THE RELAPSE AND RECOVERY OF THE NEW NATURE
“O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence and be no more.”–Psalm 39:13
Our blessed Lord, in those remarkable words addressed to His erring apostle, “When you are converted, strengthen your brethren,” unfolded one of the most authentic and sad, yet difficult chapters in the history of the believer. Peter, to whom the exhortation was spoken, was already a converted and gracious man. He had fallen, and fallen deeply, but he had not fallen from the principle and possession of grace. This he could never fully or finally lose. And yet the Lord speaks of his conversion–“When you are CONVERTED.” The real state of the disciple will at once explain the meaning of the Lord.
Peter had backslidden. He had fallen, not, as we have intimated, from the principle and possession, but from the profession and power of grace. In denying his Lord and Master he had fearfully sinned, had awfully relapsed; the locks of his spiritual strength were shorn, and he was powerless in the hands of his foe. Jesus came to his rescue. Bending upon him a look of forgiving love, which in a moment dissolved his heart into penitence, he addressed those memorable words, “when you are converted, strengthen your brethren.”
In other words, “When you are restored from your backsliding, turned back from your wandering, rescued from your fall, as an evidence and fruit and acknowledgment of your recovery, strengthen your brethren–your brethren who, through weakness of faith, littleness of grace, and manifold infirmities, are liable to fall through the force of a like temptation.” We are to understand, then, by the re-conversion of the believer, his restoration from those spiritual lapses to which, more or less, all the Lord’s people are subject, to that healthy and robust state of grace from which his soul had declined.
The experience of the Psalmist–which suggests the subject of the present chapter–harmonizes in its essential features with that of all the people of God. David was now, as from a sick couch, taking a solemn and close survey of eternity. Anticipating his departure, he roused himself to the task of self-examination. The result of that scrutiny was the startling discovery of his soul’s declension–the loss of spiritual vitality and strength. Hence his prayer–“O spare me, that I may RECOVER STRENGTH, before I go hence and be no more.” How much is there in this spiritual lapse of grace with which the condition of many believers corresponds!
Nothing is so liable to fluctuation, nothing more sensible of change, as the renewed nature of the believer. The conviction of spiritual loss to which this giant in grace was roused in view of his departure, describes the state into which many imperceptibly decline, and suspect not its existence, and are not conscious of their loss, until the solemn charge is heard, “Set your house in order, for you shall die, and not live.” Let us briefly consider some of the spiritual lapses to which the new nature in the soul is exposed, and the means of recovery.
It is a melancholy state thus portrayed–to witness a man of God drooping, a standard-bearer fainting, a stalwart competitor for the great prize acknowledging, just as he was about to finish his career and reach the goal, the decay of spiritual vitality and power, is a spectacle startling and painful in the extreme. And yet how frequent its occurrence! There is nothing in the renewed nature to exempt it from spiritual fluctuation. It is a divine, but not a deified, nature; it is of God, but it is not God. It dwells in a body of sin and of death, and is exposed to all those hostile influences which spring from the fallen and corrupt nature in the midst of which it dwells. Just as the barometer is depressed or elevated by atmospheric influences, or just as the compass is disturbed by the proximity of objects naturally affecting its regularity, so the new man is constantly exposed to deterioration from the opposite and baneful influences springing from our fallen and corrupt nature. The depressions, therefore, of the new nature arise not from any essential defect in that nature–for it is incorruptible–but from the sin that dwells in us. Thus it is that the believer loses strength.
“That I may recover strength.” The strongest may become weak, yes, weak as the weakest, when sin is allowed for a moment the ascendancy. But when conscious of the feebleness of our own native strength, of the fallibility of our own wisdom, of our soul’s emptiness, poverty, and nothingness; when thus acquainted with, and so weaned from our own selves, then are we strong–strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might–strong and mighty in Jehovah. This was the testimony of Paul–“When I am weak, then am I strong.”
But let us consider–In what is this loss of spiritual strength the most visible? Where is the child of God the most sensible, especially when he takes a close view of death and eternity, of soul-weakness?
With regard to the principle and action of FAITH, this decay of vigor may be visible. As faith is the ‘parent grace’ of all the Christian graces, the root of all the fruits of the Spirit, the mainspring of all the holy actings of the soul, it will be at once perceived that any decay, weakening, or slumber of this precious grace, must paralyze, in a measure, the entire Christianity of the soul. When faith droops, all the springs of the soul are down; when faith rises, the soul mounts as on eagle’s wings. Peter trod the broken waves manfully so long as the eye of his faith rested upon Jesus, its Author and Object. But when the winds increased in might, and the sea grew more billowy, he looked from Jesus to his watery pathway, and his faith failing, he began to sink–“Lord, save; I perish!”
And how weakening to faith is the looking off from Jesus to our sins and infirmities–to our trials, difficulties, and dangers! The moment ‘faith’ forms an alliance with ‘sense’, it droops. A healthy body chained to a sick body would, before long, itself grow sickly. A living body fastened to a dead body would soon itself die.
Now, faith in itself, is a divine, healthy, vigorous principle. Left to its own actings, resting simply upon God’s Word, looking only to the Lord Jesus, and dealing chiefly with the invisible, it will achieve wonders. It will overcome the world; it will foil the stratagems of Satan; it will deaden the power of sin; it will tread firmly the broken waters of trial; and will do and suffer all the will of God. What great things this divine principle wrought in the worthies of old! “By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. Women received their loved ones back again from death. But others trusted God and were tortured, preferring to die rather than turn from God and be free. They placed their hope in the resurrection to a better life.”
With such a picture before us, how sad is the thought that our faith should ever suffer weakness or decay. And yet what a waning of the strength of faith may the believer discover in his soul just at the hour when he needs more than ever all the might and power of this wondrous grace!
My soul, is your faith weak, and does your heart tremble? Are you looking at the broken waves beneath you, at the dark clouds above you? Is it now the fourth watch of the night, and Jesus not come to you? Are resources narrowing, needs pressing, difficulties accumulating, and your heart dying within you? Fear not! He who trod the limpid waves with Peter, who gently said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” then stretched forth His hand and caught him, is at your side, and will not allow you to sink and perish beneath these waters. Hope in God; for you shall yet praise Him who is the health of your countenance, and your God.
There may likewise be a loss of strength in the LOVE of the renewed nature. The love of the changed heart to God is so pure, unearthly, and divine a sentiment–a feeling so spiritually sensitive–it is soon affected by any change in the moral atmosphere by which it is encircled. How soon and how easily may it be wounded, chilled, and impaired! The ever-pressing cares of this life, the undue ascendancy of the creature, the captivity of sensual objects, the insidious power of the world, will, any single one of them, seriously affect the purity, simplicity, and intensity of our love to the Lord.
“Do you love me more than these?” is a question which we need our Lord to put to us on every occasion. How condescending His grace to place Himself in competition with the objects of sense! “More than these? More than these creature claimants? More than these earthly honors? More than these worldly riches? More than these domestic comforts? More than parent or child, brother, sister, friend, or country? Do you love me singly, supremely, above all, and even amid ten thousand suitors for your heart?”
Oh, blessed they who from the depth of their sincerity can respond, “Lord, You know all things, You know that love You!”
And yet when life approaches its close–when human objects of love, and creature objects of interest, are losing their power and their hold, and the soul peers beyond the present into the solemn, mysterious future, how many a child of God has found reason to exclaim, “O spare me, that I may recover strength!” Love has lost its power; its strength is impaired, its luster is shaded, its hold upon Christ is weakened, and the soul begins to doubt all past, as all present experience of its existence. But, thank God, the principle of love to Christ can never utterly perish. It is a part of the new nature, is born in the soul when the soul is born again, and can only perish with the destruction of the ransomed, renewed, and saved soul itself–and this can never, never be! Watch, then, against the waning of your love, lest when about to fly to a world where all is love, you find how impaired is the vigor of this grace of the Spirit.
Reposing your head upon the lap of some too fond and too indulged creature-delight–be it the world, be it the creature, or be it SELF–you awake to the startling discovery, how sadly the locks of its strength have been severed, and with how little of this heavenly grace you are about to enter heaven, and meet Him whose love to you had never, never faltered, chilled, or changed. “O spare me, that I may recover strength.”
How frequently, too has it transpired in the experience of the child of God, that just at the hour that the HOPE of glory is about to enter upon its full fruition, its sun is setting amid darkling clouds! “Where now is my hope? My hope is perished from the Lord!” is the mournful exclamation of the departing Christian. Oh, sad and melancholy discovery! But is it really so that Christian hope–the good hope, through grace, enkindled in the renewed heart by the “God of hope”–hope reposing upon Christ, and entwined with His cross–hope which, like a brilliant star, poured its silver rays down upon many a tempestuous sea–hope which buoyed up the soul in many a season of sorrow and darkness, despondency and despair–hope which looked for the coming glory, and anticipated living forever with the Lord–can it be possible that that hope, however feeble its strength, or dim its luster, or obscure its vision, shall ever perish? Never! no, never!
There is hope in your end, O believer in Jesus; however weak and veiled that hope may be, it shall not make you ashamed; and when all other hopes–earth’s fondest, brightest–languish and expire, the Spirit of God will fan this faint and feeble spark, and again shall its flame burn brightly, and pour its radiance upon the upward pathway of the departing spirit. And yet, at that solemn hour, when heart and flesh are failing, you may find it needful to breathe the prayer of David, “O spare me, that I may recover strength.” Study to keep your hope lively–its lamp daily fed and brightly burning. “The God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may ABOUND IN HOPE through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
And thus, also, with regard to EVIDENCES, these may grow dim when the strongest evidences alone will meet the necessities of the solemn case. Evidences of conversion and of safety, which amid the buoyancy of health, and the heyday of life, the excitement of religious activity, and the influence of religious ceremonial, pacified the conscience and tranquilized the feelings, are found to be unsatisfactory and insufficient when the soul is about to appear before God. Searching thus for evidences of salvation, many a child of God has for the first time discovered his loss of spiritual strength. One by one has failed him, and he is compelled to close his Christian course as he commenced it, in looking as a poor, empty, lost sinner to the Lord Jesus, clinging to that exceeding great and precious promise of the Savior, as the last and only plank that could sustain him–“Him that comes unto me, I will in no wise cast out.”
He has now learned what books and sermons failed to teach him before–that the great, the grand evidence of our salvation is in a direct and simple faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; that it is not in looking to ourselves, or in searching within ourselves for evidences that we are enabled to say in humble assurance, “I know whom I have believed;” but in looking out of and off from our own selves, upon the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners, even of the chief. Such has been the experience of some of the holiest saints, whose piety and labors have adorned the Church or blest the world. Searching in that solemn moment for evidences of salvation, how many a believer has taken up the language of the Psalmist–“O spare me, that I may recover strength.”
The SPIRITUAL LIFE of the renewed soul is equally exposed to this loss of vitality and vigor. A long-existing and deep spirit of drowsiness may enwrap the believer, of which he is scarcely conscious. He knows that he has life in his soul, but he is not aware how depressed is its vitality, how low are its springs. Much has passed for life which was no real evidence of its existence. Periodical awakenings, spasmodic action, religious activity and excitement have, for the time, supplied the absence of that holy retirement, devout meditation, self-examination, secret prayer, closeness, and watchfulness, and holiness of walk which formed the only safe and authentic evidences of the life of God in the soul.
But now that the spirit is about to enter the eternal world, the solemn discovery is made–“How low are the springs of life in my soul! How faint, how feeble, how imperceptible almost, is its pulse! ‘O spare me, that I may recover strength.'”
But we need not multiply these varied lapses of grace in the soul of the believer. When there exists the element of spiritual declension and decay in any one part of the renewed nature, the whole is more or less sympathetically affected. The drooping of one grace will impart languor and feebleness to every other. Our true wisdom is to watch the first beginning of declension, and the moment it is discovered, to seek the remedy and apply the check.
One of the most solemn and affecting views of our subject is, that this decay of which we speak is always secret, unnoticed, and unsuspected. In the graphic language of the prophet, “Gray hairs are here and there upon him, yet he knows not,” (Hos. 7:9.) Old age steals on, and we are insensible of its encroachment. The hair is silvered, the eye loses its luster, the limbs their elasticity, and memory its vigor, and yet we take no thought of time. In fact, we strive to banish from our mind the conviction that “old age” is actually advancing. Thus is it with the decay of grace. It goes on slowly, imperceptibly, and unsuspected, yet most sure. Spiritual strength becomes weakened, the eye of faith grows dim, its divine and precious Object becomes distant and obscure, the hand of faith upon Jesus loses its grasp, the spiritual action of the heart becomes languid, the pulse of life beats feebly, and the soul loses its zest and relish for divine things–for fellowship with God–for communion with saints–for the public means of grace, and for a spiritual, practical, Christ-exalting ministry. “Gray hairs are here and there upon him, yet he knows not.”
Nor does he desire to know it. It is an unmistakable evidence of this state of decay of grace–the reluctance of the heart to know its real state before God. Just as some individuals would efface each new mark of growing years, and shrink from every sad memento of approaching senility–as if ignorance of the fact would arrest the march of time, and each evidence of its ravages obliterated would win back the spring-tide of youth! so the soul, losing its spiritual vitality and vigor, loves not to be reminded of its spiritual loss, declension, and decay, but is content to live on in its lukewarmness, making no effort to strengthen the things that remain, that are ready to die, until, like David, the prayer is wrung from the trembling lip, “O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence and be no more.”
Alas! that the child of God should so lose his strength of soul as not only to frame excuses for his drowsiness, but even exclaim, “A little more sleep, and a little more slumber.” Such was the case of the Church in the Song–“I sleep, but my heart wakes.” What a contentedness was there here with her state of slumber! And, then, to Christ’s approach–“Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled–for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night,” she replies, “I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?” She was not only in a state of drowsiness, a state of heart-departure from her Lord, but she was satisfied to be so, and framed excuses in justification of her continuance in that state. Distinctly did she recognize the voice of her Beloved. Well did she know that it was He who so gently was knocking at her door, while, as with irresistible tenderness, the heart-melting words were falling upon her still wakeful ear, “My head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night;” and yet she loved the bed of sloth too well to arise and admit her Beloved.
Oh, what a sin was this! It was sin added to sin–it was sin begetting sin. There was first the sin that led to her slothful condition; then there was the sin of her backsliding; then the sin of contentedness with her state; and then the crowning sin of all; the excuses with which she repelled the loving, tender appeal of Him who loved her, and whom yet she loved. In all this see we not ourselves? Behold, to what a low state of grace the renewed nature may decline! See how far the Christ-loving heart may wander from the Lord! See what excuses even a saint of God may frame for his sins!
But what a patient Jesus! Gaze upon the one picture and then upon the other, and mark the contrast! The backsliding saint–the still loving, clinging, wooing Savior! There is no slumbering of Christ’s love towards His saints, no denial of them, no indifference to their circumstances. They may forget that they are His children, God never forgets that He is their Father. Listen to His touching, astounding language–“Turn, O backsliding children, says the Lord; for I am married unto you,” (Jer. 3:14.)
There may be besides, as we have just remarked, seasons of spiritual wandering or depression in the Christian’s experience, when he may lose sight of his adoption, may sink the character of the son in that of the slave, the heir in the servant; but God never forgets that they are still children, and He still a Father. And how tender and irresistible the invitation, “Return unto me!” And again–“I said after she had done all these things, Turn unto me.” Yet once more–“Return, O backsliding Israel, says the Lord; and I will not cause my anger to fall upon you–for I am merciful, says the Lord, and I will not keep anger forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity.” Child of God! conscious of departure, bemoaning grievously your sad declension, shedding tears of bitter grief over your willful and aggravated backslidings, can you resist the gracious invitation of the God from whom you have wandered? “Return unto me; unto me from whom you have backslidden, against whose grace you have sinned, whose love you have slighted, whose Spirit you have grieved. Return to me, who will heal your backslidings, will love you freely, and will remember your transgressions no more forever. Look not at my holiness or my justice, but at my grace, my goodness, and my mercy; how can I put you away, for my compassion and my pardoning love are kindled within me! Though you have backslidden a thousand times over, yet, return again unto me.”
It may be proper in this part of the chapter to group together a few of those CAUSES which have a tendency to produce that spiritual weakness, that soul-declension which so many Christians discover and deplore when on the eve of entering upon the eternal world. The life of God in the renewed soul is so holy, and divinely sensitive, there is scarcely a quarter from which it may not be seriously affected.
The WORLD is a great robber of spiritual strength. It is impossible to go much into it, even when lawful duty summons us, and not be conscious of its deteriorating influence. How much more is this the case when we voluntarily and needlessly expose ourselves to its snares! Oh, how this world eats as a canker-worm into the spirituality of so many! We cannot unite Christianity and the world–walking with Jesus and association with the world–the pleasures of religion and the pleasures of the world–the strength of the strong and sinful conformity to the spirit, the dress, the enjoyments, and the gaieties of the world. The ungodly world is the great Delilah of the Church of God. Alliance with her in any shape will beguile the spiritual life, liberty, and power of the Church into the hands of the uncircumcised Philistines, who will but mock the victim they have ensnared, and make merry with the weakness and disfigurement they have wrought.
Saint of God, you cannot be strong to labor, skillful to fight, powerful to testify for Christ and His truth, if you are indulging in worldly habits or recreations inconsistent with your heavenly calling. Marvel not that you are weak in faith, in prayer, in conflict, and are hastening to the solemn hour of your departure unassured of your salvation, and with but a dim prospect that that departure will be unclouded and serene.
There are other equally potent causes of spiritual decay, which we have only space to group together. Superficial views of sin–unmortified corruptions–unsanctified affections–the indulgence of unbelieving fears and of speculative doubts–a slighting of the means of grace–the habit of reasoning rather than of believing with regard to divine truth–an unsettled ministry–residing in a land where no living gospel springs are–acting as unto man and not wholly as unto the Lord–reserves in child-like obedience–a spirit of levity and humour unbefitting the saintly character–a profane and unhallowed dealing with God’s Word–an uncharitable and unforgiving spirit–a tendency to look more at the difficulties than at the encouragements of the way, more at trials than at the promises, more at evidences than at the cross of Jesus, more at self than at Christ–all these, single or united, will sap and undermine the strength of the soul; and when the last enemy approaches, instead of the victorious shout of the mighty, will be heard the plaintive prayer of the feeble, “O spare me that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more!”
Conscious of spiritual relapse, oh, seek instantly and earnestly a re-conversion of your soul! Let your prayer be–“Restore unto me the joy of Your salvation.” Without ignoring your past experience, denying not the converting, renewing grace of God in your soul, yet, in your return to Christ, begin at the beginning. Come as first you came–a poor, empty sinner to the Savior. Your first love lost, you may win it back by a renewed baptism of the Holy Spirit, by a fresh taking hold of Jesus. And remember that, one end of your re-conversion is that you may strengthen your brethren who are weak, warn those who sin, uplift those who have fallen, and win back those who have erred from the way, ever walking yourself humbly with God. (Ps. 51:12, 13.)
But it is often reserved for the solemn hour of death to discover to the believer the sad waning and loss of spiritual strength. It is at this appalling crisis that many of the saints for the first time awaken to a knowledge of their spiritual decay. Then they discover the “gray hairs” upon them in thick and startling array. About to battle with the last foe, they find the sword has rusted in its scabbard, and the “armor of God” has become loose and poorly fitting. Then they pray, “Lord, yet a little longer spare me, that I may renew my strength, examine my hope, recover my evidences, and experience once more a renewed manifestation of Your love to my soul!”
This clearly was the experience both of David and of Hezekiah, and this may be ours. The prayer–breathed though as with the departing breath–is heard and answered; and divine grace, and strength, and hope are given for the dying hour. And now the departing soul, renewing its spiritual strength like the eagle, uplifts its pinions for the flight. Oh, what a marvelous change have we witnessed at that hour! We have seen spiritual life that throbbed so faintly, divine grace that looked so sickly, holy love that beat so languidly, Christian hope that shone so dimly, now emerge as from a long and dark entombment, clad with all the bloom and vigor of a new-born creation. The petition sent up from the quivering lip of death has been washed in the blood, perfumed with the merits, and presented through the intercession of the great High Priest, and accepted of God. Strength has been given, the foe has been conquered, and with the shout of the conqueror–“O death! where is your sting? O grave! where is your victory?”–waking the echoes of death’s lonely valley, the renewed and ransomed soul has winged its flight to heaven.
“When death is near,
And your heart shrinks with fear
And your limbs fail,
Then lift your heart and pray
To Christ, who smooths the way
Through the dark valley.
“Death comes to set you free;
Oh, meet him cheerily,
As your best friend;
And all your fears shall cease,
And in eternal peace
Your sorrows end!”