John Newton's Letters

QUESTION: What are the most obvious Causes, Symptoms, and Effects of a Decline in the Spiritual Life?

Believers are, by nature, dead in trespasses and sins, even as others—but, by faith in the Son of God, they are made partakers of a new and endless life. They derive it from him; and he has said, "Because I live, you shall live also." But the life of this life, if I may so speak, its manifestation and exercise, is subject to great changes. A sick man is still alive—but he has lost the cheerfulness, activity, and vigor which he possessed while he was in health. There are many people, who if they are, as we would hope, really alive to God—are at least sick, languid, and in a declining state. May the great Physician restore them! It is sometimes said, that "the knowledge of a disease amounts to half a remedy"; which will hold thus far in the present case, that unless we are sensible of our disorder and our danger—we shall not be heartily solicitous for a recovery.

The causes and symptoms or effects of such a decline are very numerous, nor is it always easy to distinguish them, for they have reciprocal influence to strengthen each other. What may be assigned as the cause, in many cases, is likewise a proof that the plague is already begun; and the effects may be considered as so many causes, which render the malady more confirmed, and more dangerous.

Among the many general CAUSES, we may assign a principal place to doctrinal error. I do not include every mistake or erroneous sentiment, which may be adopted or retained; but there are some errors, which, for the suddenness and violence of their operation, may be compared to 'poison'! Thus the Galatians, by listening to false teachers, were seduced from the simplicity of the gospel; the consequence was, that they quickly lost the blessedness they had once spoken of. Poison is seldom taken in the gross; but, if mingled with food, the mischief is not suspected until it is discovered by the effect.

Thus those who are employed in poisoning souls, generally make use of some important and beneficial truth, as a vehicle by which they convey their malignant drug into the minds of the unwary! Perhaps they speak well of the person and atonement of Christ, or they exalt the riches and freedom of divine grace—while under the veil of these fair pretenses, they insinuate prejudices against the nature or necessity of that holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. Others speak strongly in general terms in favor of personal holiness—but their aim is to withdraw the heart from a dependence upon the Savior's blood, and the influences of his Holy Spirit, without which the most studied exactness of conduct, differs no less from the holiness of the gospel—than a picture or a statue, or a dead carcass, differs from a living man.

Whoever is thus prevailed upon, in the great and essential points of Scriptural doctrine—to separate, in his judgment and experience, those things which God has joined together, is already infected with a disease in its own nature mortal, and his religion, unless the Lord mercifully interposes, will degenerate into either licentiousness or formality!

We live in a day when too many are tossed to and fro, like ships without helm or pilot, by various winds of doctrine; and therefore those who wish well to their own souls, cannot be too much upon their guard against that spirit of curiosity and desire for 'new things', which the apostle describes by the metaphor of having itching ears, a desire of hearing every novel and singular teacher, lest they imbibe errors before they are aware, and become a prey to the sleight and craftiness of those who lie in wait to deceive!

Spiritual pride and self-admiration will likewise infallibly cause a declension in the divine life, though the mind may be preserved from the infection of doctrinal errors, and though the power of gospel truth may for a time have been really experienced. If our attainments in knowledge and giftedness, and even in grace—seduce us into a good opinion of ourselves, as if we were wise and good—we are already ensnared, in danger of falling every step we take, of mistaking the right path, and proceeding from bad to worse, without a power of correcting or even of discovering our deviations—unless and until the Lord mercifully interposes, by restoring us to a spirit of humility and dependence upon Himself. For God, who gives more grace to the humble—resists the proud! He beholds them with abhorrence—in proportion to the degree in which they admire themselves. It is the invariable law of his kingdom, that everyone who exalts himself—shall be abased.

True Christians, through the remaining evil of their hearts, and the subtle temptations of their enemy, are liable, not only to the workings of that pride which is common to our fallen nature—but to a certain kind of pride, which, though the most absurd and intolerable in any person, can only be found among those who make profession of the gospel. We have nothing but what we have received, and therefore to be proud of titles, wealth, knowledge, success, or any temporal advantages, by which the providence of God has distinguished us—is downright sinful! And for those who confess themselves to be 'sinners', and therefore deserving of nothing but misery and wrath—to be proud of those peculiar blessings which are derived from the gospel of his grace, is a wickedness of which even the demons are not capable of!

The apostle Paul was so aware of his danger of being exalted above measure, through the abundant revelations and peculiar favors which the Lord had afforded him, that he says, "There was given me a messenger of Satan to buffet me." He speaks of this sharp dispensation as an additional mercy, because he saw it was necessary, and designed to keep him humble and attentive to his own weakness.

Ministers who are honored with singular abilities and success, have great need of watchfulness and prayer on this account. The Lord sees not as man sees. Simple-hearted hearers are apt to admire their favorite preacher, and almost to consider him as something more than man in the pulpit, taking it for granted that he is deeply affected himself with the truths, which, with so much apparent liberty and power, he proposes to them; while, perhaps, the poor worm is secretly indulging self-applause, and pleasing himself with the numbers and attention of those who hang upon his words!

Perhaps such thoughts will occasionally rise in the minds of the best ministers; but, if they are allowed, if they become habitual, and enter strongly into the idea he forms of his own character; and if, while he professes to preach Christ Jesus the Lord—he is preaching himself, and seeking his own glory—he is guilty of high treason against the Majesty of him in whose name he speaks. And sooner or later, the effects of his pride will be visible and noticed. Errors in judgment, gross misconduct, and abatement of zeal, of gifts, of influence, are evils, always to be dreaded, when spiritual pride has gained an ascendancy, whether in public or in private life. "For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" 1 Corinthians 4:7 "The Lord Almighty has planned it, to bring low the pride of all glory and to humble all who are renowned on the earth." Isaiah 23:9

An inordinate desire and attachment to the things of this present world, may be assigned as a third prevailing cause of a spiritual declension. Unless this evil principle is mortified in its root—by the doctrine of the cross—it will in time prevail over the most splendid profession. That love of the world, which is inconsistent with the true love of God—manifests itself in two different ways, as men by temper and habit are differently inclined:

The first is covetousness or greediness for gain. This was the ruin of Judas, and probably the cause of the defection of Demas. By the honorable mention made of him in some of Paul's epistles, Demas seems to have had much of Paul's confidence and esteem for a season. Yet at length his covetous passion prevailed, and the last account we have of him from the apostle, is, "Demas has deserted me—because he loved this present world." 2 Timothy 4:10

Again, there are people not chargeable with the love of money for its own sake—for they rather squander it—than hoard it. Yet they are equally under the influence of a worldly spirit! They manifest their worldly hearts—by an expensive taste in the articles of dress, furniture and feasting—which are always unsuitable to a Christian profession.

It is not easy to exactly mark out the precise line of Christian conduct in these respects, which befits the different situations in which the providence of God has placed us. Nor is it necessary, to those who are poor in spirit—and upright in heart. A simple desire of pleasing God, and adorning the gospel, will solve most cases of how a believer should spend his money—which occupy little and trifling minds. The inclination of our heart—will always direct and regulate our voluntary expenses. Those who love the Lord, and whose spirits are lively in His service, will avoid both stinginess and selfish extravagance. They will rather lean to the frugal side in how they spend their money on themselves—that they may be better able to promote God's cause, and to relieve the necessities of His people.

Misers, who can be content with the mere form of religion, will hoard all they can save—in order to gratify their avarice! Others will spend all they can spare—to gratify their vanity, or their worldly appetites!

It is not easy to determine which of these evils is the greatest. Perhaps of the two, the miser is least accessible to conviction, and consequently the most difficult to be reclaimed. But a desire for extravagance and indulgence, if persisted in, will gradually lead to such compliances with the spirit and maxims of the world, as will certainly weaken, if not wholly suppress—the exercise of vital godliness. In whatever degree the "love of the world" prevails—the "health of the soul" will proportionably decline.

"People who long to be rich, fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows!" 1 Timothy 6:9-10.

Many other causes might be enumerated—but most of them may be reduced to the heads I have already mentioned. The practice of a single sin, or the omission of a single duty—if allowed against the light of conscience, and, if habitual, will be sufficient to keep the soul weak, unfruitful, and uncomfortable, and lay it open to the impression of every surrounding temptation. Sometimes unfaithfulness to light already received, perverts the judgment, and then errors which seem to afford some countenance or plea for a sin which the heart will not give up, are readily embraced, to evade the remonstrances of conscience. At other times, errors, incautiously admitted, imperceptibly weaken the sense of duty, and by degrees, spread their influences over the whole conduct. Faith and a good conscience are frequently mentioned together by the apostle, for they are inseparable; to part with one is to part with both. Those who hold the mystery of faith in a pure conscience, shall be preserved in a thriving frame of spirit, they shall grow in grace, go on from strength to strength, shall walk honorably and comfortably. But so far as the doctrines or the rules of the gospel are neglected, a wasting sickness will prey upon the vitals of religion, a sickness, in its nature mortal, and from which none recover—but those on whom God mercifully bestows the grace of repentance unto life.

The SYMPTOMS of such a soul sickness are very numerous and diversified, as tempers and situations vary. A few of those which are more generally apparent, and sure indications of a decline in religion are the following.

Bodily sickness is usually attended with loss of appetite, inactivity, and restlessness. Likewise, the sickness of the soul deprives it of rest and peace, causes a dullness and indolence in the service of God, and an indisposition to the means of grace, to secret waiting upon God, and to the public ordinances. These appointments, so necessary to preserve spiritual health, are either gradually neglected and given up, or the attendance upon them dwindles into a mere formal round, without relish and without benefit.

To the healthy man, plain food is savory—but the palate, when vitiated by sickness, becomes picky and fastidious, and hankers after varieties and delicacies. Likewise, when the sincere milk of the gospel, plain truth delivered in plain words, is no longer pleasing—but a person requires curious speculations, or the frothy eloquence of man's wisdom, to engage his attention, it is a bad sign. For these are suited to nourish, not the constitution—but the disease.

From slighting or trifling with those means which God has provided to satisfy the soul—the next step usually is—to seek relief from a compliance with the spirit, customs, and amusements of the world. And these compliances, when once allowed, will soon be defended; and those who cannot approve or imitate such conformity, will be represented as under the influence of a narrow, legal, or pharisaic spirit.

The sick professor is in a delirium, which prevents him from feeling his disease—and he rather supposes the alteration in his conduct is owing to an increase of wisdom, light, and liberty. He considers the time when he was more strict and circumspect as a time of ignorance, will smile at the recollection of what he now deems his childish scruples, and congratulates himself that he has happily outgrown them, and now finds that the services of God and the world are not so incompatible as he once thought them to be.

Yet while he thus relaxes the rule of his own conduct, he is a critically severe observer of the behavior of others. He sharply censures the miscarriages and even the mistakes of ministers and professors, if an occasion offers, and speaks of these things, not weeping as the apostle did—but with pleasure, and labors to persuade himself, that the strictness so much talked of, is either a cloak of hypocrisy, or the fruit of superstition. True Christians seldom meet with more uncandid misconstruction, or undeserved reproach, than from those who, having once been their companions, afterwards desert them.

When the disorder is at this height, it is truly dangerous, and indeed, as to any human help, desperate. But power belongs to God. May it please him to remember in mercy those who are near unto death, to restore them to their right minds, and to recover them to himself. Otherwise, "it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them!"