Remedies against spiritual declension
The following article is taken from Pilgrim Covenant Church Bulletin, dated 21 May 2000. It is a sequel of the previous article, Symptoms of spiritual declension. The article was written by Pastor Lim Jyh Jang. I will post the Indonesian translation in the next entry.
In our last article, we identified some of the symptoms of spiritual declension. I trust that you have had occasion to read it and to examine yourself honestly before the Lord. I trust that you are at least aware if you bear some of the marks of personal declension. If you are at all concerned that you are walking aright with Christ (cf. Col 2:6), and if you are at all concerned that you are making your calling and election sure (2 Pet 1:10), you must not only be aware but admit that you are experiencing declension.
My fear is that many are simply unconcerned and apathetic, that there is a possibility that they are backsliding: only to discover too late,—like the five foolish virgins,—that they are not prepared to meet the Lord. Someone may ask: why should I be concerned? If I am elect of God, I will surely be saved in the end, but if I am not, it does not matter what I do now. This reasoning sounds logical at first sight, but what a dangerous proposition which amounts to tempting God (Mt 4:7).
In the first place, it is not only dangerous but forbidden for us to order our lives according to the secret will of God: “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29).
In the second place, the Word of God speaks about our responsibility towards the revealed will of God. We are not saying, as some say, that fifty percent of our salvation belongs to the sovereignty of God, the other fifty percent belongs to our responsibility. This is pure Arminianism. We are saying that though our salvation is entirely by God’s sovereign grace, yet God holds us totally responsible for our actions. Notice how the Apostle Paul alludes to this fact: “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12–13). We must acknowledge all good gifts, including faith, repentance, and doing God’s good pleasure, as coming from God (Jas 1:17; Eph 2:8; Acts 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25). Yet, we are responsible to obey God’s commands to believe and repent, and walk in newness of life (Mk 1:15; Acts 17:30; Rom 6:4).
In the third place, the Scripture does teach us about degree of blessedness in heaven and degree of torment in hell. The saints in heaven will shine as stars in the firmament, but one star differs from another star in glory (Dan 12:3; 1 Cor 15:41). Matthew Henry puts it very well: “In heaven every vessel will be full, brimful though every vessel is not alike large and capacious” (Comm. on Matthew 20:9–10). In the same way, it will be more tolerable for some sinners in hell than for others. The Lord implies this when He says, “It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment” than for Chorazin and Bethsaida, and “it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment” than for Capernaum (Mt 11:21–24). Gerstner explains: “All impenitent pagans are going to hell, but the deepest places in the Pit will be reserved for impenitent ‘Christians.’ It will be more ‘tolerable’ for pagans in hell than for all merely professing Christians” (Repent or Perish, 194).
No child of God will ordinarily be apathetic to working out his salvation with fear and trembling. But if you are experiencing spiritual declension, you may not think and reason like an ordinary child of God. Instead, sin and love of the world will cloud your thoughts and you may in fact reason like the world. How else could a child of God ever think that since there is the doctrine of election it does not matter what you do? Well, whatever the case may be, I hope you see my point. Whatever state you may be in: whether you are a backslidden believer or you were never converted in the first place, it is important for you to apply the remedies for your soul. If you are indeed a child of God, it is my prayer that you will return to the Father as He is awaiting your return and will receive you with open arms. If you were deceived as to your conversion, I would charge you to repent and believe truly. I cannot make you believe what I am telling you, but I must warn you with what the Word of God teaches us: If you apostatise after professing Christ, you will be worst than before you made your profession. This is what the Apostle Peter warns when he says: “For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning” (2 Pet 2:20; cf. Lk 11:26).
I hope you do not think I am trying to frighten you by threatening you. I am simply relating what the Scripture teaches, and I do it with the sincere hope that you will repent and return to the Lord,—whether you were converted or not in the first place. Whatever it may be, if you remain nonchalant, there will be little or no hope for you, and woe are you if you finally perish in your sin. But if you, at least, try to apply the remedies, there is hope.
May I, as such, suggest six steps, the diligent application of which, I believe will lend itself to the recovery of the soul, as well as being antidotes against further declension.
Discover the Cause
First, you should attempt to discover the causes of your declension. We noted in our previous article that there are two principle causes, namely, (1) sin; and (2) the neglect of the means of grace. However, very often, it is secondary causes that aggravate the situation.
For example, sin may be multiplied and your resolve against sin may be dulled because of an employment which involves many occasions of temptation, such as entertaining of clients; or because of a close relationship with someone with lower moral standards; or because having to care for rebellious children results in frequent angry outbursts. Whatever the case may be, sin will always affect our relationship with God. “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isa 59:2).
Similarly, the neglect of the means of grace could be because of work that takes you away from worship on the Lord’s Day frequently; or because of a habit which may not in itself be sinful, such as spending a lot of time on the newspapers or on the internet, which results in the neglect of duties; or because the care of a baby or an aged parent may be tiring your body out so that you find it hard to pray without falling asleep.
Whatever the case may be, it is not difficult to see that knowing the aggravating causes of your declension is an important step to dealing with your spiritual problem.
Lay Aside Every Weight
Having discovered the contributing causes to your declension, the next obvious step would be to take specific and perhaps drastic actions to remove the cause of your declension, if you can help it; or to minimise its impact on your spiritual life, if you cannot remove the causes. This would be in accordance with the biblical instruction to lay aside every weight and entangling sin, in order that we may patiently run the race set before us (Heb 12:1). Is your secular employment contributing to too many occasions of temptation and sin? Perhaps it’s time to change job. Is your relationship with someone weakening your resolve to walk in the way of the Lord? Perhaps it’s time to break off the relationship before it is too late. Are you spending too much time on the newspaper or on the internet? Perhaps it’s time to limit yourself to a fix amount of time for these activities. Or perhaps it’s time to cut off your subscriptions for these, that your time may be channelled to more fruitful use. Are you finding it hard to set aside time for your daily personal and family worship? Perhaps it’s time to cut down on television, or perhaps it’s time to set your personal devotion before breakfast and your family worship before dinner so that you will not forget these important exercises. Or are you finding it difficult to spend half an hour in personal worship and so rather not have personal worship? Perhaps it’s time to be more flexible: better to have 10 minutes of prayer than none at all. Are you finding it hard to pray ten minutes kneeling without falling asleep? Perhaps it’s time to pray standing at the window. Have iniquity abound because you have a habit of shouting at your children for nitty gritty misdemeanours? Perhaps it’s time to resolve not to shout. Or perhaps it’s time to implement a demerit point system for your child so that he gets discipline only for accumulated misdemeanours over a period of time.
What I am saying is, that we must never allow ourselves to remain status quo if our current circumstance in life contributes in any way to our spiritual declension. You need to be willing to change. If you can rid yourself of the cause or contributing factor of your spiritual declension, you should do so, whatever the personal cost may be. This is the principle taught by our Lord: “Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire” (Mt 18:8). But if you have no control over the circumstance which contributes to your declension, then you must seek to work around it by reordering the factors that are in your control to compensate for the negative effects of the circumstance affecting you.
Appeal to the Lord in Prayer
Third, go to the Lord in prayer. Although prayerlessness is a symptom of declension, in order to revive your soul, we must insist on prayer. Set apart time to pray without distraction. Pray even if you do not feel like praying. Pray until you find yourself no longer in monologue but conversing with the Father through Christ. Pour out your heart to the Lord. Even if you doubt your salvation, go pleading for restoration; for though your prayer may be sinful, yet it is never a sin to pray. Pray that the Holy Spirit may enlighten you as to the terrible danger that your soul may be in. Pray with the words of the psalmist: “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me” (Ps 139:23–24a). As the Lord reveals through your conscience and memory, repent and grieve over your tardiness and your sin. Then pray, “Be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee” (Ps 41:4); and “Give ear to my prayer, O God; and hide not thyself from my supplication” (Ps 55:1). Pray also for remembrance of the communion you had with God before you fell out of the way (Rev 2:5a). Pray that the Lord open your eyes, that you may “behold wondrous things out of [His] law” once again (Ps 119:18). Ask Him to show you the old paths again (Jer 6:16), and pray, “Lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps 139:24b). Pray for wisdom to readjust your life if that might help to restore your spiritual walk. Plead like the persistent widow (Lk 18:1–5); but ask in faith, and He shall surely hear your petition, for He says: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Mt 7:7).
Fourth, look to Christ the author and finisher of your faith (Heb 12:2). Meditate on the love of God in Christ: the love that was manifested in God’s sending His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him (1 Jn 4:9); the love that is commended to us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Think about the sufferings that Christ went through for the sake of His Church. Consider how He gave Himself for us out of love (Eph 5:25). Meditate on how this love extends to the single lost sheep and the unworthy prodigal son. Consider how much you have received from Christ and how little you have loved Him and served Him. Consider, then, what ingratitude and wickedness it is to grow cold in your love and zeal for Him. Consider the grief that must have been silently written on the Lord’s face, when He turned and look upon the backslidden Peter (Lk 22:61). Consider how Peter wept bitterly (Lk 22:62). Meditate on how the Lord restored Peter as He asked him three times: “lovest thou me more than these” (Jn 21:15–17). Do you not hear the Lord asking you the same question?
Beloved, if you forget everything you read in this article, remember and meditate on the love of Christ. It is the love of Christ that will restore you eventually, just as it restored Peter.
Attend to the Preaching of the Word
Fifthly, you must take every opportunity to hear and diligently attend to the preaching of the Word. If you are experiencing spiritual declension, you are likely to think that you already know all that there is to know, and that hearing of sermons seem so futile. Well, it is probably true that if you have been consistently under a solid but conservative preaching ministry, that after some years, the amount of knowledge that each new sermon may add may be quite little. However, you must bear in mind that the purpose of preaching is not only to instruct, but to provoke the soul unto faith and good works. Reminders and repetitions are therefore important elements in preaching, and should not be despised. Neither should we complain about the simplicity of a sermon, or that there is little instructional value. Let us, rather, attend to preaching, as unto the voice and exhortation of our Chief Shepherd.
Most who are undergoing spiritual declension will shy away from any additional sermons. May I urge you, if you have any concern for your soul, to make use of every opportunity and to listen to additional sermon tapes by godly preachers, such as Prof John Murray, Martyn Lloyd Jones, Herman Hanko, Maurice Roberts, R.C. Sproul, Albert Martin, Stuart Olyott, Peter Masters, etc. Just as the Lord had always used the preaching of the prophets to revive His people, so preaching will be one of the primary means by which the Lord will revive your spiritually declining soul.
Forsake Not the Fellowship of the Saints
Finally, you must make every effort to assemble with fellow believers and to fellowship with them. I understand that if you are experiencing spiritual declension, it is likely that you will have no desire for fellowship with other believers; but if you are concerned for your soul, you must try to overcome this aversion. The writer of Hebrews exhorts us: “Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Heb 10:24–25). In other words, we must assemble and fellowship with other believers so that we may exhort and provoke one another in our Christian walk, for, left to ourselves, we are likely to backslide. This is especially so because our personal assessment of our spiritual condition is often less severe than it really is, on account of sin. Thus the writer of Hebrews also enjoins us: “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:12–13). This is one of the most important purposes of Christian fellowship. To be hardened is to experience spiritual declension or backsliding. So, in order to overcome this malady, you must not forsake the fellowship of the saints. If you are experiencing declension and shying away from meeting other believers in informal settings, may I urge you once again to overcome the inclination of the flesh and obey the Word of God. Only then can you expect Him to bless and restore.
Are you experiencing spiritual declension, my friend? If you are, may I urge you to attempt some of the remedies outlined above. May the Lord grant you recovery and a renewed assurance that you belong to Christ. Amen.
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