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!