We shall attempt little more here than seeking to show the necessity for recovery from a spiritual decline. Nor will that be an easy task―not because of any inherent difficulty in this aspect of our subject, but owing to the variety of cases which require to be considered, and which should be dealt with separately. There are some physical ailments, which, if handled promptly, call for comparatively mild treatment; but there are others that demand more drastic means and remedies. Yet, as any doctor will testify, many are careless about what are deemed trifling disorders, and delay so long in attending to the same, that their condition so deteriorates as to become dangerous and often fatal. In our last, we pointed out that every spot was not leprosy; yet, it should be remembered that certain spots which resembled that disease aroused suspicion, and required that the patient be examined by the priest, isolated from others, and kept under his observation, until the case could be more definitely determined―depending upon whether there was a further deterioration or spreading of the spot (Lev 13:4-8).
It is much to be doubted if there is any Christian on earth who so retains his spiritual vitality and vigour that he never stands in need of a “reviving” of his heart (Isa 57:15), that there is no time when he feels it requisite to cry “quicken thou me according to thy word” (Psa 119:25). Yet, it must not be concluded from this statement that every saint experiences a definite relapse in his spiritual life, and still less, that a life of ups and downs, decays and recoveries, backslidings and restorations, is the best that can be expected. The experiences of others are not the Rule which God has given us to walk by. Crowded dispensaries and hospitals do indeed supply a warning, but they certainly do not warrant my lapsing into carelessness, or fatalistically assuming that I, too, shall ere long be physically afflicted. God has made full provision for His people to live a holy, healthy, and happy life; and if I observe many of them failing to do so, it should stimulate me to greater watchfulness against the neglect of God’s provision.
After what has been dwelt upon in previous articles, it should scarcely be necessary to remind the reader that unless the Christian maintains close and steady communion with God, daily intercourse with the drawing from Christ’s fulness, and regular feeding on the Word, the pulse of his spiritual life will soon beat more feebly and irregularly.
Unless he meditates oft upon the love of God, keeps fresh before his heart the humiliation and sufferings of Christ, and frequents the throne of grace, his affections will soon cool, his relish for spiritual things will decrease, and obedience will neither be so easy, nor pleasant. If such a deterioration be ignored or excused, it will not be long ere his heart glides imperceptibly into carnality and worldliness: Worldly pleasures will begin to attract, worldly pursuits absorb more of his attention, or worldly cares weight him down. Then, unless there be a return unto God and humbling of the heart before Him, it will not be long―unless providence hinder―before he be found in the ways of open transgression.
There are degrees of backsliding. In the case of a real child of God, it always commences in the heart’s departure from Him, and where that be protracted, evidences thereof will soon appear in the daily walk. Once a Christian becomes a backslider outwardly, he has lost his distinguishing character―for then, there is little or nothing to distinguish him from a religious worldling. Backsliding always presupposes a profession of faith and adherence unto Christ, though not necessarily the existence or reality of the thing professed. An unregenerate professor may be sincere, though deluded; and he may, from various considerations, persevere in his profession to the end. But more frequently, he soon wearies of it; and after the novelty has worn off, or the demands made upon him become more intolerable, he abandons his profession, and like the sow, returns to his “wallowing in the mire” (2Pe 2:22). Such is an apostate, and with very rare exceptions―if indeed there be any at all―his apostasy is total and final.
Up to the beginning of this article, we have confined ourselves unto the spiritual life of the regenerate, but we have now reached the stage where faithfulness to souls requires us to enlarge our scope. Under our last division, we dwelt upon spiritual decline: Its nature, its causes, its insidiousness, and its symptoms. It is pertinent, therefore, to enquire now, “What will be the sequel to such a decline?” A general answer cannot be returned, for as the decline
varies considerably in different cases―some being less, and some more, acute, and extended than others―the outcome is not always the same. Where the relapse of a Christian be marked―if not to himself yet, to onlookers―he has entered the class of “backsliders,” and that will cause the spiritual to stand in doubt of him. It is this consideration which requires us to enlarge the class to which we now address our remarks. Otherwise, unregenerate professors
who have deteriorated in their religious life would be likely to derive false comfort from that which applies only to those who have been temporarily despoiled by Satan.
Unless spiritual decline be arrested, it will not remain stationary, but become worse; and the worse it becomes, the less are we justified in regarding it as a “spiritual decline,” and the more does Scripture require us to view it as the exposure of a worthless profession. Hence, it is in that, that any degree of spiritual deterioration is to be regarded not complacently, but as something serious; and if not promptly corrected, as highly dangerous in its tendency.
But Satan will attempt to persuade the Christian that though his zeal has abated somewhat, and his spiritual affection cooled, there is nothing for him to worry about―that even if his health has begun to decline, yet seeing he has not fallen into any great sin, his condition is not at all serious. But every decay is dangerous, especially such as the mind is ready to excuse and plead for a continuance therein. The nature and deadly tendency of sin is the same in
itself, whether it be in an unregenerate, or a regenerate person; and if it be not resisted and mortified, repented of, and forsaken, the outcome will be the same: “Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. Do not err, my beloved brethren” (Jam 1:15-16).
Three stages of spiritual decline are solemnly set before us in Revelation 2 and 3. First, to the Ephesian backslider, Christ says, “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (Rev 2:4). That is the more striking and searching, because there was much here that the Lord commended: “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience…and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted” (Rev 2:2-3). Yet, He adds, “Nevertheless
I have somewhat against thee.” In this case, things were still all right in the external life, but there was an inward decay. Observe well that this divine indictment, “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (Rev 2:4) is an unmistakably plain intimation that Christians are held accountable for the state of their love Godwards. There are some who seem to conclude from those words, “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom 5:5), that they have no personal responsibility in connection therewith, and who attribute to the sovereignty of God their coldness of heart, rather than blaming themselves for the waning of their affections. But that is highly reprehensible, being an adding of insult to injury. It is as much the duty of a saint to maintain a warm and constant affection to Christ, as it is to preserve his faith in regular exercise; and he is no more warranted in excusing his failure in the one than in the other. We are expressly bidden, “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jud 1:21) and “Set your affection on things above” (Col 3:2); and it is a horrible perversion and abuse of a blessed truth if I attribute my not doing so unto God’s sovereign withholding from me the inclination. Those words of Christ’s―“I have somewhat against thee” (Rev 2:4)―is the language of censure because of failure; and He certainly had not used it unless he was to blame. Observe, He does not merely say, “thou hast lost thy first love,” as it is so frequently misquoted―man ever tones down what is unpalatable! No, “thou hast left thy first love” (Rev 2:4)―something more serious and heinous. One may “lose” a thing involuntarily, but to leave it is deliberate action! Finally, let us duly note that our Lord regarded that departure not as an innocent infirmity, but as a culpable sin, for He says, “repent”!
In his faithful sermon on Revelation 2:4, Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) pointed out that we ought to feel alarmed if we have left our first love, and ask the question, “Was I ever a child of God at all?” going on to say: “Oh, my God, must I ask myself this question? Yes, I will. Are there not many of whom it is said, “They went out from us…” because “…they were not of us” (1Jo 2:19)? Are there not some whose goodness is as the morning cloud, and as the early dew―may that not have been my case? I am speaking for you all. Put the question: “May I
not have been impressed under a certain sermon, and may not that impression have been a mere carnal excitement? May it not have been that I thought I repented, but did not really repent? May it not have been the case that I got a hope somewhere, but had not a right to it? and never had the loving faith that unites me to the Lamb of God? And may it not have been that I only thought I had love to Christ, and never had it; for if I really had love to Christ,
should I be as I now am? See how far I have come down! May I not keep on going down until my end shall be perdition and the fire unquenchable? Many have gone from heights of a profession to the depths of damnation, and may I not be the same? Let me think, if I go on as I am, it is impossible for me to stop; if I am going downwards, I may go on doing so. And O, my God, if I go on backsliding for another year―who knows where I may have backslidden
to? Perhaps into some gross sin. Prevent, prevent it by Thy grace! Perhaps I may backslide totally. If I am a child of God, I know I cannot do that; but still, may it not happen that I only thought I was a child of God?”
Searching as is the complaint of Christ to the Ephesian backslider, His word to the Sardinian is yet more drastic: “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” (Rev 3:1). That does not signify that He was here addressing an unregenerate person, but rather, one whose conduct bellied his name. His life did not correspond with his profession. He had a reputation for piety, but there was no longer evidence to justify it, no fruit to any longer warrant it. Not only had there been deterioration within, but also without. The salt had lost its savor, the fine gold had become dim; and hence, his profession brought no honour and glory to Christ. He bids him, “Be watchful”―for that was the very point at which he had failed―“and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die” (Rev 3:2), which shows that the “art dead” of verse 1 does not mean “dead in sins.” “For I have not found thy works perfect before God”―not “complete” or “full.” Good works were not yet totally abandoned, but many of them were lacking. Part of his duty was listlessly performed; the other part, neglected; and even the former
was “ready to die.” Thus, it will be seen that the case of the Sardinian backslider is much worse than that of the Ephesian. There is no remaining stationary in Christianity: If we do not advance, we retrograde; if we be not fruit-bearing branches of the Vine, we become cumberers of the ground. Decay of grace is not a thing to be regarded lightly, and treated with
indifference. If it be not attended to and corrected, our condition will grow worse. If we do not return to our first love―by heeding the injunctions laid down in Revelation 2:5―then we may expect to become like the Sardinian backslider: One whose witness for Christ is marred. Unless our hearts be kept right, our affection to Christ warm, then the life will soon deteriorate―our works will be deficient, both in quality and quantity, and those around us
will perceive it. Ere long a “name to live” is all we shall have: The profession itself will be invalid, worthless, “dead.”
But worst of all is the Laodicean professor (Rev 3:15-20). What makes his case so fearfully solemn is that we are to a loss where to place him, how to classify him―whether he be a real Christian who has fearfully backslidden, or naught but an empty professor. To him, Christ says, “Thou art neither cold nor hot” (Rev 3:15)―neither one thing, nor the other; but rather, an unholy mixture. Such are those who vainly attempt to serve two masters, who are
worshippers of God one day, but worshippers of mammon the other six. To him, Christ goes on to say, “I would thou wert cold or hot”―that is, either an open and avowed enemy; or a faithful and consistent witness of Me. Be one thing, or the other: A foe, or a friend; an utter worldling, or one who is in Spirit and in Truth, a “stranger and pilgrim” in this scene. Corrupt Christianity is more offensive to Christ than is open fidelity. If he who bears His name does not depart form iniquity, His honour is affected. “Because thou art lukewarm…I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16): In thy present condition, thou art an offence to Me, and I can no longer own thee.
It is the figure of an emetic which Christ there uses: The mingling together of what is hot and cold, thus producing a “lukewarm” draught which is nauseating to the stomach. And that is exactly what an “inconsistent Christian” is to the Holy One. He who runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds, who is one man inside the church and a totally different one outside, he who seeks to mix godliness with worldliness: “I will spue thee out of my mouth”
(Rev 3:16)―instead of confessing his name before the Father and His holy angels. But observe what follows: “Thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing” (Rev 3:17). Exactly opposite is this estimation of his from Christ’s. No longer “poor in spirit” (Mat 5:3), he declares himself to be “rich.” No longer coming to the throne of grace as a beggar to obtain help, he deems himself to be “increased with goods.” No longer sensible of his ignorance, weakness, and emptiness, he feels himself to “have need of nothing.” That is what makes his case so dangerous and desperate: He has no sense of personal need.
“And have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev 3:17). As carnality and worldliness increase, so also does pride and complacency; and where they dominate, spiritual discernment becomes non-existent. Phariseeism and self-sufficiency are inseparable. It was to those who prayed, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers” (Luk 18:11),
and who asked Christ, “Are we blind also?” (Joh 9:40)―to whom He said, “ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (Joh 9:41). The Pharisee boasted, “I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luk 18:12):
In his own esteem and avowal, he was “rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing” (Rev 3:17)―and for that very reason, he knew not that he was “wretched, and miserable, and poor” (Rev 3:17). That, too, is another form of the nauseating mixture which is so abhorrent to Christ: Orthodox in doctrine, but corrupt in practice. One who is loud in claiming to be sound in the Faith, but who is tyrannical and bitter toward those who differ from
him―who holds “high doctrine,” but cannot live in peace with his brethren―is as offensive to Christ, as if he were thoroughly worldly.
Can such a character as the one who has just been before us be a real―though a backslidden―Christian?
Frankly, we know not, for we are unable to say just how far a saint may fall into the mire and foul his garments before God recovers him, by answering him with “terrible things in righteousness” (Psa 65:5). Before He made good that awful threat and spued out the Laodicean professor, Christ made a final appeal to him: “I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the
shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see” (Rev 3:18). But though we do not feel capable of deciding whether or not “the root of the matter” (Job 19:28) really be in him, two things are plain to us. First, that if I have left my first love (Rev 2:4), it will not be long before my profession will become “dead;” and unless it be revived, I shall soon be a Laodicien. Second, that while any person be in a Laodicean
state, he has no Scriptural warrant to regard himself as a Christian, nor should others consider him as such.
There are many professing Christians who have declined in their practice of piety to a considerable extent, yet who comfort themselves with the idea that they will be brought to repentance before they die. But that is not only an unwarrantable comfort, but is presumptuously tempting God. As another has pointed out, “Whosoever plunges into the gulf of backsliding, or continues easy in it under the idea of being recovered by repentance, may find himself mistaken. Both Peter and Judas went in, but only one of them came out! There is reason to fear that thousands of professors are now lifting up their eyes in torment, who, in this world, reckoned themselves good men, who considered
their sins as pardonable errors laid to their accounts as being brought to repentance: But, ere, they were aware, the Bridegroom came, and they were not ready to meet Him. They of whom it is said, they are “slidden back by a perpetual backsliding? they hold fast deceit, they refuse to return” (Jer 8:5) are the ones “who draw back unto perdition” (Heb 10:39). And my reader, if you have left your first love, you have departed “from the living God”
(Heb 3:12); and until you humbly and penitently return to Him, you can have no guarantee that you will not be a “perpetual backslider.”
We should carefully distinguish between the sin which indwells us, and our falling into sin. The former is our depraved nature, which God holds us accountable to make no provision for, to resist its workings, and refuse its solicitations. The latter is when―through lack of watching against indwelling corruptions―sin breaks forth into open acts. It is an injurious thing to fall into sin―whether secretly or openly―and sooner or later, the effects will certainly be felt. But to continue therein is much more evil and dangerous. God has denounced a solemn threatening against those who persist in sin: He “shall wound the head of his enemies, and the hairy scalp of such an one as goeth on still in his trespasses” (Psa 68:21). For those who have known the way of righteousness to pursue a course of sin is highly offensive to God. He has provided a remedy (Pro 28:13); but if instead of confessing and forsaking our sins, we sink into hardness of heart, neglect prayer, shun the company of the faithful, and seek to efface one sin by the committal of another, we are in imminent danger of being abandoned by God and are “nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned” (Heb 6:8).
Let us return to the point where we almost began and ask again, “What will be the sequel to a decline?” It should now be still more evident that a general answer cannot be returned. Not only does God exercise His sovereignty here, using His own good pleasure and not acting uniformly, but differences from the human side of things have also to be taken into account. Much will depend upon whether it be the spiritual decline of a real Christian, or simply the religious decay of a mere professor. If the former, the sequel will vary according to whether the decline be internal only, or accompanied, or followed by falling into open sin. So, too, there is a doctrinal departure from God―as well as practical―as was the case with the Galatians. However, whatever be the type of case, this is certain, the one who lapses into a state of torpor needs to respond to that call, “Now it is high time to awake out of sleep…let us therefore cast off the works of darkness,” etc. (Rom 13:11-12)