The Ministers and Messengers of the Boston Baptist Association, to the respective Churches which they represent, send Christian salutation.
The past year has been mercifully distinguished by the effusions of the Holy Spirit upon the Churches of this Association. In no year since its existence at a distinct body has it received so great an increase. The season has, however, arrived, when some of the Churches are anticipating as near, that lukewarmness and declension, which usually succeed extensive religious revivals. This consideration has suggested, as a suitable topic for the present letter, the causes, evils, and remedies of religious declension.
It is not our intention to treat of those backslidings which end in total apostasy, or in gross immorality. Whoever wishes to examine the nature and evils of these, will find them discussed with the ability and good sense for which the author is so justly distinguished, in Fuller's "Backslider."
The declension to which we intend to direct your attention, is that decay and coldness which succeed revivals, and which some Christians as regularly expect, as that cold and frost and winter will succeed the fruitful summer and autumnal harvest.
I. One frequent cause of declension, may be traced to the incorrect views and indiscreet conversation of christians on this subject.
It is the opinion of many persons whose piety is by no means questionable, that Christians must necessarily decline, or, as they in Scripture language express it, leave their first love. Hence when the young convert, in the fervour of his newly implanted grace, speaks of his joy and hope, his escape from the love of the world, and his attachment to spiritual objects, he is at once injudiciously and needlessly, (though with the best motives,) told by the more advanced christian, that his love will soon cool, his hopes sink, and doubts and fears becloud his mind. He is told of others whose love and joy were once as ardent as his, who soon relapsed. Aware of his own inexperience and ignorance, he feels himself bound to believe the testimony of the more experienced, and with dejection and gloom anticipates the predicted and disastrous retrograde. The evil, he conceives, is unavoidable, and eftorts to prevent it unavailing. His hopes of an increase of grace, and higher attainments in christian excellence, which he had fondly cherished, are damped, his exertions paralyzed, and his mind prepared for the very decline, which he should have been taught to avoid, and which, with better instruction, he might never experience.
The opinion that Christians must necessarily decline, is, in our estimation, both false and dangerous. It is no doubt true that many, if not most professed christians, do decline; but it does not follow that all do, or any necessarily must. The passage to which allusion is so frequently had to prove that christians must
leave their first love, gives no countenance to such a sentiment. The passage is contained in the threatening which Jesus Christ denounced against the Church of Ephesus. After commending various particulars in their conduct, he subjoins: "Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember, therefore, from whence thou hast fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent." Here we have a pointed censure, and a severe judgment threatened against this sin; a judgment which has long since been executed, in the entire extermination of this church. No support, surely, is furnished by this passage, to the belief, that for the christian to leave his first love is necessary or innocent. In the epistle of Jude, christians are required to keep themselves in the love of God, and the connection obviously shows, that the apostle considered it a practicable duly.
II. Another cause of religious decline, may be found in the physical infirmities of our nature.
This cause may operate In various ways.
By the physical infirmities of our nature, we mean bodily languor, depression of the animal spirits, the distracting influence that prosperous or afflictive events are always liable to have upon us, and our inability to feel with equal force, at all times, the value and excellency of spiritual objects. Bodily or mental infirmities may predispose us to gloom, or to a neglect of religious duties, as either may be inseparably connected with an unhappy decline. Many christians, through mere bodily languor, have neglected the closet or the family altar, and this has begotten indifference or doubts, and in the end has led to an entire destruction of acute christian sensibility. Prosperous or afflictive dispensations may so fully absorb the mind for a season, as effectually to turn it away from the Great Disposer of all events, and the momentous interests of eternity. Where our infirmities do not operate in these ways, the human mind is so formed, or so disordered, that we cannot at all times in our present state, perceive with the same distinctness, nor feel with the same force, the value of spiritual objects. Familiarity with any objects, may induce indifference towards them. So weak is our nature that the perpetual recurrence of any subjects to the mind is liable to have a chilling and deadening influence.
We do not mean that our attachment to spiritual objects really declines, but our sense of their existence is rendered less distinct. The young christian, just emerged from his native darkness, is more sensible of the light in which he rejoices, than the christian who has long walked in it. Still it cannot be believed that in reality he is more firm in his attachments to truth and righteousness, than the man who has been years on the Christian course. Holy affections as well as evil habits strengthen by continuance. Yet when the mind is first turned from the world to God, the person may be more sensible of his love and joy, than after his recently excited affections have settled down into a controlling principle. He may have considered himself while
animated with his ardent joy and hope, as more religious; he may have been so considered by others; and the abatement or his ardent joy and lively zeal may lead him to doubt and despondency; and these may be followed with years of darkness and decline. It is an event exceeding1y common in the experience of young Christians, to have ardent feelings succeeded by clouds and gloom. In the early stage of their experience, hope is apt suddenly to give place to fear, zea1 to be followed by indifference, and both by despondency. The remembrance of their holy elevation and lively joy, when it has in any measure abated, may, through the infirmity of our nature, and the agency of satan, minister to their doubts, and ultimately to their decline.
III. A more frequent and a more heinous cause of decline is found in the love of the world. Many good men are necessarily much engaged in worldly business, who are daily sensible of their exposure to its deadening influence upon their spirituality. They however intend to keep the world in its proper place, and constantly and earnestly pray that they may not unduly set their affections upon it. They go into it, in obedience to the calls of duty, as the physician enters the hospital, and are thankful when they can retreat from its noise and bustle, and enjoy in the retirement of the closet, or the family, the word and worship of God. Sensible of their dependance on divine bounty for every degree of prosperity in their lawful occupations, they supplicate the blessing of God on the labours of their hands, cheerfully receive what he bestows, and submissively yield to his dispensations in what he withholds. In this case it is obvious that worldly business may be pursued without worldly-mindedness. There is nothing in the honest labours of life, the toil by which we procure the supply of our wants, or the business by which we endeavour to improve our condition, and extend our means of doing good, inconsistent with devotedness to God. It is not only a matter of necessity, but of duty, to be diligent in business: and in the pursuit of all lawful and necessary business, we may glorify God and enjoy his favour.
But there are others who are eager after earthly distinctions, covetous to possess riches, are unsatisfied with an humble condition, and the necessaries and comforts of life, and eager to grasp posssesions which would make them neither more useful nor happy. Now whenever this grovelling spirit in any measure takes possession of the christian's mind, he is sure to decline, and will ordinarily decline in exact proportion to the strength of his earthly attachments. Worldly-mindedness steals into the heart by imperceptible degree and often acquires a dominion over us by means which at first may occasion us little alarm. It allures our approaches towards it, first, by one step which, considered in itself, may not be blameable, and afterwards by another, which, compared with the former, may be very little different from it; till, at length, by differences so minute that they may escape our notice, it accomplishes the greatest revolutions in our spiritual notice, and alters it from good to less good, from less good to bad,
downwards through the various stages of the latter, till we at last reach the most lamentable state of decline.
The various objects which may unduly engross our affections, and excite our worldly-mindedness, cannot be specified. At all times, in every place, we are exposed to the allurements of a debasing world; and every christian has strong reasons to keep an attentive eye, and a steady rein upon those principles of our nature, which incline us to love things seen and temporal, rather than those that are unseen and eternal.
The evils of a decline, like its causes are numerous.
It is destructive of the individual's own peace of conscience, comfort, and usefulness. It intercepts his views of divine objects, quenches the Holy Spirit, disqualifies the soul for communion with God, increases the number and power of temptations, and diminishes his ability to resist them. When his decline is great and visible, it grieves the friends of Christ, awakens doubts and fears in their minds concerning their own piety, fills the mouth of the enemies of Christ with reproaches, dishonours the christian name and cause, plants thorns in the pillow of death and lessens the degree of happiness in the subject of it, beyond the grave.
With a view that you may avoid the evils of a state of decline, we shall suggest a few remedies.
You have already seen that there are various causes of declension, causes quite distinct in their character, and which therefore may require different remedies. The remedies which we shall name, are capable of a general application.
I. Learn to set a high value upon spiritual enjoyments. Objects dear to our hearts are guarded with anxious care. To guard our religious enjoyments it is necessary to acquire just and expensive views of their value. Low ideas of their worth will naturally beget carelessness, and carelessness decline.
II. Endeavour to obtain correct views of the practicableness of retaining your religious enjoyments.
We do not wish to encourage the belief that you will cease at any moment to be dependant on divine grace to keep you in the love of truth and in the practice of your duty. At no time and in no circumstances are we independent; and not to realize our dependence, is both dangerous and criminal. Self-confidence is a sin of most fatal tendency. But while you distrust your own strength, do not distrust the power and faithfulness of God to keep you from defection. It is what he is both able and willing to do.
Others have advanced in knowledge and holiness, without any unhappy decline of which we have known. We have no intimation that St. Paul ever declined either in his zeal or love. On the contrary, he tells us, "This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth to those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." St. Peter, who himself declined for a season most grievously, says, 2 Peter i. 5, 10, "Give all
diligence, add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge," &c. and subjoins, "for if ye do these things ye shall never fail."
As we approach near the period when truth shall universally prevail in the world, we are inclined to believe declensions will not succeed revivals.
III. If you would not experience the evils of a decline, daily implore of God by humble fervent prayer, the purifying and sanctifying influences of his Spirit to maintain in full vigour in your hearts his fear, and to enable you to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. You must pray with earnestness for strength to withstand temptation, and grace to deepen your sense of the evil of a decline. In all your prayers, however, you should remember that unless you be disposed to improve the grace already imparted, you will hope in vain to receive additional supplies. God does not bestow his Spirit, if we may so speak, for no purpose. It cannot be expected that its holy influences will be squandered away upon him who habitually neglects, opposes and slights them. A disposition to improve the gifts of God, as well as a conviction of our want of them, is essential to sincere and earnest prayer. Let us unceasingly employ the efficacy of fervent prayer, that we may never decline in the ardour of our affections, nor relax in our efforts to promote the cause of truth and righteousness. ===========
[From Boston Baptist Association Minutes, 1827, pp. 18-22. This document is from a microfilm copy at Southern Baptist Seminary Library, Louisville, KY. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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