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Letter by John Newton – the second letter discussing stages A.B,C,D of the Christian life.

“First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear." Mark 4:28

Dear Sir,
The manner of the Lord’s work in the hearts of his people is not easily traced; though the fact is certain, and the evidence demonstrable from Scripture. In attempting to explain it, we can only speak in general, and are at a loss to form such a description as shall take in the immense variety of cases which occur in the experience of believers. I have already attempted such a general delineation of a young convert, under the character of ‘A’, and am now to speak of him by the name of ‘B’.

This state I suppose to commence, when the soul, after an interchange of hopes and fears, according to the different frames it passes through, is brought to rest in Jesus, by a spiritual apprehension of his complete suitableness and sufficiency, as the wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption of all who trust in him, and is enabled by an appropriating faith to say, "He is mine, and I am is." There are various degrees of this persuasion; it is of a growing nature, and is capable of increase so long as we remain in this world. I call it assurance, when it arises from a simple view of the grace and glory of the Savior, independent of our sensible frames and feelings, so as to enable us to answer all objections, from unbelief and Satan, with the Apostle’s words, "Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died; yes rather, who is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us." Rom. 8:34. This, in my judgment, does not belong to the essence of faith, so that ‘B’ should be deemed more truly a believer than ‘A’, but to the establishment of faith. And now that faith is stronger, it has more to grapple with.

I think the characteristic of the state of ‘A’ is desire, and of ‘B’ is conflict. Not that B’s desires have subsided, or that ‘A’ was a stranger to conflict; but as there was a sensible eagerness and keenness in A’s desires, which, perhaps, is seldom known to be equally strong afterwards, so there are usually trials and exercises in B’s experience; something different in their kind and sharper in their measure than what ‘A’ was exposed to, or indeed had strength to endure. ‘A’, like Israel, has been delivered from Egypt by great power and a stretched-out arm, has been pursued and terrified by many enemies, has given himself up for lost again and again. He has at last seen his enemies destroyed, and has sang the song of Moses and the Lamb upon the banks of the Red Sea. Then he commences ‘B’. Perhaps, like Israel, he thinks his difficulties are at an end, and expects to go on rejoicing until he enters the promised land. But, alas! his difficulties are in a manner but beginning; he has a wilderness before him, of which he is not aware. The Lord is now about to suit his dispensations to humble and to prove him, and to show him what is in his heart, that he may do him good at the latter end, and that all the glory may redound to his own free grace.

Since the Lord hates and abhors sin, and teaches his people whom he loves to hate it likewise, it might seem desirable (and all things are equally easy to him), that at the same time they are delivered from the guilt and reigning power of sin, they should likewise be perfectly freed from the defilement of indwelling sin, and be made fully conformable to him at once. His wisdom has, however, appointed otherwise. But, from the above premises, of God’s hatred of sin, and his love to his people, I think we may certainly conclude, that he would not allow sin to remain in them, if he did not purpose to over-rule it, for the fuller manifestation of the glory of his grace and wisdom, and for the making his salvation more precious to their souls.

It is, however, his command, and therefore their duty: yes, further, from the new nature he has given them, it is their desire to watch and strive against sin; and to propose the mortification of the whole body of sin, and the advancement of sanctification in their hearts, as their great and constant aim, to which they are to have a habitual persevering regard. Upon this plan ‘B’ sets out. The knowledge of our acceptance with God, and of our everlasting security in Christ, has in itself the same tendency upon earth as it will have in heaven, and would, in proportion to the degree of evidence and clearness, produce the same effects, of continual love, joy, peace, gratitude, and praise, if there was nothing to counteract it. But ‘B’ is not all spirit. A depraved nature still cleaves to him; and he has the seeds of every natural corruption yet remaining in his heart. He lives likewise in a world that is full of snares, and occasions, suited to draw forth those corruptions; and he is surrounded by invisible spiritual enemies, the extent of whose power and subtlety he is yet to learn by painful experience. ‘B’ knows, in general, the nature of his Christian warfare, and sees his right to live upon Jesus for righteousness and strength. He is willing to endure hardships as a good soldier of Jesus Christ; and believes, that, though he may be sore thrust at that he may fall, the Lord will be his stay. He knows, that his heart is "deceitful and desperately wicked;" but he does not, he cannot, know at first, the full meaning of that expression.

Yet it is for the Lord’s glory, and will in the end make his grace and love still more precious, that ‘B’ should find new and mortifying proofs of all evil nature as he goes on, such as he could not once have believed had they been foretold to him, as in the case of Peter, Mark 14:29. And, in effect, the abominations of the heart do not appear in their full strength and aggravation, but in the case of one who, like ‘B’, has tasted that the Lord is gracious, and rejoiced in his salvation.

The exceeding sinfulness of sin is manifested, not so much by its breaking through the restraint of threatening and commands, as by its being capable of acting against light and against love. Thus it was with Hezekiah. He had been a faithful and zealous servant of the Lord for many years; but I suppose he knew more of God, and of himself, in the time of his sickness, than he had ever done before. The Lord, who had signally defended him from Sennacherib, was pleased likewise to raise him from the borders of the grave by a miracle, and prolonged the time of his life in answer to prayer. It is plain, from the song which he penned upon his recovery, that he was greatly affected with the mercies he had received; yet still there was something in his heart which he knew not, and which it was for the Lord’s glory he should be made sensible of, and therefore he was pleased to leave him to himself. It is the only instance in which he is said to have been left to himself, and the only instance in which his conduct is condemned.

I apprehend, that, in the state of ‘B’, that is, for a season after we have known the Lord, we have usually the most sensible and distressing experience of our evil natures. I do not say, that it is necessary that we should be left to fall into gross outward sin, in order to know what is in our hearts; though I believe many have thus fallen, whose hearts, under a former sense of redeeming love, have been as truly set against sin, as the hearts of others who have been preserved from such outward falls. The Lord makes some of his children examples and warnings to others, as he pleases. Those who are spared, and whose worst deviations are only known to the Lord and themselves, have great reason to be thankful. I am sure I have: the merciful Lord has not allowed me to make any considerable blot in my profession during the time I have been numbered among his people. But I have nothing to boast of herein. It has not been owing to my wisdom, watchfulness, or spirituality, though in the main he has not allowed me to live in the neglect of his appointed means. But I hope to go softly all my days under the remembrance of many things, for which I have as great cause to be abased before him, as if I had been left to sin grievously in the sight of men. Yet, with respect to my acceptance in the Beloved, I know not if I have had a doubt of a quarter of an hour’s continuance for many years past. But, oh! the multiplied instances of stupidity, ingratitude, impatience, and rebellion, to which my conscience has been witness! And as every heart knows its own bitterness, I have generally heard the like complaints from others of the Lord’s people with whom I have conversed, even from those who have appeared to be eminently gracious and spiritual.

‘B’ does not meet with these things perhaps at first, nor every day. The Lord appoints occasions and turns in life, which try our spirits. There are particular seasons when temptations are suited to our frames, tempers, and situations; and there are times when he is pleased to withdraw, and to permit Satan’s approach, that we may feel how vile we are in ourselves. We are prone to spiritual pride, to self-dependence, to vain confidence, to creature attachments, and a train of evils. The Lord often discovers to us one sinful disposition by exposing us to another. He sometimes shows us what he can do for us and in us; and at other times how little we can do, and how unable we are to stand without him.

By a variety of these exercises, through the over-ruling and edifying influences of the Holy Spirit, ‘B’ is trained up in a growing knowledge of himself and of the Lord. He learns to be more distrustful of his own heart, and to suspect a snare in every step he takes. The dark and disconsolate hours which he has brought upon himself in times past, make him doubly prize the light of God’s countenance, and teach him to dread whatever might grieve the Spirit of God, and cause him to withdraw again. The repeated and multiplied pardons which he has received, increase his admiration of, and the sense of his obligations to, the rich sovereign abounding mercy of the covenant. Much has been forgiven him, therefore he loves much, and therefore he knows how to forgive and pity others. He does not call evil good, or good evil; but his own experiences teach him tenderness and forbearance. He exercises a spirit of meekness towards those who are overtaken in a fault; and his attempts to restore such, are according to the pattern of the Lord’s dealings with himself.

In a word, B’s character, in my judgment, is complete; and he becomes a ‘C’, when the habitual frame of his heart answers to that passage in the Prophet Eze. 16:63; "That you may remember, and be confounded, and never open your mouth any more (to boast, complain, or censure), because of your shame, when I am pacified towards you for all that you have done, says the Lord God."

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The offenses and falls of others must not impede you in your love, for even great grace can coexist with great corruption—how much more this is true when grace is feeble. You do not know how much strife another has concerning these faults, how much he grieves over them in secret, and with how many tears and prayers he seeks forgiveness.

Wilhelmus À Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Chapter 82 – Love for one’s neighbor

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Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Source: John Donne (1620s)

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Source: John Owen, The Glory Of Christ ‘The Way And Means Of The Recovery Of Spiritual Decays, And Of Obtaining Fresh Springs Of Grace’

There is no visible difference, as to light, between the light of the morning and the light of the evening; yea, this latter sometimes, from gleams of the setting sun, seems to be more glorious than the other. But herein they differ: the first goes on gradually to more light, until it comes to perfection; the other gradually gives place to darkness, until it comes to be midnight. … And, by the way, this comparing of the path of the just to the morning light reminds me of what I have seen more than once. That light has sometimes cheerfully appeared to the world, when, after a little season, by reason of clouds, tempests, and storms, it has given place again to darkness, like that of the night; but it has not so been lost and buried like the evening light. After a while it has recovered itself unto a greater luster than before, manifesting that it increased in itself while it was eclipsed as to us.

(Isa. 44:3,4): "I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: will pour my Spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring: and they shall spring up as among the grass, as willows by the watercourses." … And here is, a supposition of what we are in ourselves, both before and after our conversion to God,—namely, as thirsty, dry, and barren ground. We have nothing in ourselves, no radical moisture to make us flourishing and fruitful. And as it is before, so it is after conversion: "We are not sufficient of ourselves; our sufficiency is of God" (II Cor. 3:5). Being left to ourselves, we should utterly wither and perish. But this is the glory of covenant promises, that, as to the communication of the grace of conversion and sanctification to the elect, they are absolutely free and unconditional. … But the promises which respect the growth, degrees, and measures of this grace in believers are not so. There are many duties required of us that these promises may be accomplished towards us and in us; yea, watchful diligence in universal gospel obedience is expected from us to this end. (See II Pet. 1:4-10.) This is the ordinary method of the communication of all supplies of grace to make us spiritually flourish and be fruitful, namely, that we be found in the diligent exercise of what we have received. God sometimes deals otherwise, in a way of sovereignty, and surprises men with healing grace in the midst of their decays and backslidings (as Isa. 57 :17,18). So has many a poor soul been delivered from going down into the pit. The Good Shepherd will go out of His way to save a wandering sheep; but this is the ordinary method.

And there is no grace or mercy that more affects the hearts of believers, that gives them a greater transport of joy and thankfulness, than this of deliverance from backslidings. It is a bringing of the soul out of prison, which enlarges it unto praise (Ps. 142:7).

The work of recovering backsliders or believers from under their spiritual decays is an act of sovereign grace, wrought in us by virtue of divine promises. Out of this eater comes meat. Because believers are liable to such declensions, backslidings, and decays, God has provided and given to us great and precious promises of a recovery, if we duly apply ourselves to the means of it.

That I might show how great a thing it is to have our spiritual decays made up, our backslidings healed, and to attain the vigorous actings of grace and spiritual life, with a flourishing profession and fruitful obedience …

First, all our supplies of grace are from Jesus Christ.

Second, the only way of receiving supplies of spiritual strength and grace from Jesus Christ, on our part, is by faith.

Third, this faith respects the person of Christ, His grace, His whole mediation, with all the effects of it, and His glory in them all. This is that which has been so much insisted on in the foregoing discourses that it ought not to be again insisted upon. This, therefore, is the issue of the whole: a steady view of the glory of Christ, in His person, grace, and office, through faith—or a constant, lively exercise of faith on Him, according as He is revealed to us in the Scripture—is the only effectual way to obtain a revival from under our spiritual decays, and such supplies of grace as shall make us flourishing and fruitful even in old age. He that thus lives by faith in Him shall, by his spiritual thriving and growth, "show that the Lord is upright, that he is our rock, and that there is no unrighteousness in him."

The only inquiry remaining is how a constant view of the glory of Christ will produce this blessed effect in us; and it will do so several ways.

a) It will be effected by that transforming power and efficacy with which this exercise of faith is always accompanied. This is that which changes us every day more and more into the likeness of Christ, as has been at large before declared. Herein all revivals and all flourishings are contained. To have a good measure of conformity to Christ is all whereof in this life, we are capable; the perfection of it is eternal blessedness. According as are our attainments therein, so is the thriving and flourishing of the life of grace in us; which is that which is aimed at. Other ways and means, it may be, have failed us; let us put this to the trial. Let us live in the constant contemplation of the glory of Christ, and virtue will proceed from Him to repair all our decays, to renew a right spirit within us, and to cause us to abound in all duties of obedience. This way of producing these effects flesh and blood will not reveal—it looks like washing in Jordan to cure a leprosy; but the life of faith is a mystery known only to them in whom it is.

b) It will fix the soul to that object which is suited to give it delight, complacency, and satisfaction. This in perfection is blessedness, for it is caused by the eternal vision of the glory of God in Christ; and the nearer approaches we make to this state, the better, the more spiritual, the more heavenly, is the state of our souls. And this is to be obtained only by a constant contemplation of the glory of Christ, as has been declared. And it is several ways effectual to the end now proposed. For,

1. Most of our spiritual decays and barrenness arise from an inordinate admission of other things into our minds. These weaken grace in all its operations. But when the mind is filled with thoughts of Christ and His glory, when the soul cleaves to Him with intense affections, they will cast out, or not give admittance to, those causes of spiritual weakness and indisposition. (See Col. 3:1—5; Eph. 5:8).

2. Where we are engaged in this duty, it will stir up every grace to its due exercise. This is that wherein the spiritual revival inquired after consists. This is all we desire, all we long for, this will make us fat and flourishing—that every grace of the Spirit have its due exercise in us. (See Rom. 5:3—5; II Pet. 1:5—8.) Whereas, therefore, Christ Himself is the first proper, adequate object of all grace, and all its exercise (for it first respects Him, and then other things for Him), when the mind is fixed on Him and His glory, every grace will be in a readiness for its due exercise. And without this we shall never attain it by any resolutions or endeavors of our own, let us make the trial when we please.

3. This will assuredly put us to a vigilant watch and constant conflict against all the deceitful workings of sin, all entrances of temptation, all surprisals into foolish frames by vain imaginations, which are the causes of our decays. Our recovery or revival will not be effected, or a fresh spring of grace be obtained, in a careless, slothful course of profession. Constant watching, fighting, contending against sin, with out utmost endeavor for an absolute conquest over it, are required. And nothing will so much excite and encourage our souls in this as a constant view of Christ and His glory; everything in Him has a constraining power hereunto, as is known to all who have any acquaintance with these things.

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The steps of an apostate’s departure from God

Source: Jeremiah Burroughs, An Exposition of the Prophecy of Hosea, Chap.XIII Ver.2

There is no stop in apostacy. Let men once apostatize from God, and there is no stop then; they cannot tell whither they may go, if once they begin to roll down. A man may think thus, I will but roll thus far, and there I will stop. No, if once you begin to roll, you will roll and roll down to the bottom; you know not whither you may roll, or where you may fall. If a man should leap into the water, and say, I will sink but thus far, to the middle and no farther, this were but folly; you will sink more and more: so it is with apostates; I verily believe those that did make slight at first, did not think that they should go so far. Oh, God forbid that they should do things so vile and so abominable! yea, but when once they are rolling, when once they are sinking, they roll and sink more and more, till they roll into the bottomless pit of hell; they sink more and more, till they sink into the very bottomless gulf, into such things as they would before have shrunk from with abhorrence. There is a curse upon the wicked in Psal. xxxv. 6, "Let their way be dark and slippery; and let the angel of the Lord persecute them." When men will go out of the ways of God into slippery paths of their own, it is just with God that an evil spirit should drive them on in those ways. As in your travelling in champaign countries, a highway goes to such a town, and another lies close by it, and you, it may be, choose the wrong one, and so go on and think it will bring you to the place where you are travelling; but it winds so that you go further and further fi-om the right road, perhaps many miles before you are aware of it: so it is in apostacy; it may be, at first, when men depart from the ways of God they think it not of much moment, but then these evil ways wind gradually, and, it may be, almost imperceptibly, widening the distance between them and God. "They sin more and more."

I will give you the steps of an apostate’s departure from God.

1. Some slight sin against knowledge, though never so little, for sin of mere infirmity I cannot call apostacv; but if it be ever so little a sin against knowledge, it breaks the bond of obedience: when you will venture to do that which you know is against God, this bond of obedience being broken, no marvel though you fall and "sin more and more."

2. Every act of sin tends to increase the habit. Corruption grows by acting; as with grace, every act of grace extends grace in the heart of a man; and the way to grow in grace is, to act grace much; so that when you are acting your grace, you do not only that which is your duty, but you are growing in grace: so when you are acting of corruption, you are not only doing that which is evil, but you are increasing the tendency to it: and therefore every sin that causes us to decline from God, makes us to go more and more from God.

3. Every sin against conscience weakens the work of conscience. The authority of conscience will quickly be weakened when it is once broken; break but off the yoke of conscience, and conscience will be weaker than it was before. The first time a man sins against conscience, his conscience, having a great deal of strength in it, mightily troubles him; but having had a flaw, (as it were.) it grows weaker. I remember a notable story which that reverend and famous divine. Dr. Preston, relates of one in Cambridge, who, after having committed a great sin, had this temptation. Do the act again, and your conscience will trouble you no more: this temptation prevailed with him, he did it again, and then he grew a very sot indeed, and went on in his wickedness. Every sin does somewhat to weaken conscience, and therefore one that falls off from God will "sin more and more."

4. A man loses his comfort in God according to the degree of his departure from him. For some kind of comforts hypocrites may have; as there may be common gifts of the Spirit to enable them to do service, so there may be common gifts of the Spirit to comfort them, they may taste of the powers of the world to come. Many have some flashes of joy; but when they are departed from God they cannot have so much comfort as they were wont to have, and when they have not that comfort they must have it some way, and are fain to go sharking up and down to get it some where else: I cannot have that comfort in God which I was wont to have; I was wont, when I was troubled, to go and read the word, I could find comfort there; let me go into good company, I could find comfort there; but in the presence of God I could find comfort; but now I cannot: and so the heart must have comfort some way or other, and therefore goes more and more from God.

5. When one has sinned against God, holy duties become very unsuitable to his soul. It is a more difficult thing to engage his heart in them than before, and so he comes to neglect duties, and by neglecting them his corruption grows. They were a powerful means to restrain corruption; for when a man is abroad and inclined to licence, yet when he thinks thus, Yea, but before I go to bed I must pray, and how shall I then beg grace from God, when now! willfully sin against him? this curbs a man: so long as he can keep any kind of suitableness between his heart and holy duties, though he should fail in some things, he would quickly recover; but when he begins to have holy duties so veiled as to leave them off, then he will "sin more and more," for the curb is removed.

6. The presence of God is terrible to an apostate. He cannot think of God without some terror; before he would often think and speak of God, but now he puts off the thoughts of God, the thoughts of him and his presence being terrible; it must needs be that he must wander up and down even more and more, be as a Cain wandering away from the presence of God.

7. The thoughts of whatsoever might turn an apostate’s heart to God, are grievous to him. If he thinks of turning to God, presently will be presented to him some difficulty that will make him even put off all those thoughts, and rather give himself liberty to his own ways.

8. One sin cannot be maintained without another. As now, you find when one man has done wrong to another, he knows not how to carry it out but by doing him more wrong, to crush him if he can. And so there are divers sins that have many sins depending upon them; if a man be engaged in a business that is sinful, that he may carry it on successfully he must commit a great many other sins, and so fall off more and more.

9. The pride of men’s hearts is such, that they will attempt to justify transgression. Men love to justify what they have done; when they have sinned, they will grow more resolute and violent, that all people might think that their hearts recoil not in the least. You think many times when you see men very strong and violent in an evil way, that surely they are fully satisfied in it; oh ! you are mightily mistaken in that, they may be very violent and very strong in their way, only that they may persuade other folk, though their own consciences tell them that they are not satisfied. Thus the pride of men’s hearts makes them "sin more and more."

10. When men have gone far in sin, they grow desperate. They little hope ever to recover themselves, and therefore "sin more and more."

11. God in his just judgment withdraws himself from apostates. God withdraws those gifts and common graces that they had, and saith, Let them go on; "he that is filthy, let him be filthy still."

12. God gives up apostates to their corruptions, and to the power of the devil. It is a dreadful thing when the church does it, although it be for the salvation of the soul, and for the destruction of the flesh, 1 Cor. v. 5; but when God delivers up one to his corruptions it is for the soul’s destruction: Do you rule him, saith God, because he would not be ruled. No marvel then though an apostate "sin more and more."

O, stand with all your might against the beginning of sin; tremble, and stop on the threshold. Had this people done so, at the first they trembled, oh, had they but kept that trembling heart continually, it would have preserved them from abundance of evil: and so, do not some of you remember that there has been a heart-trembling and hesitancy at the very thought of those things which, it may be, some of you now practise? oh, happy had it been for you had you kept such a frame ! You young beginners, you tremble at temptations, you tremble at the thoughts of sin, at the first rising of corruption in your hearts; oh keep this frame, and regard not that boldness of spirit which there is in some. Some venture to the edge of the precipice, but it is a dangerous situation; rather keep a trembling, sin-fearing heart, for if you lose that, and beguile but to tamper with some sin, if the devil thus beguile you, it is most likely that after the first offence you will sin more and more, and never pause till you are wholly involved in the snares of the devil.

And let us learn, my brethren, to be more and more in the ways of God, as apostates are more and more in the ways of sin. Oh that it were so with us ! Let us not content ourselves to do a little for God, but still more and more, as David, in Psal. Ixxi. I4, "I will yet praise thee more and more," I will add to thy praise, so the original signifies: Lord, some praise thou hast had in the world, oh that I could live to add any thing to it! "I will yet praise thee more and more."

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http://gracelookingback.wordpress.com/2012/10/05/god-at-work/

And, of course, the roots of that sin are wrapped around many others. So God begins to work way down deep on the whole complicated mess – separating out, discarding, disentangling. Little by little. Weed by weed. Layer by layer. Slowly but surely, he goes ‘up’ until he reaches the surface level – the level at which you prayed – and you can see the results. Long after you expected them.

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… there were many Jews in Israel who were called wise men, but the star did not appear to any of them; rather it shone only on Gentile eyes, and led a chosen company from the ends of the earth to bow at Immanuel’s feet. Sovereignty in these cases clothed itself in the robes of mercy. It was a great mercy that regarded the low estate of the shepherds, and it was a far reaching mercy which gathered from lands which lay in darkness a company of men and allowed them to see God’s wonderful and blessed Savior.

Source: Spurgeon, The Wise Men, the Star, and the Savior

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This is a great inducement to us to repent. There is nothing like the consideration of divine grace to break the heart, both for sin and from sin. That is evangelical repentance, that flows from a sight of Christ, from a sense of his love, and the hopes of pardon and forgiveness through him.

Source: Henry, ‘Matthew 3’

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… the temptations which befall us are not accidental, or regulated by the will of Satan, without God’s permission; but that the Spirit of God presides over our contests as an exercise of our faith. This will aid us in cherishing the assured hope, that God, who is the supreme judge and disposer of the combat,  will not be unmindful of us, but will fortify us against those distresses, which he sees that we are unable to meet.

Source: Calvin, Matthew 4

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