Yesterday I shared some thoughts from the first chapter of Octavius Winslow’s Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul. In the second chapter Winslow narrows his focus to address a declension in the grace of love. It is possible for our love to grow cold (Matthew 24:12), and since love is “the spring-head of all the kindred graces,” it only makes sense to explain how we tend to abandon our first love (Revelation 2:4).
Winslow begins this chapter by explaining the importance of love in the Christian life. Love to God is “the primary and grand requirement of the Divine Law.” Jesus teaches that loving God with the whole being is the greatest commandment in the Law (Matthew 22:37-38). God is wise and good to require us to love him: “His wisdom saw the necessity of having one center of supreme and adoring affection, and one object of supreme and spiritual worship to angels and to men. His goodness suggested that that center and that that object should be himself, the perfection of infinite excellence, the fountain of infinite good.”
In addition to being the essence of God’s Law, love is “the great influential principle of the Gospel.” God’s love is the first cause of the plan of salvation (John 3:16), and the motive of our religion is love: “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). Winslow explains why this is the case: “Apart from the constraining influence of Christ’s love in the heart, there cannot possibly be a willing, prompt, and holy obedience to his commandments.”
God’s love assures us of our adoption as his children. “The relation in which the believer stands to God, under the new covenant dispensation, is not that of a slave to his master, but of a child to its father.” He continues: “A holy, self-denying, cross-bearing life, is not the drudgery of a slave, but the filial, loving obedience of a child: it springs from love to the person, and gratitude for the work of Jesus; and is the blessed effort of the spirit of adoption in the heart.”
Love is an active grace in the believer’s life. Faith works by love (Galatians 5:6). Love labors (Hebrews 6:10). “There is nothing indolent in the nature of true love; it is not an inert, sluggish principle: where it dwells in the heart in a healthy and vigorous state, it constrains the believer to live not to himself, but unto Him who loved and gave Himself for him; it awakes the soul to watchfulness, sets it upon the work of frequent self-examination, influences it to prayer, daily walking in his precepts, acts of kindness, benevolence, and charity, all springing from love to God, and flowing in a channel of love to man."
Love is an essential part of the Christian’s armor. We are to put on the breastplate of faith and love (1 Thessalonians 5:8). “Who can overcome a child of God whose heart is overflowing with Divine love? What enemy can prevail against him thus armed?”
Winslow reminds us that love exceeds all the other Christian virtues because “love is immortal; it is the grace of the Spirit that will never die.” Drawing on 1 Corinthians 13:13, he observes, “The day is not far distant, when faith will be turned to sight, and hope will be lost in full fruition, but love will never die; it will live on, and expand the heart, and tune the lip, and inspire the song, through the unceasing ages of eternity.”
Before moving to the main theme of this second chapter, which is the declension of love in the soul of the Christian, Winslow invites us to consider our first encounter with the love of Christ. “For one moment let the Christian reader call to mind the period and circumstances of his first espousals to Jesus.” Let us remember that “blissful moment” when we were able to say, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine!” Recalling our first love awakens a desire to recapture the sweetness of the love of Christ in our hearts.
Since it is true that “the grace of love in a child of God may greatly and sadly decline,” Winslow gives us characteristics of love’s decline in the soul.
Love has declined when we do not approach God as our loving Father as we did before. “The sweet confidence and simple trust of the child is lost.” “The tender, loving, childlike spirit, that marked the walk of the believer in the days of his espousals, when no object was so glorious to him as God, no being so loved as his heavenly Father, no spot so sacred as the throne of communion, no theme so sweet as his free grace of adoption, has in a great degree departed; and distrust, and legal fears, and bondage of spirit, have succeeded it.”
Love has declined when we misinterpret God’s acts of providence as if he is against us. “The mark of a vigorous love to God is when the soul justifies God in all his wise and gracious dealings with it; rebels not, murmurs not, repines not, but meekly and silently acquiesces in the dispensation, but it never so trying.”
Love has declined when there is little desire to spend time with God and when we do spend time, we do so more out of a sense of duty than delight. If we truly love the Lord, we want to commune with him in secret prayer. We desire to talk to him and experience the blessing of his presence. A Christian “cannot live in the neglect of constant, secret, and close fellowship with his God, his best and most faithful Friend.”
Love has declined when there is less tenderness and sensitivity in our walk with God. The lover of God fears offending his Father and dreads to slight his Friend. Nothing is sweeter to him than the nearness of God.
Love has declined when Christ is perceived as less glorious to the eye and less precious to the heart. “When there is but little dealing with his atoning blood, leaning upon his righteousness, drawing from his fullness, and bearing daily the cross of Christ, the love of a believer waxeth cold.”
Love has declined when we love less the people of God. If we love God, we love all who bear his image. 1 John makes it clear that if we say that we love God and hate our brother, we are liars (5:20-21). “If we love not the visible resemblance, how can we love the invisible Archetype?”
Love has declined when we desire less and less to advance his kingdom and glorify his name. “A true, spiritual, and lively interest in the increase of Christ’s kingdom, in the diffusion of his truth, the deepening of holiness in the church, the conversion of sinners, will invariably decline with the declension of the love to God.”
After sharing the characteristics of a loss of love for God, Winslow then moves to the causes of love’s declension.
“Love to God will expel love to the world; love to the world will deaden the soul’s love to God.” See James 4:4 and 1 John 2:15-17 for the biblical teaching on the danger of loving the world. Winslow warns, “No Christian man can maintain his spirituality unimpaired, his love uninjured, his robe unspotted, his walk irreproachable, who secretly admits the world to his heart.”
Making Idols of God’s Creation
When we worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, we will always lose our love for God. He doesn’t want to be second place to anything or anyone. Winslow warns about the grave danger of transferring our love to objects inferior to the Lord. Our idols never satisfy and always disappoint.
Misunderstanding God’s Dealings
When bad things happen in our lives, and we assume that God is out to get us or that he is against us, we will lose our love for God. Acknowledging God’s smiling face behind all his bitter providences is the key to maintaining a holy love for God. In the life of God’s children, bad things are the fruits of his love, not the result of his judgment.
Finally, in a manner similar to the counsel of chapter one, Winslow tells us what to do in order to return to our first love.
You need to find out the cause of your loss of love for God and do something about it. “Love to God is a tender flower; it is a sensitive plant, soon and easily crushed; perpetual vigilance is needed to preserve it in a healthy, growing state.” Consider the possibility that one of the three causes mentioned above is the root of the problem. Clear all obstacles to loving God supremely.
Draw continually from the fountain of God’s love. God’s love comes first. “We love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). “O heart-melting truth! The love of God to us when yet we were sinners, who can unfold it? What mortal tongue can describe it?” As the sun is always shining, so God is always loving; yet we must stay in the sunshine of God’s love. We must bask in the glory of his unending love to us in Christ. “Seek to be filled with it, that you may know the love of Christ which passes knowledge, and that your heart in return may ascend in a flame of love to God.”
Do not fail to honor the Holy Spirit in the great work of personal revival. “It is he that will fan to a flame thy waning love, by unfolding the cross, and directing your heart into the love of God.”
Remember that though your love has grown cold, the love of your God and Father towards you has undergone no change. “Retrace thy steps and return again to God.”