Northampton Baptist Association [England]
By Andrew Fuller, 1785
CAUSES OF DECLENSION IN RELIGION, AND MEANS OF REVIVAL
DEARLY BELOVED BRETHREN,
THROUGH the good hand of our God upon us we met together according to appointment, and enjoyed the pleasure of an agreeable interview with several of our dear friends and brethren in the Lord. We trust also that our God was with us in the different stages of the opportunity. The letters from the several churches, which were attended to the first evening of our meeting together, afforded us matter for pain and pleasure. Two of the associate churches continue destitute of the stated means of grace, others are tried with things of an uncomfortable nature, and most complain of the want of a spirit of fervour and constancy in the ways of God. Yet, on the other hand, we met with some things which afforded us pleasure. Many of our congregations are well attended; a spirit of desire after the word is, we think, upon the increase; nor are our labours, we hope, altogether in vain, as the work of the Lord, in a way of conversion, appears to be carrying on, though not in instances very remarkable.
'Tis true we have reason to bewail our own and others' declensions, yet we are not, upon the whole, discouraged. It affords us no little satisfaction to hear in what manner the monthly prayer meetings which were proposed in our letter of last year have been carried on, and how God has been evidently present in those meetings, stirring up the hearts of his people to wrestle hard with him for the revival of his blessed cause. Though as to the number of members there is no increase this year, but something of the contrary; yet a spirit of prayer in some measnre being poured out more than balances in our account for his defect. We cannot but hope, wherever we see a spirit of earnest prayer generally and perseveringly prevail, that God has some good in reserve, which in his own time he will graciously bestow.
But while we rejoice to see such a spirit of united prayer, we must not stop here, brethren, lest in so doing we stop short. If we would hope for the blessing of God upon us, there must be added to this a spirit of earnest inquiry into the causes of our declensions, and a hearty desire and endeavour for their removal. When Israel could not go forward, but were smitten by the men of Ai, Joshua and the elders of the people prostrated themselves before the Lord. In this they did well; but this was not sufficient - "Get thee up," said the Lord to his servant - "wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face? Israel hath sinned - Up, sanctify the people - and search for the accursed thing!" - This, it is apprehended, is the case with us, as well as it was with Israel; and this must be our employment as well as theirs. With a view to assist you, brethren, and ourselves with you, in this very necessary inquiry, we appropriate the present letter TO THE POINTING OUT OF SOME OF THOSE EVILS WHICH WE APPREHEND TO BE CAUSES OF THAT DECLENSION OF WHICH SO MANY COMPLAIN, AND THE MEANS OF THEIR REMOVAL.
The first thing that we shall request you to make inquiry about is, whether there is not a great degree of contentedness with a mere superficial acquaintance with the gospel, without entering into its SPIRIT and END; and whether this be not one great cause of the declension complained of. - In the apostles' time, and in all times, grace and peace have ever been multiplied by the knowledge of God; and, in proportion as this has been neglected, those have always declined. If we are sanctified by the word of truth, then, as this word is received or disrelished, the work of sanctification must be supposed to rise or fall. We may give a sort of idle assent to the truths of God, which amounts to little more than taking it for granted that they are true, and thinking no more about them, unless somebody opposes us; but this will not influence the heart and life, and yet it seems to be nearly the whole of what many attain to, or seek after.
We maintain the doctrine of one infinitely glorious God; but do we realize the amiableness of his character? If we did, we could not avoid loving him with our heart. and soul, and mind, and strength. - We hold the doctrine of the universal depravity of mankind; but do we enter into its evil nature and awful tendency? If we did the one, how much lower should we lie before God, and how much more should we be filled with a self-loathing spirit! If the other, how should we feel for our fellow sinners! how earnest should we be to use all means, and have all means used, if it might please God thereby to pluck them as brands out of the burning! - We hold the doctrine of a trinity of Persons in the Godhead; but do we cordially enter into the glorious economy of redemption, wherein the conduct of the sacred Three is most gloriously displayed? Surely if we did, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost would be with us more than it is. - We avow the doctrines of free, sovereign, and efficacious grace; but do we generally feel the grace therein discovered? If we did, how low should we lie! how grateful should we be! We should seldom think of their sovereign and discriminating nature, without considering how justly God might have left us all to have had our own will, and followed our own ways; to have continued to increase our malady, and despise the only remedy! Did we properly enter into these subjects, we could not think of a great Saviour, and a great salvation, without loathing ourselves for being such great sinners; nor of what God had done for and given to us without longing to give him our little all, and feeling an habitual desire to do something for him. - If we realized our redemption by the blood of Christ, it would be natural for us to consider ourselves as bought with a price, and therefore not our own; "a price, all price beyond!" O, could we enter into this, we should readily discern the force and propriety of our body and spirit being his; his indeed! dearly bought, and justly due! - Finally, we all profess to believe the vanity of this life and its enjoyments, and ifhe infinitely superior value of that above; but do we indeed enter into these things? If we did, surely we should have more of heavenly-mindedness, and less of criminal attachment to the world.
It is owing in a great degree to this contentment with a superficial knowledge of things, without entering into the spirit of them, that we so often hear the truths of the gospel spoken of with a tone of disgust, calling them dry doctrines!" Whereas gospel truths, if preached in their native simplicity, and received with understanding and cordiality, are the grand source of all well-grounded consolation. We know of no consolation worth receiving but what arises from the influence of truth upon the mind. Christ's words are spirit and life to them who hunger and thirst after them, or have a heart to live upon them; and could we but more thoroughly enter into this way of living, we should find the doctrines of the gospel, instead of being dry, to be what they were in the days of Moses, who declared, "My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distill as the dew; as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass," Deuteronomy xxxii. 2. O brethren, may it be our and your concern not to float upon the surface of Christianity, but to enter into the spirit of it! "For this cause" an apostle bowed his knees "to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," that we might "comprehend the breadth, and length, and depth, and heIght" of things; and for this cause we also wish to bow our knees, knowing that it is by this, if at all, that we are "filled [with] all the fulness of God," Ephesians iii. 14-19.
Another thing which we apprehend to be a great cause of declension is, a contentedness with present attainments, without aspiring after EMINENCE in grace and holiness. If we may judge of people's thoughts and aims by the general tenor of their conduct, there seems to be much of a contentment with about so much religion as is thought necessary to constitute them good men, and that will just suffice to carry them to heaven; without aiming by a course of more than ordinary services to glorify God in their day and generation. We profess to do what we do with a view to glorify God, and not to be saved by it; but is it so indeed? Do these things look like it? How is it, too, that the positive institutions of Christ are treated with so little regard? Whence is it that we hear such language as this so often as we do - "Such a duty, and such an ordinance, is not essential to salvation - we may never be baptized in water, or become church members, and yet go to heaven as well as they that are?"
It is to be feared the old puritanical way of devoting ourselves wholly to be the Lord's, resigning up our bodies, souls, gifts, time, property, with all we have and are to serve him, and frequently renewing these covenants before him, is now awfully neglected. This was to make a business of reIigion, a life's work, and not merely an accidental affair, occurring but now and then, and what must be attended to only when we can spare time from other engagements. Few seem to aim, pray, and strive after eminent love to God and one another. Many appear to be contented if they can but remember the time when they had such love in exercise, and then, tacking to it the notion of perseverance without the thing, they go on and on, satisfied, it seems, if they do but make shift just to get to heaven at last, without much caring how. If we were in a proper spirit, the question with us would not so much be, What must I do for God? as, What can I do for God? A servant that heartily loves his master counts it a privilege to be employed by him, yea, an honour to be intrusted with any of his concerns.
If it is inquired, What then is to be done? wherein in particular can we glorify God more than we have done? We answer by asking, Is there no room for amendment? Have we been sufficiently earnest and constant in private prayer? Are there none of us that have opportunities to set apart particular times to pray for the effusion of the Holy Spirit? Can we do no more than we have done in instructing our families? Are there none of our dependants, workmen, or neighbours that we might speak to, at least so far as to ask them to go and hear the gospel? Can we rectify nothing in our tempers and behaviour in the world, so as better to recommend religion? Cannot we watch more? Cannot we save a little more of our substance to give to the poor? In a word, is there no room or possibility left for our being more meek, loving, and resembling the blessed Jesus than we have been?
To glorify God, and recommend by our example the religion of the meek and lowly Jesus, are the chief ends for which it is worth while to live; but do we sufficiently pursue these ends? Even these chief ends of our existence, are they in any good degree so much as kept in view? Ah, what have we done for God in the towns, villages, and families where we reside? Christians are said to be the light of the world, and the salt of the earth - do we answer these characters? Is the world enlightened by us? Does a savour of Christ accompany our spirit and eonversation? Our business, as Christians, is practically to be holding forth lhe word of life. Have we, by our earnestness, sufficiently held forth its importance? or by our chaste conversation, coupled with fear, its holy tendeney? Have we all along, by a becoming firmness of spirit, made it evident that religion is no low, mean, or dastardly business? Have we by a cheerful complacency in God's service, gospel, and providence sufficiently held forth the excellency of his government and the happy tendency of his holy religion? - Doubtless, the most holy and upright Christians in these matters will find great cause for reflection. and room for amendment; but are there not many who scarcely ever think about them, or, if they do, it only amounts to this, to sigh, and go backward, resting satisfied with a few lifeless complaints, without any real and abiding efforts to have things otherwise?
Another cause of declension, we apprehend, is making the religion of others our standard, instead of the word of God. - The word of God is the only safe rule we have to go by, either in judgiug what is real religion, or what exertions and services for God are incumbent upon us. As it is unsafe to conclude ourselves real Christians because we may have such feelings as we have heard spoken of by some whom we account good men, so it is unjust to conclude that we have religion enough because we may suppose ourselves to be equal to the generality of those that now bear that character. What if they be good men? they are not our standard - and what if their conversation in general be such as gives them a reputation in the religious world? Christ did not say, Learn of them, but, Learn of me. Or if in a measure we are allowed to follow them who through faith and patience inherit. the promises, still it is with this restriction, as far as they are followers of Christ.
Alas, how much is the professing part of mankind governed by ill example! If the question turns upon religious diligence, as, How often shall I attend at the house of God - once or twice on the Lord's day? or how frequently shall I give my company at church meetings, opportunities for prayer, and such like? is not the auswer commonly governed by what others do in these cases, rather than by what is right in itself? - So, if it turns on liberality, the question is not, What am I able to spare in this case, consistent with all other obligations? but, What does Mr. such a one give? I shall do the same as he does. - Something of this kind may not be wrong, as a degree of proportion among friends is desirable; but if carried to too great lengths, we must beware lest our attention to precedent should so far exclude principle in the affair as to render even what we do unacceptable in the sight of God. - So if the question turns on any particular piece of conduct, whether it be defensible or not, instead of searching the Bible, and praying to be led in the narrow way of truth and righteousness, how common is it to hear such language as this. - Such and such good men do so; surely, therefore, there can be no great harm in it! - In short, great numbers appear to be quite satisfied if they are but about as strict and as holy as other people with whom they are connected.
Many ill effects appear evidently to arise from this quarter. Hence it is that, for the want of bringing our religion and religious life to the test of God's holy word, we are in general so wretchedly deficient in a sense of our vast and constant defects, have no spirit to press forward, but go on and on, without repentance for them, or so much as a thought of doing otherwise. - Hence also there is so much vanity and spiritual pride among us. While we content ourselves with barely keeping pace with one another, we may all become wretched idlers, and loose walkers; and yet, as one is about as good as another, each may think highly of himself; whereas, bring him and his companions with him to the glass of God's holy word, and if they have any sensibility left, they must see their odious picture, abhor tbemselves, and feel their former conduct as but too much resembling that of a company of evil conspirators who keep each other in countenance. - Finally, to this it may be ascribed in part that so many are constantly waxing worse and worse, more and more loose and careless in their spirit and conduct. - For those who are contented not to do better than other people, generally allow themselves to do a little worse. An imitator is scarcely ever known to equal an original in the good, but generally exceeds him in the bad; not only in imitating his feelings, but adding others to their number. If we would resemble any great and good man, we mnst do as he does, and that is, keep our eye upon the mark, and follow Christ as our model. It is by this means that he has attained to be what he is. Here we shall be in no danger of learning any thing amiss; and truly we have failings enow [enough] of our own, in not conforming to the model, without deriving any more from the imperfections of the model itself.
Once more, - The want of considering THE CONSEQUENCES OF OUR OWN GOOD AND EVIL CONDUCT is, we apprehend, another great cause of declension in many people. - It is common for people on many occasions to think within themselves in some such manner as this -- "What signify my faults, or my efforts? They can weigh but little for or against the public good. What will my prayers avail? and what great loss will be sustained by an individual occasionally omitting the duty of prayer, or attendance on a church meeting, or it may be the public worship and ordinances of God? And what consequences will follow if one be a little now and then off one's watch - nobody is perfect," &c. &c. This, and a great deal more such, horrid atheism, it is to be feared, if a thorough search were made, would be found to lie at the bottom of our common departures from God.
If, when an army goes forth to engage the enemy, every soldier were to reason with himself thus - Of what great consequence will my services be? it is but little execution that I can do; it will make but very little difference, therefore, if I desert or stand neuter - there are enow to fight without me, - what would be the consequence? Would such reasoning be admitted? Was it admitted in the case of the Reubenites, who cowardly abode by their sheep-folds while their brethren jeoparded their lives upon the high places in the field? Was not Meraz cursed with a bitter curse because its inhabitants came not forth to the help of the Lord in the day of the mighty? Jude v. 15, 16, 23. If an army would hope to obtain the victory, every man should act as if the whole issue of the battle depended upon his conduct: so, if ever things go well in a religious view, it will be when everyone is concerned to act as if he were the only one that remained on God's side.
We may think the efforts of an individual to be trifling; but, dear brethren, let not this atheistical spirit prevail over us. It is the same spawn with that cast forth in the days of Job, when they asked concerning the Almighty, "What profit shall we have if we pray unto him?" At this rate Abraham might have forborne interceding for Sodom, arid Daniel for his brethren of the captivity, James also must be mistaken in saying that the prayer of a single, individual righteous man availeth mnch. Ah, brethren, this spirit is not from above, but cometh of an evil heart of unbelief departing from the living God! Have done with that bastard humility, that teaches you such a sort of thinking low of your own prayers and exertions for God as to make you decline them, or at least to be slack and indifferent in them! Great things frequently rise from small beginnings. Some of the greatest good that has ever been done in the world has been set a going by the efforts of an individual. - Witness the Christianizing of a great part of the heathen world by the labours of a Paul, and the glorious reformation from popery began by the struggles of a Luther.
It is impossible to tell what good may result from one earnest wrestling with God, from one hearty exertion in his cause or from one instance of a meek and lowly spirit, overcoming evil with good. Though there is nothing in our doings from which we could look for such great things, yet God is pleased frequently to crown our poor services with infinite reward. Such conduct may be, and often has been, the means of the conversion and eternal salvation of souls; and who that has any Christianity in him would not reckon this reward enough? A realizing sense of these things would stir us all up; ministers to preach the gospel to every creature, private Christians, situated in this or that dark town or village, to use all means to have it preached, and both to recommend it to all around by a meek and unblemished conversation.
Again, We may think the faults of an individual to be trifling, but they are not so. For the crime of Achan the army of Israel suffered a defeat, and the whole camp could not go forward. Let us tremble at the thought of being a dead weight to the society of which we are members! Besides, the awful tendency of such conduct is seen in its contagious influence. If people continue to be governed by example, as they certainly will in a great degree, then there is no knowing what the consequences will be, nor where they will end. A single defect or slip, of which we may think but little at the time, may be copied by our children, servants, neighbours, or friends, over and over again; yea, it may be transmitted to posterity, and pleaded as a precedent for evil when we are no more! Thus it may kindle a fire which, if we ourselves are saved from it, may nevertheless burn to the lowest hell, and aggravate the everlasting misery of many around us, who are "flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bone!"
These, brethren, we apprehend, are some of the causes, among many others, which have produced those declensions which you and we lament. But what do we say? Do we indeed lament them? If we do, it will be natural for us to inquire, What shall we do? What means can be used towards their removal, and a happy revival? If this be now indeed the object of our inquiry, we cannot do better than to attend to the advice of the great Head of the church to a backsliding people - "Remember from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do thy first works." - "Be watchful, and strengthen the things that remain that are ready to die." - "Remember how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent!" Revelation ii. 5; iii. 2, 3. Particularly,
First, Let us recollect the best periods of the Christian church. and compare tltem with the present; and the best parts of our own life, if we know when they were, and compare them with what we now are. - A recollection of the disinterestedness zeal and godly simplicity of the primitive Christians, and their successors in after-ages, millions of whom, in Christ's cause, loved not their lives unto death, would surely make us loathe ourselves for our detestable lukewarmness! As Protestants, let us think of the fervent zeal and holy piety of our Reformers - think what objects they grasped, what difficulties they encountered, and what ends they obtained! As Protestant Dissenters, let us reflect on the spirit and conduct of our puritan and non-conforming ancestors. Think how they served Goa at the expense of all that was dear to them in this world, and laid the foundation of our churches in woods, and dens, and caves of the earth! Say, too, was their love to God more than need be? Is the importance of things abated since their death? Might not they have pleaded the danger and cruelty of the times in excuse for a non-appearance for God, with much more seeming plausibility than we can excuse our Spirit of hateful indifference? O let us remember whence we are fallen, and repent!
As to our own lives, if we are real Christians, probably we can remember times wherein the great concerns of salvation seemed to eclipse all other objects. We covenanted with God - we resigned over all to him - we loved to be his, wholly his, rather than our own - we were willing to do any thing, or become any thing, that should glorify his name. And is it so now? No! but why not? what iniquity have we found in him, that we are gone away backward? "O my people, saith the Lord, what have I done unto thee? wherein have I wearied thee? Testify agaiust me!" Have I been a hard master, or a churlish father, or a faithless friend? Have I not been patient enough with you, or generous enough towards you? Could I have done any thing more for you that I have not done? Was the covenant you made with me a hard bargain? Was it hard on your side for me to be made sin, who knew no sin, that you might be made the righteousness of God in me? Were the rewards of my service such as you could not live upon? Is it better with you now than then? - O Christian reader! pause awhile; lay aside the paper, and retire before God! reflect, and pour out thy soul before him. - Say unto him, "O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of face!" Thus, thus, remember whence thou art fallen, and repent!
But do not stop here - think it not sufficient that we lament and mourn over our departures from God; we must return to him with full purpose or heart - "Strengthen the things that remain which are ready to die." Cherish a greater love to the truths of God - pay an invariable regard to the discipline of his house - cultivate love to one another - frequently mingle souls by frequently assembling yourselves together - encourage a meek, humble, and savoury spirit, rather than a curious one. These are some of the things among us that are "ready to die!" To this it is added,
"Do thy first works." - Fill up your places in God's worship with that earnestness and constancy as when you were first seeking after the salvation of your souls - flee from those things which conscience, in its most tender and best informed state, durst not meddle with, though since perhaps they may have become trifling in your eyes — walk in your family, in the world, and in the church, with God always before you — live in love, meekness, and forbearance with one another — whatever your hands find you to do, "do it with all your might;" seeking to promote, by all means, the present and eternal welfare of all around you.
Finally, brethren, let us not forget to intermingle prayer with all we do. Our need of God's Holy Spirit to enable us to do any thing, and every thing, truly good, should excite us to this. Without his blessing all means are without efficacy, and every effort for revival will be in vain. Constantly and earnestly, therefore, let us approach his throne. Take all occasions especially for closet prayer; here, if any where, we shall get fresh strength, and maintain a life of communion with God. Our Lord Jesus used frequently to retire into a mountain alone for prayer: he, therefore, that is a follower of Christ, must follow him in this important duty.
Dearly beloved brethren, farewell! "Unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy - to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen."
[From The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, Vol. III, 1845; reprint, 1988, pp. 318-324. Formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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