as spiritually dead; insensible to all holy spiritual motion.”

He also established the connection between holiness and happiness:

“Now that it is the natural tendency of Divine truth thus received into the heart, to produce holiness, a moment’s reference to the word of God will show. The design of the whole plan of redemption, was to secure the highest holiness and happiness of the creature; and when the gospel comes with the power of God unto the salvation of the soul, this end is preeminently secured. The renewed man is a pardoned man; the pardoned man becomes a holy man; and the holy man is a happy man.”

This assertion that “the holy man is a happy man” runs so counter popular opinion of our day along with that of every age, because it is an appraisal that only a renewed mind can make. The hymn writer expressed this sentiment as well: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

But the interesting, or refreshing thing, about the way Winslow immediately connected happiness and holiness was by means of the doctrines of grace, and the doctrine of election in particular, and love was the central theme, as found in the heart of God for the undeserving sinner:

“Take the doctrine of God’s everlasting love to his people, as seen in their election to eternal life. How holy is the tendency of this truth! ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.’ Eph. i. 3, 4. Let not my reader turn from this glorious doctrine, because he may find it irreconcilable with others that he may hold, or because the mists of prejudice may long have veiled it from his mind; it is a revealed doctrine, and therefore to be fully received; it is a holy doctrine, and therefore to be ardently received; it is a holy doctrine, and therefore to be ardently loved. Received in the heart by the teaching of the Holy Ghost, it lays the pride of man in the dust, knocks from beneath the soul all ground for self-glorifying, and expands the mind with the most exalted views of the glory, grace, and love of Jehovah. He who receives the doctrine of electing love in his heart by the power of the Spirit, bears about with him the material of a holy walk; its tendency is to humble, abase, and sanctify the man.”

We can’t afford to miss that opening in Ephesians 1, because it was the point of departure for Bart at the outset: “Blessed is God.” In this opening statement Paul expresses the sentiment of every believer, and it is not a wish for God to be blessed, but rather a declaration that God IS blessed, as he proceeds to give thanks for the many spiritual blessings that overflow from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in salvation to every believer. Anyone who truly knows God loves him, and is thankful. A lack of thankfulness characterizes the ungodly (Rom. 1:21). How ironic it is that Bart chose the occasion of Thanksgiving last year to tell his parents of his departure from the ranks of the thankful! But, as Winslow so rightly observed, false doctrine always leads the mind into a wrong channel, farther and farther away from God, a departure which will be fixed for eternity, but for the grace of God. Let’s pray for that grace to be effectual for Bart.

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Week 4 of 9 in Winslow: Declension in Prayer

This week’s assignment in Octavius Winslow’s book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, is chapter 4, “Declension in Prayer”.

Winslow asserted at the outset of chapter 4 the importance of prayer, presenting it as a prime indicator of the soul’s spiritual vitality. One could say that prayer serves as a sort of “canary in the coal mine” in that respect. This trait was singled out as the primary evidence of the genuineness of Saul’s conversion, when Ananias was told to seek out the former persecutor of the church. To assuage Ananias’s reluctance, the Lord, speaking of the recently converted Saul, assured him: “Behold, he prays” (Acts 9:11). In enumerating sure marks of the true Christian, prayer was at top of a list prepared by J. C. Ryle:

“A habit of prayer is one of the surest marks of a true Christian. All the children of God on earth are alike in this respect. From the moment there is any life and reality in their religion, they pray. Just as the first sign of life in a newborn infant is the act of breathing, so the first act of men and women when they are born again is praying.” (J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion, available online at http://www.gracegems.org/Ryle/a_call_to_prayer.htm)

And yet even though we will all agree on the primacy of prayer in the life of the believer, prayer is also an area where we tend to feel inadequate. In one of his sermons I heard via the web over a year ago, Sinclair Ferguson shared an experience he had as a young minister in this regard. He was approached by a publisher to consider writing a book on prayer. Ferguson told the publisher that he felt inadequate to write such a book at the time. The publisher said that was understandable, and asked whom he would recommend instead. Ferguson mentioned a few names, and after each one, the publisher, somewhat sheepishly, let him know that those individuals (well known, household names in the Christian world) had also been approached, and had also declined. It became apparent that Ferguson wasn’t very high on their list, and so as the conversation continued, he finally asked how many people they had already consulted before asking him, since they were apparently scraping the bottom of the barrel!

Despite our own similar misgivings and feelings of inadequacy, Winslow encourages us to draw near to God frequently in prayer, lest we begin to harbor unwarranted suspicions of his love and affection for us:

“If the simple axiom be true, that the more intimate we become with any object, the better we are prepared to judge of its nature and properties, we may apply it with peculiar appropriateness to our acquaintance with God. The encouraging invitation of is word, is, ‘Acquaint now thyself with God, and be at peace.’ Now, it is this acquaintance with God that brings us into the knowledge of his character as a holy, loving, and faithful God; and it is this knowledge of his character that begets love and confidence in the soul towards him. The more we know of God, the more we love him: the more we try him, the more we confide in him. Let the spiritual reader, then conceive what dire effects must result from a distant walk from God. The farther the soul gets from him, the more imperfect must be its knowledge of him.”

John Bunyan, a great Puritan largely due to his prayer life, wrote a book on prayer, part two of which was titled “The Throne of Grace”. Taking Hebrews 4:16 as his text, Bunyan took every opportunity to encourage the believer to come with confidence to this throne of grace:

By this word grace, we are to understand God’s free, sovereign, good pleasure, whereby he acts in Christ towards his people. Grace and mercy therefore are terms that have their distinct significations; mercy signifies pitifulness, or a running over of infinite compassion to objects in a miserable and helpless condition. But grace signifies that God still acts in this as a free agent, not being wrought upon by the misery of the creature, as a procuring cause; but of his own princely mind.”

“Were there no objects of pity among those that in the old world perished by the flood, or that in Sodom were burned with fire from heaven? Doubtless, according to our apprehension, there were many. [He went on to list several instances in the OT.] These, with many more places, show that mercy is God’s place of rest, and thither will retire at last, and from thence will bless his church, his people.”

“But yet the term ‘throne’, ‘the throne of grace’, does more exceed in glory: not only because the word shows that God, by all that he does towards us in saving and forgiving, acts freely as the highest Lord, and of his own good-will and pleasure, but also because he now says, that his grace is become a king, ‘a throne of grace’.  A throne is not only a seat for rest, but a place of dignity and authority. This is known to all. Wherefore by this word, a throne, or the throne of grace, is intimated, that God rules and governs by his grace. And this he can justly do: ‘Grace reigns through righteousness, unto eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom. 5.21). So then, in that here is mention made of a throne of grace, it shows that sin, and Satan, and death, and hell must needs be subdued. For these last mentioned are but weakness and destruction; but grace is life, and the absolute sovereign over all these to the ruling of them utterly down. A throne of grace!”

“But this then God plainly declares, that he is resolved this way to rule, and that he points at sin as his deadly foe: an if so, then, ‘where sin abounds, grace must much more abound’ (Rom. 5:20). For it is wisdom and discretion of all that rule, to fortify themselves against them that rebel against them. Wherefore he saith again, ‘Sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under grace (Rom. 6.14). Sin seeks for the dominion, and grace seeks for the dominion; but sin shall not rule, because it has no throne in the church among the godly. Grace is king. Grace has the throne, and the people of God are not under the dominion of sin, but of the grace of God, the which they are here implicitly bid to it for help: ‘That we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help; to help in time of need’. For as from the hand and power of the king comes help and succour to the subject, when assaulted by and enemy; so from the throne of grace, or from grace as it reigns, comes the help and health of God’s people.”

And so when we are discouraged, or tempted, or dejected for whatever reason such that we feel unworthy to go to God in prayer, that is the very instant we are to approach the throne of grace confidently, just as we are, as Winslow exhorted at the end of our chapter:

“Satan’s grand argument to keep a soul from prayer, is – ‘Go not with that cold and insensible frame; go not with that hard and sinful heart; stay until you are more fit to approach God.’ And listening to this specious reasoning, many poor, distressed, burthened, longing souls have been kept from the throne of grace, and consequently from all comfort and consolation. But the Gospel says, — ‘Go in your very worst frames’; Christ says, — ‘Come just as you are’: and every promise and every example but encourages the soul to repair to the cross whatever be its frame or condition.”

“Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.  For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”  (Hebrews 4:14-16, KJV)

Amen!

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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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