I have just completed the first chapter of the book entitled, “Incipient Declension,” which is a general treatment of the problem of backsliding in the Christian life. Winslow calls this “soul declension.” Sadly, this spiritual regression usually happens “by a process of slow and gradual steps,” and may be undetected even by the person who is experiencing it.
Winslow doesn’t want to be misunderstood about the nature of this backsliding. He doesn’t believe that true grace may be lost. He affirms “the indestructible nature of true grace.” However, he does teach that we may lose “the health, vigor, and exercise of that grace in the soul.” True Christians may lose an enjoyment of all their privileges in Jesus Christ.
What is especially alarming about this first chapter is that we may be backsliding in our spiritual lives when all appears to be well. The Christian may be spiritually declining while still affirming the same theological truths. “The Word of God shall be assented to; but as the instrument of sanctification, of abasement, of nourishment, the believer may be an utter stranger to it; yea, he must necessarily be so, while this process of secret declension is going forward in his soul.”
Since we must know the problem before we look for a solution and probe the depth of the wound before we find the cure, Winslow spends time identifying the characteristics of the person who is backsliding.
Winslow places his finger on the central danger: “when there is more knowledge of the truth than experience of its power—more light in the understanding than grace in the affections.”
In point of fact, we may make a diligent use of the means of grace (the Word, Sacraments, and Prayer) without a true spiritual vitality. This formalism can serve as “the lullaby of the soul” which puts us to sleep, making us unaware of the true nature of our spiritual state. “Rocked to sleep by a mere formal religion, the believer is beguiled into the delusion that his heart is right, and his soul prosperous in the sight of God.”
“When a professing man can proceed with his accustomed religious duties, strictly, regularly, formally, and yet experience no enjoyment of God in them, no filial nearness, no brokenness and tenderness, and no consciousness of sweet return, he may suspect that his soul is in a state of secret and incipient backsliding from God.”
We may discover this coldness in our reading of the Scriptures. When we can read the Scriptures in a purely literary manner without relishing the spiritual truth contained in them, we may be sure that we have fallen into this unfortunate condition. “Nothing perhaps more strongly indicates the tone of a believer’s spirituality, than the light in which the Scriptures are regarded by him.”
Prayer becomes formal and dead when there is incipient declension of the soul. We lack an experience of the nearness of God and a taste of the sweetness of his presence.
Even more telling is the way that we relate to Christ. When we have “few dealings with Christ” we have regressed in our spiritual life. “We would be willing to test a man’s religion, both as to its nature and its growth, by his reply to the question, ‘What think ye of Christ?’
Here is where Winslow really shines. He explains how the essence of the Christian life is having Christ in the heart. He is the substance of our life, the source of our sanctification, the spring of our joys, the theme of our song, and “the one glorious object on which thine eye is ever resting.” We must “raise and fix the eye of faith simply and solely upon Jesus” if we are to return to spiritual health.
Before moving on to solutions, Winslow identifies another sign of spiritual declension. It is “an uncharitable walk towards other Christians.” He makes this moving statement: “The more entirely the heart is occupied with the love of Christ, the less room there will be for uncharitableness towards his saints.” We ought to love all those who love the Lord Jesus because we all are members of the same family.
Winslow closes the first chapter with six practical exhortations for spiritual renewal. These are really helpful.
- Be honest about the real state of your soul before God. If we ever want to return to the Lord, we must acknowledge our sin and guilt. Above all else, we must be honest with ourselves because the danger of self-deception is great. Seek to know where you stand with God, and ask the Holy Spirit to lay bare the secret sins of your soul.
- Discover the root cause of your backsliding. What is feeding and at the root of your Christianity? What is the problem at the core of your declension? It may be “some spiritual duty secretly neglected, or some known sin secretly indulged.” “Your soul has lost ground; the Divine life has declined; the fruit of the Spirit has withered; the heart has lost its softness, the conscience its tenderness, the mind its seclusion, the throne of grace its sweetness, the cross of Jesus its attraction.”
- Take the cause of your backsliding and lay it before the Lord in prayer. “This is just what God loves—an open, ingenuous confession of sin.” Admit your problem; ask for the Lord’s help. He alone can grant you repentance and revival.
- Take action to put to death the cause of your backsliding. Drive the Sword of God’s Spirit into the root of your sin. Persevere in attacking the lust of your flesh and the deadness of your soul. Consider the principle upon which you were acting in sin and strike at that. Is it love of self? Kill it. Is it love of the world? Kill it. Is it a sin secretly indulged? Kill it. God will bless and work through the self-efforts of the believer to put sin away. We can kill our sin because our sin was killed in Jesus on the cross.
- Enlarge your mind and heart with a greater love and enjoyment of Christ. Our minds must be “pre-occupied by Christ.” Love for Christ expels love for the world. When we enjoy the sweet fellowship and unparalleled glory of Jesus, we are able to resist the cancers of the soul.
- Seek the filling of the Holy Spirit. Winslow calls this “the great secret of all personal revival.” He speaks of the need for “a fresh baptism of the Holy Ghost.” Winslow is not denying that the Holy Spirit permanently indwells all believers, but he is acknowledging a spiritual reality that is known in Christian experience. There are degrees of the influence and power of the Spirit in our lives. We must seek the Spirit earnestly, perseveringly, and believingly.
Finally, Winslow points out that God often uses a “deep trial, in order to recover you from your soul declension.” In order to get our attention, God graciously brings into our lives a bitter stroke of his providence so that he might win back our hearts. Although we do not want to suffer, we will rejoice if the trial is used by God to restore us to our former joy.
“O Lord, revive thy work! Quicken me, O Lord! Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation!”