Declining People

But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
~ Revelation 2:14

Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD; I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. Israel was holiness unto the LORD, and the firstfruits of his increase: all that devour him shall offend; evil shall come upon them, saith the LORD. Hear ye the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel: Thus saith the LORD, What iniquity have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me, and have walked after vanity, and are become vain?
~ Jeremiah 2:2-5

And there shall ye remember your ways, and all your doings, wherein ye have been defiled; and ye shall lothe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that ye have committed.
~ Ezekiel 20:43

O Israel, return unto the LORD thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity.
~ Hosea 14:1

And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
~ Acts 17:30-31

And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, the faithful city.
~ Isaiah 1:26

Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
~ Revelation 2:16

The Dangers of Decline, by Jonathan Edwards. The following contains an excerpt from his work.

Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou has left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent.
– Revelation 2:4-5


When any visible people of God continue long cold and dead, and declining in the things of religion, there is danger that God will take away their religious advantages.

The church of Ephesus were threatened with this except they repented. They had of late been in a declining way; they were grown cool to what they used to be. And if they still continued, Christ threatened that he would come and “remove thy candlestick out of its place.” If they continued so for any long time, he would execute this threatening upon them, as is implied in his threatening that he would “come unto ’em quickly,” which implies if they did not repent quickly.

The Ephesian church had had great advantages. They had been blessed with the preaching of the apostle Paul, as we have an account in the Acts, and with the ministry of the evangelist Timothy, who was a bright light in the church of God (Acts 19). And after that it was the place of the abode of the apostle John and was under his more immediate care, besides their having such for their stated elders as were appointed under the conduct and direction of the apostles.

And they had been fervent for religion. Their first love was warm, and their first works were very worthy and excellent. But they had declined and were already grown cold to what they were, and were declining more and more. And therefore Christ threatens them with the withdrawing of his visible presence amongst them. Their advantages had been great; their candlestick was a candlestick of gold; but this was in danger to be removed.

(I.) Inquire wherein the declension and deadness of a people in the things of religion appears. (I) answer,

First. When a people grow cold and dead with respect to religion, there generally is but little said about (it). There will be but little said about it in families. And when neighbors meet, you shall hear but little talk about soul concerns; all the talk will be about the world. They’ll be full of talk about their worldly business, about this and the other worldly design, about buying and selling. Or their tongues will be yet worse employed, in talking against their neighbor.

That which men’s hearts do most abound with, that their tongues will be apt to (be) employed about. When men’s hearts are taken up about the world, there will be little talk about anything (else); but if men are full of concern about spiritual and eternal things, and they have the principal possession of their hearts, it will surely be agreeable to ’em sometimes to speak of them. And when there is a warm spirit in religion, it will oftentimes be the subject of conversation. Men will naturally fall into it; Matthew 12:34, “of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh”; see Malachi 3:16, “They that feared the Lord spoke often one to another.”

Second. When a people decline and grow cold in religion, there is a decay of outward strictness in religion. There is not that strictness in keeping the sabbath day; but it will be violated by people’s encroaching upon holy time at its beginning, and by their talking (of) worldly and profane things, or by such light and diverting talk which don’t show that reverence for the sabbath which is becoming. There is not that appearance of reverence and solemnity in public worship which is becoming.

There is great decay of family religion. There is great want of care and pains in instructing children and instilling principles of religion into ’em. There is not a strict care to keep up a constant attendance on family worship in the members of the family. There is want of care to keep God’s ordinances pure, and to hear a testimony against scandalous iniquity.

Third. When a people grow cold and dead in religion, immoralities are wont to prevail. There is a near alliance between morality and grace; though morality don’t include grace, yet grace includes morality. And when one flourishes amongst a people, the other will flourish; and when one decays, it is an argument that the other also decays. If immorality is suppressed, and outward religion and morality flourishes amongst a people, ’tis a sign that there are many have true grace. But (if) immorality increases, ’tis a sign that the power of godliness declines. ‘Tis also a sign of carnal security, and want of convictions in men of their sin, and danger in a natural condition.

If men are cold in religion, their hearts will be warm about something else; if virtue and holiness be not pursued, vice and wickedness will. When a people grow cold and unconcerned about the things of religion, injustice, and fraud, and oppression will grow. There will be an increase of a spirit of sensuality; licentiousness will increase amongst young people.

Fourth. When religion declines there will be a decay of a spirit of love amongst neighbors and brethren. When religion flourishes it will cause a spirit of love and peace to prevail amongst a people, and that, several ways.

It cuts off the occasion of men’s contending. When men contend it is generally about the world and worldly things; but when religion flourishes, men’s minds are taken off from worldly things. They are not so much disposed to contend for their profit and for their honor, because they are more concerned that they may be saved. The world is the bone of contention, and their minds are more taken up about other things. Convictions and a concern about another world restrain men’s lusts, and ’tis from men’s lusts that comes contention; James 4:1, “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts which war in your members?”

And then there will be many that will be truly gracious; and in times wherein the Spirit of God is poured out upon a people, grace is wont to be more lively in its exercises in the saints than at other times. And true grace confers a disposition to love and peace. It mortifies contrary dispositions; it disposes to pursue after peace and to be peacemakers. It makes men humble, and ’tis “only by pride,” as Solomon says, “comes contention” (Proverbs 13:10).

When religion therefore prevails among a people, there will be seen much of a spirit of love one towards another amongst them; but when a people are cold and dead in matters of religion, a contrary spirit will prevail. There will be a spirit of malice and revenge, a spirit of envy; and hence will come evil-speaking and backbitings, emulations, wrath, (and) strife. The prevalence of a spirit of contention amongst a people is a certain sign of deadness with respect to the things of religion. When men’s spirits are hot with contention, they are cold to religion.

Fifth. When a people decline and grow cold in religion, there are but rare instances of a saving work of conversion. Ministers preach in vain; the wicked are not plucked away. ‘Tis but seldom that they hear the joyful tidings from their hearers of a discovery of the glory of Christ, and of the redeeming mercy and love of God in him to the souls of (men).5 Old converts die and new ones are not raised up in their room, so that the number of the saints is diminished, or at least it is less in proportion to the whole. The truly and sincerely righteous, the true fearers and servants of God, become more and more thin-sown.

II. When a people long continue thus, there is great danger that God will take away their religious advantages. When God takes any people to be his and gives ’em great advantages, and they, instead of improving under them, decline; and when he reproves and warns them, they yet continue to decline instead of repenting and doing the first works, they revolt more and more and are for a long time cold and dead in the things of religion, there is great danger of God’s being provoked to remove their candlestick out of its place. This may appear from the following considerations:

First. When a people are cold and dead in the things of religion, they frustrate their religious advantages. The life and power of godliness is the end of outward advantages; they are in vain to a people if they can’t thereby (be) rendered lively in religion, if they don’t beget love in their hearts and cause good works in their lives. Religious advantages, they are no otherwise advantages than as a people thereby have advantage to live to God and to bring forth the fruits of righteousness.

They are frustrated, both as they are designed as a means to be improved by a people in God’s service and to his glory, and as a means of a people’s own good; for they are neither when a people are cold and lifeless in the things of religion. The means are in vain; the end is not obtained.

Indeed, God can and will so order and dispose that he will obtain his own ends and glorify his own name, as he doth, in the heavier condemnation of a people; but so far as the people are active in the matter, the advantages they have are in vain, as the labor of the husbandman in cultivating his field or his vineyard is in vain when there is no fruit produced.

And how just is it, that a people should be deprived of their advantages if they make no use of ’em! Why should a husbandman continue with care and labor cultivating and manuring a piece of ground that he finds yields him no fruit? Why should advantages for glorifying God and obtaining salvation be continued to him that will not make improvement of em? That is the language of justice; Luke 13:7, “Then he said unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?”

Second. When it is so with a people, they abuse their advantages. They don’t merely neglect ’em and not improve them to those purposes to which they are given, but they improve ’em to ill purpose. They were given to ’em to glorify God with, but they improve ’em to God’s dishonor; for, as we observed, when a people are lifeless in religion, they will be lively in irreligion and wickedness.

The vineyard under divine cultivation is not only unfruitful as to good fruit, but it brings forth evil fruit: the grapes of Sodom and clusters of Gomorrah (Deuteronomy 32:32). The rain that descends upon it is to no other purpose than only to cause it to bear briars and thorns. The mercies that are enjoyed are improved in the service of Baal; the advantages and means of grace which they enjoy do but harden them in sin.

When God gives a people advantages for his glory and their own good, and they make use of ’em as means to provoke and dishonor God, how just is it that they should be taken away. Thus when the husbandmen to whom the householder let out his vineyard abused their advantage by evil-treating6 the messengers that he sent to receive the fruits, and at last his son, the Jews themselves could not help owning (that it was just that the husbandmen be destroyed); Matthew 21:33–41,

There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country: and when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it. And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise. But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son. But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come let us kill him…. When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto these husbandmen? They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons.

Third. God hath declared that his “spirit shall not always strive with man” (Genesis 6:3). When God is waiting upon a people under means of grace, them that neglect and misimprove those means, his spirit may be said to be striving with them in two senses. His spirit strives with them; that is, he with longsuffering bears with; he restrains and keeps back his wrath. To speak after the manner of men, there is a strife in God’s spirit to restrain his anger and to bear with their provocation. And therefore the apostle Peter expresses the striving of God’s spirit with the old world by his longsuffering waiting; 1 Peter 3:20, “when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah.”

And God’s spirit strives another way, viz. as the influences of his spirit upon men’s minds accompany the means of grace, whereby God is, as it were, striving to bring ’em to repent. There is always a degree of the influences of the Spirit of God goes along with the administration of gospel ordinances among a visible people of God.

Now although God be longsuffering, yet his spirit will not always strive with men. When a people decline and grow cold (in religion), ’tis his manner to warn them and to wait on them; but if they continue yet declining and don’t reform, there is great danger that he will leave a people.

And thus it has been God’s manner to do. Thus he did of old by Samaria and the ten tribes. We have an account how God waited long upon them, and often warned them, and when notwithstanding they continued dead (in the things of religion), how he “removed them out of his sight” (2 Kings 17:18). So he did with Judah and Jerusalem, as is represented in the parable of the vineyard in the beginning of the Isaiah 5:5–6: “I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste.” So he did with the Jews at their second destruction, signified by the parable of the barren fig tree in the vineyard (Luke 13:6–9). Justice called to have the tree cut down at the end of three years, but mercy and patience stepped in (to delay its destruction). But then patience itself was at an end, presented by his cursing the barren fig tree (Matthew 21:19).


1. See also the sermon fragment (73) probably preached for the election day of May 29, 1728, and The State of Public Affairs, below, which may have been preached for an election day.
2. See Spencer, Constitutional Conflicts in Provincial Massachusetts. For further information and citations, see Preface to the Period, above, pp. 17–28.
3. On the theme of reform, see Impending Judgments Averted Only by Reformation, Works, 14, 213–27.
4. JE here deletes: “When God doth so to any church people, he forsakes as to his visible presence amongst them.”
5. Illegible in the MS.
6. MS: “Evil Intreating.”