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RELIGIOUS DECLENSION, AS TO ITS
FOREMOST, among the causes of religious declension, must be placed that natural depravity which marks our position in the universe, as members of a fallen race. To subdue and exterminate that depravity, is the design of the revelation of mercy which God has committed to man ; but that design is accomplished, not by a physical, but by a moral process, and the completion of grace is reserved for glory. In the meanwhile, we have need of constant watchfulness and care, “ lest any man fail of the grace of God,” Heb. xii. 15; and, when at last we triumph, it is through much tribulation that we enter the kingdom, Acts xiv. 22. A thousand counteracting agencies are always in operation ; and it is only as these are vanquished and surmounted, that we can even hold on our way, to say nothing of waxing stronger and stronger.
Something, analogous to this, may be seen in the material world. “ The precious fruits of the earth” require the care of the husbandman, whereas, weeds are indigenous to the soil, and will flourish, not only without cultivation, but in spite of it. Thus it is with the downward tendencies of our moral constitution.
We have borne the image of the earthy," and its earthliness mingles even with “the image of the heavenly.” In fact, we have worn our fetters so long, that, although they may be broken off and thrown away, we shall carry the scars of them to the grave. Our consolation is that the infirmities of the flesh shall perish there ; and that, since our citizenship is in heaven, thence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself, Phil. iii. 20, 21.
But, while backsliding and apostasy, in all their varieties and modifications, are traceable to the sin that dwelleth in us, subsidiary causes exist in abundance; they surround us at every step, and mingle with our most sacred associations. To specify those among them, which are the most common, and consequently the most destructive, is the object of the present chapter.
Of these, a misapprehension of piety is one. Some Christians think, or seem to think, that conversion is the whole of discipleship. With them, personal safety is everything; acceptable service, nothing. So that, provided a man be a new creature in Christ Jesus, it matters little whether he is strong or feeble, healthful or sickly, diligent or lazy. Accordingly, when an awakened sinner attains the assurance of hope, and knows, of a truth, that God, for Christ's sake, has pardoned all his sins, these teachers would leave him to " sit, and sing himself away to everlasting bliss.” And, should he grow tired of singing, and inquire for work to do, they will caution him against
legality,” as they call it, and assure him that “the whole duty of man is to “wait,” till
grapes grow on thorns, and figs on thistles. A further cause of religious declension is found in the selection of unsatisfactory patterns of excellence. The measuring of themselves by themselves, with which an apostle charged the members of the Corinthian church, 2 Cor. x. 12, is a perversity of judgment which has outlived that age. Too often, indeed, is this the only standard of comparison ; whereas, our obligation is, to perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord, chap. vii. 1. In no branch of mental acquirement, is it likely that we shall much exceed our own expectations. Accordingly, if in religion we only anticipate failure, we shall probably realize little else.
Another reason has been somewhat anticipated in a former chapter ; but the point is too important to be omitted here. I allude now to the popular anticipation of this calamity, as a matter of course. The soul, under the hidings of God's face, has often been reminded of his sovereignty, and told to exercise faith, and patience, and hope, as to the return of brighter days; whereas, the guilty absence of these very graces has, perhaps, occasioned the whole calamity. The friends of Job were wrong in their estimate of his character, for the power of discerning spirits was no necessary part of the prophetic office; yet not only were they right in their general principles, but their sentiments were the language of divine inspiration. Hence, the force and justice of the questions of Eliphaz,-"Are the consolations of God small with thee?—Is there any secret thing with thee?” Job xv. 11. The “secret thing" is usually the cause of all the mischief, and to detect and remove it, should be the first anxiety of the backslider. Forgetfulness of this simple fact, has given rise to an error which pervades and vitiates a large portion of our experimental theology. Volume upon volume has been written on the assumption that declension is a matter requiring sympathy rather than censure; and reasons have been sought for it in the sovereignty of God, which were far more likely to be found in the depravity of man. Of so objectionable a course, take the following, as a specimen.
“ If we desire to feel less evil in us, than God suffers us to have, we may be assured that this desire proceeds, either from pride, seeking to glory in our own righteousness, or from an impatient wish to get rid of the trouble of striving always against sin; whereas, it should be enough for us, that God suffers it son, truly, which may equally suffice to reconcile our minds to all the wretchedness and depravity in the universe. This astounding passage, than which a more dangerous one it